Anyone who tells you that blockbusters can’t be important should take five seconds to remember Wonder Woman. DC’s 2017 headliner for the Amazonian hero gave women a superhero on their terms. Director Patty Jenkins seems to understand what made Wonder Woman important and powerful, and audiences responded with rapturous cheers. So it’s beyond disappointing that the follow-up, again directed by Jenkins but this time written by her and DC mainstay Geoff Johns, has sacrificed all that charm and heart.
Having ended World War I in the first film, apparently Themyscira’s finest has been working at the Smithsonian while occasionally fighting crime and mooning over her only love, Steve Trevor, who has been dead for 66 years at this point. As played by Gadot, this 1984 version of Wonder Woman is a knock-’em-dead fashion plate but also terribly alone, as clumsily noted when a waiter takes away the other setting at her table for two. No wonder she’s shocked when Steve (Pine) suddenly appears out of nowhere, as baffled about his spontaneous resurrection as she is. However, the mechanism also allows the bloated story to cram in two members of Wonder Woman’s rogues’ gallery, with Pascal, in an ill-fitting and garish suit, as the morally ambivalent tycoon Maxwell Lord – here rewritten as an oil speculator/TV celebrity (not sure how that works) – and Wiig transforming from mild-mannered gemologist Dr. Barbara Ann Minerva into the fanged, furred, and clawed Cheetah, Diana’s greatest adversary.
The mechanism for their inclusion is one of a series of MacGuffins that conveniently appear and disappear just in time for the next plot development. The core is a monkey’s paw device, a magical gem that grants wishes with an inherent downside (of the cursed frogurt variety). Seemingly the most cursed wish was audiences’ asking for a sequel.
The biggest disappointment in what should be another landmark moment for women in blockbuster cinema is that the only person who seems to get what this film should be is Pine as the mysteriously resurrected Steve. Jenkins teases a better film with a childhood prologue back on Diana’s home island, revisiting the warrior women in all their action splendor, but that’s soon forgotten. It doesn’t help that Gadot doesn’t find a way to bridge the enthusiastic fish-out-of-water Diana of the first film and the hardened warrior of Justice League: Instead, her Reagan-era Wonder Woman is reduced to a series of superhero poses, an action sequence that blatantly rips off not one but two Indiana Jones films, and a baffling overdependence on the Lasso of Truth, reduced to a swinging rope and turning her into basically Spider-Man. Meanwhile, both Wiig and Pascal seem to be playing for some misguided, mid-Eighties action-comedy slapstick. Even the complicated cosmology of Greek gods, so effortlessly integrated the first time around, just becomes exposition here. Yet Pine is so clearly trying to keep within the lines of Steve as a supporting character that he continues what made the first film so important to so many people. (That said, there’s a weird moment when he swears that seems out of character for both the film and the character, and more pointless than Zach Snyder’s threat of Batman dropping F-bombs in his Justice League extended folly.)
And about that period piece aspect. After this, no one can complain about the hints of anachronism in Stranger Things, as this is an absurd version of the 1980s, and most especially of D.C. (the city, not the publisher) at the time. It’s insultingly lazy, like sticking a fanny pack over an Ariana Grande T-shirt. The script – a toothless attack on “believe in yourself” culture, the power of positive thinking, and other such The Secret tripe – sums up all the problems with making this particular story a period piece. It’s just “now” with a light dusting of “then,” with little to really say about either. Meanwhile, the historical inaccuracies are only overshadowed by the glaring plot holes, so egregious that it feels like a return to pre-X-Men superhero movies, when “comic plotting” was misguidedly synonymous with “lazy.”
Jenkins had an opportunity to build on the flawed-but-rousing headlining debut of DC’s greatest woman warrior. Instead, she delivered the modern DC Extended Universe’s Superman III. It’s a lumpen mass of half-ideas and glaring fan service, topped by a horrendous montage ending that is clearly designed to inspire hope, courage, and kindness, but will more likely make everyone wonder if this is why they waited two and a half hours.
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