‘Wonder Woman 1984’ review: When you wish upon a stone, and an uneven sequel

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Gal Gadot stars in "Wonder Woman 1984." The movie premieres Friday on HBO Max.

“Wonder Woman 1984” premieres on HBO Max on Christmas Day, and it’s neither the best thing under the tree nor a prime candidate for regifting. It’s a moderately diverting sequel. That means it’s also a distinct drop down from the 2017 origin story.

Patty Jenkins return as director, co-writer and producer for “WW84.” Her hectic follow-up shares some welcome traits with the first one: sincerity, an agreeable sense of scale in its first half, and an intriguingly grave Gal Gadot teamed once again with Chris Pine’s ardent flyboy Steve Trevor.

But the plotting is all over the place, leaving Diana Prince (aka WW) a little lost in it all. And there’s nothing half as striking as the moment in the rousing, dramatically vivid first movie when the Amazonian warrior raced through the trenches amid the horrors of World War I.

The calamity this time is more about fashion. “WW84” plunks its characters down into the land of malls, puffy sleeves, fanny packs and oil-mad meglomaniacs. The adversaries, interestingly conflicted in their lust for glory, are played by Kristen Wiig (very good as Diana’s Smithsonian colleague, who turns into Cheetah) and, from “Game of Thrones” and “The Mandalorian,” Pedro Pascal as Max Lord.

For a while it’s rousing and cheeky in just the right proportions. In a flashback prologue, we’re back on the magical isle of Themyscira. Young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competes in an Amazonian variation on "American Ninja Warrior.” Diana, after a mishap, finds a way to complete the race by taking a short-cut. But she’s cut short by Hippolyta, who says: “No true hero is born from lies.”

“WW84" illustrates the cost of dreams coming true at a terrible cost. Everybody’s after the usual all-powerful artifact, this one a “Dreamstone.” (It was first introduced in a 1963 DC “Justice League of America” storyline.) Ponzi scheme weasel Max Lord, played for sweaty laughs as well as menace, gets ahold of the stone, which grants wishes in exchange for frightening, unseen costs. He dreams of controlling the world’s oil reserves and all the power that goes with them.

Meantime, mousy, marginalized antiquities expert Barbara Minerva (Wiig) wishes for the strength, confidence and charisma of her new pal Diana. Eventually she transforms into the fanged and springy feline Cheetah, around whom a fabulous remake of the musical “Cats” is waiting to happen.

Diana’s wish is for love, not power, and that wish brings her eternal flame, pilot Steve, back from the sort-of-dead. As Max’s greed escalates, the action heads to Egypt, which further leads to nuke-based geopolitical apocalypses (apocalypsi?) involving the Soviet Union.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine star in "Wonder Woman 1984." The movie premieres Friday on HBO Max.

It’s a lot, and then too much. The physical mayhem in Jenkins’ sequel, when Diana and her golden Lasso of Truth take care of business, works well on a smaller scale, as in an early jewelry store heist aftermath set in a D.C.-area mall. The later smackdowns, eh. I don’t come to Marvel or DC movies for the outsized destruction blowouts. Too few of the directors (even the good ones, like Jenkins) tackling the DC or the generally superior Marvel projects have their hearts or visual instincts in finding a flow and a variation in one more damn apocalypse.

The DC fanboys who prefer granite thuds such as “Batman v Superman” to the first “Wonder Woman” won’t give a rip about “WW84” and its on-again, off-again moral concerns about the price of unearned wish-fulfillment. That’s a rock-solid story notion, actually. The entire movie’s structured around the idea, yet it still feels half-unfulfilled.

Still, it’s fun for a while. I wish I could see “WW84" on a big screen with a crowd. But the Dreamstone is fictional. And the blinkered mission of AT&T, Warner Brothers parent company, to shore up its HBO subscriber base is real.

'WONDER WOMAN 1984'

2.5 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence)

Running time: 2:31

Premieres: Dec. 25 in theaters (where open) and on HBO Max.