‘Wonder Woman’ has a bumpy ride in ’80s wayback machine

Rated PG-13. On HBO Max and at Landmark Kendall Square and suburbs.
Grade: B-
Wonder Woman (the ever impressive Gal Gadot) is back finally and simultaneously available on HBO Max and in theaters Friday, and so is Diana Prince’s heroic lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), in a case of resurrection reminiscent of the classic tale “The Monkey’s Paw.” But the film, which is set in 1984, is a bit of a sophomore slump. It opens with a flashback to Diana’s childhood on Paradise Island with Lilly Aspell playing Diana, an extreme sports contest and a life lesson that will come in handy later.
The screenplay by “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns (“Aquaman”) and Dave Callaham (“Zombieland: Double Tap”) is full of’ ’80s jokes and pits Wonder Woman and Steve against Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a crude oil kingpin who sells himself as the king of the world, but is in fact broke and losing it. When Lord meets Diana’s colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who lacks confidence and is a total social disaster, at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., he steals an unimaginably powerful supernatural artifact from her. The artifact has already had an effect on Barbara.
The ensuing mayhem will include a flight in a stolen jet to Egypt piloted by Steve, who wears a Members Only jacket, a well-staged chase and battle on the outskirts of Cairo, involving armored vehicles, a reduction in Wonder Woman’s powers and a Lord who is on his way to world domination.
This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Kristen Wiig in a scene from “Wonder Woman 1984.” (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. via AP)
Barbara, meanwhile, is transformed in stages into the character Wonder Woman fans know as Cheetah, although she is never named as such in the film. The world devolves into madness and mayhem, not unlike what we are actually experiencing. But the film’s strange relevance doesn’t make it any more engaging, any less hard to believe or less bewildering.
Story has never been much of a strong suit for these Wonder Woman films. The 2017 entry “Wonder Woman” seemed like a weak-tea reworking of the plot of the Captain America film “The Winter Soldier.” This new “Wonder Woman” at times recalls the underappreciated 1992 Tim Burton dark romp “Batman Returns” with Barbara as the new Catwoman and Lord as a new Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot aka Penguin. The fights between Wonder Woman and Barbara’s “apex predator” self, which is a CG creation unless she stands still, are the same old superhero-film, throwing-each-other-into-buildings thing we have seen a thousand times. In addition to Wonder Woman’s accessories the Lasso of Truth, the indestructible bracelets and tiara, the plot will further involve a suit of golden armor worn originally by the woman warrior Asteria, who has a nice cameo in the end credits.
The thing that holds these “Wonder Woman” films together (beyond the array of wigs and toupees) and makes them appealing is Gadot, who is not only physically tailor-made for this role, but who also possesses an impressive vocal instrument, along with a slight, but detectable accent, placing her as a foreigner of some sort and giving her Diana Prince the mysterious aura of a 1930s screen goddess. Casting Gadot in this role may be the smartest thing Zack Snyder ever did. Pine once again brings screen idol looks and charisma, as well as a keen comic edge. Wiig reminds us of the way she can take a line of dialogue and turn it into a series of existential questions. In the belly of the noisy and overlong beast that is “Wonder Woman 1984,” these actors valiantly hold their own.
(“Wonder Woman 1984” contains superhero-movie type violence.)

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