The first hour or so of “Wonder Woman 1984”—Patty Jenkins’ long-awaited sequel now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until Jan. 24—almost seems like a good film. It launches with two exciting opening action sequences (one a flashback to Diana’s childhood in Themiscyra, the other an introduction to her crime-fighting procedure in 1984) before settling into an appealing goofy-but-earnest comic rhythm.
The new characters are entertaining: Kristen Wiig’s Barbara Minerva plays well as an envious foil to Gal Gadot’s Diana (Gadot is an Israeli Jew whose husband and two daughters make cameo appearances in the film), and Pedro Pascal steals every scene he’s in as Maxwell Lord, a villain who basically answers the question of, “What if Donald Trump were Latino and had slightly more of a conscience?” Unfortunately, as the film progresses, it’s all slowly but steadily downhill.
The first real sign of problems is in the way the film revives Diana’s lover, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). That almost 70 years later Diana is still pining for one guy she knew for a few weeks to the point her greatest wish is to revive him feels like a stretch, but we can forgive that if we’re taking the film on its own romantic terms. Pine and Gadot still have great chemistry, and their Fourth of July flight in the Invisible Jet is one of the film’s few genuinely beautiful scenes. But even in those early fun scenes of them together, there’s a big “but” hanging over them: Steve comes back by possessing a random stranger’s body, a complication that creates some consent issues.
A smarter script might have addressed these problems head-on. The whole premise of the “Wonder Woman 1984” wishing rock is an obvious homage to “The Monkey’s Paw,” so the bodily possession could have been treated as the dark cost of the wish, but it’s not really addressed at all, and instead the “cost” is a contrived “Wonder Woman losing her powers” storyline. Alternately, the film could have sidestepped this whole problem by finding another solution for Steve’s revival entirely. (Falling through a wormhole? A reincarnation romance a la Nadja and Gregor in 2014’s “What We Do in the Shadows”?).
“Wonder Woman 1984” becomes outright bad when it tries to become an all-encompassing political commentary. The Egypt excursion is the big turning point for the worse. This sequence is let down by stereotypes, confusing metaphors (the bad guys’ goal of reclaiming ancestral lands by putting up walls jumps straight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict minefield) and badly implemented DC Universe world-building (the oil baron mentions he’s from the fictional in-universe country of Bialya, but Bialya has never been established in the films so it’s an Easter egg only comics nerds will get). Things only get weirder from there: It seems the film’s magical wishing rock also destroyed the Mayans, and in the film’s overcomplicated climax, slapstick comedy bits get interspersed with the deportation of all Irish people in England.
The rules of how the story works cease to make internal sense, changing just for the sake of it. Minerva’s arc is a dead end, and while Pascal acts his ass off as Lord, the backstory they give him feels tacky. It’s clear “Wonder Woman 1984” has its heart in the right place with its intended messages about rejecting greed and accepting truth over lies, but the execution is both problematic and simply lousy storytelling.