When WW84 snuck onto (very selected) UK screens the week before Christmas, it was the first film of its type - i.e. the first dispatch from one of those Cinematic Universes they have nowadays - for fully ten months. Early viewers cheered the return of a giganticism they wouldn't have been exposed to for the best part of a year. In the film's opening sequence, they would have seen the young Diana Prince - our Wonder Woman-to-be - competing in a proto-Olympics that corresponds to the film's original summer release date, a spectacle that might just have tempted couch potatoes away from the Tokyo Games, had fate not intervened. As mini-Diana runs, jumps, rides, dives and swims, a helicopter swoops around the clifftop playing host to the action; the Hans Zimmer score, meanwhile, merely soars. A hop, skip and a jump later, we're in 1984, witnessing Diana's Amazonian adult form (Gal Gadot) thwarting a jewellery heist inside an all-American shopping mall. This time, what director Patty Jenkins' camera captures, amid its various contortions, is an idea of what the studios would have us believe is our natural, pre-Covid state: spending an hour slouching around the food court before hauling ass up to the Vue to gorge on no less junky cinematic fare. (It's the trash Olympics.) Again, our heroine swings, dashes, leaps and lassoes; two hours later, she's still at it, sprinting at computer-enhanced speed along Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue before taking off like a fighter jet and ascending momentarily into the heavens. All these sequences demonstrate that when in motion, these pictures can be remarkable to behold - and I get why certain colleagues continue to find them irresistible. The trouble with these movies - and this was noted by the counterwave of reviews WW84 was battered by upon its US opening last week - has always been what happens when their forward momentum slows down or stops altogether.
WW84 has the notional advantage all superhero sequels have encoded in their DNA: with the potentially laborious-torturous business of origins out of the way, they're theoretically freer to crack on with the action and adventure, to serve up nothing but spectacle. That's what the opening twenty minutes here promises. Yet Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham then decide to spend a full ninety minutes setting up new characters for their heroine to tussle with as the end credits approach. First up: Kristen Wiig, yanked through a flatly obvious rerun of the Selina Kyle arc as Dr. Barbara Minerva, a klutzy Smithsonian functionary who removes her outsized spectacles and is suddenly possessed of the ability to turn heads while walking in heels. Secondly: Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord, a suspiciously slick oil man connected to that early failed heist in a way it takes almost two hours for our heroine to puzzle out. For Diana, alas, is a distracted soul, busy pining for her old flame Steve Trevor, who apparently died in the last one of these or in the years between the events of the two films, and is initially represented on screen by a watch that - judging by the way Jenkins keeps lingering over it - presumably means Something Significant to people with a lot of time on their hands. The sentimentalising of that watch I could deal with, to be honest, but in what feels instinctively like a failure of nerve a $200m-budget movie shouldn't suffer - or, more simply, a desperate attempt to recapture the chemistry Gadot shared with Chris Pine in the first movie - Diana starts seeing Steve reincarnated in some poor, helpless other chap. So she jumps on him. Erm, what?
Now, look: I'm all for superhero movies that take the light-fantasy route over the dourly "gritty". That's why the first film was so diverting: it carried us away from the heaving solemnity on display elsewhere in the DC universe. Yet the lightness of WW84 soon becomes indistinguishable from weightless nonsense that connects with very little else around it; it's a movie fashioned from isolated thought bubbles attached to vast clouds of cash. Once Steve is "revived", he steals off with one of the Smithsonian's planes, and pilots it through Fourth of July fireworks. Wiig takes her revenge on a man who's been harassing her before turning into a big cat, for some reason. (Apparently very little of that $200m was spent on feline make-up.) Pascal, meanwhile, is setting off for the Middle East, clutching some magical stone that is now standard operating nonsense for movies such as this. If this were committed nonsense, you'd merrily go along for the ride, but too much of WW84's connective tissue is made up of what-ifs, script notes and incomplete drafts, and I found myself falling through those gaps clutching questions big enough to bring even a blockbuster down. Wouldn't it have been more satisfying to have one full-strength baddie, rather than these two half-measures? And wouldn't it be better if WW84 gave its heroine something more urgent to do than fool around with a guy who isn't even the guy she thinks he is? (At the very least: shouldn't WW84 pay a few scenes' lip service to the plight of a minor character who's found Gal Gadot leaping on him under the impression that he's really Chris Pine?) Suddenly, you realise why there's so much running around whenever the film goes into runaround mode: everyone has so much further to travel to make the connections a more logical superhero movie could take in its stride. Gadot has never appeared so athletic - Jenkins looks at her with an understandable mix of admiration and astonishment - but then she has to be, as the film she's vaulting through seems hellbent on employing Diana Prince as an on-the-spot script editor, to lasso and lend coherence to a flyaway ragbag of ideas. That's why WW84 briefly soars again with Diana's late ascent into the stratosphere: it's practically the only moment in this absurdly cluttered, oddly mismanaged follow-up that the dame gets to herself.
WW84 is now playing in selected cinemas; it will be available to rent from January 13, 2021.