It's a left-handed compliment to say a movie starts on a high, as the implication is that it doesn't finish that way. Sad to say that's the deal with "Wonder Woman 1984," available Christmas Day on HBO Max and in theaters.
You'd have to be a real Grinch to hate on a movie that's so puppy-eager to please. But all the CGI huffing and puffing over 2 1/2 hours can deflate momentum, not to mention audiences.
Until then, this sequel to the 2017 mega-hit "Wonder Woman," which grossed $820 million worldwide, gets in its show-stopping licks. Even before returning star Gal Gadot appears looking every inch the warrior goddess -- she was a combat instructor back home -- there's a gangbusters flashback to Wonder Woman as Wonder Girl, played by 12-year-old Lily Aspell.
We're on the island of Themyscira, where Amazons run things without men, thank you very much. And this young athlete, aka Diana Peters, displays thrilling Olympic form.
But when she cuts corners to win a triathlon, Diana is rebuked by her aunt-mentor Antiope (Robin Wright): "No true hero is born from lies." Remember that lesson, kids, you'll be tested later.
Smarty and stylishly directed again by Patty Jenkins, who guided Charlize Theron to an Oscar in "Monster," "Wonder Woman 1984" justifiably revels in its feminine power. And Gadot can really act, finding humor, humanity and long-buried hurt in a super being. I'm reminded of the first film, set in Europe during World War I, when Diana fell for handsome American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and then had to watch him die. Gadot made you feel her pain.
Cut to 1984 -- the movie teases greed-decade fashions while decrying its reckless disregard of climate change -- and Diana is working in antiquities at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. She still pines for Steve, but is always ready to switch to Wonder Woman mode when the occasion requires, such as an excitingly staged heist in a shopping mall.
That's where she recovers the Dreamstone, an ancient citrine artifact that can grant the wish of anyone who touches it. Diana wishes for Steve. And, presto, he appears! (Pine is a hoot trying on parachute pants.) It's a cheap trick, but Pine and Gadot are world-class charmers.
Not charming is Maxwell Lord, a TV huckster with delusions of grandeur, hammed to the hilt and beyond by Pedro Pascal of "The Mandalorian." When Max touches the stone all hell breaks loose, along with every demigod cliché in the villain handbook. It's Max's hubris that brings the world to the brink of disaster and the movie to a series of overwrought anti-climaxes noisy enough to make you scream, "Make it stop."
Much better is Kristen Wiig as Barbara Minerva, Diana's nerdy co-worker at the Smithsonian. When Barbara touches the stone, all she wishes is to be as cool as Diana. Understandable. Wiig makes the transformation hilarious and oddly touching. Wigg and Gadot make a winning team. So it's a shame when the script -- always ready to turn big into bloated -- morphs Barbara into the predatory Cheetah with virtual fur that seems leftover from the misbegotten "Cats."
If I could touch that Dreamstone, my wish would be to erase the film's final hour and bring "Wonder Woman 1984" back to the exultant joy of its beginning, when the characters, even the baddies, were relatable and not drowned out by noise. Still, in this blockbuster-deprived year when we all hunger for escape into fantasy with a real star like Gadot to guide us, "Wonder Woman 1984" gets the job done.