Warner Bros. and DC Comics score a much-needed win with Wonder Woman, a refreshingly sleek, adventurous, endearing, and even timely superhero flick that manages to be what the first entries in DC’s movie universe have not: fun.
The character debuted in 1941 as part of a wave of patriotism-inspired comic books heroes who emerged in the early years of World War II, and it took 75 years for her to appear on the big screen, almost as an afterthought in the bloated Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, of which she was easily the best feature.
Scripted by veteran comic book and television writer Allan Heinberg (whose credits include Sex and the City and the 2011 Wonder Woman comic book series) and directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster), the movie has many of the better aspects of the Richard Donner-era Superman movies and the pre-Avengers Marvel movies, evoking slight similarities to Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. That’s not to say that it comes across as derivative or unoriginal. Jenkins and Heinberg chart their own course with the material, exploring themes unique to the character and the retro setting in a way few comic book movies can or will do.
Their secret weapon is Gal Gadot as the Amazonian warrior princess. Known largely outside her native Israel for her recurring role in the Fast & Furious franchise, Gadot who anchors the movie while playing Diana as an innocent and walking the fine line of a superhero ingenue. The requisite chemistry between her and co-star Chris Pine.
The movie is book-ended by brief scenes set in the present, but the bulk of it takes place in 1918. Diana (Gadot) grows up as the only child among a race of ancient warrior women on the hidden island of Themyscira. The gods of ancient Greece are gone, wiped out during a cosmic civil war save for a missing Zeus and exiled Ares. The Amazons are tasked with protecting the only weapon that can kill Ares should he rise again. Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) reluctantly allows her to train as a warrior under the tutelage of the child’s aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright).
Meanwhile, in the outside world, the Great War that has ravaged the globe on the verge of a delicate armistice. Themyscira’s idyllic peace is shattered when American spy Steve Trevor (Pine) crash lands there while pursued by German soldiers. He’s uncovered proof that a rogue German general, Ludendorff (Brian Huston), and mad scientist cohort Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) — aka “Dr. Poison” — have developed a nerve gas that makes Sarin look like child’s play. Believing this to be the work of Ares, Diana accompanies him to man’s world in order to make the War to End All Wars do just that. Naturally, it’s not that simple.
Much of the film’s humor and charm comes from the “stranger in a strange land” conceit, with Diana experience the wonders and oddities of the outside world, as well as its horrors and inequalities. It’s during these doses of harsh reality that the movie dives deeper than most of its ilk, and it is surprisingly effective as an anti-war film, feminist statement, and general social commentary without being heavy-handed or preachy. Unlike its unrelentingly grim-and-gritty predecessors in the DC cinematic universe, there’s a thread of hope and optimism running throughout.
It delivers on the visceral level as well, with more color than the recent and typically dour DC movies, as well as action choreography that is just cartoony enough to sell the character. Like many comic book movies, it wanes during the protracted, CGI-heavy climax, and — as with Marvel movies — it suffers from weak villains. Huston is fine as Ludendorff, investing some enjoyable scene-chewing into a stock heavy, and the Ares reveal is a twist that doesn’t pay off as well as it should have. However, Anaya delivers a scarred, twisted, and evil mass murderer whose backstory is never revealed but superbly implied by the actor’s performance.
Ultimately, the movie belongs to Gadot, who somehow finds the alchemy required to portray a compassionate badass, someone fierce yet vulnerable. She’ll likely be one of the better aspects of the upcoming Justice League crossover movie. The boys are going to have to work hard in order to keep up.