It may have taken four films to get there, but the DC Extended Universe has finally produced a good old-fashioned superhero. Sure, previous entries in the Warner Bros. assembly line have given us sporadically successful, demythified takes on Batman and Superman, but they’ve all seemed skeptical, if not downright hostile, toward the sort of unabashed do-gooderism that DC Comics’ golden-age heroes exemplified. Never prone to stewing in solitude, and taking more notes from Richard Donner than from Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” provides a welcome respite from DC’s house style of grim darkness — boisterous, earnest, sometimes sloppy, yet consistently entertaining — with star Gal Gadot proving an inspired choice for this avatar of truth, justice and the Amazonian way.
Although Gadot’s Diana Prince had a decent chunk of screentime in last year’s “Batman v. Superman,” “Wonder Woman” assumes no foreknowledge of any previous franchise entry — or of the character herself, for that matter. With most of the film’s presumptive audience too young to remember TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter, Gadot and Jenkins have an unusually broad license to introduce the character to filmgoers, and they remain largely faithful to her comics origins while also crafting a hero who is both thoroughly internationalist and refreshingly old-school. In her earliest iterations, Wonder Woman was an all-American figure with a mythical background; here, she’s an essentially mythical force who just happens to fight for America.
Like far too many films before it, “Wonder Woman” offers yet another origin story, but at least it’s one we haven’t already seen several times onscreen. And perhaps more importantly, it’s almost entirely free of the distracting cameos and seeding of future films’ plotlines that so often keep modern comic-book films from functioning as satisfying standalone stories.
After a brief prologue in modern-day Paris, the action whisks us away to the secluded island of Themyscira, home to the all-female society of Amazons. Drawn in lush, misty colors, the island is a sanctuary for the tribe, sheltered by Zeus, whom they helped in fighting off a coup from the war god Ares. On guard against Ares’ possible return, the Amazons have all dedicated themselves to the arts of combat.
All, that is, except young princess Diana (Lilly Aspell at age 8, Emily Carey at 12), who’s the only child on the island. Yearning to learn the ways of her fellow Amazons, Diana is shielded from combat training by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Fortunately, her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, cutting an imposing figure and affecting a strange accent) is the tribe’s chief field general, and she agrees to train the girl in secret. By the time she’s reached adulthood, Diana (Gadot) is ready to take on all comers, her traditional battle skills augmented by supernatural abilities of which she’s only partially aware.
Themyscira seems a realm outside of time, but the film’s 1918 setting abruptly announces itself in the form of a crippled German warplane that crash-lands in the ocean just beyond the island’s shores. Diana swoops in to rescue the pilot, an American soldier named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Once under the influence of the Amazons’ lasso of truth — a potentially silly device from the comic’s lore that the film adapts admirably — Steve reveals he was undercover with the Germans as a double agent, dispatched to collect intel on their experimental new weapon: a powerful poison gas developed by sadistic general Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his facially scarred star chemist, nicknamed Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya).
When Diana hears Steve describe the Great War raging outside their protected enclave, she immediately suspects Ares has returned, and resolves to head to the front lines to confront him. She and Steve sail to London, and the film takes an unexpected, largely successful detour into light comedy, evoking shades of “Encino Man” as Diana stumbles wide-eyed through the big city, her rapport with Steve growing closer all the while. (Steve is the first man Diana has ever seen, and the film acknowledges the elephant in the room with some choice volleys of double-entendre.) The plot snaps back into focus when Steve and Diana learn Dr. Poison’s gas will soon be ready to launch at soldiers and civilians alike, and finding little help from military brass, they take off to the Western front themselves to intervene.
It says quite a lot about the general tenor of the DC cinematic universe that a film set in the trenches of WWI, with a plot revolving around the development of chemical warfare, is nonetheless its most cheerful and kid-friendly entry. But while “Wonder Woman” may dabble in moments of horror, it never revels in the vicissitudes of human depravity quite like its predecessors. A huge factor in its ability to convey a note of inherent goodness lies in Gadot, whose visage radiates dewy-eyed empathy and determination — and whose response to the iniquity of human nature isn’t withdrawn cynicism but rather outrage.
“Wonder Woman” is the first major studio superhero film directed by a woman, and it shows in a number of subtle, yet important ways. As skimpy as Gadot’s outfits may get, for example, Jenkins’ camera never leers or lingers gratuitously — Diana is always framed as an agent of power, rather than its object. When she finally unleashes her full fighting potential in an extended battle sequence on the front lines, the movie comes alive in a genuinely exhilarating whirl of slow-motion mayhem, and Diana’s personality is never lost amid all the choreography.
From this high point, the film begins to falter a bit in its final act, with some credulity-straining staging — a thunderous mano-a-mano battle appears to take place in full view of dozens of German troops, all of whom continue to blithely load cargo — and a final assault that lapses into the type of deadening CGI overkill that the film admirably avoids in the earlygoing. Approaching 2½ hours in length, “Wonder Woman” does fall victim to a fair bit of blockbuster bloat, and a trio of comic-relief comrades (Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock) don’t add nearly enough to justify their long-windup introduction.
Pine plays second-banana with a great deal of good humor: making little attempt to de-modernize his diction, he nonetheless registers as a noble yet sometimes lunkish jarhead, and it’s clear why Diana might find him attractive while also failing to be particularly impressed by him. None of the film’s villains get much of a chance to distinguish themselves, though Lucy Davis makes a good impression as saucy sidekick Etta Candy.
It’s an open question how much of the tone and aesthetic of “Wonder Woman” will extend to the innumerable future films in which her character is set to appear; subject to an exhausting amount of both kneejerk second-guessing and kneejerk over-praise, the DC Extended Universe has been figuring out just what it wants to be in fits and starts. But for once, it’s easy to stop the armchair executive producing and simply enjoy the moment.