Apparently, the surest cure for the syndrome known as Acute Superhero Movie Fatigue is a good superhero movie. To date, the previous DC Extended Universe output—Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice* and Suicide Squad—has been glum, brutal and, well, not good. Along comes *Wonder Woman to break the curse. It’s not just good; it’s bold, exciting, romantic, sexy, powerful, inspiring and fun to watch. How’d they pull it off?
First, they got a script by Allan Heinberg (a writer-producer on Scandal and The Catch) that feels fresh, smart, funny, romantic, heroic—especially for that dreaded thing, the origin story. It also helps that the screenplay is free of snark and actually about something: the unrelenting horror of war and the human tendency toward cruelty and destruction. Wonder Woman also benefits from being especially well cast and made by a good, off-center director: Patty Jenkins, of Monster fame. Everything in it (well, almost) surprises and clicks.
The good stuff begins with young Amazonian princess Diana (Lilly Aspell and, later, Emily Carey) training in secret as a warrior on the gorgeous all-female tropical island of Themyscira. Her imperious mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), is dead set against Diana becoming a fighting machine, but nevertheless the willful little girl works like a demon under the tutelage of ferociously kick-ass General Antiope (Robin Wright). The grown Diana (Gal Gadot) emerges not only as a formidable fighter but also as a highly educated, highly principled woman and an astonishing beauty.
Into the azure sea just off Themyscira crashes World War I American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), whom Diana rescues from near death. He’s the first male she has ever encountered; she’s almost like Superman to his Lois Lane. They are fascinated by each other, but soon the pristine island crawls with armed German soldiers in search of Trevor. After one hell of a spectacularly staged beachfront battle, Diana insists on returning to the front with Steve to help fight the Germans and halt their plan to kill millions through chemical warfare. The sheltered Amazonian princess, in all her moral purity and innocence, believes that the Greek God of War, Ares, is behind “the war to end all wars.” If she slays the mythological chaos-maker, she will stop war for all time.
Faced again and again with the horrifying evidence of man’s—not Ares’—cruelty to man, Diana travels from innocence to experience; the result is a resonant, highly contemporary movie experience, not to mention a sly political commentary about how easily a planet can be destroyed.
The Diana-Steve relationship is the movie’s beating heart, and every scene between Gadot and Pine ripples with laughs, wonder and subtext. It sometimes shows that Gadot is new to the movies, but she nails the role’s physical demands and brings such humor, defiance and just plain goodness to it that she is certain to become an icon in the feminist role. Whether she’s charmingly singing the praises of ice cream (she tells a street vendor, “It’s wonderful. You should be proud!”) or reacting to the misery of war-ravaged mothers and children, she is fully committed, charismatic and touching. Pine turns out to be a wise choice in the traditional “leading lady” and audience surrogate roles—he plays things deadpan, cocky yet self-effacing, always a few steps behind and in awe of the goddess who has wrangled him.
Sure, things go terribly wonky in the last third of the movie, when it turns straight and conventional. The villain gets revealed (as if you couldn’t possibly guess it from the casting) and a climactic battle becomes yet another of those tiresome, by-the-numbers CGI orgies of superheroes throwing each other around. The strength of Wonder Woman, beautifully directed by Jenkins, lies in its diversions from the superhero mold. It’s the odd stuff in the margins and the humanity of its characters that makes it sing. Apparently, it takes a woman in the lead and in the director’s seat. It’s about damn time.
So when are Jenkins and Gadot teaming up for the next installment? We can’t wait.
Read Stephen Rebello’s column “75 Years in, Wonder Woman Finallly Prepares for World Domination.”