Ever since Christopher Nolan’s last great Batman film, 2008’s The Dark Knight, DC has been in a pretty brutal big-screen slump. Watchmen. Jonah Hex. Green Lantern. Suicide Squad. The various Superman movies. Some of these films have managed to make a nice chunk of change at the box office. But they’re the kind of hits that exist more on a studio’s balance sheet than in the hearts and minds of moviegoers. Unlike its crosstown rival, Marvel, DC has had a hard time finding the right mix of darkness and light, seriousness and humor, gravitas and fun. They just haven’t been able to crack the magic nut. It would be insane to think that the suits at Warner Bros., the custodians of the DC celluloid franchise, weren’t getting twitchy and envious every time a new Marvel flick hit theaters. But now, with their latest superhero saga, they can finally stopping chewing their cuticles — if there are any left. Wonder Woman is smart, slick, and satisfying in all of the ways superhero films ought to be. How deliciously ironic that in a genre where the boys seem to have all the fun, a female hero and a female director are the ones to show the fellas how it’s done.
Ever since her comic-book debut in 1941, William Moulton Marston’s groundbreaking superheroine has been ahead of her time. A girl-power icon in a male-fantasy universe that rarely had much use for powerful women — just damsels looking to be undistressed. But Wonder Women always (or most of the time, anyways) refused to play by those rules. A demigod warrior-princess sculpted from clay by her Amazonian mother, Queen Hippolyta, Wonder Woman was a distaff badass with the courage, superpowers, and gee-whiz doodads to match her male peers: The Lasso of Truth, indestructible golden bracelets, and even a sword that could bring down the Gods. She used them all to shatter the superhero glass ceiling.
That’s the same protagonist we first meet in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman — a rollicking origin story with a clear and distinct feminist message that never bludgeons you with its gender politics. It’s far too assured and sly for that. The film opens on the island of Themyscira, an idyllic paradise with chalk-white cliffs and turquoise waters that was gifted to the Amazons by Zeus. Invisible to the rest of the world, the island is hidden by a protective atmospheric cloak. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle if the Bermuda Triangle were inhabited solely by a race of she-warriors living in harmony and training in combat under Robin Wright. Zeus created the Amazons to put love back into mankind’s hearts and restore peace. But under Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), they’ve remained in hiding, practicing the ancient martial arts in strappy gladiator sandals and on horseback while speaking in a thick Slavic goulash of accents that give you the impression that Themyscira might just be located somewhere near Transylvania. Hippolyta has a young daughter named Diana — a curious, rebellious, bullheaded little moppet eager to learn how to fight like her elders. She’s not like the others, though. There’s something special about her — a secret link to the Gods that no one told her about. But as Diana grows up to become Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, her gift reveals itself. And just in the nick of time, too.
When the plane of an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) pierces the island’s force-field whatzit and crashes into the ocean, Gadot’s Diana dives in and saves him. He’s the first man that she’s ever laid eyes on. The first man that any of the Amazons have laid eyes on. All of them want him to leave. But Diana is curious. Especially after he tells her about the horrific war that’s raging back in his world. It’s 1918 and it’s being called “The War to End All Wars”. Diana, raised on the Amazonian creed of peace and her people’s duty to fight against Ares, the God of War, sees his war as her war. She has found her destiny. World War I and the Allies have been Waiting for Gadot.
Gadot, an Israeli actress with piercing dark eyes, is probably best known for playing Gisele in several of the Fast & Furious movies. But there was nothing in those installments that hinted at the undeniable star power she gives off as Wonder Woman. Granted, the Fast & Furious movies aren’t exactly acting showcases, but still…. Her Diana is both awesomely fierce and surprisingly funny, especially when she arrives in war-torn London with Trevor and gets her first taste of 20th-century modernity. Whether she’s reacting to the unfamiliar sight of automobiles or constricting early 20th-century women’s fashions, she takes it all in like a fish-out-of-water naïf. When she has her first taste of ice cream, she swoons and enthusiastically tells the salesman, “You should be very proud,” as if he’s performed some kind of miracle. Gadot sells the innocence and humor in these moments every bit as convincingly as Daryl Hannah in Splash. Her chemistry with Pine is just as unexpected and electric. Catching him in the nude back on Themyscira, she takes a peek at him in the buff and asks: “Would you say you are a typical example of your sex?” He replies, “I am above average.” Screenwriter Allan Heinberg (Grey’s Anatomy) deserves as much of the credit for their sparks-filled duet as the stars.
As World War I seems to be winding down and an armistice is about to be signed, a holdout among the German high command, the evil Gen. Ludendorff (Danny Huston), is busy creating a poisonous biological super-weapon to turn German defeat into victory. His chief chemist, a disfigured sadist named Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), is a vision of villainy right out of comic-book nightmares, wearing a prosthetic faceplate that hides her hideous scars. Diana, Trevor, and his trio of mercenary pals (Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, and Eugene Brave Rock) race to the Belgian front to stop Ludendorff and “Dr. Poison” before it’s too late. Some might wonder why a character who was first conceived in 1941 and who’s finally being brought to the big screen in 2017 has been plopped into 1918? But I’d argue that Wonder Woman’s time period is a pretty clever stealth weapon to explore some of the movies more progressive themes (more on that in a sec), not to mention the fact that it gives the film a retro-cool charge reminiscent of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger. We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing superheroes flash their powers on screen that it’s refreshing to see people react with awe, like they’re witnessing miracles. The miracle of the movie — or at least the fantastic first two-thirds of it — is that the audience feels that same novel rush. As Diana deflects machine gun-fire with her bracelets, flips army tanks with one hand, and whips German soldiers around like ragdolls with her luminescent Lasso of Truth, we feel like we’re watching her feats with new eyes.
The setting also helps to make the film’s resonant feminist subtext feel more organic and less forced. At a time when women were still without the right to vote and were subjugated to a position of being seen and not heard, the fearsome Diana becomes a spokeswoman in word and deed of resistance and empowerment. She refuses to be treated like a second-class citizen by politicians and generals. No one puts Wonder Woman in a corner. On the battlefield in Belgium, she displays a martial courage that her brothers in arms (even including Pine) don’t possess. She’s completely fearless…not to mention a long way from Lynda Carter.
It’s only in the movie’s unnecessary final half-hour or so that Wonder Woman finally meets her match: the special-effects imperatives of contemporary blockbuster filmmaking against which even the Germans onscreen seem insignificant. When Diana realizes that the villain she’s been chasing all this time is, in fact, not the end but just the beginning to a line of villains to be trotted out, no doubt, in subsequent chapters, the movie turns into an eye-rolling digital smackdown that mirrors every other late-period DC (and, to be fair, Marvel) movie smackdown. It would be nice one of these days if some heroic editor just lopped off the last 30 minutes of all of these things. But it’s hard to quibble about what’s wrong with a movie that gets so much right, especially when it comes to Gadot’s revelatory portrayal of Wonder Woman. The wait is over, folks. The DC movie you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. A-