In the recent flood of superhero movies, several have managed to be quite good — but “Wonder Woman” ranks as one of the few great ones.
Gal Gadot’s turn as Princess Diana of Themyscira was a refreshing standout amidst the sludge of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and she’s as good if not better headlining her own solo adventure. It’s a film that not only improves upon many of the seemingly built-in shortcomings of superhero movies, but also mixes smarts, sentiment and adrenaline in the best Hollywood style. This is a superior popcorn movie, no matter what the genre.
It accomplishes this feat even while being an origin story, although thankfully screenwriter Allan Heinberg (a TV vet making his big-screen debut) never overdoes the introduction of familiar cohorts and gadgets — we don’t even get the invisible plane this time around — nor does he waste narrative real estate on setting up the next six movies in the DC Comics screen universe, outside of the occasional point of juncture.
We open with one, as a Wayne Industries armored car delivers Louvre curator Diana Prince (Gadot) an old photo of Diana in her Wonder Woman garb, looking exactly the same age, but on the front lines of World War I. Cue the flashback to young Diana on Themyscira, defying her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) to train as an Amazon warrior with General Antiope (Robin Wright), who always pushes the girl, telling her that she is more powerful than she knows.
That power comes to the test when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands near this paradise island, with a squadron of German sailors in tow. The Amazons know plenty about battle — they once conquered the war god Ares with the help of Zeus — but nothing about gunpowder, and many of their superior archers and horsewomen fall in a hail of bullets.
When the Amazons’ magic lasso compels Steve to tell the truth, and that he’s carrying intel that could help end the war, Diana insists on accompanying him back to the front, so that she may slay Ares and end warfare once and for all. Once back in England, Diana and Steve are forced to go rogue, since Steve’s mission to stop German general Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the deadly chemical warfare of Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) would interfere with the pending armistice.
In this rough outline, “Wonder Woman” might sound like any number of other, similar adventures of recent years, but where it shines is in the details. The banter is funny, the romance resonates — Gadot’s deep, dark eyes and Pine’s puppydog blues are a potent combination — and the stakes carry real substance.
It’s often said that there’s no such thing as an anti-war movie, since combat is so cinematically exciting, but director Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) gets closer to that goal than most: when we see war here, we see destroyed men who have lost limbs, devastated countryside, and yowling orphans who will never be reunited with their parents. And unlike so many 21st century adventures, the sacrifices here stick; there’s no take-backs in the final minutes.
Diana’s scenes of action are thrilling precisely because they’re meant to stop war, not to foment it; the idea of a demi-god using love to fight war might sound goofy in the abstract, but Jenkins make the concept work. When Diana storms across No Man’s Land — a nomenclature given a whole new meaning in this context — to pacify a German foxhole, I got chills: Not the whoosh of recognition of some moment from the long-running comics or from the iconic TV show, not the amusement of some ironic undercutting of old-fashioned heroism, but the genuine charge that great pop entertainment provides.
“Wonder Woman” most certainly falls in with the other films leading up to “Justice League,” but there’s an inescapable feeling that the creative team and the studio have possibly learned from the shortcomings of movies like “Dawn of Justice” or “Suicide Squad.” For example, there’s still plenty of color manipulation happening here, but the result is a look that’s more in the sepia-and-sunshine end of the spectrum rather than the usual grays and grimness. And for audiences who find the Marvel movies too jokey while the previous DC efforts were too humorless, “Wonder Woman” strikes a balance, finding some amusement in the back-and-forth between Diana and Steve, as well as in the all-too-brief appearances of venerable comic-book supporting character Etta Candy, played here by Lucy Davis (“Shaun of the Dead”).
It’s a great cast overall: Gadot mixes ancient wisdom and gravitas with the delight and, yes, wonder of someone trying ice cream for the first time, and Pine takes the generally thankless role of Steve Trevor and imbues him with both a sense of duty and a sense of humor. And since Anaya starred in “The Skin I Live In,” it’s fitting she plays another character who has suffered extreme plastic surgery; the movie gives her poisons expert a stereotypical villain’s disfigurement — a facial graft that makes her look like the Phantom of the Opera — but she still manages to find a soul inside this despicable war criminal.
Jenkins and Heinberg very cleverly play around with female-character tropes throughout, whether it’s Steve’s reflexive attempts to shield Diana from gunfire (only to be rescued by her famous bullet-deflecting bracelets) or the trying-on-clothes montage (in which Diana rejects any number of 1918 London’s dress options, since they don’t allow her to do windmill kicks.)
For those who wish to pick them, there are certainly nits to be found: The Amazons all speak in a somewhat vaguely accent-y accent to contextualize Gadot’s Israeli-inflected English. (Nielsen and Wright have a lilt that calls to mind the old Kathy Griffin joke about Gwyneth Paltrow hanging out with Stella McCartney and suddenly sounding like she’s from “Europia.”)
The CG isn’t always perfect, and the surfeit of Amazons spinning around in mid-air feels like a holdover from earlier DC movies. Themyscira is concealed by a dome that hides it, but doesn’t keep boats or planes from passing through it. And there’s also a bit of casting that undermines what should have been a late-in-the-film surprise.
None of this got in the way of my enjoyment of “Wonder Woman,” however, a summer movie that raises the bar quite high for the months – and years – to come.