After showing up in last year’s excruciating “Batman v Superman” just long enough to steal the movie and then, unfortunately, give it back to the men, Gal Gadot grabs the Lasso of Truth and the bracelets of infinite resilience to take center stage in “Wonder Woman,” director Patty Jenkins’ formidable and almost entirely successful bid to make the DC Comics movies a little less lame.
I mean, thank Zeus, right? We needed one of these to be good. This has been a lousy spring at the movies. Taking a longer view, we could mention how “Wonder Woman” metaphorically clobbers any number of previous DC adaptations, including “Suicide Squad,” “Batman v Superman,” “Man of Steel,” “Watchmen,” “The Green Lantern” and “Superman Returns.” Until now only the Christopher Nolan-directed “Batman” pictures (and, really, only “The Dark Knight” back in 2008) have felt like real movies, worth debating or exploring or more than a shrug. “Wonder Woman” is less distinctive visually, and the performances are more solid than remarkable. But Gadot, who can hold a goddess-like warrior gaze like nobody’s business, leads the way, and Jenkins’ picture is serious fun guided by a sincere belief in the superheroine created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston.
“Psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world”: That’s how Marston, recoiling from the cultural impact of Superman and his macho ilk, described Wonder Woman, the Amazonian Princess Diana of Themyscira, golden child of an all-female island paradise protected from the outside world. This is the vacation destination Xena and Gabrielle only dreamed about.
“Wonder Woman” screenwriter Allan Heinberg pulls elements from the original 1940s Marston stories as well as various revisionist updates. Daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), niece of Gen. Antiope (Robin Wright), young Diana trains like a fiend for the day she will confront Ares, God of War and learn the secret of her origin story. Then, out of the sky: no bird, but a plane, going down, piloted by an American spy pursued by German forces. Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor, and he is the first man Gadot’s Diana (and her wary sisters) has ever seen.
The time is World War I. Diana and Steve travel to Europe, where the war’s grinding toward a conclusion. First stop: London. Meanwhile, Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), working for the Germans, is toiling away on a catastrophically deadly nerve gas, and her commander (Danny Huston) becomes Hulk-like in his strength when he whiffs a special evil inhalant. The God of War makes an appearance, as well, as does a tremendous amount of balletic slow-motion combat, rendered with more zip and invention than usual.
Like the first “Captain America” movie over in the Marvel Comics universe, DC’s “Wonder Woman” offers the pleasures of period re-creation for a popular audience. Jenkins and her design team make 1918-era London; war-torn Belgium; the Ottoman Empire; and other locales look freshly realized, with a strong point of view. There are scenes here of dispossessed war refugees, witnessed by an astonished and heartbroken Diana, that carry unusual gravity for a comic book adaptation.
Thing is, it’s routine these days for a superhero movie to make the audience suffer. In “Wonder Woman,” the real-world wartime horrors are used sparingly but effectively. The human suffering is astutely judged, smartly dramatized and spiced with flavorsome characterizations in the supporting ranks. Pine’s intrepid Yank gathers together his loyal gang of mercenaries in his bid, and Diana’s, to destroy the German nerve gas experiment. Ewen Bremner (“Trainspotting”) is the shell-shocked Scottish sniper, Charlie; Said Taghmaoui plays Sameer, a would-be actor; Eugene Brave Rock portrays Chief, the Native American making a mournful profit off the conflict at hand. It’s a disarming collection of outsiders. Gadot’s sleek, superhumanly skillful fighting machine is very much a part of the group, but eternally outside it. She’s trying to figure out the vicious depths and redeeming characteristics of this strange human race as she goes.
Where she goes, and where “Wonder Woman” inevitably follows, turns director Jenkins’ movie into a more routine one in its final half-hour. Like so many DC and Marvel movies before it, this one comes down to two superbeings throwing a bunch of heavy metal at each other’s heads for a little too long. Elsewhere, though, Jenkins shows an equally deft hand with action and with the more human-scale moments (there’s an especially nice dance in a town square between Gadot and Pine).
The director of “Wonder Woman” had to wait 14 years between big-screen projects; her last film was “Monster,” for which Charlize Theron won an Oscar, back in 2003. That says it all when it comes to the odds against women in the film industry. Her movie is no reinvention of a formula; it’s simply a much better than usual iteration. And yes, it’s about time a woman directed one of these movies, just as it’s about time one of these movies was actually ABOUT A WOMAN. For the first time in a long time, I came out of a DC comic book movie feeling ready for a sequel. It feels right, at this actual historical moment, when men made of something less than steel are bumbling around trying to run things. Paging Paradise Island!