As the world’s most well-adjusted superhero, Wonder Woman breaks the genre mold. She’s openhearted, not angsty — an anomaly within the DC Universe, “extended” or otherwise. So, too, is her long-awaited foray into the live-action big-screen spotlight: that openheartedness makes the movie something of an outlier. Its relative lightness would set it apart even if it didn’t arrive on the heels of the Sturm und Drang of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the 2016 feature that introduced Gal Gadot as the demigoddess who believes it’s her sacred duty to rid the world of war.
Yet as with all comics-based extravaganzas, brevity is anathema to the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman, and it doesn’t quite transcend the traits of franchise product as it checks off the list of action-fantasy requisites. But this origin story, with its direct and relatively uncluttered trajectory, offers a welcome change of pace from a superhero realm that’s often overloaded with interconnections and cross-references. (A nod to Wayne Enterprises in the story’s framing device serves as a fuss-free tie-in to the upcoming Justice League.)
Had it really broken the mold and come in below the two-hour mark, Wonder Woman could have been a thoroughly transporting film. As it stands, it’s intermittently spot-on, particularly in the pops of humor and romance between the exotically kick-ass yet approachable Gadot and the supremely charismatic Chris Pine as an American working for British intelligence, the first man the Amazon princess has ever met. With eager fans unlikely to bemoan the film’s length or its lapses in narrative energy, Wonder Woman will conquer their hearts as it makes its way around the globe.
Sticking to the basic setup of the early-'40s DC comics written by William Moulton Marston (who, notably, was inspired by first-wave feminists), Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg have moved the story’s action from World War II to the First World War. It’s a change that taps straight into the idea of a female warrior for peace confronting the world of men at its most destructive. During the so-called War to End All Wars, the technology of killing is at a new, terrible level of sophistication. Chemicals are the weapon of choice for the movie’s baddies, a German general (Danny Huston) and a humanity-hating chemist, played by Elena Anaya (of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In), wearing a prosthetic device over half her face — evil genius comes with a price.
These villains, along with friendlier supporting characters, are drawn with a broad brush, but at the center of the film there’s none of the cartoony kitsch of the Lynda Carter TV series. Gadot doesn’t spin like a top to transform from Diana to Wonder Woman — and her skimpy getup is a more modest and dignified affair than Carter’s cleavage-baring leotard and impractical high heels. One of the best sequences in the film involves Wonder Woman’s selection of street clothes after she’s left her island home and adopted the alias of Diana Prince. Shopping in London with the help of Steve’s secretary, Etta (a wonderful Lucy Davis), she can’t believe how constricting and impractical the froufrou frocks du jour are.
Throughout, Lindy Hemming’s superb costume designs are in sync with production designer Aline Bonetto’s vivid locales, contrasting the poetic, not-quite-real timelessness of Themyscira, the all-female isle where Diana was raised, with the prosaic reality of early-20th-century Europe, from cosmopolitan London to the provinces to the devastating chaos of the trenches. Matthew Jensen’s cinematography heightens every shift, while the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams alternates between obvious emotional chords and enriching counterpoint.
By the time Steve Trevor (Pine) and his plane crash into the paradise of Themyscira, Diana has been trained to her utmost strength by her aunt, the great warrior Antiope (Robin Wright). Although those training sequences suffer from too much slicing and dicing, Jenkins captures Diana’s progress from precocious 8-year-old (Lilly Aspell) to teen (Emily Carey) to young woman with admirable concision.
With their Greco-Esperanto accents, the women of the secret island might be refugees from a sword-and-sandal pic, except that they’re led by Connie Nielsen’s Queen Hippolyta and Wright as her sister: fierceness personified. The vision of them on horseback is perfectly right, and their clash of viewpoints over the need to prepare for the return of the war god Ares goes compellingly to the heart of the matter. The Germans who storm the beach soon after Steve’s arrival push that argument out of the theoretical zone with their guns and bullets. The women’s bow-and-arrow skills are formidable, but though they may be favored by Zeus, they’re not invincible.
Though there are terrific sequences once Diana and Steve hit England and then the Continent, things get choppy and bogged down in plot machinations as they embark on their mission to destroy the weapons facility of the chemist Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison (Anaya). Steve, having stolen a crucial item from another lab, believes he can stop the war; Diana, armed with her shield, sword and Lasso of Truth, believes she can stop war, period. They get funds and support from a high-powered British politician (David Thewlis, playing the opposite end of the spectrum from his uber-villain in the current season of Fargo) and enlist a ragtag trio of mercenaries, strangely reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz: a besotted marksman (Ewen Bremner), Moroccan undercover operative (Said Taghmaoui) and Native American black marketeer (Eugene Brave Rock).
In just a few words of dialogue for the latter two characters, screenwriter Heinberg, a TV vet making his feature debut, works eye-opening social commentary on race into the female-empowerment mix. None of it is preachy or heavy-handed, and the sexual politics throughout the film are as playful as they are well-observed, with nicely underplayed chemistry between the two leads.
Having demonstrated her action chops in the Fast & Furious franchise, Gadot brings a graceful athleticism to the role of a superhuman determined to take down Ares himself. At the same time, she lends a sweetly comic innocence to Diana’s amazed encounters with the civilized world. As a man dazzled by a fearless goddess, Pine delivers a less wide-eyed amazement. His performance is effortlessly roguish and wry, but he also ups the emotional ante, grounding the fight against evil as well as the fledgling romance with heart and soul.
Jenkins, who delved into very dark territory with 2003’s Monster and the series The Killing, brings the doomy DC vibe down to earth from some of its more operatic reaches. But she indulges in a saga-capping, one-on-one showdown that turns into an endless conflagration and grows less coherent as it proceeds. Such obligatory “big” scenes don’t completely undermine the winning mixture of drama, fantasy and comedy, but they aren’t what you remember after Wonder Woman is over.
If Diana of Themyscira is a much-needed hero for our times, it’s not because of her special-effects-laden fight moves. It’s because of such offhand moments as the way she infiltrates a bad guy’s soiree. Done up in one of those constricting frocks she doesn’t understand, she nonetheless strides into the room with the focus of a warrior and the gait of a free woman. She’s dressed for the part, but she’s no fool for fashion.
Production companies: RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel and Unusual
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, Lilly Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ann J. Wolfe, Ann Ogbomo, Emily Carey
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenwriter: Allan Heinberg; story by Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs based on characters from DC
Producers: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Richard Suckle
Executive producers: Stephen Jones, Geoff Johns, Jon Berg, Wesley Coller, Rebecca Steel Roven, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Matthew Jensen
Production designer: Aline Bonetto
Costume designer: Lindy Hemming
Editor: Martin Walsh
Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Visual effects supervisor: Bill Westenhofer
Casting: Lora Kennedy, Kristy Carlson, Lucinda Syson
Rated PG-13, 141 minutes