Another World War. Another cache of German superweapons intended to rain death upon an unsuspecting metropolis. Another act of supreme self-sacrifice. Another guy named Chris playing another guy named Steve.
There are moments in Wonder Woman that recall Captain America: The First Avenger a little too closely for comfort. The principal difference, of course, is that this Chris/Steve—that would be Chris Pine, playing Steve Trevor—is not the movie’s principal hero, but rather her sidekick and love interest. There was some reason to be leery of this arrangement, because Pine is an established movie star (and, it turns out, a more than solid actor), while Wonder Woman is played by the relatively obscure Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot. Would she be able to hold her own, or would this serve as yet another chapter in the difficulty of accommodating female characters into that most boyish of genres, the superhero movie?
Happily, Gadot holds her own with exceptional poise and gusto, whether bantering with Pine or charging into a nest of German sniper fire. And thank goodness. Following its iffy outing with director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and the sequential disasters of Snyder’s Batman v Superman and the Snyder-infused Suicide Squad, DC Comics and Warner Bros. needed an installment in their universe-building effort that was—how to put this?—not awful.
Befitting its World War I setting, Wonder Woman has a certain throwback charm, with Gadot and Pine playing off one another as good-naturedly as partners in a 1930s screwball comedy. It’s a vibe that stands in particular contrast to the bitter, Snyderesque unpleasantries—Do you bleed? You will!—that characterized the movie’s immediate DC predecessors.
After a brief framing scene in the present day—Diana Prince (Gadot), working as a curator at the Louvre, receives a package from Bruce Wayne—the movie takes us back in time to Themyscira, the legendary island of the Amazons. There, a young Diana is told by her mother, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), how the latter sculpted her out of clay and then had the god Zeus breathe life into her. (Like most origin stories told to young children, this one proves not to be entirely accurate.)
Diana wants to train to be just like the proud, immortal warrior-women all around her. Her mother opposes the idea, but her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), is in favor. The latter wins out of course, thus sparing us a movie in which Diana tries to end World War I by writing a thoughtful editorial in The Times of London. Diana also learns about the war god Ares, son of Zeus, who was defeated when he rose up against his father millennia earlier, but is believed to be on the prowl once more, fomenting discord in the World of Men.
Diana herself knows little of the world or men, her females-only island being protected by veils of fog and a magical force field. That is, until who should fall out of the sky and through said force field but USAF Captain Steve Trevor, piloting a German fighter plane that he stole while on an espionage mission. “Would you say you’re a typical example of your sex?” Diana asks him. Yes, she is going to be awfully disappointed by the outside world.
After dispatching the squad of Germans who were following Steve, Diana agrees to help him leave the island and deliver the intelligence he has gathered, which he believes could turn the tide of the war. She is convinced that Ares must be behind such rampant bloodshed (she’s largely correct), and that “once the Germans are freed from his influence, they will be good men again.” (She’s pretty far off on that one, I fear. I’m reminded of a line from the great Tom Lehrer’s “MLF Lullaby”: “We taught them a lesson in 1918, and they’ve hardly bothered us since then.”)
So after Diana arms herself with sword, shield, and truth-impelling lariat, it’s off to London (“It’s hideous,” she proclaims) and then to the war front in Belgium. Villains are introduced in the form of a German general (Danny Huston) and his evil scientist henchwoman (Elena Anaya). Meanwhile, a high-up in the British War Cabinet (David Thewlis) helps Steve and Diana put together a likably motley quartet of comrades to assist them.
Will our heroes manage to put an end to the War to End All Wars? Will Ares eventually show his true face? Is the human race, with its hatred and its wars, even worth saving? You can probably guess the answers to all of these questions, and they are, as usual, largely beside the point.
Directing from a script by Allan Heinberg, Patty Jenkins (Monster) favors character over conflict, an approach that yields precisely the happy results one might have anticipated. Gadot, in particular, is a delight as Diana: supremely capable yet utterly innocent, a big fish who has left her little pond and now finds herself out of water altogether. As her guide to the ways of the masculine world—which consist principally of lying and pointless fighting—Pine’s Steve is equal parts incredulous and enraptured toward Diana.
Wonder Woman does have its share of flaws. At two hours and 20 minutes, it is considerably overlong. A more compelling villain would have helped matters, and one scene in which Diana brutally impales a foe with her sword is an incongruous fit with the movie’s overall tone. Also, it seems a bit retrograde to have the first big female-led superhero film end with the lesson that “only love can truly save the world”—especially given the abundant evidence that what actually saved the world was Gal Gadot kicking ass all over Belgium.
The final big action sequence, as now seems always to be the case, is a messy and overwrought CGI extravaganza. But at least the movie that precedes it involves actual characters—likeable ones, even!—exhibiting recognizable human emotions. Here’s hoping that DC and Warner Bros. have registered the value of such straightforward pleasures in time for Snyder’s upcoming Justice League. If even he can learn such a lesson, perhaps there’s hope for the human race after all.