Leave it to a woman, or in this case several women, to clean up the mess left behind by men. Following the troubled arrival of two extra-large movies in what is now called the DC Extended Universe — the rickety and often incoherent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the slapdash Suicide Squad — all eyes have now turned to the next film in the saga, Wonder Woman. It stands as DC’s attempt to “save” its own shared movie mythology, to right what has been a ship tilting precariously on its side. While no one movie can rescue an entire brand, Wonder Woman fortunately does the best possible job it can under the circumstances, restoring clarity, sharper storytelling, and, most importantly, humanity to a cinematic canon in danger of collapsing under its own darkness.
Directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster), Wonder Woman takes a page from, dare we say it, the Marvel Cinematic Universe playbook by telling a mostly straightforward origin story. While it is somewhat predictable in its basic structure, the movie also provides the kind of satisfying narrative and character arc missing from its predecessors. And for possibly the first time since the DCEU officially started with 2013’s Man of Steel, the movie features a lead character who unambiguously embraces the call instead of refusing it with aspects of that character’s own personality and history creating more organic conflicts later on. There is also genuine warmth in the relationships that the movie sets up, creating the kind of empathy that was sorely missing from the more nihilistic BvS and Suicide Squad.
Both of those movies had their strengths, as did Man of Steel, but Wonder Woman feels like the first unabashed superhero movie in the DCEU to date. Following a brief modern day opening, the movie plays as an extended flashback in which we first meet Diana as a little girl (Lilly Aspell) on the island of Themyscira, where an all-female population known as the Amazons live in secret from the rest of the outside world (a history recounted in neat expository animation). Although her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) forbids it, Diana yearns to train under her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who leads the warriors charged with protecting Themyscira from all outside invaders. Some years pass and the outside world — sadly with a glimpse of the evil rampant in it — comes to the island in the form of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy who is shot down while escaping in a German plane during World War I. Rescued by a now-grown Diana (Gal Gadot), Steve describes the terrible forces unleashed on the globe and warns that they will come to Themyscira eventually. His prediction comes all too true, leading Diana to make a decision that will change her life and destiny.
Jenkins directs Wonder Woman from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg (The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy), which is in turn based on a story by Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder; Warner Bros. commissioned several competing scripts for the film, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that this one was fashioned by a number of writers (some of whom probably remain uncredited). In a similar vein, the movie doesn’t stick strictly to one published origin story, moving Diana’s initial interactions with the world to the first Great War instead of the second one and changing other character details as well. But what remains is a Diana who is faithful to the spirit of the comics and the first female superhero: She’s a woman imbued with compassion and kindness, and one who loves the world with all its flaws and wants to save it through the power of that love.
Gal Gadot is not a great actress — at least not yet — but she radiates sincerity and heart, which goes a long way toward smoothing over her sometimes clunky line delivery. Gadot seems most stiff during the London sequences when she first arrives in the outside world with Trevor and has the most “fish out of water” humor to play. She is at her best during the action sequences, in which she exhibits the same steely resolve and effortless physicality that won fans over in her BvS debut, and in the character-driven sequences in which she must confront certain realities about herself and the world she thought she knew. An emotional depth begins to come out in the performance that will serve Gadot well in (hopefully) sequels to come.
She is more than ably supported by Pine as Steve Trevor, with this often underrated actor and Gadot generating a natural chemistry. Pine himself also provides a more complex than it seems mix of decency, all-American heroism, and weariness. Trevor is a man trying to keep his moral compass and perhaps even his sanity in a world of horrors like no one at the time had yet experienced. His version of the Howling Commandos, for lack of a better description, has Ewen Bremmer, Said Taghamoui, and Eugene Brave Rock teed up at a moment’s notice for solid comic relief.
Back on Themyscira, Nielsen and Wright make the most of their relatively brief screen time by offering impassioned work as the two feminine pillars in young Diana’s life. Wright — so brilliant in her stillness and restraint on House of Cards — shows a whole new side of herself here as a fierce, relentless fighter during one extended battle scene. On the villain front, Danny Huston as German general Erich Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru are both striking enough with limited material to give them the edge over previous DC enemies — and even Marvel ones.
The biggest influence of Zack Snyder, who has functioned as something of the unofficial overlord of the DCEU, is in some of the visual choices: The movie retains a lot of the darker color palette of the previous movies in the series while the climax goes all-in for a big CGI blowout. Jenkins handles the material quite capably throughout the movie’s 141-minute length (which seems a tad long) and while some of the action carries the feeling of being already pre-visualized to a fault, the director never lets go of the human element of her material — a lesson that some of her male colleagues could learn.
There are several extraordinary sequences in Wonder Woman, but at one point halfway through the film there is a scene (you’ve seen part of it in the trailers) where Diana rises into battle and we see her stride onto the field for the first time in her full costume; I want to see the movie again just for this shot, which gave me major goosebumps. This is a moment 75 years in the making where the hopes and dreams and fantasies of millions of little girls and adult women finally crystallize into one transcendent image that is proud, defiant, more than welcome, and a long time coming. Women are, in so many ways that are never acknowledged, the true superheroes of the world, and it’s both a profound relief and joy to report that the first fictional one has come to the big screen with pride, respect… and love.
Wonder Woman is out in theaters this Friday, June 2.