Wonder Woman turns the superhero origin story upside-down and, at last, transforms the god into a human, with wit and pain.
It’s been said the fundamental difference between DC and Marvel characters is that the former are gods while the latter are superhumans. So, it’s counterintuitive, and a bit delicious, to report that the latest installment in the dreary DC Extended Universe franchise, whose protagonist is an actual deity, arrives as the most humane superhero movie since X-Men inaugurated the cinematic craze 17 years ago. Maybe it’s a fluke that the movie is also, shockingly, the first tent-pole blockbuster of its kind with a woman in total control on both sides of the camera. But I doubt it.
Director Patty Jenkins’ buoyant Wonder Woman marks a refreshing shift for the genre, an overdue acknowledgement that not all summer filmgoers contain a Y chromosome. Much of this can be credited to its feminist source material. The same can’t be said of the film’s light touch, screwball sensibility or unabashed romanticism. Those qualities, tempered with plenty of bicep-flexing, are the result of a singular authorial voice, in the same way Christopher Nolan imbued his Batman trilogy with suffocating, masculine ennui. But Wonder Woman wouldn’t succeed nearly as well on the shoulders of a lesser lead actor. Gal Gadot—who debuted her Wonder Woman last year as the lone fragment of sunshine in the execrable Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—is a sensation, if not a revelation.
If the prospect of sitting through another superhero origin story strikes terror in your heart, fear not. Wonder Women swoops in as the rare counterfactual, a film exempt from the drudgery of another long-familiar arachnid bite, alleyway murder or planetary explosion. Despite Wonder Woman’s visual ubiquity within the culture, her rich narrative foundation remains knotty, steeped equally in Greek myth and the bloody particulars of the early, war-torn days of the twentieth century. For once the charm of a superhero movie depends on zooming back to the start.
Wonder Woman, for the sake of world building and this fall’s Justice League juggernaut, opens and closes in modern-day Paris. Our heroine, Diana Prince, works behind the scenes with antiquities at the Louvre. Bruce Wayne, presumably with recruitment for the aforementioned League on his mind, sends her a long-lost photograph that triggers a Proustian flashback.
Suddenly, we’re in Themyscira, a mythical island of Amazonian women constantly training in hand-to-hand combat. As a child, Diana yearns to spar, even if it’s just with a shield (“No sharp edges,” she argues, unsuccessfully). Her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), forbids Diana’s budding talents as a warrior. It’s her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), leader of the Amazonian army, who recognizes her niece’s abilities and hones them on the sly. Soon enough, a handsome American named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy working for the Brits, crash lands within the perimeter of the enchanted island with a flotilla of German baddies in tow. After a protracted battle sequence with swords versus guns, Diana procures some magical equipment, including a Lasso of Truth and a god-killing weapon, and ventures off into the bloodshed of the First World War with Steve at her side. Her goal is to find Ares, the god of war, whose death will, according to prophecy, halt this worldwide madness.
What happens next shouldn’t be spoiled with particulars, because Wonder Woman brims with many small delights and a few big plot twists. But the general idea is that our hero, like Thor in the vastly inferior Kenneth Branagh picture of 2011, is a stranger in a strange land. Jenkins, with the help of screenwriter Allan Heinberg, plops Diana into scenes that mine comedy from historical and cultural dissonance. See, for example, a seafaring moment where Diana and Steve negotiate sleeping arrangements. Or, my favorite part of Wonder Woman, when Diana shops for clothes in a department store.
This being a superhero picture, numerous human lives are at stake at the hands of villains. In Wonder Woman’s case, the evil duo are Saturday Morning cartoons: the dastardly General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya, in a truly creepy mask), who rub their palms and cackle at the massacre they’re concocting. Their ridiculousness, fun at first, becomes deeply disturbing. When they achieve a modest goal, the pair’s wickedness only deepens the pathos of the film and increases the humanity of our protagonist.
Wonder Woman highlights Gal Gadot’s talent most when she’s not fighting her enemies. Her Diana approaches every new man, be it a romantic partner or the ragtag team who eventually join her in battle, with an up-ticked smirk. Gadot plays, with panache, a credulous time-traveler, a whip-smart academic and an honorable warrior. Chris Pine stands beside as her wide-eyed lover and sidekick. It’s a radical arrangement, but Patty Jenkins is happy to subvert expectations. Wonder Woman turns the superhero origin story upside-down and, at last, transforms the god into a human, with wit and pain.