AT LAST, IN A WORLD TORN BY THE HATREDS AND WARS OF MEN, APPEARS A WOMAN TO WHOM THE PROBLEMS AND FEATS OF MEN ARE MERE CHILD’S PLAY — A WOMAN WHOSE IDENTITY IS KNOWN TO NONE, BUT WHOSE SENSATIONAL FEATS ARE OUTSTANDING IN A FAST-MOVING WORLD! WITH A HUNDRED TIMES THE AGILITY AND STRENGTH OF OUR BEST MALE ATHLETES AND STRONGEST WRESTLERS, SHE APPEARS AS THOUGH FROM NOWHERE TO AVENGE AND INJUSTICE OR RIGHT A WRONG! AS LOVELY AS APHRODITE — AS WISE AS ATHENA — WITH THE SPEED OF MERCURY AND THE STRENGTH OF HERCULES — SHE IS KNOWN ONLY AS WONDER WOMAN, BUT WHO SHE IS, OR WHENCE SHE CAME, NOBODY KNOWS!
With those words — bold and urgently shouting from the page — Wonder Woman was introduced. Delivered as a back-up story to the main Justice of Society of America adventure in All-Star Comics #8, published in 1941, Wonder Woman was the creation of writer William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter. She quickly jumped to a starring spot in the newly launched Sensation Comics and had a periodical bearing her name alone by the summer of 1942. Despite unquestioned status as one third of DC Comics’ trinity of icons and significant pop culture prominence, until now the character has been denied a starring role in a big screen feature, even as the market for superhero movies boomed. Almost eighty years in coming, Wonder Woman can’t help but feel momentous.
Happily, the film also feels worthy. For most of its runtime, it is engaging, wise, challenging, and witty. Once retrospect kicks in years from now, the significance of Wonder Woman may be less in its new statements for all of womankind and more in its welcome recalibration of what I must now grudgingly refer to as the DC Cinematic Universe. As opposed to the equally dreadful Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (in which, being fair, this version of Wonder Woman made her debut), Wonder Woman is interested in something more than intensely straining coolness. There is a beautifully strobing circuit of charm that runs through the entire film. Even when problems bully their way to the forefront, the shimmer of what’s, well, wondrous about the film always moves to the front, like a flare of light on the lens.
In its plot, Wonder Woman begins with the origin story template laid out by the first story all those years ago. Diana (Gal Gadot) is a Amazonian living with her sisters — in all senses — on a remote, hidden island. A plane comes bursting out of the sky, with a flyboy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). He introduces her to the troubles of the outside world, and she goes forth with him, at least in part out of a birthright conviction that it is her duty to help fix them.
Set against the horrors of World War I (presumably because there’s a little too much moral complexity associated with the sequel global conflict that coincided with the first comic book appearances of the character), the film wrestles with the idea of a person raised to believe in the inherent value and valor of armed conflict, but as a concept more than a practice, suddenly confronting the human misery that stems from people actually raising weapons against each other. One of the great strengths of the film’s screenplay, scripted by Allan Heinberg, is that it takes time to explore these concepts without ever becoming didactic about it. The film winds up an action movie that acknowledges the repercussions of action.
Without sacrificing that earned gravity, the film is also delightful, especially through the strong middle portion, which places Diana in the classic fish out of water scenario and somehow makes it feel fresh. That intellectual briskness stems in part from the film’s shrewd approach to a feminist message. Diana doesn’t push her way into areas in which women are not welcome — especially in the era in which the film is set — out of some political crusade, but because her rearing in a society exclusively comprised of females has led her to the casual conviction that nothing is off limits because of her gender identity. She operates with freedom and personal authority because that’s the only option that would ever occur to her. That winds up as a message just as powerful as — maybe more powerful than — any implicit or explicit rallying cries.
Some of the spiritual certainty of the film is attributable to the basic approach of the script, but a significant amount of credit must go to Gadot’s performance. In an interview with The New York Times, director Patty Jenkins noted that her own joining of the project midstream meant her lead actress was already cast. “I’m so picky about casting, and when I heard that they’d cast Wonder Woman, my heart sank,” Jenkins said. “But oh my God, it was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me, because Gal Gadot is so magical and wonderful. They found the best person in the universe.”
I figured that was typical promotional circuit hyperbole. Then I saw the movie.
Gadot gives one of those performances that sparks with charisma. She’s magnetic and effortlessly compelling, imbuing the character’s earnest naïveté with its own power. By its very nature, the film is awash in the ludicrous, but Gadot makes it all strangely truthful. No matter how fantastical the moment, she plays it honestly, a task that sounds easy but is beyond the talents of many more seasoned actors who lend their talents to one of these modern cinematic spectacles. There are other winning performances around her in the cast — including those delivered by Robin Wright, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, David Thewlis, and the previously mentioned Pine — but Gadot meets the daunting challenge of her character with astonishing aplomb.
For the most part, Jenkins pulls off her own superhuman feat. With the markedly different Monster as her only other feature (albeit with some slightly more pertinent television work in the fourteen year interim between films), Jenkins is fairly untested when it comes to material of this scale. Nobody would know that from the finished product, I’d wager. Until the clamorous cataclysm of the ending — which is a sad obligation of the superhero movie genre — Jenkins is smooth and assured in her staging of the narrative, occasionally adding insight through her artful visuals. There are a few too many moments delivered in the agonizingly precise slow motion that is the DC movies house style here in the Zack Snyder age, but that’s the bear trap she stepped into. As was the case with James Gunn’s first spin with a certain set of ragtag galaxy guardians, there’s a nagging certainty that Jenkins’s film is at its best when she’s most clearly left to her own devices.
I’ll admit it: I wanted Wonder Woman to be good. I wanted it to live up to the grandest hopes of the women who packed into gender-specific screenings, in the face of embarrassing opposition from crybaby men who seethe at any erosion of their millennia of privilege. Even so, I don’t believe I’m rounding up in my praise of the film. It’s not perfect, but it’s tremendously, memorably enjoyable. Given the weight of expectations on Wonder Woman, the film’s bright deftness might be the most heroic feat of all.