Amazing and yet, sadly, not that Diana Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) has been one of the most popular and prolific comic book superheroes since her print debut in 1941, yet she has never received her filmic due the way DC Comics' fellow heavy hitters Batman and Superman have. Could it be because she's a woman in a land of world-saving men, and studio heads remain skittish about hedging their bets on a female who is just as powerful and cunning as her male counterparts? Does the Dark Knight wear a black cowl? Save for a 1970s television series starring Lynda Carter, the occasional animated appearance, and a key cinematic introduction in 2016's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
," Wonder Woman has been stranded mostly in the shadows of pop culture.
It makes perfect sense that a female director would receive the honor of helming the storied heroine's first solo featurenot out of politically motivated gender obligation, mind you, but because she is the right person to bring the material to the screen. Making her long-awaited sophomore feature following 2003's stirring, Oscar-winning Aileen Wuornos biopic "Monster
," Patty Jenkins possesses a distinct interest in her characters and an empathy in lives being lived and lost that so few of her filmmaker colleagues have recently demonstrated within this genre. Her voice, like Diana's, has miraculously not been silenced or hindered by too many proverbial cooks the way the theatrical cuts of previous DC Universe entries "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
" and 2016's "Suicide Squad
" were, and the results are altogether better for it. "Wonder Woman" starts strong and only gets better and more surprising from there.
Amazon princess Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) has grown up on the idyllic matriarchal island of Themyscira. The daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), trained as a warrior by General Antiope (Robin Wright), she and her people have been created in god Zeus' image to restore goodness and peace to the earth. When Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from his downed plane just as German enemies close in, she is suddenly faced with the alarming knowledge that a war rages in nearby Europe. Suspecting the maniacal leader of the German Army, General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), is really the god of war Aries in disguise, Diana chooses to leave behind her family and accompany Steve on a death-defying mission to stop Ludendorff and psychopathic physicist Isabel Maru/Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) from unleashing secret chemical weapons strong enough to kill millions. In her pursuit to save the planet from annihilation, Diana will move closer to learning the truth about her identity and purpose, and Wonder Woman will be born.
In a landscape of brooding, dour, macho costumed crusaders, the eternally hopeful, selfless Diana Prince is not only the superhero viewers should want right about now, she's the hero they need. "Wonder Woman" may be set in the midst of World War I and deal in serious, albeit fictionalized, subject matter, but director Patty Jenkins breathes a blessed lightness into the proceedings. Her characters aren't afraid to smile and be playful, and the interplay between them zings along thanks to Allan Heinberg's lively screenplay and the charismatic performances bringing his words and socially potent ideas to fruition. The narrative follows the general conventions of a superhero origin saga, but it feels fresher because the same backstory hasn't been repeated ad nauseam countless times before in different movie iterations.
Furthermore, Jenkins has deeper topics to organically touch upon as Diana and Steve race toward their destinies. Themes of sacrifice and the importance of doing what's right are familiar enough, but others feel blazingly progressive within the context of this tale. "What I do is not up to you," Diana says late in the picture, and indeed from the moment she steps foot in civilization, away from her remote island home, she finds her ideals and aspirations second-guessed in an era when women are still fighting for the right to vote and discouragingly defined by the men surrounding them. These struggles for equality aren't only issues for women; in a fleeting but effective moment, secret agent Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) confides to Diana he became a soldier when his dreams of being an actor were not possible. "I was the wrong color," he simply states, his words speaking volumes about who he is and the adversity he's faced. One hundred years later, not much has changed for minority actors looking for a break in Hollywood and beyond.
Gal Gadot first appeared as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in a supporting capacity in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
," but there was no way to predict what a miraculous protagonist she would become once front and center. Gadot runs away with this film, surpassing all expectations while giving her determined character an irresistible wide-eyed innocence. Early fish-out-of-water scenes set in London are genuinely funny, with Steve sending his secretary Etta Candy, played by the scene-stealing Lucy Davis (2004's "Shaun of the Dead
"), to help Diana pick out more fitting attire for a lady in 1918. Suffice it to say, her true warrior nature cannot be so easily subdued. As Diana edges toward the front lines of the war in Belgium, Gadot movingly depicts the struggle withinher idealism over what she has been taught, and the tough realities of how the world really is.
Gadot and Chris Pine (2016's "Star Trek Beyond
"), rarely more magnetic than he is here as Steve Trevor, play terrifically off each other; their back-and-forth exchanges are charming and electric, and the burgeoning love story between them earns its third-act pathos. The villains of the piece are memorable, as well, with Danny Huston (2012's "Hitchcock
") slimily embodying the out-of-control General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and Elena Anaya (2010's "Cairo Time
") giving the partially masked Isabel Maru/Doctor Poison an underlying sadness to match her malevolent actions. When Steve goes undercover as a German commander and manipulatively feigns interest in Maru, the lonesome look in her eyes suggests she has never before received this kind of flattering attention, and may never again.
"Wonder Woman" is compelling for all of its 141 minutes, but particularly in the film's latter half as Diana's warrior skills and special abilities are put to the test and the full scope of her destiny gradually comes into focus. There are two minor missteps in the homestretchone involving the clunky method in which exposition is imparted by a villainous figure, the other in which a past unheard interchange is later revealed when it would have been more affecting to leave ambiguousbut these do little to hinder the denouement's dramatic power and resonance. By the end, Diana is still the unapologetic, pure-hearted person she was at the start, but now also wiser, her fight for peace extending far beyond the defeat of one evil manor god. As the start of a rousing, thoughtful new superhero franchise and the superior next piece in Warner Bros.' previously rocky DC Comics Universe, "Wonder Woman" is commanding and clear of vision, all the more electrifying because the time is taken to get to know, to understand, and to care about the people onscreen. Imagine that.