The long-overdue Wonder Woman film is an origin story that doesn’t shrink from the beauty or brawn of a hero in whom the parallels of ancient mythology and modern superhero fiction become literal.
Diana (Gal Gadot), the precocious daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), is a princess of the superhuman Amazons. The all-female tribe, originally created by Zeus to protect mortals, eventually withdrew to the mystical "Paradise Island" of Themyscira to escape man’s wickedness. But mankind interrupts paradise when American soldier and spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on Diana’s doorstep, during the First World War, with a squadron of Germans in pursuit.
As the far-off factions negotiate an armistice, a rogue German general (Danny Huston) and his maimed, mad chemist (Elena Anaya) concoct a new nerve agent that could tip the balance of the war. Hearing of the cataclysm and motivated by the mythological bedtime stories of her childhood, Diana comes to believe that only she can save the world by leaving Themyscira and vanquishing Ares, the Greek god of war and an enemy of the Amazons.
Arriving in World War I-era London, Diana peruses a new wardrobe to cover her utilitarian leather skirt and blend into a corseted, male-dominated society as her alter ego, Diana Prince. “How do you fight in this attire?” the warrior unironically asks, donning an outfit that evokes the fashion of the women’s suffrage movement. The scene references the comic-book origins of Wonder Woman, whose creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, was partly inspired by early-twentieth-century feminism. Likewise, a quip in which Diana equates being a secretary with slavery is a sly reference to Wonder Woman’s 1940s debut in All-Star Comics, when she was the Justice Society of America’s secretary. You’ve come a long way, baby.
Pine’s able mix of wit and earnestness serves him well as Diana’s sherpa and latent love interest, and Gadot strikes the right balance as an alluring, even playful idealist who relishes the battle but not the war. Wonder Woman isn’t a transcendent movie heroine à la Ellen Ripley from Alien or Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. But she is seminal, if not singular, in modern superhero cinema.
Armed with a sword, a shield, and an initial naiveté about patriarchal society, Diana is a demigoddess of both war and peace. Coming from a matriarchal upbringing, she confronts a world where women can’t vote or enlist in the military. They can’t even enter the meeting places of government. So when Diana marches defiantly across no man’s land, takes out a German bunker, or wades through a cloud of mustard gas, the vision of a strong woman effortlessly dispatching man's war-making prowess inspires extra awe.
Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) was originally tapped to direct Thor 2 before leaving the Marvel Studios project due to creative differences. For more than a decade, she lobbied to helm a Wonder Woman film, and then got the gig after Michelle MacLaren dropped out. The result is the most grounded of the first four films in the evolving DC Extended Universe. It doesn’t reinvent the superhero origin story; it’s rather formulaic in that regard.
But Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg nimbly manipulate conventions. There is a villain, but not one whose defeat will set all things right again. Rather, evil is an existential foe that must always be managed but cannot be extinguished. Men killed the world but mankind is worth saving. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” In Wonder Woman, we witness Diana ceasing to believe in the blind idealism of the first thought but clinging resolutely to the second.