"Wonder Woman" Marks Big Leap For DC's Cinematic Universe

In the seventy-six years it’s taken DC Comics’ Wonder Woman to get her own live-action theatrical film, American institutions like Steel and Howard The Duck and goddamn Timecop have occupied silver screens in her stead. “Steel who?” you might ask. Indeed. There have been outliers like “Elektra” (bad), “Catwoman” (worse), and “Tank Girl” – even Tank Girl got a movie before Wonder Woman – but most Hollywood executives would have seemingly prioritized pissing themselves in public over greenlighting a female-driven superhero movie.

The story of director Patty Jenkins isn’t so different. Since her 2003 Oscar-winning breakthrough “Monster,” Jenkins’ filmography includes seven episodes of television and exactly zero feature films. She has yet to join the ranks of Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, the only two women in America regularly tasked with even moderately budgeted studio films. Women still don’t get to direct big movies, an ever-smoking gun in the case against Tinseltown’s habitually hollow brand of progressivism.

As such, without accounting for a single frame of the movie, DC’s big screen union between Jenkins and Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) is momentous – a nearly unprecedented piece of movie history. Reason enough to buy a ticket.

If only the finished product were as revelatory.

Make no mistake, the picture flies high above last year’s introduction of its title character, gliding over a bar at ground level. Zack Snyder’s curdled “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice” announced Diana Prince as a personality-free superhuman with a garish theme song, a character only good for flirting with Bruce Wayne and then dropping in on him at the precise moment his alter-ego requires her skillset. All a Wonder Woman solo adventure needed to be to distinguish itself from such unholiness: an above average superhero origin story, anchored by an affable, broad performance from its lead. Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” is this exactly.

Allan Heinberg’s screenplay kicks off with Diana’s salad days as a young Amazonian princess, an approach that blissfully affords Gadot a take on the character that’s more Tom Hanks in “Big” or Jennifer Garner in “13 Going On 30” than robotic badass. A battle-ready but childlike Amazonian transplanted into rough-and-tumble World War I-era Europe allows the movie the kind of genre-busting ingredients rarely associated with comic book adaptations. The result is a pretty ripping World War I yarn until it’s not, eventually weighed down by a loud, obnoxious finale that flies in the face of everything that preceded it.

Act one sees Diana, having famously been sculpted from clay by Zeus himself, grow into her magical powers on the idyllic Amazonian island of Themyscira. Her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt – and general rabble-rouser – Antiope (Robin Wright) are at odds over the girl’s fate. Hippolyta forbids her daughter from a life of combat; Antiope encourages it, training the girl in secret. One day, when Diana is grown, an Allied pilot and spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) spills over into the Amazons’ peaceful existence and World War I with him. The two are soon off to London; Steve on a mission to gather a crew and stop the proliferation of chemical warfare by an evil German general (Danny Huston) and a mad scientist helpfully nicknamed Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), Diana determined to literally cut the war off at its source – the Greek god of war, Ares.

Gadot and Pine’s chemistry ignites almost immediately and remains lit without ever resorting to romantic tropes, his world-weariness bouncing neatly off her boundless innocence. Supported by a stable of capable actors (David Thewlis, Lucy Davis, Ewen Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui), Gadot and Pine make the most of playing the platonic ideals of heroes – albeit very different kinds of heroes – mining their characters for the kinds of small but meaningful moments that most superhero movies would kill for. If the story around them is familiar (there are loud echoes of “Captain America: The First Avenger”), their rapport is fresh, their combined charm seemingly a bottomless well.

When the duo’s dynamism comes together with a handful incredible action beats, the movie absolutely sings, as if excoriating the very idea that it took this long for a “Wonder Woman” movie to get made. A warfront action sequence is as rousing as anything in superhero movie history.

And yet, just when Diana has the poignant epiphany that she can’t singlehandedly end a war, the picture morphs into the dunderheaded CGI slugfest that it had previously so powerfully rebuffed. It’s not enough to retroactively torpedo what came before, but it’s still a drag. An expensive, eye-popping drag.

DC and Warner Bros. might be tempted to follow Marvel’s lead and immediately send Diana back to the present day for her next solo film. They mustn’t. The period setting, the unhurried growth of its title character, and Pine’s Steve Trevor are all essential to the success of “Wonder Woman,” and shoehorning the character back into the world of “Batman V Superman” is a fiasco waiting to happen. Leave modern day Diana Prince to the upcoming “Justice League.” Embrace the idea of growing an ageless wonder as she fights evil in any given time period. And return Patty Jenkins. Anything less would be a disservice to fans – and to the pretty good, absolutely historic film where it’s all just begun.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 2, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Patty Jenkins
Screenwriter: Allan Heinberg
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Braverock
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content)