It has been a long trip to the silver screen for the most iconic female superhero. Wonder Woman first appeared in DC Comics a couple of years after its two male superstars, Superman and Batman, yet she’s just now getting her own movie. Christopher Reeve put on Superman’s tights and cape back in the 1970s, while Michael Keaton became Batman in the 1980s. Since then two more actors have played Superman while four others have worn Batman’s costume.
The good news is that Wonder Woman is worth the wait, particularly to have Gal Gadot play the role. Gadot is both a beauty queen (Miss Israel, 2004) and an Israeli Army vet, which pretty much puts her in the class of Wonder Woman off the screen. She began acting in movies in 2009 when she appeared in Fast and Furious, the fourth movie in that series and the one that refocused it after it drifted off to Tokyo. She was the best part of last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in her first appearance as Wonder Woman. (The movie works best if you think of it as a teaser trailer.)
Wonder Woman begins shortly after Batman v. Superman with Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s cover identity, working in the Louvre in Paris. Bruce Wayne sends her the photograph she’d sought to recover from Lex Luthor. Looking at it, Diana remembers what led to it being taken back in 1918. The story jumps back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. Diana was the only child, created by Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Queen of the Amazons, with life breathed into her by Zeus. She’s tutored in combat by Antiope (Robin Wright), the greatest Amazon warrior, but it eventually becomes clear that Diana is someone special.
When American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a German monoplane into the ocean by the island, Diana rescues him. He was being pursued by a German warship which breaks through the island’s protective screen and sends marines onto the beach to kill Trevor. However, they’re met by the might of the Amazons. In questioning after the battle, Trevor explains about “the war to end all wars” that has engulfed the world for four years, resulting in millions of casualties. While the Armistice to end the war is being negotiated, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is working with Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) to create the next generation of poison gas that will reignite the conflict. Diana sees the hand of Aries, the God of War, in the conflict, and knows she must stop him to stop the war.
While in its first season, the 1970s TV series with Linda Carter mirrored the origin story of the comic and was set during WWII. It switched to a contemporary setting for its last two seasons. Here, though, screenwriter Allan Heinberg along with others who developed the story set the movie during the First World War. It benefits the story in that it was the first truly mechanized war and widespread conflict, and it was before women gained voting rights and started moving toward equality. While Diana is a throwback to Ancient Greece, the setting also places her as far more progressive than the world at that time.
Director Patty Jenkins wrote and directed Monster, for which Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar. Since then she’s mostly done television (“Arrested Development” and “The Killing” among the series), but she helms this movie with a firm hand and a fine sensitivity to the story. The pacing’s tight throughout most of the film. It does suffer a bit in the third act from the same over-the-top action previously seen in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman. It’s like DC has standard film stock to be used in any such battle sequences. Still, it plays much better than either of those previous movies.
One delight is Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve Trevor’s secretary/assistant. She pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are effective villains, and Anaya manages to still evoke sympathy in the end. (The Spanish actress is mostly known for her work with Pedro Almodovar in Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In.) Pine has plenty of experience in adventure movies with the rebooted Star Trek series, though he’s stretched past that recently with Hell and High Water. He can handle the comedic wit in the character, but still makes you care for and about him.
But the movie, rightly, belongs to Gal Gadot. (In case you’re wondering about the pronounciation, the first name rhymes with “doll” and the last with “a float.”) While most superhero characters mask their feelings, with Gadot’s Wonder Woman they are there to be seen clearly. More than that, they are the motivation for her actions. It is rare for an action movie to pass the Bechdel test, but Wonder Woman does that with flying colors. Hopefully the likely success of the movie will begin a flow of more films centered on female characters. That truly would be wonderful.