‘Wonder Woman’ is a great example of what superhero movies can be

‘Wonder Woman’
Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Women have it rough, and so does “Wonder Woman.” The first female-driven superhero movie of our current superhero movie age arrives lugging an unfair number of burdens: make as much money as comic book movies about dudes; withstand the whining of Men’s Rights Activists, as well as quieter but no less evil casual sexists; save the floundering “DC Extended Universe”; convince doubters that Gal Gadot isn’t a fembot cast primarily for her looks.

It has yet to clear the first hurdle, but it’s impressive, and refreshing, how handily it masters the other two. Brightening up a franchise that’s so far been dour and unpleasant, it finds DC locating its cinematic voice — faintly Marvel-ish, with actual jokes this time, but more serious and visually less colorful. It’s not a great comic book movie — though, to be fair, there hasn’t been one of those yet — but it is a solid one. Along with the first “Iron Man,” it’s the film you point to when you want to prove that this overly prolific genre is worth keeping around.

That also means playing it a bit safe — but not too safe. Part “Thor 1,” part “Captain America 1,” though stronger than both, it combines a period setting with fish-out-of-water antics. It’s an origin story — in this case, please don’t hiss — that introduces us to Gadot’s Diana Prince almost a century before she became one of the only worthwhile parts of the miserable “Batman v Superman.” Young WW is just another Amazonian warrior in an all-female paradise, where everyone (including Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen) speaks in vaguely Israeli accents to match their star. Why would she ever leave?

Still, Diana suffers from wanderlust, a malady exacerbated by the arrival of Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor — a World War I spy who mysteriously happens upon her world. She soon joins him on the other side to help win the war, unprepared for a hell not only lousy with men, but men who don’t take kindly to strong women who speak their mind and can hurt them. (Speaking of a mostly male cast, we’re thrilled to report that Lucy Davis, the delightful Dawn Tinsley from the original “The Office,” who plays Steve’s harried and scene-stealing assistant, is no longer AWOL.)

It’s no fun to say that the initial stretch, set in the femme realm, is a bit of drag, and that it picks up considerably some men are around. But throwing Diana into a world of mostly dudes gives her and the film something to push against. And push it does. Diana doesn’t get why she has to cover up her revealing metal one-piece. She’s pissed when she’s forced to don dresses both restrictive and deeply impractical for fighting. She’s livid and superheroic when she tells off a room full of stuffy generals who think of their soldiers not as equals but as numbers worth sacrificing for a greater cause.

Gadot is tasked with untold challenges, feelings she’s never been called on to express onscreen before. Till now, she’s mostly been the quiet hot girl; she revealed decent comic chops in “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” but she was still sending up her cover girl image. It takes a while for Gadot to loosen up, but once she does, she’s magnetic — strong yet vulnerable, driven yet funny, heroic yet flawed. She can even be a little self-righteous. One of the best scenes finds her in the trenches in France, appalled to learn there’s no plan to save the nearby villagers from the horrors of battle. Steve makes a strong, logical argument: You simply can’t save everyone. For a second, Diana seems to agree, to have learned a lesson in thinking practically. Then she realizes she’s a superhero, with bullet-deflecting bracelets and a glowing lasso (which, admittedly, does look a bit silly — only slightly better than the bright green concoctions from the “Green Lantern” movie).

“Wonder Woman” isn’t perfect. It’s a little long. It has a too short, only so-so round-up-the-gang stretch, then proceeds to largely waste the great actors Said Taghmaoui and Ewen Bremner. The super-secret villain turns out to be as dull as in any Marvel outing. It doesn’t do nearly enough with a villain boasting the great, great name “Dr. Poison” (Elena Anaya). But the first “Iron Man” wasn’t perfect either. We don’t want to overburden a very good film with too many expectations. Setting a Cinematic Universe on the right track, telling a coherent and gripping story (unusual in this blockbuster age), mixing thrills and laughs and commentary with a cool hand and being a sterling example of what superhero movies can be will more than do just fine. 

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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