The best thing about Wonder Woman, the overlong and intermittently enjoyable new DC superhero spectacular, is Wonder Woman herself. That wasn’t a given—not when talking about a big-screen universe populated by sullen, wantonly destructive, and often shockingly unheroic caped crusaders. But while this latest comic-to-screen extravaganza suffers from its own set of problems, one of them isn’t the conception of its title titan, the Amazon warrior princess with the impervious bracelets and the lie-detecting lasso of truth. As played by Gal Gadot, the statuesque Israeli actress from the middle Fast & Furious movies, Diana Prince is both a striking icon of splash-panel, action-hero cool—storming fearlessly across a battlefield, deflecting bullets with the literal flick of her wrists—and also an amusing fish out of water, plucked from legend and deposited into a retro recreation of the early 20th century. When it comes to Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman walks a tightrope, neither giving her a grim-and-gritty makeover nor presenting her as a camp anachronism, a wink of a memory of a half-dressed Lynda Carter. She’s a good enough character to make you wish the movie around her was better.
This is Gadot’s second turn in the skimpy gold armor, having previously elbowed her way into the overstuffed ensemble of last spring’s deservedly maligned Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Maybe it goes without saying that Wonder Woman is an improvement, in almost all ways, on that bloated blockbuster and the other two fashionably grim installments in this ongoing comic-book crossover event. After all, it dares to see some actual fun in a world of costumed gods among men. At the risk of drawing further ire from the DC faithful, it’s worth reporting that Wonder Woman actually has more in common, from a tonal and storytelling perspective, with Marvel’s streamlined, interconnected adaptations; were one to marry the god-falls-to-Earth adventure of Thor to the fight-the-Germans wartime exploits of Captain America: The First Avenger, you’d ballpark the narrative makeup.
Pacing isn’t Wonder Woman’s strongest suit. The film gets off to an especially sluggish start on Diana’s tropical island homeland of Themyscira, populated exclusively by women, all speaking in what sounds like a wobbly approximation of Gadot’s accent. (Robin Wright, as our heroine’s hardass mentor figure, struggles most mightily with her somber dialogue.) If the backstory is faithfully complicated, shaping a comic-book origin story out of Greek mythology, then the actual world building is curiously thin; one wonders what these ripped Amazon ass-kickers do when not challenging each other to training skirmishes. Things pick up considerably once an American spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), pilots his nose-diving fighter plane through the Bermuda Triangle fog surrounding their secret nation, bringing a small armada of German soldiers with him. Created in the early ’40s, the character of Diana Prince was originally dropped into the chaos of WWII, but Wonder Woman rewinds back one world war, sending the character from a land with no men to no man’s land, where she leads a motley band of brothers through the trenches, convinced that the veritable proto-Nazi villains Trevor is tracking have had their hearts poisoned by none other than the god of war himself, Ares.
There are hints, in the forward plunge of the plot, of a slyer entertainment. William Moulton Marston, the psychologist who created Wonder Woman, modeled the character on early feminist icons (Margaret Sanger was an influence), and Wonder Woman has some fun with the idea of Diana as a force of pure agency gusting through a bygone London—a stranger cocking an eyebrow at the backwards gender politics of this strange new land. The film also toys with the usual power dynamics of gung-ho American spectacles by sticking Pine, still best known for his tenure as cocksure macho spaceman Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek films, in the role of sidekick/love interest, consistently awed (and frequently rescued) by the super-powered demigod he accompanies into the fray. Pine, with his square-jawed deadpan, bounces nicely off of Gadot’s tourist curiosity; the two actors have a chemistry of innuendo and hesitant camaraderie—the makings of a screwball romantic comedy, simmering around the edges of the story.
On page and screen, Wonder Woman often exists at a strange nexus of empowerment and objectification: She’s a headstrong female character in the often hyper-masculine sphere of superhero comics who was at the same time designed, in scanty dress and buxom dimension, to appeal to the carnal appetites of pubescent boys. In Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins, whose Monster told a very different story of a woman navigating a world of violent men, nimbly sidesteps the more prurient pitfalls of finally putting Wonder Woman on the big screen. Jenkins doesn’t deny that a towering, superhuman beauty is an essential trait; when Pine’s undercover soldier comes to on the beach, having been saved from the water by Diana, he awakens to the Amazon looming radiantly over him, like Grace Kelly angelically glowing through Jimmy Stewart’s smitten eyes in Rear Window. But the camera rarely ogles Gadot, no matter how much her wardrobe seems to have been selected for that purpose; Jenkins keeps the ratio of athletic might to sex appeal tilted in the former’s favor. One just wishes the filmmaker were working outside of a house style not already etched in stone. From its limited range of grayish colors to its speed-ramped action scenes, Wonder Woman mostly adheres to the stylistic template set by Man Of Steel and its sequel, minus some of Zack Snyder’s more extravagant Alex Ross imagery.
That extends, unfortunately, to the movie’s final act, when the bombastic CGI-on-CGI slugfest lurking beneath the story comes racing to the surface, burying the human elements in another gaudy display of slow-motion, light-show asskickery. Visually, it’s as much of an eyesore as the closing stretch of BvS. Dramatically, it’s perhaps even less satisfying. Wonder Woman locates some faint poignancy in the way Diana grapples with the concept of free will; in so much as there’s a conflict here, beyond the familiar race to stop a megalomaniac (Danny Huston, mostly wasted as the Kaiser’s most ambitious brute), it’s in Wonder Woman coming to terms with the banality of evil. But that’s a fairly abstract idea, one this lavish franchise hopeful can’t figure out how to really translate into whams and pows. And so it just settles for the whams and pows. Zippy in spots, laborious in others, Wonder Woman is at last another uneven superhero movie, albeit one that suggests that DC may be course correcting in the right direction. At least the studio has a first-rate character to work with going forward.