Wonder Woman is a film of many firsts. It’s the first solo cinematic outing for its titular heroine. It’s the first female-led superhero film in the new era of the global dominance of the comic book movie. It’s the first time since 2002 that a female director has been handed a budget of over $100 million dollars, with Patty Jenkins leading the charge – soon to be followed by Ava DuVernay (with A Wrinkle in Time) and Niki Caro (Mulan). And, most importantly, it’s the first genuinely good entry into the critically battered DCEU, a blast of fun and sincerity that is ever so refreshing in a world of brooding cynics in capes and quippy murderous antiheroes.
We race through the rebellious childhood of Diana (Gal Gadot) on the hidden Amazon island of Themyscira. She matures into, potentially, her people’s greatest warrior, trained by ferocious general Antiope (Robin Wright), but as a princess, her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) doesn’t want her putting herself in harm’s way. It’s a pretty generic origin, and the Themyscira sequence is definitely the film’s worst, forgettable despite its decent mythos-building and lovely rural Ancient Greek scenery. Things pick up hugely once Diana is forced to join the ‘world of men’, where the First World War is coming to a vicious close.
This excursion is brought about by the arrival of spy and pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who crash lands in Themyscira fleeing a German fleet, and as the Germans land on the Amazon beach, they kick off the first of many thrillingly marshalled and well-choreographed action sequences. Balletic movement combines with Diana’s raw power and the film’s general sense of fun for battle scenes that had me grinning like an idiot. None are better than Diana’s crossing of No Man’s Land, as she realises the extent of the power she can wield in the world; it’s exciting, immediately iconic, and wonderfully uplifting.
Even the CG-heavy final showdown has a real impact, though the effects here are a little spottier than we’re used to in top-tier tentpole superhero films. This finale is helped immensely by being the culmination to a well-woven story from writer Allan Heinberg that seems to be over-simplifying the Great War to an uncomfortable extent before really cleverly winning you back with a twist that has both real world nuance and fantasy silliness. Sure, characters like General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) seem to belong more to Nazi Germany than the Imperial army that resided in the trenches of the western front, but they make for enjoyably hissable villains.
Gadot, who wasn’t given much to do in Batman V Superman, proves a real movie star in her first real lead role. What she lacks in emotional range, she more than makes up for with a captivating charisma that renders her alternating despair and delight at the state of the world absolutely infectious – Diana’s first encounter with snow is joyous. Some nice fish-out-of-water comedy ensues as she reaches buttoned-down 1910s London, but her naïve horror at the world’s inequalities and injustices is played affectingly straight as Diana has to rapidly learn of cruelty and helplessness.
Even better is the slow-burn love story between her and Steve, the best superhero romance this side of The Incredibles. Steve is hardly passive, but he’s more than willing to take a back seat as Diana leads the charge, secure enough to never feel threatened by her power or attempt to bring her down to his level. Pine has proved himself recently as by far the best actor of Hollywood’s four super-Chrises, and he gives it his all whether in frustrating negotiations with his commanding officer Sir Patrick (David Thewlis) or in his quiet but humanisingly frightened resignation whenever death seems imminent.
A tender moment shared mid-dance by Diana and Steve as the sun rises over a snowy Belgian town they’ve recently liberated highlights all that works so well about Wonder Woman. It follows a raucously entertaining action scene, and the disparity between the dancers, as Diana looks in awe at the lives of the mortals of Earth and Steve sadly questions whether these lives can be truly saved in the new age of industrial warfare, conjures a depth of feeling that few superhero movies even aim at. It might take a while to get going, but when it does, Wonder Woman is a fist-pumping summer blockbuster triumph.