The cure for DC Entertainment’s Marvel envy arrives in the form of “Wonder Woman,” a muscular origin story that commits itself to bringing heart to the genre while still delivering the requisite action. As a bridge to the superhero team-up “Justice League,” this serious take on the heretofore campy heroine elevates DC’s cinematic universe to new heights.
Granted, the bar hadn’t been set particularly high by “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” – an exercise notably enlivened by Gal Gadot’s cameo as Wonder Woman – or “Suicide Squad.” Indeed, DC seemed to be so eager to get in on Marvel’s action that parent Warner Bros. (a corporate sibling of CNN) skipped several necessary foundational steps.
Director Patty Jenkins, by contrast, has gone back to square one, using that 100-year-old photo flashed in the previous movie to detail the story of Gadot’s Diana, princess of Themyscira, the progeny of Zeus and the queen of the all-female Amazons (Connie Nielsen).
Trained as a warrior by her aunt (Robin Wright, helping class up the island), Diana’s destiny takes an unexpected turn when pilot/spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane offshore, abruptly bringing World War I into their lives.
As many a movie has learned, historically speaking, Germans make good bad guys, even when they’re not Nazis. In this case, it’s a rogue general, Ludendorff (Danny Huston), intent on using heinous weapons to prolong the war on the eve of an armistice, prompting Diana to journey back with Steve hoping to find the god Ares and end the world’s torment.
That creates a pretty standard fish-out-of-water scenario, with Diana as the slightly (OK, very) wide-eyed naïf in a strange land, wondering how early-20th-century women can possibly hope to fight in those fabric-heavy frocks and asking Trevor where he rates in terms of masculinity.
Trevor assembles a team to join Diana on a mission to stop Ludendorff and, not incidentally, show off the powers she’s only gradually discovering. The movie does drag a bit during that midsection after Diana bids farewell to the Amazons, but it’s consistently entertaining, buoyed in no small part by its Israeli star’s presence, which makes the mythological seem possible.
Perhaps most significantly, the tone feels right. The time period also softens the played-for-laughs male gawking, while Pine brings an unforced charm to the pair’s interaction.
Jenkins, too, has capitalized on the character’s athleticism, choreographing fight scenes as if they were ballet. Slow-motion can often be numbing in this context, but here – augmented by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s powerful theme – it instills an epic quality in those sequences a bit like “300.” (That film was directed by Zack Snyder, who serves as a producer here.)
While premature to say “Wonder Woman” has saved a summer that got off to a moribund start, the movie’s popcorn quotient should provide the industry a welcome shot in the arm. It has also conjured higher hopes for “Justice League” than existed based on the hurried glimpses in “Batman v. Superman” alone.
Given the awkward aspects of the venerable character’s backstory (Trevor calls her lineage “neat”); her goofy accessories, including a magic lasso (featured) and invisible airplane (wisely omitted); and the limits of the ‘70s TV show, transforming “Wonder Woman” into that sort of big-screen attraction is no small accomplishment. On top of that, one suspects it’s going be among the most popular costumes at Comic-Con.
Those familiar with comic-book slogans know the one about a formidable task that “looks like a job for Superman.” But to lift DC out of its funk, the right man for the job turned out to be this “Woman.”
“Wonder Woman” opens June 2 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.