I’m so happy. I’m so very, very happy that Warner Brothers didn’t screw this one up. Wonder Woman always looked good from the trailers and promotional materials, but given the company’s recent track record with DC properties, I think I’m more than a little entitled to be skeptical of the DC Extended Universe. But fear not, because Wonder Woman is just as affirming, positive, and fun as it looks, and there’s enough thought and care hiding behind the scenes to not just make this movie good, but great enough to rival some of the better installments of the ever-crowded superhero genre.
Growing up on the hidden Amazonian island of Themyscira, Diana (Gal Gadot) has never known the outside world and longs for the time when she can confront Ares, the god of war whose betrayal of the other gods is the reason the Amazons have had to go into hiding. Her wish is granted in an unconventional way, though, as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a British spy, crash lands a plane on the hidden island, revealing that the world has broken out into a brutal war, the first World War. Diana comes to the conclusion that only Ares could be behind such large scale bloodshed, so she ventures with Steve to the outside world, questing to the Western Front to prevent a German general from releasing a new kind of weaponized gas that threatens talks of peace.
The plot is as straightforward as they come, borrowing elements from Captain America, Thor, and The Little Mermaid of all places to deliver a new narrative that handpicks the best elements from each. How Wonder Woman excels, though, is in that delivery, crafting a story that is uniquely and unironically optimistic in its outlook on humanity and its abhorrence of violence. Yes, there are plenty of action setpieces, almost all of which are executed quite well, but the driving theme of the film—and of Diana’s character—is that violence should only be used to protect the defenseless, and that even with all the horror that mankind creates, there is still something worth saving. It’s a powerfully affirming story to have told in a time when it seems like more and more of the world’s good is being beat down by forces more powerful than any single one of us, but Diana stands as a beacon of hope in the world’s darkest days.
And Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. She carries herself with a self-determined confidence of a warrior, yet still exhibits a naiveté toward the world around her that leads her to… well, wonder. She’s by no means stupid—in fact, there are multiple scenes where her intelligence outshines men’s to their great dismay—but she has a view of mankind that places them in the best possible light, and the ways in which the villainy of the Great War infects all sides of the conflict is a struggle for her to understand. It’s a complex and nuanced portrayal of a character who only needs to exist in order to be a feminist icon, but here she has dimension that makes her simultaneously work as an anti-war advocate and a badass deterrent in her own right.
Shockingly enough, Chris Pine is a damn charming love interest, which is surprising considering how he usually plays to his wooden namesake. There are a number of memorable supporting turns in this cast, particularly among Diana’s battlefield comrades, but Pine’s Steve Trevor is the supporting turn, a flipping of the usual patriarchal love interest archetype that feels narratively and emotionally important without ever overshadowing Diana as the star and driving force. One might expect a film like Wonder Woman to sidestep romantic subplots in favor of proving that Diana can play just as hard as the boys, but the tender moments between Steve and Diana highlight an underlying humanity and communal strength that underpins the whole production, letting Wonder Woman stand apart as a film that is as much about compassion as it is about kicking ass.
Now, of course Wonder Woman isn’t without its faults. It makes an admirable attempt to keep true to the convoluted and weird lore that defines Diana’s comic book origins, but the amount of expository explanation that dominates the first act is a bit draining, even as it remains intrinsically interesting and is broken up with some solid Amazonian action scenes. And while I personally found the action scenes fun, it isn’t hard to imagine complaints arising from the absurd defiance of the laws of physics as the film’s digital stand-ins bounce around the screen.
Even then, though, nothing—absolutely nothing—can take away from the splendor of a big screen Wonder Woman stepping out on the battlefield, lasso at her belt, shield in one hand, sword in the other, and holding her own against a torrent of machine gun fire. No other film right now feels like such a pure stand against unchecked aggression and masculine ego, a call to arms for anyone to stand up against the evils of the world, through the lens of a hero that women and girls can finally claim as their own. Wonder Woman would have been a powerful statement just by its mere existence. Instead, we are treated to a definitive genre classic in its own right.