Praise Hera: at long last, the DC cinematic universe has finally delivered a good movie. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman not only offers a significant course-correction after the steady downhill slide of Man of Steel (which started off well enough but collapsed in its second half), Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (ambitious, but a hot mess) and Suicide Squad (which barely even qualifies as a movie), but also manages to tap into the unique strengths of DC Comics in a way those movies failed to do. DC's stories have generally offered a much greater sense of mythological weight than Marvel's sitcom-tinged superhero sagas, opting for classical grandiosity over modern cleverness. It's to Zack Snyder's credit that the recent DC movies have made a genuine attempt to similarly set themselves apart from Marvel in terms of tone and thematic ambition, but the end result has been a series of increasingly wearisome blockbusters that too often mistake mere grimness for depth.
Wonder Woman is something different. It's funny, energetic and exciting, but it never feels like an imitation of the (undeniably entertaining, but ultimately pretty flimsy) Marvel movies. Its considerable humor never comes at the expense of its sincerity, and it fully commits to DC's brand of thunderous mythmaking. This sometimes leads to scenes that feel a corny or ridiculous, but the fact that Jenkins chooses to play these moments so straight gives them a certain charm: it feels as if melodramatic double-page spreads are being brought to life by Zeus himself.
The film opens on the island of Themyscira, which is exclusively populated by female Amazonian warriors (I'll let the film itself explain the reason for this, which is interesting but complicated). Though most of the women – including the fierce young Diana (Gal Gadot, Fast Five), daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator) - spend their days in combat training, the Amazonians haven't been involved in any actual warfare for many years (they are preparing for the dreaded eventual return of Ares, the God of War). All of that changes when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Hell or High Water) crashes off the coast of the island, leading the German army (WWI is currently raging in “the world of men”) to Themyscira's shores.
After a bloody battle, Steve explains the details of the war and asks the Amazonians for their help. Certain that Ares must be orchestrating this dreadful conflict, Diana feels the urge to act. She grabs her trusty shield, her lasso of truth and a sword known as “the god-killer” (you use it to kill gods, see) and joins Steve on a journey to 20th century London, where she is quickly introduced to the amusing quirks and unspeakable horrors of a very different sort of society.
Wonder Woman is essentially three different kinds of movies wrapped into a single package, and miraculously, all of them work exceptionally well. It's simultaneously a grand fantasy film rooted in Greek mythology, a fish-out-of-water comedy and a stirring WWI epic, with a dash of romance sprinkled on top that ties the whole thing together quite nicely. While not without its rough patches – some dodgy CGI, some underdeveloped villains, a lovely third-act moment that gets unnecessarily repeated – it's sort of miraculous to observe the way the film manages to retain DC's penchant for big, soul-searching themes (there's some good stuff here on the core motivations that fuel both war and heroism, along with thoughtful stray observations on various forms of discrimination) while also delivering a charming, thrilling entertainment.
The action sequences owe a considerable debt to Snyder (some of the Themyscira scenes feel very 300), but they also surpass anything he's delivered lately: the slow-mo mayhem here feels cleaner, better-choreographed and more exhilarating than almost anything in the other DC movies (give or take one or two of the Batman scenes in BvS), with the battle on Themyscira and a scene in which Wonder Woman charges across a battlefield standing out as particularly dazzling highlights. Things get a little messier during the inevitably bombastic climax, though that sequence does benefit from one of the more entertainingly surprising casting decisions I've seen recently.
While Gadot made a strong first impression in her limited screentime as Wonder Woman in BvS, this film makes it abundantly clear that she's a real-deal movie star. She embodies Diana's unwavering, assured, righteous determination as thoroughly as Christopher Reeve once embodied Superman's all-American decency, and she gets a lot of mileage out of both her stern scowl and her thousand-watt grin. Pine is also terrific, gamely embracing the film's fun round of gender role reversal (he's basically “the girl,” albeit an exceptionally well-defined one) and playing scenes of romance, comic relief and action-movie heroism with aplomb. Increasingly, I'm convinced that Pine can do more or less anything he puts his mind to. The supporting cast is filled with solid work from pros like Robin Wright (who gets one of the film's coolest action beats), Danny Huston (growling and/or smiling menacingly, as usual), Lucy Davis, David Thewlis, Elena Ayana and others, though sometimes the characters are a bit less compelling than the actors playing them (the Howling Commandos-esque trio played by Eugene Brave Rock, Ewen Bremmer and Said Taghmaoui feel... well, almost as underused as the Howling Commandos were).
Despite its imperfections, Wonder Woman is largely the sort of comic book movie I wish we got more often. It serves up crowd-pleasing fun without ever feeling disposable, and taps into thought-provoking thematic territory without ever turning preachy or heavy-handed. It never once attempts to undercut its sillier, more comic book-y elements by nudging the audience in the ribs to say, “hey, we know how corny this is.” It delivers a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, and doesn't ever feel like it's holding anything back for a sequel (though it certainly leaves one eager to see more of this character's adventures). If the suits at Warner Bros. have any sense at all, they'll allow this movie to set the tone for future DC flicks to the same degree that Marvel allowed Iron Man to set the tone for their comic book universe. My hat's off to Jenkins for giving one of DC's most iconic characters the big-screen epic she deserves.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Year: 2017