Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers…and her true destiny.
Throw a costume party with a superhero theme, and most of the women will turn up dressed as Wonder Woman. The reason is simple: not only is the Amazonian princess, demigoddess and founding member of DC Comics Justice League a drop-dead gorgeous super-babe, she’s also the only female character working in the big league. Even so, it’s taken 76 years after her first appearance in comic books (created by American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston) for Wonder Woman to finally get her own live action feature film. It’s directed by Patty Jenkins (Monster), who’s also the first woman to direct a tentpole superhero film, and so there are many reasons why it’s a relief to announce that Wonder Woman is a rip-roaring success, a rollicking feminist adventure tale with enough heart, wit and narrative good sense to inject some much-needed girlpower into the bloated blokey genre.
Israeli model and actor Gal Gadot first made a small appearance as Wonder Woman in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but here the story takes place much earlier when she’s just discovering her powers. We meet the young princess Diana (aka Wonder Woman) as a feisty child on the women-only island of Themyscira. Her mother is proud Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson) and her aunt is the fierce warrior, General Antiope (Robin Wright, who almost steals the show with hard muscles and horseback bravura). Together, they agree that Diana must learn to fight harder than all the rest in order to fulfil her destiny. There’s an extended setup sequence on the idyllic island, showing fit, gorgeous women training hard with fists and arrows and talking politics and history. Some may find this a little stodgy, an exercise in kitsch, but it’s hard to overstate the fun of a well-realised vision of strong, athletic women living happily without a man in sight. (The voiceover explaining the society and its relationship to the warring Greek gods is garbled nonsense of course, but this is a superhero movie so it has to be done.)
The peace is soon broken by the crash-landing of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy pursued by the Germans who have somehow punctured the force field around the island. Hearing of the horrors of World War I and driven by a sense of justice, Diana is convinced she must join Steve and journey to Europe to find and conquer the War God Ares, who she believes is responsible for the conflict. Steve raises his eyebrows at her naivety but he can’t deny her fighting power – or her hotness. She’s armed with the ‘Godkiller’ – a sword left by Zeus, along with a golden lasso of truth, her indestructible shield and those awesome bullet-repelling bracelets.
Make no mistake, Wonder Woman is a war film, and having her fight in the muddy trenches, blasting her way across No Man’s Land as she’s fired on from all directions, is an interesting idea for a superhero narrative. (The screenplay is by TV’s Allan Heinberg, working with Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs). More standard is the plot involving evil German war criminals who must be stopped: General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his creepy-crawly sidekick Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), who are developing painful chemical weapons of mass destruction. There’s also the inevitable showdown with a villain of seemingly greater power than our heroine – an extended fight scene involving all the usual ridiculous gravity-defying leaps and dodgy fire and brimstone special effects.
What makes Wonder Woman work so well is the character of Diana herself, who’s written and performed with the kind of emotional intelligence that’s rare in these kinds of films. Strong and beautiful, Gadot is not just physically perfect for the role, she’s also wonderfully warm, conveying the innocence and goodness of a very young and inexperienced superhero. She’s so much fun to watch in the fizzy romantic scenes with Pine (who always lets her shine brighter), as well as in the humorous ‘fish out of water’ scenes where she’s trying to dress like an Englishwoman. (‘How do you fight in these clothes?’ she asks, puzzled as she tries on a long frilly frock). Most importantly, she’s believable as a kicking, flipping fighter with a courageous heart. We need more superheroines like this, and if we’re lucky, the upcoming Justice League movie later this year will give Wonder Woman a part worthy of her gifts.
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