The scene comes about halfway into Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, and it’s about as carefully prepared and elegantly executed a reveal as you’ll find this side of The Third Man. Our heroine, here only referred to by her given name of Diana, is being spirited through the foxholes of Eastern Front (the story is mostly set during WWI, in a not-at-all-obvious attempt to replicate the period innocence of the first Captain America movie), a brutal line that hasn’t moved in a year. “It’s a no man’s land,” she’s told. “No man can cross it.” No man, aha. And with that, she crosses that battlefield, revealing for the first time her iconic uniform – and the full scope of her power. This is a sequence not about plot (they’re en route to fulfill the mission the movie’s about; it’s literally a detour) or even about character, but iconography. It’s a crowd-pleasing moment, and it works. And as she crouches in the middle of that battlefield, her shield aloft, taking round after round of gunfire, it’s not hard to image its enthusiastic audience of women (women-only, even) feeling a genuine tinge of identification.
A moment like that reminds us that Wonder Woman is more than just a movie, but a long-overdue big-screen showcase of an honest-to-goodness female comic book legend, in a landscape (both on the page and on the screen) that is notoriously male-ccentric. But it’s also easy to get so wrapped up in what Wonder Woman represents – comic book movie about a woman, geared towards women, directed by a woman – that we overlook what it actually is; one shouldn’t necessarily confuse a movie whose existence makes you feel good with a good movie. So it’s no small relief that Wonder Woman is a decent piece of pop art, messy and unsuccessful in spots, yes, but engaging nonetheless, and an almost incalculable improvement on its predecessors in the “DC Extended Universe.”
It start a little wobbly, spending a fair amount of time on Diana’s home turf, a picturesque island of Amazons with vaguely Euro-Teutonic accents, led by an appropriately regal Connie Neilsen as Hippolyta. It’s an identity story, really; mom tells her a Greek mythology backstory, of Zeus and Aries and so on, while whispering to others, “She must never know the truth about what she is, or how she came to be.” Directory Patty Jenkins has understandable trouble transcending the inherent silliness of these sword-and-sandal scenes (much like the Krypton stuff in Man of Steel), but she does find an indelible early image of tiny Diana watching these warrior women train, shadowboxing from a distance, as many a little girl would with Wonder Woman herself.
Anyway, she gets older and tougher, and mere moments after she discovers her superpowers, Chris Pine crash-lands into the ocean near their island with a full German brigade on his tail, prompting a full-on, Private Ryan Omaha Beach-style battle sequence. Busy day! Once the dust settles and Someone Important To Her has died, Diana decides it is her destiny to follow this blue-eyed hunk back to the front, as she believes she can end “the war to end all wars,” and they set about assembling a team of good character actors who are thankfully getting some of that comic book money.
Jenkins directs these action beats with an infectious fastball energy; they (usually) have a sure sense of tempo and composition, even if she relies a bit too heavily on the pause-and-slo-mo-before-a-big-move trick. But her smartest move is her simplest: to keep the camera squarely on star Gal Gadot, whose robust athleticism and grace is the kind of thing that can’t be taught, merely captured. Much like her Furious 6 co-star Gina Carano in Haywire, it’s just fun to to watch her fight, run, and general exist. Hers is a powerfully reactive performance – dig the intensity with which she listens to her co-stars, and how, once she’s on the mission, she registers the parade of the wounded and the horrors of the front, giving the movie weight without sinking it. Yet it’s not just your typical morose-reluctant-hero turn (a DCEU specialty); in just a couple of brief, pleasurable scenes, she captures the thrill of discovering the extent of her powers, and the full scope of what she’s capable of.
And she and Pine have a good spark, generating real heat right off the bat. He’s clearly having a great time playing the wise-cracking American sharpy as a combination of foil and eye candy; they do a light and lively bit about sleeping accommodations on their boat, and even before that, Jenkins puts him in a hot tub so he and Gadot can engage in a zippy bit of watch/dick confusion (“You let this little thing tell you what to do?”) that has the giggling naughtiness of a Pre-Code movie. But it’s only later, when he’s honey-potting the nefarious female villain, that it becomes clear how fully Jenkins has pulled a full gender-swap superhero movie, without even straining to do it.
So Wonder Woman delivers, through most of its duration, the good time it promises – that is, until it reaches the climax, where the people at DC have somehow convinced themselves that we need yet another big, long, ugly sequence of super-humans smashing and hurling things at each other in a void of weightless flames and explosions. This is the third such sequence in four movies (it’s their version of Marvel’s repetitive sky-high destructo-climaxes), and it’s a fucking drag. The film gets its groove back slightly in the earnest wrap-up, but the climax leaves a bad taste; one of these days, some genius is gonna figure out how to end one of these things.
Until that day comes, Wonder Woman is a perfectly serviceable and occasionally inspired summer blockbuster – not quite great, but better than most, and certainly superior to the lifeless slogs that have thus far bore the DCEU imprimatur. It doesn’t solve that series’ problems, or those of the comic book movie in general. But it doesn’t drown under the weight of them either, and frankly, we’re at a point where that counts as a win.
“Wonder Woman” is out tomorrow.