As the start of something audiences have been longing to see, “Wonder Woman" begs the question: Is this all that is being demanded by the movie-going public these days? The long-awaited solo outing for DC Comics’ famous warrior princess is one small step for female superhero movies, and an even smaller step for the DC Extended Universe. This is a damn shame when you consider all the talent on both sides of the camera. Patty Jenkins, returning to the director’s chair 14 years after her debut (“Monster"), is clearly overjoyed to be the first woman at the helm of a superhero film, but her honorable efforts to take the genre into more fiercely feminine territory cannot break through origin story restraints and the deafening demands from fans and studio heads. There is no doubt that “Wonder Woman" will satisfy baseline expectations. It has a good heart that hearkens back the genre’s more optimistic beginnings, but it could have so much more. However inconsequential it may feel, we can at least sleep soundly knowing that Gal Gadot may have single-handedly saved this franchise.
Princess Diana (Gadot) strives to become a great warrior while growing up on Themyscira, home to her Amazon sisters, led by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). When US spy Steve Trevor (the undervalued Chris Pine, who is excellent here) crash-lands on the island and is saved by Diana, he informs her and the Amazons of The War To End All Wars, and the darkness it has cast over the planet. Believing this to be the work of Ares, the God of War, Diana joins Steve as he travels back to London in the hopes of crushing evil once and for all. It isn’t until she reaches the battlefield that Diana learns what is truly at stake, realizing who she is and what she is destined to become.
It’s unfortunately ironic that “Wonder Woman” does not actually get to introduce audiences to the character for the first time. Since “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” already granted her a towering entrance - rock-n-roll guitar theme and all - the film is unfairly tasked with delivering on the promise of said introduction. To go back and see the genesis of an already-established character seems fairly redundant, but Jenkins and company set about fulfilling origin story requirements earnestly. It’s kind of remarkable to watch Jenkins handle a property that is the tonal opposite of her first feature, but it doesn’t change the overriding sense that “Wonder Woman” is a sly melding of elements from “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” The similarity between her origin and Cap’s is inescapable, but Diana’s journey has that same retro quality that was so rich in Joe Johnston’s film. The fish out of water element that pervaded the second act of “Thor” comes into play once Diana reaches London, and much of the humor is sadly been there, done that.
Most of the film has that same feeling. Every emotional beat, the momentum of the narrative, the bloated third act; they’re all run-of-the-mill and further proof that the DCEU can’t help but take after the MCU. Make no mistake though, this is a DC film through and through, but Marvel’s influence - including Warner Bros. desire to capitalize on its competitor’s success - is too difficult to ignore. It also doesn’t help that the villains rank among Marvel’s worst. Where “Wonder Woman” does shine is in its buoyant exchanges, cinematography, and overall mood. Color tones are appropriately vivid and the action sequences are executed with grace, though there is an overuse of slow motion that grows quickly tiresome. When it isn’t played for laughs, Diana’s culture shock carries an element of awe that is absent from most of today’s blockbusters. Her reactions to a baby in a carriage and her first taste of ice cream are undeniably sweet.
Which brings me to Gadot. By the gods... she is good. She is great. She is perfect, reveling in a performance that will stand alongside Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. If “Batman v Superman” announced the presence of Wonder Woman, then this film announces Gadot as a sure-fire icon and role model for generations to come. Swift in her choreography and commanding in her presence, Gadot smartly puts these qualities in full service of her character’s inherent femininity. She is neither a man’s Wonder Woman, nor a woman’s Wonder Woman. She is Wonder Woman. And when her theme kicks into the ass-kicking, there is nothing to do but stare in wonderment (pun intended). If only the rest of the film were worthy of her prowess.