The superhero origin story is the most durably familiar of the comic-book tent pole narratives. Even the best ones spin off the same formula: The naïve title character discovers her powers, trains exhaustively, learns the power-hungry ways of mortals, and grows virtually indestructible until she finally meets her match against an arch-villain bent on world domination. The final third of the picture is undoubtedly awash in CGI excess, cochlea-damaging sound and fury, and trite dialogue.
I use the feminine pronoun because even Wonder Woman, probably the most superior DC Comics movie since 2005’s V for Vendetta (Mr. Nolan, consider the shade thrown), follows the routine. But it’s the ways screenwriter Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins color outside the lines that best define this surprisingly innovative, empathetic and, for a young female audience yearning for an identifiable Silver Screen savior, inspiring blockbuster.
It’s immediately refreshing to discover what Wonder Woman isn’t: another entry in the postmodern superhero pity parade, where the once-admired demigods face backlash from harrumphing politicians and a cynical media, with precious Jon Stewart and Neil deGrasse Tyson cameos encapsulating the zeitgeist. Wonder Woman is a throwback in more ways the one: It’s a World War I period piece with motivations as old as the reign of Zeus.
Sans an unnecessary prologue in modern times, the story ostensibly begins in another time and another world, on the island of Themyscira, an impossibly lush paradise populated entirely by armored, battle-ready women. Computers doubtlessly enhanced the landscapes, but they’re stunning nonetheless: It’s a warrior’s Eden, full of verdant swordplay and waterfall-framed archery that recalls a gussied-up Machu Picchu or Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher.
This is where the precocious, combat-craving Diana (Gal Gadot) — a 5,000-year-old Amazon princess, sculpted from clay and created by (a) god, just as in the comics — grows up, under the tutelage of her protective mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Neilsen) and her more encouraging aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright). It’s where she grows into Wonder Woman, but it takes a metaphysical interruption to light her path: One day, a World War I bomber plane penetrates a vortex in the skies of Themyscira and crashes into the island’s crystalline waters, its pilot (Chris Pine) plunging toward his death were it not for Diana’s divine intervention.
This rakish aviator, Steve Trevor, is a spy for British intelligence, prepared to bring to his superiors evidence of Germany’s development of chemical weapons. Thus the Amazon islanders, long familiar with the militant ways of Heres, the god of war, discover a more modern menace: the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, with their novel machine guns, tanks and mustard gas. It’s up to Steve and Diana — yes, they sound like characters in a Billy Joel song, not the rescuers of all humanity — to assemble a ragtag army in a conflict that marries history and myth, bullets and arrows.
Those expecting more of the witless, factory-assembled dialogue of Batman v. Superman, where Gadot’s Wonder Woman debuted last year, will be pleasantly surprised by the charming, subversive humor in Heinberg’s script. Though he’s written for Marvel, D.C. and network television, Wonder Woman is, astonishingly, his first screenplay, and it’s peppered with sly references to our technological addictions — “You let this little thing tell you what to do?” Diana asks, of Steve’s carefully guarded wristwatch — and other fish-out-of-water culture clashes.
Discussing sex while on the naval journey from Themyscira to London, the enlightened Diana says that she’s well read on the subject, concluding that while men may still play a vital role in procreation, they are unnecessary for sexual pleasure. That a period superhero film can contain any echoes of Maureen Dowd post-feminist theorizing is remarkable, but this commentary is hardly isolated.
Wonder Woman passes the Bechdel Test within seconds, and Heinberg’s script, passionately translated by Jenkins, is loaded with rejoinders that speak to the ongoing fight for gender equity (“You expect the battle to be fair,” Diana’s mother warns her. “The battle will never be fair”) and the heroine’s confident self-determination in a patriarchal Western world: “What I do is not up to you,” she reminds Steve, frequently checking his male privilege.
Gadot is perfect for this character in so many ways. Not at all disguising her exotic accent, the Israeli model-actor’s natural foreignness makes her alien viewpoints and mannerisms all the more believable. For the straight men in the audience, she’s enchanting to look at, but even sexier is the feminine mystique she brings to the movie’s machismo-drenched genre. Outraged at the moral and ethical impurities she encounters in the trenches of conflict, her compassionate Wonder Woman is comic-book cinema’s most outspoken antiwar warrior.
Where does that leave the aforementioned spectacle of the movie’s punishing, overblown 30-minute climax? That Diana still needs to violently vanquish her enemies in the name of love is a round peg the movie can’t quite fit into a square hole. But everything that came before it constitutes a long-awaited corrective to the grimacing males in spandex that have defined the genre on their terms. She’s a superhero who leans forward — and lives up to her unspoken name.
WONDER WOMAN. Director: Patty Jenkins; Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Robin Wright, Connie Neilsen, Danny Huston, Elena Anaya; Distributor: Warner Brothers; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at most area theaters