One takes note of the many encomia for Wonder Woman with a modicum of skepticism. Could film critics — virtually all of them ardent progressives — be grading on a curve, the way the Army gives women two and a half more minutes than men to be credited with the top score in a two-mile run? Movie reviews are as susceptible to virtue-signaling as any other form of lefty writing.
Yet notwithstanding the impulse to overrate its charms, Wonder Woman is a top-notch blockbuster, fun and fast and carrying quite a lot of the thematic heft that characterizes the dramatic ambition of the better DC Comics movies as against the more light-hearted Marvel efforts. It’s also a model of clean storytelling, an answer to (among many others) the cluttered and exhausting narrative of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. There’s never any confusion about what’s going on, although the director, Patty Jenkins, blurs things a bit in the climax by not clarifying what powers one of the villains possesses.
Wonder Woman has always suffered from the campy whimsy that pervaded the kiddie 1970s TV show starring Lynda Carter (featuring Debra Winger as Wonder Girl). Given its sources, the long-in-development big-screen version can’t be quite as sober as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. In other words, the golden lariat of truth still seems corny, though we are spared the sight of Wonder Woman sitting in an invisible airplane. We also never hear the words “Wonder Woman” at all, which is a smart choice, because how do you say them with a straight face?
The title figure is a princess named Diana (Gal Gadot) who lives on an all-female paradise island of skimpily clad Amazon warriors where her aunt (Robin Wright), the leading general, is eager to train the girl to fight. Diana’s mother (Connie Nielsen) isn’t sure that’s a good idea because it might restart an ancient feud. The powerful but mortal Amazons were put on earth by Zeus as a way to protect lesser humans from the rampaging Ares, god of war, who seeks to destroy humanity through total war. That’s the cue for World War I to enter the film, in the person of a spy for Britain, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who crash-lands near the island. It turns out that it’s 1918, and Germany is about to surrender, but its commanding general Ludendorff (Danny Huston) is working on a last-minute super-weapon that could destroy the Allies and reverse the course of the war.
There is much more to the story, all of it engaging and lucidly designed in an excellent script by Allan Heinberg, a TV writer earning his first big-screen credit. The early going is a little cheesy — 51-year-old Robin Wright doesn’t exactly come across as a champion of the martial arts. But the movie becomes a charmer when the action moves to London, where Diana discovers a natural fondness for ice cream, babies, and trying on outfits, and Jenkins takes her time developing a sweet, strange romance between her two leads, one of them effectively an alien in Edwardian England. Pine lived up to his lumber-yard namesake as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies, but with last year’s Hell or High Water and now this film, he’s beginning to relax a little, with appealing results. As for Gadot, who spends most of the first half of the film with a single, cross expression, when she finally smiles she’s as winsome as Greta Garbo in Ninotchka.
Having a female superhero creates some opportunities for political correctness that Jenkins can’t resist — when Steve’s female secretary explains her duties to Diana, the warrior princess sniffs that the assistant sounds more like a slave. But the film actually has a healthy awareness of how men and women differ from and complement one another, which helps to build the quintessentially DC Comics climax that explores themes consonant with those in last year’s Batman v. Superman, a film whose scope I admired.
We never hear the words ‘Wonder Woman’ at all, which is a smart choice, because how do you say them with a straight face?
The thrilling bombast of Wonder Woman’s last act contains real substance in its disquisition on contrasting gods: god of wrath vs. god of love, smiting Jehovah and nurturing Jesus, the one resolutely masculine and the other endowed with feminine qualities. Showing surprising political maturity, the film recognizes that sometimes the most dangerous men fly a flag of peace and dismisses the utopian viewpoint (most frequently espoused by women and the more feminine varietals of men) that war can simply be ended because it makes no sense.
As Steve mansplains to Diana: War continues because man is fallen. We turn to comic-book movies for fantasy, yes, but the best of them contain dark truths as well.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.