Wonder Woman is a bright, promising start for a new superhero franchise. The picture may be hobbled by familiar genre junk—in the beginning, an overabundance of origin-story narrative clutter; at the end, yet another fiery digital apocalypse—but in finally providing the kick-ass Amazon with a movie all her own (after 75 years of Wonder Woman comics), director Patty Jenkins has created something fresh and stylish—an action-romance that's unusually light on its feet.
The movie is fueled almost entirely by the flashing, dark-eyed charisma of Gal Gadot, who introduced this Wonder Woman in a cameo in last year's dismal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Gadot, a onetime Israeli beauty queen and former IDF combat instructor, has no trouble at all incarnating the warrior princess Diana, a young woman raised in an all-female society on a kind-of-mythical island who ventures into the world of men and is appalled by the violence and gutlessness she finds there and determines to do something about it. If this woman were running for any office at all, she would have my vote.
The movie is also fortunate in having secured the blue-eyed soul-hunk services of Chris Pine, whose romantic chemistry with Gadot is a rare combination of warmth and self-deprecating wit. Pine plays Steve Trevor, an intelligence officer with the American Expeditionary Forces (the year is 1918), who has discovered that the Germans have a horrible new weapon that could extend World War I beyond an armistice that is on the verge of being signed. They must be stopped.
Before we meet Trevor, though, we have to sit through quite a lot of backstory. We learn how the Amazons were created by the god Zeus to defend the aforementioned world of men from the violent depredations of Zeus's son Ares, the god of war. And we spend quite a bit of time on the balmy Amazon island of Themyscira, where squads of armored women feint and leap and parry for their trainers in settings that vaguely recall the low-budget alfresco imagery of old Doris Wishman nudie films. (Although I hasten to add that there is no nudity in this film.) We watch as little-kid versions of Diana are given martial instruction by her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), against the wishes of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) —who knows an important secret about her daughter—and we wait for all this introductory stuff to wind down and go away.
The movie starts getting good when the grownup Diana, standing on a high cliff, sees a lone monoplane plummet out of the sky down into the sea. Trevor is the pilot she rescues, and also the first male being Diana has ever encountered. (Gadot deftly sketches Diana's fascination with this exotic creature with little more than a light brow-furrow.) After some interrogation with the Amazonian Lasso of Truth, Steve tells Diana there's a "war to end all wars" going on. She detects the hand of Ares in it, and compels Steve to take her back to this war so that she can put an end to it by finding and destroying Ares – who she soon determines to be the fanatical German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), whose evil chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) has cooked up a virulent new poison gas that Ludendorff is preparing to deploy against the encroaching Allies.
En route to the European front, Steve guides Diana to London for the movie's most amusing stretch. While her Amazonian super-costume is a very toned-down version of the traditional hot-goddess uniform, it still won't do for normal world-of-men wear. So Steve takes Diana out to hit the shops, where Gadot is charmingly funny in discovering that 1918 women's clothing is entirely unsuited for combat kicks, jumps and leg-sweeps—or any of her other violent specialties—and that it is quite difficult to maneuver a big superhero sword through a revolving door.
The movie disregards the bondage overtones of the Wonder Woman comics, but does maintain a straightforward feminine POV. You might expect director Jenkins—who's been unable to get any movie made in the 14 years since her first feature, Monster, enabled an Oscar win for Charlize Theron—to be a little bitter in this regard, but she seems entirely cheerful. True, when Steve's assistant Etta (Lucy Davis), details all the duties she does for her boss, Diana does say, "We call that slavery." But Jenkins also has Diana melting down at the sight of a baby on a London street, and the contrasts between feminine and masculine principles in this picture are for the most part gently conveyed: Steve is dedicated to snuffing warmongers; Diana is more concerned with war's victims. When Steve teaches Diana how to slow-dance in a lamplit village square one night, she says, "Is this what people do when there are no wars to fight?"
Although some of its sets are shabbily artificial-looking, and some of its slo-mo action is wearily dated (Zach Snyder was one of the producers), this is nevertheless a movie you root for. It's richly pulpy but cleanly wrought, and it creates a new comic-book world that's blessedly free of the grim neuroses that darken so many superhero films. Most notably, its star is a gift to a genre that was long past the point of beginning to feel seriously depleted.