Is Gal Gadot a good actress? Honestly, on the evidence of “Wonder Woman,” the jury’s still out. Is she a great screen presence? On the evidence of “Wonder Woman,” absolutely.
The movie, which has been thundering in the wings for months now, is the first of the recent wave of DC superhero movies to hold its weight rather than seem grim, glum, and self-serious (“Batman v Superman”) or vulgar and jokey (“Suicide Squad”). It re-introduces an iconic female superhero, guided to the screen by a female director, in a way that feels simultaneously thrilling, archetypal, and new. It’s a blockbuster that is fully felt, sometimes even at its most digitized moments.
But because there are several gazillion dollars in domestic and international ticket sales riding on this movie, not to mention the ongoing health of a corporate entertainment franchise, “Wonder Woman” also has to hew to the laws of commercial fantasy-action bombast. The first two hours run the gamut from interesting to delightful. The final 20 minutes are roaring, ridiculous business as usual. We should be thankful the tide of mediocrity is held back as long as it is.
The title character has a fascinating genesis, available to anyone who reads Jill Lepore’s 2014 instant pop-culture classic “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” The creator of Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, was Saugus-born, Harvard-educated William Moulton Marston (1893-1947), inventor of the lie-detector test, ardent first-wave feminist, practicing polygamist, and bondage enthusiast. (The latter is a, uh, dominant theme in the early comics, as some of us fathers seeking role models for young daughters have discovered to our shock.)
Marston envisioned Wonder Woman as an Amazon warrior princess from a secret island of same, dropped into our wretched, war-torn, macho-aggressive times. The new movie retains those origins and expands upon them in a first act that’s self-consciously mythic but also a lot of fun. Paradise Island is a mix of Maxfield Parrish wonderland and “Game of Thrones” minus the nastiness, and it’s overseen by Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and the queen’s sister, General Antiope, who’s played to badass perfection by a splendidly sinewy Robin Wright.
Modernity intrudes — or at least 1918 — in the person of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American aviator and spy who crash lands off the island, bringing a few boatloads of angry Germans in his wake. Some things happen, and then some other things, and then “Wonder Woman” embarks on its middle and most pleasurable third, in which the steely yet naïve hero follows Trevor back to London and then to the Front, navigating a world of men, corsets, and moral compromise.
It’s the old fish-out-of-water storyline, but the fish comes off a lot better than we do. The script by Allan Heinberg, from a story by Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, walks a surprisingly nuanced line as Diana learns that stopping WWI is more than a matter of locating the most recent human avatar of Ares, the Greek god of war, and running him through with her sword.
Trevor heads a multi-cultural team of saboteurs — they’re the Dirty Four — that includes the Arab Sameer (Said Taghmaoui, invaluable as ever), the Scottish Charlie (Ewan Bremner), and the Native American Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). The latter gives Diana a dose of realpolitik when he notes that he’s fighting for the country that stole his country away from him.
The other reason the middle part of “Wonder Woman” works so well is Gadot. The actress has done time as a model and a combat trainer in the Israeli army; both stints serve her well. She’s statuesque and physically breathtaking, but so are a lot of people in the entertainment industry. What Gadot has is screen magnetism, the kind you can’t look away from. The effect is eerily similar to seeing Christopher Reeve in the 1978 “Superman” — Gadot understands that her character is the one unironic figure in a cynical world, and she lets the humor of the situations happen around her rather than catering to it. She plays it beautifully straight, as she must, and that’s why we trust her. “Wonder Woman” is the rare blockbuster to re-establish a moviegoer’s faith in comic book heroes.
The director is Patty Jenkins, whose last movie, the grim serial-killer drama “Monster” (2003), won Charlize Theron an Oscar. It matters that a woman is calling the shots on this movie; Diana and her fellow warriors are figures of simple, admirable strength, and while there’s a simmering romance with Trevor, the love scenes are modest and appealing, with Pine’s prettiness working for him — he knows he’s the girlfriend here. And coursing beneath this 10-ton corporate behemoth is something relatively novel: a sense of genuine moral outrage at the way we humans — specifically portrayed as a species run by men — have loused things up.
“Wonder Woman” is a movie that stops to ask whether we’re worth saving at all. Given the times, it’s worth thinking about.
But there are fanboys and fangirls to please, and an international audience that understands only the language of destruction. A plot has been burbling along, something about a German officer (Danny Huston) developing a deadly super-gas with his psychotic chief scientist (Elena Anaya, wearing a creepy half-mask to scare the kids); it’s WWI but the villains appear to be Nazis. The action scenes are exciting but also trite in their overuse of the hokey sudden-slo-mo pan shots that producer Snyder pioneered in “300.” By the time Ares himself shows up, you sag back in your seat for the expected extended punch-out accompanied by general apocalypse. And that’s what you get. Suddenly “Wonder Woman” becomes a bore.
Superhero movies benefit, I think, from being set in an earlier time period; the first “Captain America” is a case in point and a good comparison to the new film. (I know it would be crossing streams or something, but can you imagine the children those two would have?) “Wonder Woman” especially benefits from depositing Diana in an era in which women aren’t allowed in Parliament, or in the trenches of battle, or anywhere men are running the show and then letting her cut joyfully through centuries of accumulated pigheadedness. (By the way, any doubts you may have over whether Wonder Woman is still a figure of triumphal subversiveness should be vanquished by the handful of social media nitwits getting their boxers in a twist over the idea of women-only screenings of the film.)
I bet William Moulton Marston would approve of this “Wonder Woman,” even if he might find it disappointingly light on the bondage. More to the point, and even with that pre-fab finale, your daughters should love it — and so should your sons.
Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs. Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Robin Wright. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 141 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.