1. Considering that the character of Wonder Woman was the only one in Batman v. Superman that didn’t want to yank your eyeballs out of your head with a spork, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that Wonder Woman is lightyears better than anything else the newfangled DC cinematic universe has produced. It’s not quieter necessarily, but it is more measured, more comfortable in its own skin, less fanboy desperate to keep waving keys in front of your face—exploding keys—to make sure it has the full attention of all your assaulted senses. It feels almost old-fashioned in its themes of the goodness of humanity—and the debate alien outsiders have about whether or not humans are worthy of redemption—and the selflessness of one for a greater good. It still has too many skyscraper-sized god-monsters blowing up whole acres in hackneyed super slo-mo, and it doesn’t have much you haven’t seen before, but that it simply tells one story in linear order with logical progression … man, when it comes to these movies, it almost feels like a miracle.
2. It is still an origin story, though, so you’ll have to gird yourself for patience: Origin stories have become so laborious and exhausting that you’ll forgive me for sometimes wishing they’d just put up a title card that says something like “She’s an Amazon, she’s the daughter of gods, she grew up on an island with only women, she has a lasso, she loves her mom. Okay, let’s get going.” Alas: We must origin our stories. We meet Diana (Gal Gadot), who is raised on the island of Themyscira, learning to become a great warrior but battling with her mother (Connie Nielsen) about her desire to leave the island and fight for just causes. A just cause finds her when a World War I pilot (Chris Pine) somehow crashes on Themyscira, telling tales of a “great war” that Diana believes is started by Ares, the god of war, whom she must defeat. The movie quickly becomes a fish out of water story, as Diana tries to adjust to the new “modern” world and come to terms with her own powers and responsibilities.
3. After the constant clattering of Zack Snyder’s films, it’s a relief to be in the hands of director Patty Jenkins, who at the very least is familiar with basic story structure. Jenkins never gets overwhelmed by the massiveness of a project like this, and she lets the movie breathe: It’s the rare comic book movie that takes its time and spends more time letting its characters get to know one another than punching some robot or something. This approach has its downsides—Jenkins isn’t a natural action director, so she sort of falls back on Snyder-esque CGI slo-mo battle sequences that bear little resemblance to the way human beings (and Amazons, for that matter) physically move around the universe—but it’s more than outweighed by her calm mastery of the material. It is obvious she has a strong affection for the character of Wonder Woman, of making sure she has a clear, easily followed throughline and character arc, and, mostly, assuring that she is a force of good in the universe. This is not for nothing: There were several times in Batman v. Superman in which I wondered if I should be cheering for Lex Luthor. But Jenkins smartly puts Diana in a situation where the world is more complex than she thinks it is—she believes if she kills Ares, all the bad that humans do will simply go away—but still has much to benefit from her fundamental decency. Diana isn’t positioned just as a positive role model for women, or young girls; the movie lets you bring your own experience to the film without getting in the way of its own story to push it on you. Wonder Woman is simply what everyone should aspire to be.
4. Jenkins’ primary advantage might be her leading actress. Godot stood out in Batman v. Superman, but, hey, how couldn’t she? She was the only person not actively expectorating in your face. Here, though, she’s a revelation. She has the physicality to play the part—she is both regal and intimidating; it would be almost an honor to get your ass kicked by her—but what I found most surprising about the performance was how graceful and light it is. She’s able to play befuddled by this new world she’s thrust into without once seeming dense; she has a wide-eyed wonder that is consistently enchanting. The performance, more than any other I’ve seen in the increasingly omnipresent genre of Superhero Acting, has the poise and humor of Christopher Reeve. She is both a god and one of us. I have a feeling Gadot is going to be a very, very big star. She’s matched perfectly with Pine, who has the same skill at combining sincerity with intelligence. It’s difficult to imagine anyone worthy of riding alongside Diana, let alone sharing a bed with her (offscreen, wisely), but Pine’s Steve Trevor is up to the task. They’re a terrific combination, and even when the movie drags, you never get tired of hanging out with the two of them. It’s a relationship between man and god that works.
5. Perhaps inevitably, the movie runs a little out of gas by the end, once all our Big Villains get a chance to have their crack at Diana. (Danny Huston is a particularly lame fake-out villain, there to hold our attention while we use Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters to discover the real Big Bad Guy.) We have the massive impersonal fight scene that most of Wonder Woman was particularly deft at avoiding; we at last lose the human scale that makes the movie feel so different and fresh. By the end, Jenkins can’t help but give herself up to the DC world; she loses the touch so thoroughly in the last 10 minutes that it actually feels directed by Snyder. Jenkins is so effective at steadfastly making her own movie for most of the running time that it can’t help but be a bummer when she hands over their reins to the franchise down the stretch. But that she even made it as far as she did is a serious achievement. Wonder Woman won’t reinvent the superhero franchise, or the origin story. But it does show how compelling they can still be, when someone is allowed to do them right.
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Allan Heinberg, (screenplay); Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuch (story by); William Moulton Marston (based on character by)
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, Connie Nielson, David Thewlis, Robin Wright, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Lucy Davis
Release Date: June 2, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. This is their first review for Paste. They’re very happy to be here.