The 21st century has seen Hollywood studios churning out superhero movies at an ever-increasing pace. By now, you’re probably familiar with my comic-book movie malaise. Writers and filmmakers are using a repetitive formula of eerily similar origin stories paired with uninteresting villains and over-the-top third acts, featuring action-set pieces that assault our senses and murder our attention spans. It’s difficult for adaptations to feel anything other than ordinary, which is why it’s always a pleasant surprise when something like “Wonder Woman” comes out and defies expectations.
While nothing revolutionary, “Wonder Woman” deviates enough to deliver a fun, entertaining and even poignant big summer blockbuster. Diana (Gal Gadot) has been raised on paradise that is the island of Themyscira, home to the Amazons—the ancient race of warriors created by Zeus to help protect the world from evil. Currently, they’re not protecting so much as hanging out on an ancient island, training for their inevitable confrontation with the Ares, the god of war.
Their peaceful island is discovered by a German army in pursuit of an American spy who has crash-landed nearby. The outside world has come to Diana’s homeland, and she quickly learns about the world war that has gripped Europe and threatens millions of lives. She decides to leave home and join Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) on a mission to try and thwart the Germans, who are planning to release some new toxic chemicals that could change the tide of the war. Diana soon realizes the outside world is a terrible place. She arrives in foggy, industrialized London, convinced that Ares is responsible for the Great War. By killing him, humanity can be freed from his murderous grasp. Steve Trevor assembles a team of mercenaries and they head to the frontlines of brutal conflict.
In terms of plot, “Wonder Woman” is markedly similar to other comic-book adaptations. We get the basic character origins, a villain only the hero can stop, and a lot of opportunities for action. But “Wonder Woman” has a lot more charm. There’s a naiveté to the character of Diana, who has spent her entire life sheltered on an island full of women. Watching her reactions to the brutality of the real world range from funny to heartbreaking. Unlike so many other comic-book heroes, she’s an unbridled optimist. Even as she watches the horrors of war unfold before her, she continues to believe the inherent goodness of mankind.
What really makes the film work is the chemistry between Diana and Steve Trevor. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are so good together onscreen. The combination of her fierce, somewhat misguided warrior and his war-weary soldier works well. There’s a romance element to the film that feels like the foundation of the movie rather than a shoehorned plot point. Building a convincing and engaging relationship is something that eludes most comic-book movies. Props to its director, Patty Jenkins (“Monster”), who understands even blockbusters need to build strong characters and relationships.
Setting the film in the First World War was a good choice. It puts distance in location and landscape from other comic-book films and provides a great setting to teach Diana lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of humanity. It also gives an epic feeling to action scenes, which are bereft of robots or faceless aliens.
Not everything works, mind you. There’s a few corny over-the-top elements to the villains, a missed opportunity in so many comic-book movies. The movie tries to teach us about the horrors of war but when the villains are mustache-twirling caricatures, it takes a little gunpowder out of the blast. The supporting cast is also a little thin. There are some solid character actors given very little screen time to try and carve out a personality.
In spite of some minor gripes, there is still so much to celebrate with “Wonder Woman.” It’s an earnest, charming summer blockbuster that manages to tell a fun and engaging story with a great deal of heart.