Forget about "Captain America versus Hydra" or "Batman versus Catwoman": The real superhero battle of the last few years has been the cinematic clash of the comic-book kings, Marvel versus DC. Frankly, it has not been much of a contest.
Marvel has had little trouble trouncing DC with enormous box office grosses for its “X-Men,” “Thor,” “Iron Man” and “Captain America” films, not to mention the “Avengers” series. Meanwhile, DC has been clobbered by critics and fans alike for such over-hyped duds as “Man of Steel,” “Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice” and last summer’s all-star fiasco, “Suicide Squad.”
So, to save its reputation, DC is relying on an icon who has been around for more than 75 years, but never seems to age a single day. That secret weapon goes by the name of Diana Prince, but you may know her better as “Wonder Woman.”
Some of us have fond memories of the 1970s “Wonder Woman” TV series, starring Lynda Carter, and it’s easy to imagine plenty of moviegoers admiring the new Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, whose fleeting appearance in “Batman Versus Superman” was one of the few highlights of that otherwise turgid mess. With a personality that’s equal parts mysterious, humorous and luminous, Gadot ably takes command of “Wonder Woman” and finally gives us a DC movie that’s lively and fun instead of gloomy and overwrought. You leave the theater invigorated instead of feeling like you’re crawling from the wreckage of a plane crash.
Although the film gets off to an uncertain start with some borderline-cheesy sequences setting up our heroine’s backstory, director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allen Heinberg soon find a suitable tone. “Wonder Woman” wisely avoids campy jokes, but it is often funny and clever, as well as surprisingly poignant and reasonably romantic without becoming a super soap opera.
The reliably likable Chris Pine plays Steve Trevor, an American spy and pilot on the run from the Germans during World War I. Landing off the coast of the secret island of Themyscira, he finds a lush tropical paradise populated entirely by Amazons. Diana, the island’s princess, has never seen a man before and quickly teams up with Trevor to defeat his enemies. After Trevor tells Diana about the supposed “war to end all wars,” she decides to leave her homeland and follow him back to the front, hoping she can bring the conflict to a speedy end with her otherworldly powers.
As it turns out, everyone – including Diana – has some surprises in store. Jenkins capably handles the expected battle scenes, but where she really excels is in the sequences that show the evolution of Diana’s character. Like Thor descending from the heavenly realm of Asgard, Diana is a stunning fish out of water, struggling to understand the workings of modern society. She’s perplexed by the fussy fashions of early 20th-century London and perturbed by the male chauvinism all around her: Let’s see one of these macho men overturn a tank with his bare hands, or leap from the ground into a bell tower to stop a sniper.
Of course, there is also a slowly developing attraction between Diana and Trevor that’s amplified as they dodge bullets and face perils of all kinds. There’s a delightful chemistry between Gadot and Pine, with Diana’s feisty determination frequently getting in the way of Trevor’s mission to track down the demented General Ludendorff, played by Danny Huston. Ludendorff wants no part of the forthcoming Armistice and has been working with a sinister scientist to develop a potentially devastating poisonous gas that he’s convinced could bring victory to the Germans.
Despite its fantasy elements, the movie does not ignore the brutal realities of World War I. There is a genuine emotional resonance to the scenes of Diana and Trevor trying to help refugees or encountering soldiers physically and emotionally scarred by combat.
If “Wonder Woman” has a weak spot, it’s the finale, which is disappointingly reminiscent of an “X-Men” movie, complete with a bad guy who can fly through the air and maliciously manipulate metal. It doesn’t spoil the movie, but it doesn’t give it that powerhouse wrap-up Diana deserves, either.
Diana will return later this year in DC’s next extravaganza, “Justice League,” and here’s hoping she gets a worthier adversary in that battle royale. As the kick-off of what is almost certainly destined to be a franchise, however, “Wonder Woman” is a promising start, delivering solid performances, a suspenseful story and plenty of excitement and spectacle.
Gal Gadot demonstrates she is a force to be reckoned with. After all, Hell hath no fury like a Wonder Woman scorned.