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Few superhero films consider simple, strong emotions. Even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 sometimes felt like a therapy session, with heroes working through feelings of rejection and loss. The best thing about Wonder Woman is that director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg present their hero’s innate goodness with clarity and depth. With a story that moves at a steady clip and action that threads the needle between realism and supernatural exaggeration, Wonder Woman is the arrival of a hero for all of us, but young women in particular.
We first meet Diana (aka Wonder Woman) when she’s young, the only child on an isolated island filled with fierce Amazon warriors (who are all women), and she is eager to fight. Her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants nothing of it, while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) trains her in secret. Gal Godot plays Diana as an adult, and she is uncertain of her destiny, at least until she sees a plane crash near the island’s shore. She rescues Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy who is eager to return to World War I. He explains the conflict, noting how the latest chemical weapon could lead to the death of millions. To Diana, this all sounds like a prophecy about Ares—the God of War—who aims to decimate humanity out of spite against Zeus. She decides to follow Steve, abandoning all that she knows, in order to end the fighting once and for all.
Diana’s isolation is the key to the character’s central appeal. She is devoid of cynicism or doubt, so her moral compass is sharply defined, and she always speaks frankly. This trait can lead to genuine heroism: There is a bravura sequence where Diana is moved by death along the trenches, and jumps into No Man’s Land to stop the enemy. The metaphor is obvious and compelling, anyway: She marches implacably forward, full of courage and determination, and the weapons of modern warfare are helpless against her. Diana’s steely gaze and costume contrast the hopeless greys of the battlefield, deepening the sense of her power.
Her nature also leads to lighter moments, such as her joy over seeing a baby, or trying ice cream. This is all familiar “fish out of water” territory, but Godot elevates it with reserves of natural charisma. She’s also improbably beautiful, leading to a running gag where her looks baffle men and women alike.
As Wonder Woman dispatches entire armies, a powerful woman feels all the more welcome and necessary. The early scenes feature no men whatsoever, and the sight of women training a young girl has a clear purpose. Jenkins and Heinberg must know that Wonder Woman will serve as an inspiration for the newest generation of female comic book fans, who either had to make do with male heroes or female heroes that had no choice but to play nice with the boys.
Crucially, few supporting characters condescend to Diana; in particular, Pine’s character does a fine job of accepting Diana’s strength and keeping his feelings about her to himself. When characters try to objectify her, the film treats them as opportunities to disabuse men of countless negative stereotypes.
Wonder Woman is not the only pioneer in a man’s world. Steve’s crash leads to arguably the film’s best action sequence, where the Amazon women fearlessly fight dozens of Germans who were chasing his plane. There are gorgeous, slow-motion parabolas where Diana, Antiope, and the others elegantly contort their bodies to slay faceless, bumbling soldiers. The sequence will inspire dozens of animated gifs, most of them with the subtitle “MISANDRY,” and it’s no accident that Jenkins slows the action until it resembles an evocative comic book frame.
Most of Wonder Woman has clear battle lines. Sure, Diana has no problem leaping into the air and taking out a sniper tower, but at least the space is semi-plausible. Jenkins abandons all that in the climax, since more supernatural forces are at play. There are explosions everywhere, framing Diana around elemental fire, and the special effects exaggerate the film’s sense of good and evil. Except in its representation of women, Wonder Woman does not elevate the possibilities of what a superhero film can be. Instead, it as a muscular, playful, satisfying example of the genre at its finest. If anything, it will leave us mildly annoyed that it took so long to make a movie about her in the first place.
Wonder Woman opens Friday in theaters everywhere.