“Wonder Woman” is a war movie. Patty Jenkins’ first — and we hope not last — entry into the DC Expanded Universe is primarily set during World War I, but while the feature doesn’t balk at war-time violence, it’s the internal battles of its compelling heroine that are most vital. Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman, though no one calls her as such in this standalone feature) made her DCEU debut in 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” initially positioned as a possible adversary to Batman before coming on board of what will become the Justice League, and Jenkins’ feature flips back through time to deliver an origin story that functions beautifully on its own while also bolstering excitement for the franchise’s future.
This Diana is startlingly pure of heart and clear-eyed in her vision. She’s a neat sort-of throwback to the circa-1978 “Superman,” which was similarly anchored by a superhero of intense goodness. It’s a fine counterpoint in a franchise so often given over to so-called “dark and gritty” sensibilities.
Allan Heinberg’s script (with story credits for both Zack Snyder and franchise newbie Jason Fuchs) provides a compelling backstory for the Amazons and Diana that pulls from various incarnations of the classic character. When we first meet Diana (played first by young Lilly Aspel), she is the lone kid on the Amazon island of Themyscira, born from equal parts clay and her mother’s burning desire to have a child. She’s clearly beloved by the rest of the Amazons, especially her doting mother Queen Hippolyta (a regal Connie Nielsen) and her bad-ass aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, a warrior through and through), but she’s wary of being too sheltered by the affection. She wants to fight.
It’s a natural impulse for a young Amazon, but Queen Hippolyta is repelled by the idea. Diana responds by taking up clandestine battle lessons with Antiope, who eagerly coaches her to become the best warrior she can possibly be. It’s an early sign of Diana’s headstrong nature, but also her reverence for the Amazons’ mission to protect humanity. Even before she’s met her copious adversaries, Diana is keenly aware of her duty to use her skills to defend others. That’s a hero.
There are other heroes in “Wonder Woman,” and Jenkins’ film finds plenty of room for them, too. The fragile peace of the Amazons is interrupted by the introduction of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) — a man! and what a man! — who crash-lands into the sea that edges Themyscira; of course, he is saved by Diana. An American spy working for the Allies and tangled up with some very angry Germans, he’s also tailed by a weapons-packed squadron of enemies who are eager to grab him and the information he’s stolen from a local base.
The film’s first big battle is a major standout. Set on the beach in daylight hours, it looks markedly different from so many of the nighttime sequences of the genre, complete with throwback weapons (arrows and horses) and a mad dash of ass-kicking Amazons. The emotional stakes are high, too, and the film’s early reliance on going deep with the Amazon tribe pays off in often-wrenching ways.
As Diana struggles to understand the impact of Steve on her life, he struggles to explain what is happening outside the Amazon’s island paradise. War. Not just any war, the war, the war to end all wars. While Hippolyta resists joining the fight — after all, they’ve already escaped the mortal world after being damaged in service to humans — Diana is hell-bent on journeying out into the world. She wants to complete what she believes is the mission of all Amazons: to kill Ares, the god of war. Innocent and steeped in the mythology that rules her tiny world, Diana doesn’t even consider that she has a choice in the matter.
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