Wonder Woman (2017)

141 min. Director: Patty Jenkins. Cast: David Thewlis, Gal Gadot, Lucy Davis, Robin Wright, Elena Anaya, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Danny Huston.

Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. government produced a series of short films under the banner Why We Fight. Although the origin story of Wonder Woman shifts from World War Two to “the war to end all wars” for the new film from Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, the phrase “why we fight” leaps to mind to describe the hero’s first solo cinematic outing. Wonder Woman’s journey takes her from sheltered idealism through hard-won hard truths about so-called “mankind” to a heroic purpose with promise of future adventures.

For over 75 years, William Moulton Marston’s superhero has battled evildoers in the pages of DC Comics, so her breakout film has been a long time coming. Lynda Carter bore the torch of the character from 1975-1979 in an ABC—and then CBS—series, and Wonder Woman has appeared in numerous animated projects for TV and video, but the Golden Lasso now belongs definitively to Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who had her coming-out party in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The shift to WWI proves to be a canny choice since, unlike WWII, the Great War hasn’t yet been squeezed dry by blockbuster cinema. More importantly, the character of the war serves Wonder Woman’s thematic ends: despite one character claiming, “I’m one of the good guys. And those are the bad guys,” there’s a stench of moral ambiguity to this fresh hell of a world war, and a sense that all humanity is shell-shocked by its own capacity for carnage. And so, when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane in the waters around the “paradise island” of Themyscira, he must answer for mankind to the Amazons who live there.

Gadot’s Princess Diana—daughter to Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and niece to General Antiope (a steely Robin Wright)—has grown up on stories of Zeus, his “just and wise, strong and passionate” human creation, and how it was corrupted to war by Ares. She has trained for the contingency of invaders but couldn’t fully prepare for the horror of war. Diana determines to accompany Trevor into the outside world, where he plans to put the kibosh on the chemical weapons program of maniacal German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and mad scientist Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), while Diana intends to find Ares and put an end to war with a swing of the “Godkiller” sword.

Fish-out-of-water yuks ensue, along with feminist satire (also better enabled by the earlier setting), but as written by comics scribe and screenwriter Allan Heinberg, Wonder Woman finds weight in mythic resonance and a consideration of the darkness and light of human nature. It’s a sturdy origin story, this education of Miss Diana Prince, establishing her as a compassionate badass who consistently proves her bravery, strength, and commitment to justice (“I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves”). Director Patty Jenkins orchestrates a few stirring action sequences, none more so than the one held in reserve for Diana’s true emergence as a hero in “No Man’s Land.”

Gadot ably balances the character’s fierce will and emotional vulnerability, with Pine a charming complement who clearly wishes he could be a better man for this awe-striking woman (in the subtlest of a few gender role reversals, Steve looks at Diana with wonder in his eyes before they share a first kiss). The film has its failings—the story falls into a few bland narrative stretches, fumbles over its cardboard villains, and ends with the usual dull clash of titans—but the very existence of Wonder Woman makes a much-needed feminist statement in the crowded superhero space.