Ultimately, the biggest problem facing the DC Extended Universe is a lack of heroism on the part of the characters. Try as the scripts might to get at the humanity under the capes and cowls, the main protagonists generally come across as either flat or glum, unlikeable and impossible to relate to. “Wonder Woman” is the first movie the DCEU has made to finally break away from those traps. It is everything fans of these characters have been too scared to hope for: exciting, charming and funny without sacrificing its emotional maturity.
Framed by a story set post-“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Wonder Woman” tells the story of Diana (Gal Gadot, “Triple 9”), an Amazon from the island of Themyscira who is trained as a warrior from a young age to one day protect the world from evil. After an American pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, “Hell or High Water”), crash lands near the island, Diana leaves her home to fight alongside Trevor and his allies and destroy the evil at the heart of World War I.
Much of this is communicated within the first few scenes, and the resulting exposition that dominates the first act results in a somewhat jarring change of pace as the film transitions from that plot-focused style into the much more character-driven second and third acts. It’s a minor gripe — and one of the only issues with the entire movie — but the earlier Themyscira-set scenes are so packed with necessary plot information that when the action moves to London and character interactions are given room to breathe, it runs the risk of feeling like a different movie.
That being said, it is a testament to Patty Jenkins’s (“Monster”) handling of the material that any unevenness is minor. In fact, much of “Wonder Woman”’s strength comes down to Jenkins’s skill for mixing character beats and action set pieces while keeping the tone consistent throughout. A fight taking place in a small Belgian village is great for its visual panache and insane choreography, but it truly becomes the best scene in the entire film when viewed as another step in the evolving relationships between Diana and her newfound comrades.
The characters, like with all the best superhero movies, are what makes “Wonder Woman” so memorable. Like Diana and Steve, Gadot and Pine share a strong chemistry from which the script draws much of its charm and emotion. The movie is rarely stronger than the scenes they share together, either changing each other for the better or fighting side-by-side. It is a partnership in every sense of the word, and in a genre all-too-often dominated by romances where one member or the other is little more than a damsel, it is a refreshing change of pace.
Meanwhile, the well-rounded supporting cast lends itself to the war movie overtones that inform the main themes of the film. Above all else, “Wonder Woman” tells a story about war and the effects it can have — physical, mental and otherwise — on all involved. Jenkins isn’t afraid to get dark when the situation calls for it, but unlike the dour gloominess of “Dawn of Justice,” this feels earned. It isn’t constant, so when the heavy moments hit, they hit harder.
But “Wonder Woman”’s biggest strength is Wonder Woman herself, and everything she represents. She is a hero through and through, something the DCEU has been missing for far too long. Moreover, she is a female superhero headlining her own movie, something the genre at large has been missing for over a decade, and we can hope that young girls will be able to look up to the inspiration she provides for years to come. However, when both character and movie are viewed, they emerge as nothing short of triumphant, a cinematic touchstone in the making.