At the climax of the new Wonder Woman movie, as the Amazon princess Diana settles a feud from Greek mythology in the skies over Belgium, her human collaborators are busy on the ground trying to save the world from a deadly, new German gas. Wonder Woman may not qualify as a particularly suspenseful First World War movie and it may not feature enough globe-spinning special effects to satisfy hard-core superhero fans, but it certainly is an intriguing combination of the two genres. This may seem like an odd thing to say about a movie in which a goddess dressed in an armour-plated merry widow stops bullets on the Western Front, but Wonder Woman rejoices most of all in narrative and thematic cohesion.
Those qualities could not come quickly enough to the so-called DC Extended Universe, that darkly macho Warner franchise supervised by Zack Snyder and launched with his long and brooding Man of Steel in 2013, and followed last year by the incomprehensible Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the supremely silly Suicide Squad. Critics are always comparing the franchise unfavourably with Marvel's Avengers and, to date, the only pattern the DCEU has established is that of powerful opening weekends followed by vertiginous box-office drops once the public starts to figure out the critics are right.
Wonder Woman has to prove the DCEU can actually produce good movies: There are several more to come, including Justice League this fall and … wait for it … Aquaman. Plus, this franchise redeemer is counting on the goodwill and open minds of contemporary audiences, who surely must be ready to throw off the sexism of the genre and embrace a female lead. So, there's a lot riding on the slim and mainly bare shoulders of Israeli actor Gal Gadot as WW tries to stop WWI.
It was in Batman v Superman, in one of its many diverging plot points, that we first saw an old First World War photograph of an Amazon in full battle regalia with an odd assortment of male comrades and were introduced to the comely but mysterious Diana Prince. Wonder Woman now explains her story – and only her story: The narrow focus is one of several wise decisions in a strong script in which Snyder had a hand, but which Allan Heinberg actually wrote.
Another smart decision is the First World War setting; it's not the righteous battle against Nazism but the moral quagmire of the Western Front that Diana discovers when she rescues an Allied pilot who crashes on the Amazons' idyllic island, and then follows him back to his war zone.
That idyllic island is absolutely gorgeous, by the way – thank the art department and the CGI team even if these are not, perhaps, the special effects most superhero geeks would have in mind. Of course, the final results are all a bit silly, as Diana's mother and aunt (Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright) flounce around in long capes and funny headpieces arguing in elevated accents about whether the budding young warrior should be told how to kill the god of war.
But after a powerful acrobatic display from the Amazons, Diana quickly escapes all the smothering. She now finds herself in a historical wartime setting that includes enough unashamed sexism to provide a good foil for her girl power and, more delicately, sets up a series of subtle thematic resonances from the foreshadowing of nuclear weaponry to the image of Wonder Woman as a Joan of Arc, leading her men into battle.
This time, the DCEU's highly contemporary insistence on moral ambivalence (which lost Batman v Superman in the murk) works well as Diana, a creature who has never previously encountered a man, tries to navigate her way around both the London of 1918 and the front lines. This establishes her central conflict with the pilot/spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) – she represents naive idealism; he is willing to countenance situational ethics – and inflates the film's comedy as the pair exchange ethnographic info about sexual practices in their respective cultures or Diana tries on hobble skirts and ball gowns in a London dress shop. Director Patty Jenkins handles both the serious stuff about battlefield ethics and the silly stuff about superhero romance with a pleasant tone, tidily restoring the wholesomeness so obviously lacking in last year's DCEU offerings.
And Gadot does succeed, against heavy odds, in creating a fresh figure of heroic morality and might, engaging an audience with an earnest character's discovery of herself and the world. The script offers Diana a strong foil in Steve, the guy who has to shield her from lascivious Londoners and introduce her to realpolitik, and Gadot is prettily matched by Pine bringing a welcome little note of irony and that slightly reprobate air of his to the standard-issue role of the affable young American. (Why he's working for British intelligence is never explained.)
Jenkins shows a fine touch directing their romance, but her villains are much less deftly delineated. She and Elena Anaya, in the role of the evil German chemist, Dr. Maru, seem uncertain how far to play up the female baddie, lurching toward cackling villain one moment and then hastily retreating to unexplored hints of sorrow the next. And there is nothing particularly distinctive about a bombastic Danny Huston in the role of her sadistic boss, the German commander Ludendorff.
Meanwhile, Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock provide a satisfactory comic backdrop as Steve's SWAT team, but the trio of Scottish marksman, Muslim con artist and Indigenous tracker rather too obviously ticks off a checklist of the dispossessed, as the script now begins to hammer home the idea there are no good guys amongst the great powers.
This all ends, as you might expect, with a great deal of noise and fireworks – but as the human and the superhuman wage their parallel battles, for once you have to admire these oddly fantastical encounters between ancient gods and the modern world.