One of the great joys of moviegoing is witnessing a performer take on a role so effortlessly, it’s as if he/she was born to play it. As millions of audience members will now likely attest after viewing “Wonder Woman,” the latest entry into the DC Comics’ movie universe shattered box office records in its opening weekend, and Gal Gadot’s ultra-charismatic performance in the titular role has earned her a place on the list of perfect marriages between actress and role.
But unlike the character of “Wonder Woman,” an all-powerful Amazonian demigoddess who finds herself almost single-handedly taking on the German Army in World War I, “Wonder Woman” as a film is far from being a case of one person shouldering the entire load. With veteran director Patty Jenkins (who you may remember as the writer/director of “Monster,” the 2003 film that earned Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar) at the helm, a game ensemble cast, engaging action sequences that rarely sacrifice substance for style and a message that feels relevant and even necessary in this day and age, “Wonder Woman” flourishes in just about every capacity.
This latest iteration of the legendary DC comic book heroine Diana Prince explores her origin story growing up on a fictional, all-female paradisiacal island blocked off from the rest of the world — from training as a child to become an Amazonian warrior like the ones she so admires, to learning as an adult that she possesses superhuman powers that can’t be taught.
Soon after discovering her powers, Diana also gets a small taste of the horrors of WWI when she rescues American spy/pilot Steve Trevor (an immensely charming Chris Pine) from drowning after his plane crashes on the island, and then fends off the German armed forces that are in hot pursuit. This instills within Diana an innate sense of responsibility to leave her literal bubble and use her godlike powers for the sake of all humankind, and she reasons that, if she finds and kills Ares, the god of war who, in her mind, must be the catalyst behind the ongoing worldwide conflict, she will in turn end the war entirely. Steve, of course, knows that none of this is true, but with the looming threat of German general Erich Ludendorff having teamed up with an evil scientist to create a new, lethal mustard gas, Steve is well aware that the Allied Forces could use someone with Diana’s strength and abilities.
Thus begins Diana’s fish-out-of-water foray into 1910’s society in Great Britain, which evinces a number of hard-earned laughs (“You should be very proud!” a gushing Diana remarks to an ice cream vendor after tasting a cone) and endows the proceedings with a welcome lightheartedness we haven’t seen from a DC movie since Christopher Reeve wore Superman’s cape.
For too long now, DC has awkwardly attempted to marry the cynical noir aspects of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Batman trilogy with the blithe characteristics of box-office juggernauts consistently churned out by the Marvel franchise, DC’s primary competition. And the results have been nothing short of disastrous (see “Green Lantern,” “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” ... but don’t actually see them). “Wonder Woman,” by contrast, feels like everything these recent ill-fated DC entries are not: serious without becoming broody, funny without devolving into cartoonish and, perhaps most importantly, earnest without ever cloying. It’s as if the brass at DC finally got the memo: Nolan’s Batman trilogy was the exception, not the rule.
And it isn’t a stretch to say that Diana’s childlike naivety, coupled with her undiluted sense of right and wrong that causes Steve et al to ponder, “You know, what if the world could be as simple as Diana makes it out to be?” provides a timely breath of fresh air not only for the DC franchise, but also for the contentious political times in which we currently live. For innumerable reasons that don’t need to be discussed here, the world needs a heroine now more than ever. And to witness a packed theater erupt in raucous applause the first time Diana ditches her civilian incognito dress for her signature “Wonder Woman” outfit as she bravely stares down an entire German army ... well, for me, that’s the stuff that movies are all about.
“Wonder Woman,” of course, isn’t going to cure all of the world’s problems, nor will it even cure all of DC’s problems, for that matter. But based on the overwhelming response from critics and audiences alike, this much is clear: it sure is a leap and a bound in the right direction.