I’ve been underwhelmed by DC movies for so long, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be whelmed.
After the disappointments of “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad,” though, “Wonder Woman” is a gleeful relief. It’s two hours of playful patriotism, cheeky chemistry and stunning fight choreography.
Unfortunately, it lasts two hours and 21 minutes, and the whole thing very nearly falls apart at the end.
After a brief prelude that picks up the pieces of “Batman v Superman,” we see a very young Diana longing to be trained in combat like the rest of the warriors on Themyscira, the secret island created by a dying Zeus to protect the world from a vengeful, murderous Ares.
Years later, a grown Diana (Gal Gadot) has become the fiercest fighter of them all. Then she sees a plane piloted by American spy Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash into the ocean. Once she rescues him, the German forces pursuing Trevor break through the island’s shield and bring World War I to the beach of Themyscira and its horse-riding, sword- and bow-and-arrow-wielding female fighters.
Given that Trevor is the first man Diana’s ever seen, she’s immediately intrigued. When she catches him relaxing in a Themysciran hot spring, Diana grows even more curious. “Would you say you’re a typical example of your sex?” “I am,” Trevor stumbles, looking for the right word, “above average.”
But as fascinated as she is by her first man, Diana is more enthralled with his stories of the war to end all wars. Convinced such battles must be the work of Ares, Diana defies her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and sails off with Trevor to join the fight. Their boat nearly buckles under the weight of the sexual tension and frustration, and their sparks threaten to burn through the screen.
Diana insists that, once she defeats Ares, the German soldiers will be free from his influence and return to being good men. But that’s not going to happen so long as General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, exhibiting just the right amount of insanity) and Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), Ludendorff’s mad scientist who’s been left with only half a face, are alive.
So Trevor recruits a ragtag, multi-culti band of misfits — Moroccan undercover man Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), PTSD-suffering Scottish sniper Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Native American war profiteer The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) — to help get Diana to the front lines and stop Ludendorff, whom she’s convinced is Ares in disguise.
Working from a script by Allan Heinberg, who in 2006 relaunched Wonder Woman in graphic-novel form, Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) proves what a talented director can do with a superhero movie. She and Gadot also contribute touches that only women can.
There’s something about seeing the horrors of a very real war through the eyes of a woman — especially an innocent who’s known only an island paradise — that elicits far more empathy than a thousand aliens attacking Earth, or whatever other lame plot device most recent comic-book movies have employed.
But while Jenkins and Gadot show off Diana’s skills on the battlefield — she’s a one-woman, tank-flipping wrecking crew who busts out one of the most empowering slow-motion walks you’ll ever see — they’re not afraid to celebrate her girly side. When Trevor and Diana first arrive in London, she bounds toward the first baby she sees with delight. There’s the joy she expresses when tasting her first ice cream cone and seeing her first snowfall. And she fully, firmly believes in the power of love — the emotional concept, not the song by Huey Lewis and the News.
“Wonder Woman” manages to keep things grounded and at least semi-realistic for most of its running time, which is no easy feat for a movie about a warrior sculpted from clay and brought to life by Zeus who’s convinced she’s going to kill Ares, the god of war.
Then, for its climax, it’s as though everyone involved fell under the sway of Michael Bay, the god of generic, computer-generated mayhem. The last 20 minutes or so might as well have been recycled from the cutting-room floor after Warner Bros. was finished chopping up “Batman v Superman.”
Yet, despite its cacophonous ending, there’s far more entertainment to be found in “Wonder Woman” than in the first three titles of the DC Extended Universe — combined.
It’s like that old saying: Sometimes it takes a (Wonder) Woman to do a (Bat/Super) Man’s job.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.