The new Warner Bros. movie “Wonder Woman” gives fan boys and girls what they both want: Sexy but mostly sensible dressed Amazons, a princess maturing into a regal adult (Gal Gadot as the eponymous heroine) and a love story that leaves you aching for Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. What makes this Wonder Woman particularly wonderful is that it’s helmed by a woman director, Patty Jenkins.
Wonder Woman has gone through several iterations since her first appearance in 1941. Her most famous pop culture splash was during the 1975-1979 TV series starring Lynda Carter. Carter, now 65, is still in the DC Comics universe, with a role in “Supergirl,” (US President Olivia Marsden), but one wishes she had a cameo in this flick. There is a moment when movie geeks everywhere get a little thrill: The once Princess Bride Robin Wright as General Antiope battling against her niece and pupil, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In this origin story, we first meet Diana as a polished business woman who deals in antiques in France. She receives a package from Bruce Wayne: An old photograph that shows her as Wonder Woman with a group of men. She muses to herself, “I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within. I learnt this the hard way, a long, long time ago.”
Flashing back, we see Diana as a child (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) on a beautiful tropical island where the weaponry is swords and arrows. She’s the daughter of queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) who mixes myth with myth: Diana was a lump of clay breathed into life by the now dead Zeus. Zeus was destroyed by his son, Ares, god of war. The Amazons live on an island that is magically cloaked and protected from the real world. Some of that is true and some of that is not.
The Amazons are mortal but unaging except for Diana who has matures from a girl to a woman and is secretly taught how to fight by her aunt Antiope because of her mother’s initial objections. On an island, it isn’t easy to keep secrets and Hippolyta discovers Diana’s training and eventually concedes. As Diana’s fighting skills progress, she accidentally realizes certain powers that no other Amazon possesses, but her mother refuses to tell her the truth about her birth.
The real world outside of this magically isolated island has progressed in ways that the Amazons have not. Although Diana and all the Amazons are schooled in the martial arts, their knowledge is limited to the times of the ancient gods. When a World War I pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), breaks into their world via a portal, he brings with him a few boatloads of Germans in hot pursuit. Airplanes (including invisible ones), great coal-driven ships and guns are beyond the sphere of the Amazons.
While Diana dives into the deep blue to save Steve, she and her fellow Amazons must repel a few boats full of gun-toting Germans. While some of the Amazon warriors die, Diana discovers her bracelets can repel bullets, a skill that will later come in handy.
This Steve Trevor is charming, but also disarming. He is not the smarmy chauvinist of the “Wonder Woman” animated feature. He’s honest about his dishonesty: He’s a spy and lies for a living (Diana: “You lied to me?”; Steve Trevor: “I’m a spy, it’s what I do!”), but he is an honorable man of his time. He doesn’t attempt to get Diana drunk, but instead attempts to shield her from potential dangers and dishonor.
The questionable crew he undertakes this rogue mission with is a credit to diversity casting: Scottish sharpshooter with PTSD Charlie (Ewen Bremner), Native American opportunist Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) and charming secret agent Sameer (Said Taghmaoui).
Trevor isn’t afraid of strong women. He has a capable secretary Etta Candy (comedy gold from Lucy Davis) and both Candy and Diana are hindered by the sexism of the day. The UK was definitely a man’s club and women’s clothing reflected a woman’s place, something that is used to comedic effect. Yet even in 2017, women’s costuming is sexed up. There are a few too many crotch shots and while there’s an attempt for realistic practicality in the Amazon costuming, the sexy thigh high slits, one-shoulder bustier armor and armor that takes its cues from bustiers and corsets are similarly ridiculous. There is a nude scene, but it’s male nudity and Chris Pine let’s us know that he and his Steve Trevor are above average.
While in the outside world Diana is on the hunt for Ares, the son of Zeus, Trevor is looking for General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his evil genius Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), aka Doctor Poison. Evil is ugly; Doctor Poison doesn’t even get to be sexy here. She’s like the Phantom of the Opera ugly, her face partially covered until in the end her scars and deformation are revealed.
Having lived in a sheltered world encompassed on one island, Diana doesn’t understand the basics of a world war. When Trevor tells her, “We have a mission! We can’t save everyone in this war. It’s not what we are here to do,” Diana replies, “You’re right, but it’s what I am going to do!”
While there are airplanes, this is strictly the World War I sort and no invisible airplane in sight. The world of man becomes an education for Diana and, for a time, Steve Trevor is her earnestly helpful guide. Although World War I was the war to end all wars, but we tragically know that wasn’t true and that more wars would follow. Diana will have witnessed all this, but she concludes, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”
This version of Wonder Woman works on its diversity, but also allows for the beauty pageant mentality. There’s character driven humor but this never veers into the camp of the TV version. Trevor is neither dim nor doltish. He is the kind of stand up guy who would be a fitting love interest for a super hero because he is a hero himself who tells Diana, “I can save today. You can save the world.”
“Wonder Woman” and Patty Jenkins may have saved the DC Comic movie universe. Jenkins wrote and directed the 2003 film about serial killer Aileen Wuornos which earned Charlize Theron an Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG awards for Best Actress and Jenkins is the first female director of a big studio superhero film. This opening weekend, “Wonder Woman” made Jenkins the female director with the biggest box opening weekend and she is signed on for the sequel. That makes “Wonder Woman” especially wonderful for women both on and off the screen.