The history of Diana Prince is a complex one, her various incarnations reflecting the diverse values of each era. Patty Jenkins—the first woman to direct a femme-centric superhero movie—has brought us the heroine we need right now and, frankly, have been waiting far too long to find.
After a brief cross-promotional detour into the modern-day DC Universe, we travel back to another century, and another world. On a stunning island protected by Zeus himself, Amazonian Queen Hippolyta (perfectly regal Connie Nielsen) watches over a culture of warrior women. Most of all, she guards the isle’s one child, her daughter Diana (played first by Lilly Aspell, then Emily Carey). Hippolyta believes Diana should be protected from the harsh truths of the world. But her sister Antiope (a fantastically fierce Robin Wright) is already training Diana in secret, to prepare her for the battles she must face.
Destiny intrudes earlier than anyone expects, when pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes crashing near their shores, German fighter planes on his tail. The now-grown Diana (Gal Gadot) swiftly rescues him, only to be horrified by his story. Under the spell of the golden lasso, he must tell her the truth: that he is a World War I Allied spy.
Why, she wonders, would men actively choose to fight to the death? The only reasonable explanation, she decides, is that they are in thrall to Ares, the god of War. She insists on returning with Steve to the front lines, so they can stop the maniacal General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his henchwoman, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), from developing an unimaginably vicious weapon.
Jenkins deftly uses Diana’s entry into the human world as a mirror for our own baffling limitations. First our warrior princess is confused by the bizarrely restrictive clothing women have to wear. Then she’s stunned by the way men instinctively dismiss her as physically weak and intellectually useless. Pine and Gadot both mine humor from her wide-eyed innocence, with Steve startled and delighted by his role as her tour guide through modern life. Lucy Davis is also charming in these scenes as Trevor’s wry secretary Etta Candy.
But there’s also pathos in Diana’s confusion. Wonder Woman was originally designed to draw strength from empathy and love. To her great credit, Jenkins doesn’t shy away from these stereotypically feminine attributes, but makes them the basis of Diana’s power. She doesn’t run on primeval adrenaline, but deep compassion.
Too often, we see superheroes engage in combat because, well, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Here, there’s a true and meaningful connection between cause and effect. Diana is shocked, for example, when Steve encourages their hastily-assembled team (including standout Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer) to rush past a devastated village on the way to the front lines. Steve is saddened by the sight of starving families being prayed on by mercenaries. But the priority is to reach Ludendorff as quickly as possible, and Steve won’t deviate from the plan secretly approved by his superior, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis).
Diana can’t follow him. Benevolence is the force that drives her. She sees suffering, and she has to alleviate it. Don’t get the wrong idea, though: while Amazons don’t like violence, they’re more than willing to use it—and, it seems, in flashy, fiery style.
Jenkins enthusiastically embraces a broad range of action options—precise archery, intimate swordfighting, airborne ninja moves—and all-out, special-effects-driven battles. It’s worth noting that she’s also given her hero a worthy costume in which to fight. Wonder Woman’s refashioned look still ticks all the crucial boxes. But like the movie itself, her outfit is designed to push past nostalgia, acknowledging Diana’s unearthly presence without ever demeaning or limiting her.
There are, it must be said, some dings in the armor. We’re given a hero of such physical and moral strength that the motley rogue’s gallery, including a surprise villain, is a little underwhelming. That (over)extended final fight could have been cut considerably. And badass as she is, the Israeli-born Gadot—who has been both a model and a soldier—occasionally comes across as a bit stiff opposite the effortlessly easygoing Pine.
Even so, Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg have created an unassailable icon, one who fits into the pantheon with ease, and stands out like no other. By viewing the familiar tropes of an origin story through a new—and, one can only hope, game-changing—lens, they have delivered us a lasting legend.
Wonder Woman is currently in theaters.