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‘Wonder Woman’ lives up to its name

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Superhero film the best yet in DC’s cinematic universe

There was a lot of pressure on “Wonder Woman.”

This is a movie that not only had to try and elevate the sagging grimdark profile of the DC cinematic universe after a couple of outings whose lukewarm reception was masked by commercial success, but also serve as the standard bearer for female-driven superhero fare in the face of zeitgeist-spanning doubts. That’s a hell of a burden for any film to bear.

Yet this film not only bears that burden, but bears it with ease. “Wonder Woman” is smart and engaging, funny and fun; there’s far more humor and heart here than in any other DC offering. Credit for this excellence can largely be laid at the feet of the two women at the forefront – director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot make a truly formidable team.

It’s the most joyful of the bunch – even in the film’s darker moments (of which there are a few), the tone never descends completely into the shadows. That lightness – which by no means should be mistaken for weakness – makes this movie the best of the DC bunch so far (non-Nolan division).

“Wonder Woman” plays out as an extended flashback. Diana Prince (Gadot) is at her office when she receives a delivery from Wayne Enterprises. It’s a weathered old photo, featuring Diana herself posed with a group of men who appear to be soldiers of some kind.

From there, we go back to Diana’s childhood on Themyscira, the isolated island home of a race of female warriors known as the Amazons. The Amazons were created by Zeus to help protect the race of man against the machinations of Ares, the god of war.

Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, “Stratton”) is the queen of the Amazons; her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, TV’s “House of Cards”) is their greatest general. As Diana comes of age, she trains and becomes a great and talented warrior.

But her world is thrown into chaos when mankind encroaches onto paradise. She watches as a plane breaches the protective barrier surrounding the island in the course of crashing into the sea. She leaps in to rescue the pilot – a man named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, “Hell or High Water”) – and saves his life.

It turns out that Steve is a spy working against the German forces in the waning days of World War I. He has vital information regarding the plans of one General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, “All I See is You”) and the mad chemist known as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya, “The Infiltrator”) and must get it to his London headquarters as soon as possible. Against the wishes of her mother, Diana accompanies Steve out into the world of mankind in order to help complete his mission.

Diana is thrust into a world unlike anything she has ever experienced and struggles to adjust to the societal mores despite the help of Steve’s good-natured and gregarious secretary Etta (Lucy Davis, TV’s “Better Things”). With the surreptitious help of armistice proponent Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis, TV’s “Fargo”), Steve and Diana undertake a secret mission to track down and stop Ludendorff and Doctor Poison.

Their trip into the trenches – along with their ragtag team consisting of Sameer (Said Taghmaoui, “The Infiltrator), Charlie (Ewen Bremner, “T2 Trainspotting”) and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock, TV’s “Jamestown”) – leads them into brutal battle with German forces as they try to save the innocents around them even as they make their way toward their ultimate goal.

But Diana soon learns that not all is as it seems in the world of man. For her to accomplish to protect mankind from the horrors of this war, unexpected choices will need to be made. In this realm, even her unimaginable power might not be enough.

“Wonder Woman” works really, REALLY well. There’s a soul to this film that has been largely lacking from DC’s other films; it’s the same soul that permeates Marvel’s offerings so thoroughly. This movie takes the character seriously without ever succumbing to the temptation to take her TOO seriously. There’s real charm here, a real sense of wit. There are some great action sequences, dynamic relationships and genuinely engaging characters – along with a few good laughs.

On paper, Patty Jenkins doesn’t necessarily look like a logical choice as director. Her experience is primarily in television – her only feature credit before this was 2003’s “Monster” – and is fairly limited. But looks can be deceiving; Jenkins has done a phenomenal job of bringing this story to the screen. It’s aesthetically interesting, with a visual sharpness to go along with real verbal acuity and across-the-board performative excellence.

Gadot leads the way in that department. She is exceptional as the titular hero, bringing a complex character to life with seeming effortlessness. In Gadot’s hands, Diana manages to be both naïve and deeply intuitive while also kicking the requisite amount of ass. It’s a wonderfully well-rounded portrayal that is magnetic to watch.

Pine is great as Steve Trevor, providing an ideal counterpoint to Gadot. The chemistry between them is palpable and the role-reversal vibe works nicely. The rest of the cast performs admirably pretty much across the board – Wright and Davis are particular highlights in relatively small roles, but almost everybody is strong.

“Wonder Woman” isn’t perfect. As usual, the origin story stuff drags things down a bit. The film contents itself with a standard-issue superhero movie ending that feels a bit jarring after the freshness of the first three-quarters or so. However, those flaws are minor ones. In the grand scheme of things, this movie is an across-the-board success.

In short, “Wonder Woman” is, well … wonderful.

[5 out of 5]

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