It's 1918, the last year of World War I, and a loud brunette has just arrived in London. "I am Diana, Princess of Themyscira!" she announces. Naturally, a man interrupts. "Prince," he says, overruling her introduction. "Diana Prince." And this strong, fearless femme is, er, his secretary. When his actual secretary tells the princess what the job entails, Diana (Gal Gadot) is aghast. "Where I come from, that's called slavery!"
Diana isn't bragging. She'd never call herself "Wonder Woman." She's simply one girl from an island of powerful females who spend their days sword fighting, getting smacked with logs, and flipping backward somersaults from galloping horses while shooting arrows. Her clan, the Amazons, stand with their arms on their hips like Charles Atlas and wear helmets with sharp bronze sideburns. Diana is normal here, as far as she knows, which means during the day she trains under the stern, unmanicured hand of General Antiope (a fierce Robin Wright) in an outfit that's one part practical, two parts pretty: French braid, 3-inch lace-up wedges, and a leather strap that twists around her torso like a Miss America sash. At night, she sleeps in a golden snail shell stuck in a rock.
Except for the title, Patty Jenkins's bighearted blockbuster doesn't use the name Wonder Woman either. Wonder Woman is singular. Wonderful women are manifold. They spar on Themyscira's rocky green hills, and hopefully they will fill theaters on Wonder Woman's opening weekend, alongside some wonderful men. For most of her life, Diana's never met one of the latter. Zeus created the Amazons to fend off Ares, the god of war, and establish peace. That hasn't worked out, in part because the Amazons have become isolationists in paradise.
Until, that is, an American pilot named Steve (Chris Pine) on a plummeting airplane slides into the Amazons' DMs (deflector mist shield). Six dozen German soldiers give chase, and suddenly the women are forced into their first life-or-death fight in millennia. Yikes. Guns. As for Steve, he's living a Penthouse Letters fantasy, the kind that made original Wonder Woman creator and BDSM fan William Moulton Marston secretly drool. He's forced to kneel before a roomful of intimidating beauties with his arms bound by the lasso of truth. How does it feel? "Pretty hot," he pants. Entendre intended, as it is in a follow-up scene where Diana barges in on her cheesecake dreamboat taking a nude bath and interrogates him about his, um, watch.
"You let this little thing tell you what to do?" she asks. Hey, lady, you're hurting his little thing's feelings.
Pine has the perfect Teen Beat face for an innocent virgin's first crush, complete with ponyish blond forelock. He rebels against being the first act's token male. When Diana asks if he's "a typical example of your sex?" Steve huffs, "I am above average." A side effect of centering a film on a woman is that the typically half-baked love interest, if male, gets more love from the script. Pine has a scene that nearly made me cry, and a dozen more that made me exasperated and amused by design. Although his Steve is still never worthy of this goddess, to be fair, no one is.
Instead, Steve seduces Diana by enlisting her in the Great War: Four years, 27 countries, and staggering death — in part thanks to the deadly potions of Germany's Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya, forceful), a face-scarred plastic surgery nightmare who's molded herself a mask with smooth cheeks and full lips. Diana is certain she can end the war single-handedly. That is, if she can endure her mother Queen Hippolyta's (Connie Nielsen) royal guilt trip. Why risk her daughter's life for warmongering mankind? As the good-looking couple sets sail, mom sighs and says, "You were my greatest love. Today you are my greatest sorrow."
Diana is naïve and overconfident, qualities that Gadot nails. She has the aura of a high school soccer star. She's at once normal and exceptional, and more than a little conceited. You could argue that, compared to the crooked, cowardly humans she meets, she deserves to be. Still, this Amazon doubts mankind can do anything right. When a town of liberated Belgians starts dancing, she gasps, "These people are just swaying!" Jenkins doesn't call her bluff — we never get to see the Themysciran tango — and the director also refuses to focus the lens on Gadot's sexy soft bits. Her bosom is armored, her legs are rocks. She's so solid and pure that she doesn't seem flesh. Cleave her down the middle and I'd expect to discover Naxos marble.
Gadot buttresses this blockbuster, even though the film doesn't give her much chance to show if she can do anything more complicated than swagger with a sword. She's closer to Christopher Reeves's Clark Kent than any superhero we've had in the past 10 years, which is fine, even welcome, at least for now. I'm happy she's happy, that any character in a DC comic is able to smile. Let Superman and Batman wail about their Marthas. Diana simply hugs her mom goodbye and gets on with it.
Spoiler alert: Wonder Woman doesn't end all wars. In the opening voice-over, a now-cynical Diana says, "I used to want to save this world," then snorts: "Mankind." If Wonder Woman conflates "men" with "mankind," don't blame Jenkins or screenwriter Allan Heinberg. Blame turn-of-the–20th century society, where in 1918, most of the world's women still didn't have the right to vote. They didn't even have the right to wear pants. In 1919, activist Luisa Capetillo was sent to jail for wearing a pair of white linen trousers. (Technically, in modern Paris, where the film opens, the law forbade women from wearing pants without a permit until 2013. No, really.) So if men wear the pants, they can wear the blame for World War I, especially when their war rooms are filled with harrumphing mustaches who are dumbstruck when Diana dares enter the boys-only club. They're astonished that this woman wants to speak. Imagine if they knew what else she could do.
Jenkins can shoot a battle scene well enough. She's good with imagery — expect to see a lot of women on Twitter GIF a shot of Diana's bulletproof bracelets fending off a machine gun — and, unlike the dreary slugfests in Batman v Superman, she doesn't chop up her brawls in the editing room in a panic. Jenkins would never stoop to a cheap blow like having Diana punch an ass-grabber. Still, the director skirts just to the edge of oversaturated symbolism. In one scene, a villain throws man-made obstacles at Diana — cement blocks, rubble hills, everything but a glass ceiling. In another, Diana crosses a deadly no-man's-land. I held my breath. Not because I was afraid she wouldn't survive — there was an hour left in the movie — but because I was terrified some actor would have to drop a clunker like, "Hey, no-man's-land doesn't mean no women!" (Thankfully, no one did.)
Yet what interests Jenkins isn't Diana's might. It's her mindset. Wonder Woman is a straightforward action-adventure that doesn't screech to a halt to deliver big speeches about feminism. It wouldn't occur to Diana that the world needs to hear the obvious, at least not yet. In her first days in civilized society, she walks through sexism the way most people walk through flu season. What's the use of swatting invisible germs?
When even allies like Steve tell her to dress modestly, stay down, stay back, she ignores him as though she's not fluent in every language from Sumerian to ancient Greek. At times, Wonder Woman feels like watching Splash with a shield — another babelicious naïf breaking all the rules. Yet the joke isn't on her. It's on all the men mistaking unsophistication for weakness. To be uncultured is to be mentally free; no one's put on a yoke. That's what makes Wonder Woman a knockout. Power doesn't demand superhuman strength or a magic lasso. It comes from changing the culture, and everyone in the audience — Amazon or mortal man — can join that fight.