Wonder Woman (***½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Thursday night) is a departure from most superhero films you’ve seen.
It’s a female superhero film — which is revolutionary enough by itself — but it’s also a genuinely surprising film that plays with genre and throws out the now very tired superhero movie formula. It’s an action film, a romantic comedy and a coming-of-age story and a period piece and a war movie all in one. Above all, it’s a hopeful story about humanity.
Wonder Woman is the best movie Marvel rival DC Comics has put out in its own cinematic universe, and unlike the recent parade of bleak superhero tales from both studios, it makes you feel good while you watch it.
Why we need Wonder Woman more than Batman and Superman
Women of summer: Here’s who’s kicking butt and taking names in new movies
The film, set in World War I, takes us back to the beginning of Diana’s (Gal Gadot) story, showing her growing up on the island of Themyscira, an all-female paradise that’s home to the Amazons.
When American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes there, his description of the devastation of the Great War compels Diana to leave and help fight.
Although the Themyscira sequences are beautiful to look at and include an adorable young Diana, the movie truly begins to sing when she and Steve begin their adventure.
Gadot and Pine have fantastic chemistry and Pine does well as the audience surrogate, displaying appropriate amusement and curiosity at Diana’s strange ways.
But it’s Gadot’s film and she is electric as Wonder Woman, a role she debuted in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to wide acclaim.
Unshackled from that film’s dreary baggage, the Israeli actress is able to shine as brightly in Wonder Woman’s smaller moments as she does when she lifts a tank with her bare hands.
Her expressive face is magnetic as she witnesses the horrors of the world for the first time.
Her optimism is at times heartbreaking — we, unlike Diana, know how evil the world truly is — but it is also inspiring.
The film’s action is explosive and engaging, and a sequence where Diana ventures into no man’s land in the middle of a trench battle is stunning to behold.
While many recent superhero films are dizzyingly directed and overstuffed with multiple heroes, director Patty Jenkins wisely chooses to focus, at times in slow motion.
On Wonder Woman alone as she takes out her foes, making her fight scenes feel at once more visceral and more ethereal than what audiences are used to.
Wonder Woman falters slightly in its third act, where its climactic battle tries and fails to outdo with big special effects what earlier sequences did with stunts and Gadot’s charisma.
It’s only when the film feels the need to check off the boxes of the modern superhero movie that it loses its momentum.
Wonder Woman succeeds when it shows us something truly original for the genre, whether it’s examining the bond between mother and daughter or battles where the enemies are human soldiers rather than faceless monsters or even a delightful aside of Diana trying ice cream for the very first time.
(It’s wonderful, she tells the vendor. He should be proud.)
Why is a feminist superhero like Wonder Woman hawking diet bars?
Following bombing, Warner Bros. cancels London premiere of ‘Wonder Woman’
Diana is genuine in her love for ice cream. She and the film are genuine about everything, which is what makes it feel so special.
In a time when the public discourse is fraught and full of misinformation and hatred, watching Wonder Woman fight so hard and so earnestly for love is a profound experience.
It’s hard not to feel, well, wonderful.