Wonder Woman (a.k.a. Diana Prince) emerged in the lull between the 19th Ammendment and the sexual revolution. In the character’s embrace of sexuality, femininity, and agency, she’s almost like a vision from the future: a proto-third-waver who never suffered the indignities of the postwar era. That kind of liberated earnestness drives Wonder Woman’s perversely old-fashioned feature-length debut. At one point, its mad-scientist villain marvels aloud about her apocalyptic creation: “It’s going to be…” She pauses, looks directly into the camera: “…terrible!” In these kookier moments, Wonder Woman is simultaneously retro, contemporary, and entirely sincere. Given that it’s also part of Zack Snyder’s toxically hyper-masculine universe (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad), it’s also the most unexpectedly charming superhero movie in years.
We first meet Diana on Themyscira, a Sparta-style island of women warriors where everyone speaks and behaves like they’re in a junky swords-and-sandals flick from 1960s Italy. The pace quickens as the action moves to Edwardian London in the waning days of World War I. The setting is ripe for Snyder-style grime, but the movie tacks tones, blending fish-out-of-water comedy with nods to pre-Hollywood Hitchcock.
It’s charming stuff spurred by a ringer supporting cast, but the secret weapon is Gal Gadot, who plays Diana as a bouncy, earnest goof. Rapturously scanning a fervid 20th century city, her eager gaze catches a mother and her infant. “Oh!” she erupts. “Baby!” After a glorious first taste of ice cream, she leans close to the vendor as if imparting a secret: “You should be very proud.” She’s magnetically bipolar.
She’s also—and I hate to write this—adorable. Gender studies students will have a field day with Wonder Woman. Themyscira is like a parody of glum, second-wave feminism, and the movie doesn’t even attempt to skirt the male gaze. (Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is the sardonic straight man.) Although positioned as a feminist blockbuster, it’s more blockbuster than feminist. After the London sequence and a spectacularly staged trench battle, the movie settles into the predictable. The action has an irritating habit of slowing the choreography to a halt just before a fist makes contact—one of Snyder’s favorite tics—and the result is an emphasis on the static image instead of movement. It’s video-game moviemaking, less exhilarating than “rad.” (A wailing electric-guitar cue doesn’t help.) Worse, it reinforces the retrograde attitude that Gadot’s is a body meant for visual consumption.
None of that matters once characters start hurling computer-generated light beams at each other. The movie is inevitably shackled by genre expectation, but within that framework, it’s a welcome return to the gee-whiz spirit of Golden Age comic books and Richard Donner’s Superman. That movie went out of its way to acknowledges its post-Watergate anachronism, but Wonder Woman is less self-aware; it doesn’t buck convention. Still, it glides on Gadot’s performance the way Donner’s did Reeves’s, and there are moments where Gadot seems to possess the whole thing; the movie adopts her charisma, poise, and sense of humor as if under her spell. It may not be progressive, and it’s only an intermittent success. But it’s bewitching—that alone is a wonder.
Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Written by Allan Heinberg. Staring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, and Robin Wright. Opens in Kansas City June 2, 2017.