There was an adjective that kept occurring to me as I watched Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, the first superhero blockbuster to be both centered around and directed by a woman. It’s a term that seldom if ever springs to mind in reference to superhero movies, and that might at first sound diminishing or reductive, but I intend it as high praise: delicate. Not in the sense of fragility or feminine weakness, as in “her health is delicate”—a phrase that could certainly never be used in reference to the indefatigable Amazon warrior at this film’s heart. No, Wonder Woman is delicate in the sense that it’s nuanced, thoughtful, and even for some stretches leading up to the overlong and overfamiliar last-act battle, quiet. This is a movie about battling evil that pauses to ask what evil is and whether it’s necessary to understand its nature in order to defeat it.
If that doesn’t sound pulse-pounding enough for your summer action movie needs, rest assured that Wonder Woman is also replete with back-alley fistfights, slow-motion ninja twirls, bullet-deflecting wristlets, and exploding planes. Our Lasso of Truth–wielding heroine, played by the doe-like Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, isn’t so fraught with nuance she can’t pick up an entire World War I–era tank and hurl it at a sneering bad guy. This villain’s identity, if I revealed it, would give away one of Wonder Woman’s chief twists; it’s enough to know that, like all the film’s heavies, he may or may not be the 20th-century incarnation of Ares, the ancient Greek god of war.
After a quick present-day setup in which WW’s civilian alter ego, Diana Prince, receives a communiqué from Bruce Wayne aka Batman—a scene that’s one of this movie’s blessedly few concessions to cross-promotional fan service—we’re transported to the heroine’s origin story on Themyscira, an idyllic island populated by ferocious but peace-loving female warriors. The ruler of this utopian gynocracy is Diana’s gentle mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who wants only to protect her precious daughter, the only child on the island, from harm.
But Diana’s more butch aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), the tribe’s military leader, sees the young girl’s promise as a crusader for justice. (In a back story to the back story, Zeus has charged the Amazons with the task of guarding humanity against the return of the chaos-sowing Ares.) Antiope trains Diana in the arts of archery, horsemanship, and Zack Snyder–style ass-kicking. Snyder gets a story credit, and his signature use of “speed-ramping” to slip in and out of slow motion appears in nearly every fight scene, though thankfully without the usual limb-hacking gore.
All is well on Themyscira until the day a German warplane gets shot down in the water nearby. Instinctively Diana dives off a cliff to rescue the trapped pilot, who turns out to be the hunky Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American soldier working undercover as a spy. Over the course of a few amusing scenes, Steve accustoms himself to the existence of a mythic unmapped queendom in which no man has ever set foot, the water glows fluorescent blue, and a luminous magic lasso compels all who it binds to speak only the truth. This reality having been more or less successfully assimilated, Steve sets sail for London with Diana—whose passionate moral sense is outraged by his description of a ruthless “war to end all wars”—by his side.
The stretch that follows is the movie’s best, essentially a period romance laced with fish-out-of-water comedy, as the naïve and idealistic Diana encounters the mystifying gender constraints of early 20th-century society. Accompanied by Steve’s wiseacre assistant Etta Candy (a delightful Lucy Davis), she visits Harrods to shop for the corsets and smart tweed suits she requires to pass as a proper English lady. (The costumes by Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises designer Lindy Hemming are both sumptuous and fun—especially Diana’s Wonder Woman getup, whose latest styling splits the difference between armor and lingerie without making Gadot into a voyeuristic spectacle.) Diana’s sharp mind and facility with languages (she speaks hundreds of them) convince a rogue English politician (David Thewlis) to help fund Steve’s secret mission to the front. So he and Diana round up the requisite ragtag crew of mercenaries and set out to infiltrate a German chemical weapons factory.
Wonder Woman’s two main villains, the sadistic General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the Mengele-like scientist Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) are fairly standard-issue, but the trio of international helpmates—a Scotsman (Ewen Bremner), a fez-wearing cosmopolitan (Saïd Taghmaoui), and a Native American (Eugene Brave Rock)—are individuated enough to provide some memorable moments of comic relief and fireside camaraderie. Most surprising, the screwball-style romance between Diana and Steve is, by superhero-movie standards, substantial. Though both share a fierce commitment to their mission, they argue over how best to pursue their common goal of peacemaking. Steve sees their job as tactical in nature, limited to the aim of disabling Dr. Poison’s weapons facility, whereas Diana, with all the moral passion of her Amazon upbringing, aspires to put an end to the phenomenon of war itself. Pine’s Steve makes for a winsome leading man, sometimes cocky about his espionage chops but well-aware he’s outclassed by the gorgeous, brilliant polymath whose company he’s somehow lucked his way into. It’s not every girlfriend who can both decode documents written in Sumerian and single-handedly knock the spire off a village church.
Perhaps the most appealing element of Wonder Woman is its amused respect for its heroine’s ethical absolutism. Diana (who’s never referred to by any character on-screen as “Wonder Woman”) is inevitably disillusioned in her quest to eliminate all conflict from the sphere of human affairs. But her lasting outrage at the mere existence of evil—“they’re killing children,” she observes with a horror that will ring true to anyone following world affairs 100 years after WWI—is always treated as a key tool in her superhero skill set, rather than as a mark of inexperience or girlish naiveté. It would have been easy for Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg to rest on their laurels as the creators of a vehicle that, by the very nature of its casting and directing choices, was bound to be a crowd-pleaser for feminist comic-book fans starved for mainstream representation. But their Wonder Woman doesn’t just step into the bad-guy–bonking shoes of her male predecessors. She’s her own brand of sweetly righteous do-gooder, and Gadot endows the character with a fierce compassion and burning moral clarity that renders all cries of “you go, girl” superfluous.
I’ve never considered myself someone who’s been waiting around drumming my fingers for the emergence of a female superhero. If anything, for years now I’ve been hoping this whole genre would go the way of the Hollywood Western and lie fallow for a while to make room for other forms of storytelling. But the moment Gadot first stripped down to her nonsexist skivvies and started beating the hell out of those civilian-targeting no-goodniks, I was shocked to find my eyes welling with tears and my mind toggling between the Great War and the Women’s March. I suddenly glimpsed the value of our ongoing cultural debate about representation, even in genres one doesn’t necessarily cherish. Why shouldn’t women grab our glowing lassos of truth and choke the hell out of some latter-day incarnations of Ares? God knows the bastards are asking for it.