The only grace note in the generally clunky Wonder Woman is its star, the five-foot-ten-inch Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who is somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness. She plays Diana, the daughter of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and a trained warrior. But she’s also a militant peacenik. Diana lives with Amazon women on a mystically shrouded island but she’s not Amazonian herself. She was, we’re told, sculpted by her mother from clay and brought to life by Zeus. (I’d like to have seen that.) The movie chronicles her hunt for another spawn of Zeus: Ares, god of war, whom she’s convinced is responsible for the ongoing barbarity on Flanders Field and other parts of Europe. She has no evidence for that. She simply believes that humans are inherently good and that there’d be no war if Ares weren’t putting evil thoughts in people’s heads. Wonder Woman is the story of how Diana learns a more complicated truth, one that won’t be big news to you, but then you weren’t sculpted from clay.
Gadot didn’t wow me in her debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Her elation while fighting made for a welcome counterpoint to all the gloom, but she seemed like a stiff out of costume. But maybe it was Ben Affleck’s heaviness that dragged her down. She’s a treat here with her raspy accented voice and driving delivery. (Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation.) In some scenes, Gadot’s Diana pauses mid-rant and a vertical crease appears at the base of her broad forehead — her mind is churning. Why do humans kill the innocent? Where is Ares? Are men necessary for anything but procreation?
While this Wonder Woman is still into ropes (Diana’s lasso both catches bad guys and squeezes the truth out of them), fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness. With a female director, Patty Jenkins, at the helm, Diana isn’t even photographed to elicit slobbers. Slobbering, S&M-oriented American patriots will be even more put out, given that WW is no longer dressed in red, white, and blue but golden-toned for the international — and perhaps these days less American-friendly — ticket buyers. I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup, though. It was worth waiting for Gadot.
You do have to wait for Gadot’s Wonder Woman to appear in costume. After a humdrum training montage against settings that look like rear projections, the movie begins to shake off its doldrums. Chris Pine as American spy Steve Trevor crash-lands in the sea with a German platoon on his tail. It emerges that he’s trying to keep the Huns from using an especially virulent gas, the brainchild of a general named Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and disfigured female scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya).
The movie really snaps to life when Diana and Steve arrive in London to plead with the British command to give them resources to take on Ludendorff. It’s a fish-out-of-water set-up — Diana is a sort of mermaid with no idea how to dress or talk to male authority figures or even use a revolving door — and Pine with his otherworldly blue eyes makes a sweet and tender straight man. She looks fabulous in her suffragette outfit with little specs, but it’s not until she strips down to her superheroine bodice and shorts, pulls out her sword, and leaps into the fray, that she comes into her own. More focused on world peace than bombs and bullets, she’s on an ecstatic plane of her own.
Alas, much of her fighting is computer-enhanced, and there are too many of the kind of slo-mo leaps and midair freezes that got old at the time of the third Matrix movie. Jenkins is no visual stylist, and the battles are a hash. The other night on the season finale of TV’s The Americans, Keri Russell’s Elizabeth trained her daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) in hand-to-hand combat in their garage, and watching them feint and parry and lightly slap each other was more satisfying than any of the fights in Wonder Woman. It wasn’t just that you cared about this mother and daughter. You could watch their whole bodies move through space in long takes — unlike the new breed of superhero films, in which fights are chopped into little pieces or larded with slow motion and over-amplified blows. The problem is compounded by Rupert Gregson-Williams’s music, which is a nonstop assault — especially when Wonder Woman emerges for the first time in costume and marking the occasion is some kind of twangy electronic cello that made me wince.
The gushing reviews of Wonder Woman suggest that people are grading on a big curve, but the limpness of the storytelling is certainly preferable to the whacking pacing of other movies of its ilk. Jenkins plainly has affection for the supporting zanies, among them Said Taghmaoui as one of Steve’s pick-up squadron and Eugene Brave Rock as the Native American chief who clues Diana in to the fact that the U.S. was once as rapacious as the Germans in wiping people out. (This is part of her education in man’s inhumanity to man.) And it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t see Wonder Woman in 3-D, which might make a difference. Perhaps the movie’s fake-y palette — multiple planes that recall old View-Master toys — would pop when treated with so artificial a process. An early, expository rendering of Titian-like depictions of Greek gods at war might be especially savory.
The climax of Wonder Woman did send me out happy. At regular intervals in the epic battle between Wonder Woman and Ares, Jenkins cuts to close-ups of Gal Gadot against the red-and-gold sky. Her face looks Pre-Raphaelite, flushed and suffused with a sense of purpose. She’s both human and archetypal. Gadot belongs in this crazy-tacky superhero universe, and I kind of think I’ll follow her anywhere.
Read David Edelstein’s response to criticism of his Wonder Woman review here.