The smoke and fire had cleared after the climactic battle in "Wonder Woman." I noticed the woman beside me in the theater was dabbing her eyes.
Perhaps her eyes were smarting from the fight scene’s explosive blasts and sonic overload, an FX-apalooza practically required of the modern superhero film. But I snuck a closer glance. My neighbor was crying, but also smiling. It seemed that the sight of Diana Prince charging from the trenches of World War I, kicking German soldier butt, and finally facing her nemesis alone in a slugfest — in other words, saving the world — had moved my seatmate to tears.
Apparently, women crying in awe as they watch Wonder Woman fight is already a thing. Or perhaps what women find touching is the weight of the following irony. Despite a brief flirtation with mainstream stardom in the '70s, when Lynda Carter portrayed the crime fighting Amazon on TV, the planet’s best-known female comic book character has never been given her own movie.
Until now. Created in 1941, the immortal lasso-wielding princess only had to wait 75 years. Thankfully, the end product from Patty Jenkins, the first woman to direct a major superhero film, and starring Gal Gadot as the lead, is a doozy. Bold, bombastic and badass, “Wonder Woman” closely adheres to the superhero genre’s staples. We get our Princess Diana origin story, her moral crises, her love interest — all flung against a world-ending plot and peppered with plenty of hand-to-hand combat. In the clever hands of Jenkins, the writer and director behind the searing serial killer portrait “Monster” (2003), “Wonder Woman” easily bests half of the recent Avengers, Captain America and Superman movies.
Is the film at times loud and clunky, sappy and predictable? Sure. But it also injects some much-needed “super” back into superhero movies, while stirring up stinging clouds of subversive sass.
“Wonder Woman” also slings a stunning rejoinder to the question, “Why has Hollywood sold female superheroes short all these years?”
Female-centric comic book heroines and the silver screen have suffered a rocky past. Remember “Supergirl” (1984) starring Helen Slater, Halle Berry in “Catwoman” (2004) and Jennifer Garner's “Elektra” (2005)? I hope not. Those financial and artistic bombs seemed to jinx the notion of superheroine flicks. Which is odd, considering the success of recent TV series like “Jessica Jones” and a “Supergirl” reboot, not to mention a box office that’s proven the female-helmed action adventure vehicles can be profitable. Take girl power cartoons like “Brave,” “Frozen” and “Moana,” the Alien and Hunger Games franchises, Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and both recent “Star Wars” movies.
The time for “Wonder Woman” has been drawing nigh.
Origin story recap: Rather than born of a radioactive spider bite or extraterrestrial space travel, our Amazon princess is more akin to mythic Thor. After a quick prologue involving Wonder Woman’s modern-day alter ego, an archivist at the Louvre in Paris, the plot begins in earnest. Headstrong young Diana hails from Themyscira, an idyllic island enclave part Santorini, part “Lord of the Rings” Elvish Rivendell, and just as hard to find and full of perfect beings. Like a Maxfield Parrish painting come to life, Themyscira is lousy with archways, waterfalls and buff Amazonian women not to be messed with, especially Antiope, the army’s butt-kicker-in-chief, played by Robin Wright (“House of Cards”).
Diana is the perfect warrior. But her protective mother, Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen from “Gladiator”), won’t let her daughter fight. In one of the film’s more enchanting special effects sequences, a bedtime storybook is transformed into a 3-D animated diorama as Hippolyta explains the complicated Amazonian backstory of exile, entwined with men, Zeus, Ares (the god of war) and betrayal.
On their Fantasy Island, the militaristic lady folk spend their time prepping for war, repelling off cliffs and dodging arrows in acrobatic slow motion. Hippolyta warns Diana, “be careful of mankind, Diana. They do not deserve you.” Curiously, the story is written by three men, including Zack Snyder, director of last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” where Gadot made her Wonder Woman debut.
Into this heated mother-daughter rift tumbles the inciting incident, one that bursts the magic bubble cloaking Themyscira from the rest of the world. As The War To End All Wars rages, out there somewhere, American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Captain Kirk from the new “Star Trek” films) crash-lands on the island. Diana has never met a man, let alone this specimen who calls himself “above average” when caught nude in a grotto bathtub. In this bloodless, sexless PG-13 simulacrum, innuendo will have to do. The original Wonder Woman fought against the Nazis in WWII; this version is set in a far-fetched version of WWI. The evil Germans, led by Gen. Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), are developing a chemical agent doomsday device almost magical in its potency, concocted by a creepy, mask-wearing “Dr. Poison” (Elena Anaya). Wonder Woman has to decide, like any us, if she should leave her safe world to save another.
Once Steve brings Diana to London, the feminist critique hits high gear. Diana is like Tarzan, plucked from the jungle and thrown into 1910s England. Trying on a restrictive corset and petticoat in a clothing store, a perplexed Diana asks, “How can a woman possibly fight in this?” When Steve’s secretary explains, “I do what he tells me to do,” Diana replies, “Where I come from, that’s called slavery.”
The commentary takes an even more serious turn once Wonder Woman, Steve and a multicultural ragtag band of men — a Moroccan, a Scot and a Native American — embark on a secret mission on the Belgian front. In one scene, Steve orders Diana to stay back, until she uses her super-bracelet to deflect a bullet from lodging into his skull. “Or maybe not,” he adds. Later, Steve tells Diana, “I can’t let you do this.” Her reply: “What I do is not up to you.” In my theater, both men and women cheered.
The film depends on Gadot and she's terrific. The rising Israeli action star of “Fast & Furious” fame brings a believable bookish purity and naivety, mixed with wit and charisma, to her role. It helps this Amazon is clad neither in hot pants nor leotard, but armor. She rides horseback, wields sword and shield, and tosses her Lasso of Truth like a cowgirl — yet can still tuck her weapon, the “godkiller,” into her blue evening gown.
Sure, the cartoonish violence feels tame, a toothless fantasy, and partly undercuts the anti-war message. Even the color palate of “Wonder Woman” has a desaturated look, as if the digital footage has gone through a time washing machine, putting daylight between today and yesteryear. By setting its action in an airbrushed past, against a more cardboard black-and-white enemy, “Wonder Woman” carries a more heroic tenor. If we never see the R-rated gore of war Wonder Woman is so repelled by, and if Gadot’s lipstick and skin remain flawless, no matter the dust-up, so be it. It’s all part of the illusion superhero fare serves up. “I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time,” director Jenkins said in an interview. This formula, she says, make all fans “feel like the hero they want to be.” Plus, that PG-13 rating allows more young women through the cinema door.
As “Wonder Woman” enters its final act, cue the inevitable, endless fistfights and ritualistic purge of explosions. But what feels more potent and palpable than the action sequences is the film’s rising tide of female power. Outspoken, unwilling to back down, Diana proclaims, “I cannot stand by while innocent lives are lost.” Men are seen as petty, corrupt, complacent and useless. It’s hard not to see parallels to the gas attacks against civilians in Syria, and Hillary Clinton's failed presidential bid. As Wonder Woman slays both sexist obstacles and enemy combatants, that infamous line from recent politics came to mind, but with a slight addition: "Nevertheless, she persisted ... and kicked butt."
Just like other Marvel and DC comic book movies, if this film proves successful, surely the franchise will be sequeled to death. If that happens, more power to you, Wonder Woman, and to all women. It’s your party. You can cry — in awe — if you want to.