When DC launched its expanded-universe entry bid with Man of Steel (opens in new tab), some die-hard DC-watchers grumbled. Who was this Mr moody-pants? Not Superman, surely. Batman v Superman (opens in new tab) and Suicide Squad (opens in new tab) drew similar gripes: Batfleck was deemed too murder-y, Deadshot too mawkish.
After lassoing the focus away from Dawn of Justice’s man-spat, Wonder Woman tempts no such non-recognition concerns. Despite fears engendered by a messy route to cinemas, pre-release scuttlebutt over tonal issues and the odd on-screen hiccup, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) and lead Gal Gadot have landed a ripping success: a winningly earnest heroine in a straight-up good-time comic book movie that gives good, pomposity-busting quips without ever clouding its headliner’s core values.
After a modern-day prologue, the flashback to Wonders’ origins works by rejecting kitsch self-parody and undue darkening influences. Navigated smoothly between sweeping spectacle, gym-pumped fight practice, mythical backstories and mum/daughter intimacies, the Themyscira sequences brim with scene-setting assurance. Granted, it’s another origin story. But it’s a fresh one, for a heroine whose origin we haven’t yet seen at cinemas. And there’s a galvanised pulp buzz to the mid-training transition from Diana as a rebellious child to Gadot, whose poise, blazing eyes and sonic-boom wrist-wear issue a resounding message: don’t worry, she’s got this.
That confidence holds as man-shaped trouble visits Themyscira. After the arrow’s-eye shots and shield-surfing tag-team action of a bracing Amazons-v-soldiers beach barney, Gadot’s warm chemistry with Chris Pine’s humble World War I spy Steve Trevor sings; reaching beyond modern superhero settings, their flirty/innocent banter channels 1934 proto-romcom It Happened One Night via the rooftop exchanges of 1978’s Superman. And as Trevor laments war’s horrors, the righteous compassion stirred in Diana fits her character like a scabbard: God of War Ares is abroad, she decides, and he needs stopping.
After a poignant parting from home and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), the ensuing conflicts with spies, wartime officials and leering villains echo rich, rollicking matinee-serial pleasures. Raiders of the Lost Ares, if you like. You get classic nasties in chemical co-dependents Dr Maru (Elena Anaya, oozing mystery) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, off his tits). And, while David Thewlis offers quality anchorage in a key role, any risks of ridiculousness elsewhere get nicely ribbed. As Etta Candy, Lucy Davis kills with a quip about specs; Ewen Bremner, meanwhile, channels Spud as Trevor’s slow but steady pal.
If the jobs of getting Diana and Steve’s gang (Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock) to war can leave Wonder Woman looking more like Woman Wanders About a Bit, at least the pace breathes. And, once we hit the trenches - 12A certificate judiciously pushed in injury detail - the electric cellos start thrashing and the cool shit starts thrilling. Over-reliance on slo-mo aside, Wonder’s powers are exuberantly embraced in rousing blasts of lasso-lashing, shield-flinging extravagance. Suddenly, Hulk isn’t the only tank-lobbing titan in town.
So, a little disappointment kicks in when the last stand-off presents the CG spectacle of two combatants levitating at each other. But it’s only a small burp next to other comic book movies’ half-baked baddies, and while jaded viewers might wince at a Jennifer Rush-ian pay-off, ballast is provided by an emotional twist and the sense of a filmmaker embracing Wonder Woman’s idealism without cynicism. “Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” Hippolyta warns, “they do not deserve you.” That may be true, but she’s delivered the hope-charged blast of purely likeable entertainment that superhero movies might just need.