After 76 years as a trailblazer for DC Comics, Wonder Woman stars in her first film. What took so long? Hollywood, scared off by the box-office failures of female-driven comic-book movies such as Catwoman and Elektra, has essentially stuck to dudes in spandex and bat-drag. The good news is that this big-screen outing for William Moulton Marston's creation is that it leaves the cornball 1970’s TV series with Lynda Carter in the dust and is leagues better than Suicide Squad, the last DC Extended Universe movie to stink up the multiplex. And like she proved in her extended cameo in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, dynamo Israeli actress Gal Gadot owns the role, her body-beautiful forged with feminist fire. She really is all that. The movie? It's nowhere near what it needs to be to give the actor and the character the resonant sendoff both deserve.
Wonder Woman is hobbled by a slogging origin story and action that only comes in fits and starts. Just when Gadot and director Patty Jenkins (the Charlize Theron serial-killer biopic Monster) are ready to kick ass, we get backstory. Diana, the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Zeus, grows up on the island of Themyscira, where Amazons are trained as warriors. Except for Diana – Mom wants her spared from war ideology and patriarchal culture. It's her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) who trains the young lady in secret. Dudes? Not in the picture, until Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American pilot and spy, crash-lands nearby.
Then the battle starts, you ask? Nah. First Steve and Diana do the requisite flirty thing. (To be fair, Pine does it charmingly.) He promises to take her behind enemy lines: It's 1918, the height of World War I (forget that it's WWII in the comics), and Diana believes she needs to kill Ares, the Greek god of war, to end all the frontline bloodshed. Don't look for coherence. It's a comic-book movie.
So then the combat starts, right? Not yet. In London, Steve's secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) gives Diana a makeover to try to pass the Amazon off as an Everywoman. The locals aren't fashion-forward enough to accept Wonder Woman's thigh-baring outfit, not to mention her lasso of truth, weapon-deflecting bracelets, a sword she names the godkiller and the warrior-taught-wisdom that guys talking politics are windbags. The rest of the world realizes that it is Diana's duty to stand out, to preach the idealism that has been obliterated by the horrors of war. The film, however, takes forever to unleash her ass-kicking goddess within – and suffers for it.
Finally, the real action starts, with Wonder Woman racing through the front lines, her bracelets deflecting heavy artillery (improbable but highly impressive), and Steve's alleged peacenik boss financing the search for two war criminals, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the facially scarred chemist, Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya). The stunts are showstopping, but the deep-dish thinking is hell on the film's pacing and its sense of fun. Unlike Marvel films, where the dark stuff is mostly subtext, DC tends to smother high spirits in a blanket of gloom. Still, Gadot, an ex-combat instructor in Israel, makes sure Diana runs her own game. The star is unstoppable and spectacular to see in motion. Watch her fly.