Not many movies these days have pivotal scenes set in the trenches of World War I. So, watching the "no-man's-land" set piece in Wonder Woman, I flashed back to a very different film released this spring: The Lost City of Z.
In that low-key historical drama, an explorer's quasi-hallucinatory vision of the Amazon briefly lifts him above the bleakness of the battlefield. In the superhero flick, by contrast, the protagonist is the quasi-hallucinatory vision — and an Amazon.
Amazon princess Diana (Gal Gadot) has been told she can't get past a German machine-gun battery to aid suffering civilians but decides to find out for herself. She charges into battle, repelling bullets with her bracelets, dodging and weaving, the picture of ferocious determination to make the world a better place. As she clears a path, her male allies follow.
Occurring about midway through the film, it's an iconic scene, and it clearly means a lot to many, many female moviegoers. Yes, every superhero movie has multiple triumphant battles like this. Yes, Wonder Woman shares a visual style with its fellow DC Comics flicks and plot and character elements with some of the Marvel movies. (An immortal from the ancient world, Wonder Woman combines the fish-out-of-water qualities of Thor with the earnestness and idealism of Captain America.) No, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) has not subverted the tropes of the superhero genre. But the movie still deserves recognition as a landmark, simply because it's about damn time.
Gadot carries the movie by combining the charisma of a demigod with the personability of Indiana Jones; even when she's fiercest, empathy and humor are never far away. A self-contained origin story, Wonder Woman follows Diana from her youth on the hidden island of Themyscira, where her mom (Connie Nielsen) and her mentor (Robin Wright) argue over whether to train her in the art of warfare. While these scenes look like they take place inside a sparkly, animated energy-drink commercial, the treatment of the all-female society's physical prowess and ethical conflicts is serious and respectful — no campy jokes here.
Instead, much of the movie's humor turns out to be at the expense of the male-dominated mainland. Diana finds herself there after joining forces with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American army officer carrying information about a deadly new chemical weapon. Believing the German general responsible to be an avatar of the god of war, Diana thinks ending him will end the conflict, too.
As in most superhero origin stories, there are lessons to be learned here, revelations to be revealed, and CGI bad guys to be punched over and over against a green-screened background. But there's also a fair bit of fun.
While the action scenes exhibit the pictorial stop-start style associated with director Zack Snyder (who cowrote the story), Wonder Woman has none of the operatic humorlessness of his Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film benefits from Pine's excellent comic timing in the scenes where he and Gadot trade good-natured barbs. While some of the many colorful supporting characters get short shrift, they're also good company.
By this time, pundits have already argued Wonder Woman to death — is she the right kind of hero? Should we have such fantastical heroes at all? Maybe that's why I thought of the trench scene in Lost City, because it suggests there's power and solace in a vision of something better, however absurd. Back before superheroes were big business, that was the principle that gave birth to them, too.