Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Wonder Woman? That’s right, after four years of struggling with its identity (beginning with 2013’s divisive Man of Steel), the DC Extended Universe has hit its stride with director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, a skillfully crafted love letter to the iconic DC Comics character. Born out of Wonder Woman’s roots as an Amazon warrior, the movie succeeds at nailing the mix of gritty reality and operatic themes that has eluded previous DC films, while also allowing for humorous elements organically born out of the film’s premise. In short, Wonder Woman may represent the turning point when the DCEU finally found its voice.

 

Raised as a warrior on the mystical island of Themyscira, we meet Gal Gadot’s Diana as a warrior in training, far from the world of man. Protected by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), the concepts of war and inhumanity exist only as stories, vague concepts born out of the wrath of Ares, the god of war, long since exiled by Zeus. But the world’s true nature can only stay hidden for so long, and Diana’s world changes when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a World War I spy, crash lands on the island, bringing The Great War, the war to end all wars, to the shores of Themyscira. Unable to ignore humanity’s destructive wrath, and convinced that Ares has returned to exact revenge, Diana decides to accompany Steve to the front lines to end the conflict once and for all.

 

Gal Gadot doesn’t just play Wonder Woman - she embodies her. Along with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Christopher Reeve as Superman, and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman doesn’t just feel like a portrayal of the character; she is the character, ripped from the pages of 75+ years of comics and projected onto the screen. Gadot brings a ferocity to the role that was glimpsed in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and is fully fleshed out here, helped by inventively staged action scenes that effectively show her fighting prowess and ability. The most refreshing thing about Diana, though, is that she isn’t just a fierce warrior; she’s also a compassionate, principled citizen of Earth, who sees it as her responsibility to protect mankind, both from itself and outside influences. As the film progresses, we see the effects of the world as Diana discovers that not all of mankind’s ills are black and white - conflict isn’t just an external force, but something that all human beings struggle with internally. This clash, of idealism vs. reality, gives the film a focused dimension that many comic book films – heck, many regular films – sorely lack. Gadot’s performance is pitch perfect, delivering the portrayal that Wonder Woman fans have doubtlessly been anticipating for decades.

 

As Steve Trevor, Chris Pine shows a warmth and charm unmatched in any of his other performances, even as Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek films. Serving as Diana’s portal into the human world, Pine’s role is largely as a mirror to Diana – where she is untouched by conflict, he is flawed and deeply affected. If Pine’s performance had fallen flat, Diana and the film would be left without the anchor to humanity that provides the heart of the film. Luckily, Pine and Gadot have an effortless chemistry that provides both the film’s biggest laughs and its most deeply felt moments.

 

As with almost every comic book film, Wonder Woman’s make-or-break moment comes in the third act, as events escalate and the comic book action reaches a crescendo. This is where many other films lose their focus, dropping all character development and momentum to deliver empty spectacle and noise.  This third act is what many have pegged as the weak point of the three previous DCEU films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad). What separates Wonder Woman from the pack, however, is the fact that these larger-than-life scenes feel earned this time around. Since Diana comes from a world of gods and monsters, a huge battle doesn’t feel unearned or wedged in. This is the type of conflict that we’ve been led to expect. It’s intrinsic to the world the movie inhabits. Director Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg are finally able to crack the code that’s eluded so many others: massive conflict works best when it’s organic, not obligatory, and Wonder Woman earns every beat of its story through character development and a consistent vision. Future directors and writers of any genre would do well to take lessons from this movie about how audience immersion into a well-constructed, clearly visualized world can pay huge dividends.

 

Wonder Woman is a film that knows what it is, knows who its characters are, and knows what it wants to say. These are elements that aren’t just important for comic book films – they’re important for all films. While not flawless, it is the most sure-footed comic book film to come along in quite a while, the product of actors, a director, and a creative team who exhibit a unanimous love for the character and shared idea of who she is, her importance, and what her message should be. In a time where so many films like these exhibit signs of being made by a committee, it’s refreshing to see on that’s so focused and passionately executed. Hopefully a lot of other studios and directors are taking notes.