True to the heroine at its core, “Wonder Woman” arrives just in time to save the day on any number of fronts. After the talky and turgid “Batman v. Superman” and hopelessly muddled “Suicide Squad” a year ago, the DC Comics franchise has received an invigorating shot in the metal-cuffed arm of handsome design and snappy storytelling. An indifferent box office promises to get a lift from a genuinely novel protagonist as enigmatic as she is compelling. And women — long expected to internalize myths of exaggerated male potency as their own — finally have a symbolic universe that feels, if not entirely corrective, at least imaginatively in keeping with their own hopes, dreams and realities. “Wonder Woman” may not cure all the ills of pop culture’s superhero-saturation syndrome; in fact, in many ways it succumbs to some of its worst excesses. But at least it brings an exhilarating, vicarious kick to the sagging, bagging table.
The fact that the movie succeeds so well is all the more surprising given the fact that it’s an origin story, a notorious bête noire for narrative efficiency. After a brief prologue set in modern-day Paris (presumably shortly after the title character’s encounter with Batman last summer), the movie plunges into flashback, when the young Amazon princess Diana is living on an idyllic island called Themyscira with her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and secretly training with the fierce Amazon general Antiope (Robin Wright). When a handsome World War I pilot crash-lands offshore, Diana — played as an adult by Gal Gadot — rescues him, which leads to a battle with German forces who are ultimately felled by the women’s acrobatic swordplay, superb equestrian skills, uncanny aim with flaming arrows and all-around badassery.
It’s a stirring, almost giddy scene, all these sisters doin’ it for themselves in gladiator sandals and messy fishtail braids. And the rest of the film lives up to that early promise, as Diana and the pilot — a cocksure Yank named Steve Trevor (not to be confused with Marvel’s similarly all-American Steve Rogers) — leave the island to go save the world from mass destruction. For Trevor, the mission is to stop a German general and his star inventor from unleashing chemical weapons on Allied forces; for Diana, it’s nothing less than stopping Ares, the Greek god of war, forever and ever, amen.
Working from a serviceable script by Allan Heinberg, director Patty Jenkins injects all the right values into “Wonder Woman,” making it swiftly moving, convincing and legible — and often dazzling to look at. Embracing the story’s comic-book roots, Jenkins gives even such realist settings as Edwardian London and the trenches of No Man’s Land a burnished, illustrative sense of the fabulist. With wardrobes spanning from fur, metal and leather to fine silks, steampunk goggles and prosthetic masks, this is by far the most visually sophisticated and rewarding DC movie yet.
And, clearly understanding the secret to Marvel’s success in the same conceptual space, Jenkins understands the power of casting: Here, even relatively small supporting roles go to some of the finest actors on-screen, starting with Nielsen and Wright and extending to the great Danny Huston, as a villainous German general, and David Thewlis, Ewen Bremner and Lucy Davis as Steve’s contacts back in London.
But Jenkins’s biggest casting coups are in her two leads: Chris Pine, as Trevor, brings the same joshing, self-aware humor with which he graced “Into the Woods” as the mansel in distress, playing the cheesecake in an early nude scene with game, glinting slyness. (He’s particularly amusing when his character is wrapped in Diana’s glowing Lasso of Truth, which forces him to say things utterly inimical to his macho pride.) Together, he and Gadot develop a gratifyingly coy, low-key vibe of mutual attraction and camaraderie. A sequence late in the film, set in a French hotel room near the front, is both understated and authentically seductive.
None of this would work at all without the proper actress at “Wonder Woman’s” core, and Gadot acquits herself with distinction, expressing power not merely as a display of cool moves and physical derring-do, but quiet focus and almost nonchalant self-possession. Cool, solemn, her eyes often welling with tears at the human waste and destruction she witnesses, Gadot’s Diana is the very opposite of a cartoon character: She’s soulful and utterly credible, even when she comes out bracelets blazing, effortlessly scaling a tower that might have imprisoned a princess like her in another story, at least until the right hero came along. As a young woman just coming into her superhuman powers, Gadot finds the right balance between doelike naivete and determination. Constantly told that she can’t stop all war, she tries to ignore the instincts that tell her otherwise: Still, she’s persistent.
It’s those subversive flourishes that make “Wonder Woman” such fun to watch, even when it descends, in the final half-hour, into the usual “Matrix”-y slow-motion CGI mishmash of explosions, mayhem and stodgy spectacle. That’s a bummer, as is a plot twist that throws the chemistry that fuels much of “Wonder Woman” into question. As a scene-setter for DC’s upcoming “Justice League” movies, this installment points up the fundamental need for smart, tonally lively scripts executed with both chops and an eye for pictorial depth and beauty. “Wonder Woman” has raised the bar. Now let’s see if the boys can clear it.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, action and some suggestive scenes. 141 minutes.