DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 1940, DC Comics launched the superhero Wonder Woman. She wasn't the first female superhero, but she soon eclipsed every other. In the 1980s, Lynda Carter played her on TV, and Gal Gadot Goddo took the role in last year's "Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice." Now Gadot has her own film directed by Patty Jenkins, which tells how Wonder Woman came to fight for justice. Jenkins wrote and directed the 2003 film "Monster," starring Charlize Theron, who won many awards for her performance, including an Oscar. Here's film critic David Edelstein's review of "Wonder Woman."
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The lone grace note in the generally clunky DC Comics adaptation "Wonder Woman" is its star, the Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who can look like an innocent even when she's righteously mouthing off to some arrogant male. She plays Diana, daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, and a trained warrior but also someone who hates war. She's a militant peacenik. Diana lives with Amazon women on their mystically shrouded island, but she's not an Amazonian herself. She was, we're told, sculpted by her mother from clay and brought to life by Zeus.
When Chris Pine, as American spy Steve Trevor, crashes his plane into the nearby sea, a German platoon on his tail, she has a glimmer of her destiny. It's near the end of the First World War, and Steve is trying to keep the Huns from using an especially virulent mustard gas, brainchild of a general named Ludendorff and a disfigured female scientist. Diana begs her mother to let her follow Steve to the front where she's convinced she'll find the god of war, Ares. She has no evidence Ares is involved. She just believes that humans are inherently good, and there'd be no war without him putting evil ideas in their heads.
The movie is the story of how she learns a more complicated truth. "Wonder Woman" snaps to life when Diana and Steve arrive in London to plead with the British command to take on Ludendorff. It's a fish-out-of-water setup. Diana has no idea how to dress or even use a revolving door, and Pine, with his other worldly blue eyes, makes a sweet and tender straight man. But Diana lights into him on a stairwell when he doesn't stand up to his superiors. He has to wrap himself in her magic lasso, which has the power to catch villains and act as a truth serum to reassure her of his good intentions.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WONDER WOMAN")
CHRIS PINE: (As Steve Trevor) Please, slow down. Diana...
GAL GADOT: (As Diana) That's your leader? How could he say that, believe that?
PINE: (As Steve Trevor) Just keep it down, shh.
GADOT: (As Diana) And you. Was your duty to simply give them a book?
PINE: (As Steve Trevor) No.
GADOT: (As Diana) You didn't stand your ground. You didn't fight.
PINE: (As Steve Trevor) Because there was no chance of changing these men. Will you just listen to me?
GADOT: (As Diana) This is Ares, and he's not going to allow a negotiation or a surrender.
PINE: (As Steve Trevor) Will you just listen? If you would just listen to me...
GADOT: (As Diana) The millions of people you talked about, they will die.
PINE: (As Steve Trevor) We are going anyway.
GADOT: (As Diana) You mean you were lying?
PINE: (As Steve Trevor) I'm a spy. That's what I do.
GADOT: (As Diana) How do I know you're not lying to me right now?
PINE: (As Steve Trevor) I am taking you to the front. We are probably going to die. This is a terrible idea. We're going to need reinforcements.
EDELSTEIN: I love Gal Gadot's raspy, accented voice and her driving delivery. In some scenes, she pauses mid rant and a vertical crease appears at the base of her broad forehead. She's thinking, thinking why do humans kill the innocent? Where is Ares? Then she strips down to her revealing superheroine costume, pulls out her sword and leaps into the fray, more concerned with world peace than the bombs and bullets flying at her. Director Patty Jenkins handles Gadot and Pine beautifully, keeping their scenes breezy and free of camp, but she's not a visual stylist. The early scenes are surprisingly cheesy looking. The settings look like rear projection, and the Amazonians seemed to have kept their island free of every part of human civilization except Botox.
The battles, meanwhile, are a hash. The other night on the season finale of TV's "The Americans," a mother and daughter practiced hand-to-hand combat in their garage. And watching them faint and parry and lightly connect was more satisfying than any of the fights in "Wonder Woman." You could watch their whole bodies moving through space in long takes, unlike the new breed of superhero films in which fights are chopped up or larded with slow motion and overamplified blows.
In this film, the computer-enhanced fight scenes are especially fake-looking and Rupert Gregson-Williams' music is a nonstop assault, especially when Wonder Woman emerges for the first time in costume and her theme is played on a tacky, synthesized electric cello.
For all its crumminess, though, the music, the by-the-numbers plot, the blandly written villains, the heroine is really something. In the climactic battle, Jenkins cuts to close-ups of Gal Gadot against the red-and-gold sky. There's wonder in her face. She is both human and archetypal. Gadot belongs in this crazy, tacky, superhero universe. And I, for one, would follow her anywhere.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, interracial intimacy in America and the Supreme Court case that overturned laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Sheryll Cashin is the author of the new book "Loving." Her parents were civil rights activists in Alabama. She and her brother integrated their school. Her father ran for governor against segregationist George Wallace. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BUNCH WITH PHIL FLANIGAN'S "ON A SLOW BOAT TO CHIINA")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.