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Front Page - Friday, June 9, 2017

Critic's Corner: 'Wonder Woman' a true marvel

I like the Marvel Studios movies. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk are great fun, and Marvel has done an impressive job of weaving a single meta-narrative out of all those films.

But something has been missing, something that would help me to make a stronger connection with the Marvel cinematic universe.

And it took a DC Entertainment movie, of all things, to reveal what that was: emotion.

Since the release of “The Dark Knight” in 2008, DC has struggled to make a decent film based on its comic book characters. “Man of Steel,” “Suicide Squad” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” have all fallen short critically and commercially. I could go back even further to “Green Lantern,” but that would be hitting below the belt.

“Wonder Woman,” however, made me forget all of that. For the first time since Marvel triggered the current comic book movie craze with “Iron Man” in 2008, DC has hit a motion picture out of the ballpark. And a big part of that has to do with the film’s depth of emotion.

Helmed by a female director and based on a story by three men, “Wonder Woman” has all the essential ingredients for a comic book movie adaptation: a powerful hero, an evil villain and epic action scenes.

But it’s also a richly layered and thoughtful work that resonates with real world issues, including the horrors of war, feminism and even love.

These topics and more are filtered through the eyes of Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, who embarks on a fish-out-of-water adventure after 20th century man invades her mythical home.

There’s a lot of back-story, all of which screenwriter Allan Heinberg handles with efficiency and economy without losing its heart.

“Wonder Woman” opens with Prince receiving an old photo from Batman at her place of employment, the Louvre’s antiquities department in Paris. The photo shows her and a group of men posing for the camera in a battle-scarred village during World War I.

The movie then jumps back even further in time to when Diana was a little girl on the hidden island of Themyscira. The verdant landmass is the home of the Amazons, who exist to protect mankind from Ares, the god of war.

In a visually mesmerizing animated sequence that looks like a Renaissance painting come to life in 3D, Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, tells her the story of how Ares killed the other gods and corrupted mankind.

We also learn that Zeus formed Diana out of clay before his death and left behind a weapon capable of killing Ares. Diana believes this weapon to be a ceremonial sword.

Knowing Diana is more than she has been revealed to be, the queen forbids her to be trained for battle. But Diana’s aunt, Antiope, secretly trains her anyway.

When a British pilot crashes on the shore of Themyscira, leading German troops to the secret home of the Amazons, he triggers a series of events that leads to Diana venturing into the world to destroy an enemy she believes to be Ares.

At her side is Steve Trevor, the pilot, who’s actually an Allies spy. Trevor has learned that a German general and his mad scientist sidekick are developing an unstoppable form of mustard gas that will kill millions and turn the tide of the war.

One of the ways in which “Wonder Woman” succeeds where “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” failed is humor.

There’s a lot of fun stuff in London as Diana charges ahead to find Ares, looking very out of place in her Amazonian duds, and Trevor tries to reel her in and convince the Allies that a genuine threat is looming on the horizon.

The action is also more memorable. The best moments resemble the slow-motion shots from “300,” with Diana twisting and turning in mid-leap to position herself for a boot to the face of an enemy or a slice of her sword through German flesh.

But the humor and action do not exist for their own sake. Through them, Diana learns how undervalued woman are in the world of men and how humans do not need a Greek god to cause them to do terrible things to each other.

Its humor and action with depth and meaning.

Especially touching is the scene in which Diana uses her shield and bracelets to protect herself from bullets as she singlehandedly takes on an entire battalion of enemy troops and wins back a German-occupied village, liberating the beleaguered people who live there.

It’s the moment where the very thing that pulled me into the movie – the emotional thrust – is at its most powerful.

At the center of the film is a performance by Israeli actress Gal Gadot as the titular character that is as heartfelt and vulnerable as it is fierce and heroic.

Gadot not only looks great running across a battlefield in slow motion, her hair flying as she blocks bullets, she sells the moments when she discovers love and feels the pain of the loss of a loved one. DC clearly had confidence in Gadot, director Patty Jenkins (who last film was “Monster” in 2003!), Heinberg’s script and the film overall.

To the studio’s credit, there’s not a single cameo by another DC Comics character, no after credits scene meant to set up another movie and no extra villains shoehorned into the story.

This is Wonder Woman’s movie, and DC wisely allowed her to stand alone.

I could nitpick. Some of the side characters serve no real purpose, and the film ends as so many movies based on comic book characters do: with a special effects show. But I left the theater exhilarated.

“Wonder Woman” is full of adventure, humor and comic book thrills – all skillfully executed by Jenkins – but these things serve the very human heart that beats at the center of the movie.

After many missteps, it’s nice to see DC has finally found its footing. With “Wonder Woman,” the studio can not only stand tall, it can look Marvel straight in the eye.

3.5 of 4 stars