Wonder Woman is the latest addition to what's called the "extended DC universe," a place that on-screen has been pitilessly self-serious and notoriously laugh-free.
That's a challenge for this film. Try keeping a straight face on Paradise Island, full of statuesque and Spartan-esque women and Photoshopped waterfalls, where warrior queen leaders Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright educate prodigy Diana (Gal Gadot) on their collective mission to protect mankind from the return of Ares, banished by Zeus but destined to return as a death-dealing war god, then as a really bad Chrysler.
In voiceover, Diana talks of the world of men and (uh-oh) "the great darkness simmering within," and we settle in for an extended DC universe nap.
Then, whammo, Chris Pine appears, and suddenly the movie comes alive.
Pine literally punctures the cloistered world of Paradise Island, piercing its veil of fog in a stolen WWI German fighter. He's American spy Steve Trevor, and he's fled the Axis with a book of top-secret nerve-gas plans, German gunboat in hot pursuit.
It's an auspicious day for Diana – she discovers she has transformative powers at the exact moment she discovers dudes, a confluence of events that director Patty Jenkins explores for comic possibilities.
Trevor is taken prisoner by the suspicious Amazons, but Diana is more curious than worried. She walks in on Trevor as he arises from a bathtub, leading to an amusing conversation that works well as PG-13 double entendre and establishes the strong chemistry between Pine and Gadot.
He is a rakish and streetwise fellow who likes to cut corners; she's deeply principled but hopelessly naïve, and they fill in each other's blanks as they leave the island and head to Europe, immersed in WWI intrigue.
This is also a good story move — as a period piece made in the spirit of an old-fashioned matinee, Wonder Woman (like the first Captain America) does not have to exhibit the insistent, grim-faced dystopianism that afflicts the recent Superman/Batman movies.
And in London, where Diana must assimilate, she also gets to try on an array of really nice outfits. Director Jenkins handles this cleverly – a Pretty Woman fashion montage, accented by Diana's bafflement at the decorative purpose of the attire, which of course makes her all the more charming and alluring.
And at no time does this threaten her status as the empowered female superhero. When Trevor gets her to the front lines, on their way to destroy the German nerve-gas facility, Diana becomes her warrior self and stiff-arms Trevor's protectiveness – "What I do is not up to you."
Eventually they fight their way to the lair of the wicked German scientists, where Danny Huston is struggling to perfect a terrifying biological weapon, and an even-more-terrifying German accent.
It is here where Diana also has her showdown with Ares, and the movie finally, well, runs out of gas. It's the usual 20 minutes of CGI anti-climax, capped by the appearance of a flaming devil-god with horns and lightning bolts shooting out of his hands. It might actually be the same guy who shows up at the end of King Arthur, Legend of the Sword. I wonder if even the animators can tell the difference.
Directed by Patty Jenkins. With Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (superhero violence)
Running time: 2 hours, 21 mins.