Imagine that Uncle Frank and Auntie Maureen behaved like pigs when they last stayed for the weekend. They threw up in the shower. They shaved the cat. They left soiled underpants in the fridge. After that, a visit by almost any other relative – even that cousin who eats his own eyelashes – would seem like something of a treat.
I mention this to acknowledge that identifying Wonder Woman as the best film to date in the DC Universe does not necessarily imply the highest praise. I could make a better film than either Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad by flinging cornflakes at an iPhone for an hour or so. But Wonder Woman is certainly what we just said.
This is partly because the film-makers have the good sense to spend the first hour and half making something other than a superhero film. There are references to Batman… Pardon me, there are references to The Batman in the brief book-ending sequences, but Wonder Woman is (as far as I could see) otherwise free of tedious nods to upcoming Justice League shenanigans. It begins as a fantasy film. Then it becomes a war film. The CGI super-mayhem does eventually arrive, but it's delayed for an impressively lengthy period.
We begin with the young Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus, growing up among fellow Amazons on a rocky island with nice views and plenty of open spaces for fight training. It's all a bit Roger Corman's Woman Warriors of the Planet Zonk, but the presence of Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright lends a bit of weight to the sequence.
Diana begins as a spirited tyke. Then evolves into an effective – though pacific – warrior. One day, a hole in the sky opens and the first World War breaks through. Diana attaches herself to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an allied intelligence officer, and they set out to frustrate the efforts of evil General Ludendorff (Danny Huston).
The episodes in a beautifully rendered CG London are charming and funny. Gadot is not the world’s greatest actor: her round face and bold facial expressions suggest an only slightly animated emoji. But she has a shiny charisma that plays well against Pine’s chiselled allure. Asked to do most of the heavy lifting in the screwball sequences, he double-takes and rolls eyes as if born to the task.
Patty Jenkins, who has not directed a feature since Monster in 2003, has been presented with an unenviable task. She is expected to sell an avatar of the male gaze – a warrior in mini-skirt and medieval bustier – as a symbol of "female empowerment". One solution is to limit the amount of time that Gadot gets to wear the silly costume.
There is also less than feared of the ludicrous golden lasso of truth (or whatever it’s called). Our heroine zips through the city dressed like the bluestocking heroine of a golden-age crime novel. No sooner has she waved her sword on the battlefield than she’s safely wrapped up in a big woolly coat.
Wonder Woman is, in short, a most peculiar sort of origin story. Like Captain America: The First Avenger, the best of the Marvel films, it has great fun with pulpy adventures in 20th century wars before reluctantly giving in to the demands of its parent universe.
Princess Diana becomes Diana Prince, but nobody gets to call her Wonder Woman. All this is welcome relief from the predictable skyscraper-levelling of the contemporary superhero adventure. There is some heart here. There is some wit. There is some fun.
We know that Wonder Woman will next be seen opposite That Batman in the upcoming Justice League. Fair enough. The gas bills don't pay themselves. But is there any chance Wonder Woman 2 could also be a period piece? We can hope.