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'Wonder Woman' challenges cinematic patriarchy

It's a good year to be a woman in film. Unless, of course, that film is directed by Michael Bay or stars Tom Cruise.

But Polynesian princesses, alien ass-kickers and, most notably, Wonder Woman herself, are having a moment. And my god, do they deserve it.

Obviously I'm biased by default, but this film is not just good because it was directed by a female (the formidable Patty Jenkins) or stars one (the indomitable Gal Gadot). "Wonder Woman" is proof that it's possible to achieve cinematic quality in a female-focused action film while highlighting what women are capable of, not just using them to make men look better on screen.

This is also not just another superhero film in which an arbitrary villain falls out of the sky, and the only way the protagonist can defeat them is by shutting down some light beam that's appeared in the middle of "Manhattan" (even though it was probably filmed in Cleveland).

Grounding its story in, quite literally, the trenches of World War I, "Wonder Woman" is seeped with something I haven't seen in superhero films in a long time: actual stakes. Plus, the initial Greek mythology-saturated backdrop adds an extra layer of intrigue for anyone with even limited knowledge on the subject (thank you, Rick Riordan).

The premise: A long time ago in a DC Universe far, far away, the Greek god Ares tried to raze the Earth out of jealousy of his father, Zeus, who had just created humans. Zeus fought him and birthed demigoddess Diana, the titular heroine, to defend the world should Ares rise again.

Diana is brought up on an all-female island concealed from the rest of the globe and learns to fight from its Amazon warriors. This comes in handy when a pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash-lands near their tropical paradise and Diana rescues him a la "The Little Mermaid."

He informs her that not only is there a world outside the protective bubble she's known her whole life, but there's a terrible war raging there. After a harrowing battle with invading German ships, some mother-daughter quarreling and a delightfully chick flick-y Pine-emerging-from-a-bathtub scene, Diana decides Ares is the root of the conflict and joins Steve to go defeat him.

Whether her fearlessness is borne of naivete and limited knowledge of the real world, or her immortality, doesn't matter. Regardless, Diana charges into battle repeatedly, totally confident in her ability to do anything, including saving the world.

Every bit of sexist doubt directed at her from males -- and there's a lot of it -- ricochets right off her. This galvanizes Steve's secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), who, prior to the war, was just hoping she'd get the right to vote soon -- but it should inspire every female audience member (especially the young impressionable ones) as well.

Gadot is probably "the most beautiful woman you've ever seen," as Etta says, and an unmatched force of nature. She fills the red-and-gold Wonder Woman boots perfectly, and she did so while pregnant (as far as five months along in a handful of battle scenes). On screen and off, she's a testament to the oft-underestimated strength of females in general.

Pine, too, was certainly the right choice for all-American dreamboat spy Steve Trevor. Despite being "above average," as his character says, in reference to both his anatomy and personality, Pine is not a towering beacon of toughness and masculinity. He's just an earnest peace advocate who wears his father's old watch -- and happens to be gorgeous as well.

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Pairing two stars of their caliber doesn't guarantee sparks-flying chemistry, but in this case, they've got it. Are Steve and Diana inevitable? Yes. Predictable? Absolutely. But they're also surprisingly pure and genuine. I can't think of anyone else besides a valiant Great War-era pilot spy who would be worthy of Wonder Woman's love, or more suited to teaching her all the social requisites of the mortal world (among other things).

Even if this film was terrible, it would still mark a huge leap forward for female representation in film. I found myself tearing up at least three times, not because it was sad but because I'd never seen a woman (or a group of women, in the early Amazon scenes) represented in such an independently powerful manner on screen (I wasn't the only one).

But "Wonder Woman" is not terrible -- far from it. It's aesthetically cohesive, relatively straightforward and balances humor with deep, surprisingly thoughtful existential musings. It's not just an enjoyable superhero film but a fun action one in general, and its heroine sets an appropriately high -- but not insurmountable -- bar for future flicks like it.

Wonder Woman may not be the hero we deserve, but she's the one we need.

4/5 Stars