There have been more than 40 superhero movies since “Batman Begins” established the current wave of comic book films in 2005. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted by these bombastic blockbusters, because outside of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, they’re starting to blend together and rarely display any real sense of humanity beneath the flash and noise.

 Thankfully, this weekend’s  “Wonder Woman” breaks that dreary mold and creates a spectacle that is both action-packed and thoughtful, wildly inventive and deeply human all at once.

Perhaps the key to that successful and all-too-rare mix of excitement and emotion lies in the fact that this marks the first superhero film to center on a female lead, and the surprising choice of Patty Jenkins (“Monster”) as its director – but more on that later. This is a film that works on multiple levels and is certain to make a superstar out of Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who handles both personae of Wonder Woman and her alter ego Diana Prince with aplomb.

The film opens by detailing Diana’s childhood on a secret island paradise populated exclusively by powerful and attractive female Amazons, who were created by the god Zeus to fend off his evil son Aries’ attempts to inspire unending war among humans. As the Amazons prepare for what they feel is an inevitable showdown with Aries by developing all manner of battle skills, Diana dreams of joining them.

Her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), is reluctant to have Diana learn the art of war, even as her sister General Antiope (Robin Wright) insists that she train. Once Diana masters her skills on the cusp of adulthood, a burning biplane falls from the sky and into the nearby ocean— and she dives in to save the pilot, a British spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who has been infiltrating the Germans amid WWI.

It’s the first time Diana has ever seen a human, much less a male one, and she finds that a slew of German soldiers are hot on his trail. A spectacular and innovative epic battle ensues, pitting the gunpower of the Germans against the flaming arrows, swordplay and impressive equestrian skills of the Amazons.

Steve was being chased by the Germans because he had stolen the notebook of the evil Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), who has concocted a powerful new chemical weapon that can render gas masks useless. He needs to get proof of the gas to his intel superiors before the Germans can launch an attack with it, while Diana is convinced that Aries is on the front lines of the war and that she alone can find him, destroy him and bring eternal peace to mankind.

The two team up for witty and exciting battles and espionage, as well as an inevitably developing relationship. The contrast between Diana’s female-driven upbringing and Steve representing a patriarchal world leads to some truly clever and thoughtful exchanges about human nature, male-female relations and the struggle between good and evil on both a personal and worldwide scale.

Director Jenkins and writer Alan Heinberg shine most when they effectively balance the tragedy of war and its destruction, with the moral imperative of fighting for good when peace isn’t an option. It’s an impressive feat, and one that builds on her direction of Charlize Theron to an Oscar in “Monster,” a film that showed both the horror and the wounded humanity of notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

But first and foremost, this is a fun film from start to finish, with gorgeous visuals, an amazing score and perfect pacing.  Even as I dread upcoming special-effects monstrosities like the latest “Transformers” movie, this “Woman” has restored my sense of cinematic “Wonder.”    Grade: A

Capsule Reviews

BAYWATCH

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron

Length: 116 minutes

Directed by: Seth Gordon

Rating: R

The big-screen adaptation of one of TV’s most inexplicably popular and utterly stupid series ever attempts to bring a knowing sense of humor by casting Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, but its unfunny mix of grossout raunch and serious attempts at action combine with an asinine plot about stopping a villainous club owner’s drug deals to make this one of the worst movies in years. Grade: F

 

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING

Stars: Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose

Length: 96 minutes

Directed by: Stella Meghie

Rating: PG-13

This teen romance about a girl who has an immune-system disorder that has trapped her inside her house for 15 years and the new boy next door whose attraction to her makes her test her boundaries has cute lead performances and the young target audience giggled and swooned at a screening, but the claustrophobic story ultimately goes nowhere and has a maddeningly ridiculous twist ending.
Grade: D

 

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Stars: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem

Length: 129 minutes

Directed by: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg

Rating: PG-13

The fifth film in the series has Captain Jack Sparrow teaming with the son of Will Turner, a female accused of witchcraft and his crew in a race to find the mythical trident of Poseidon before his nemesis Captain Salazar, and break a slew of curses. The setpieces are often funny and the finale visually spectacular, but Depp is hanging on to this series as a source of treasure more than inspiration.
Grade: B

 

ALIEN: COVENANT

Stars: Danny McBride, Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup

Length: 122 minutes

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Rating: R

The second film in the “Alien” prequel trilogy that launched with “Prometheus” brings director Ridley Scott back again to show how the aliens evolved into their famed terrifying state, while they wipe out another crew of humans. The sixth film in the franchise means it’s hard to find surprises, and none of the stars stand out like Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley, but fans will still find lots of moody scares. Grade: B

 

SNATCHED

Stars: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Christopher Meloni, Ike Barinholtz

Length: 90 minutes

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

Rating: R

The return of comic icon Goldie Hawn after 15 years away from the big screen teams her with current comedy superstar Amy Schumer as a mother and daughter who take a disastrous vacation to Ecuador.

While Hawn has some solid moments and there are funny turns by supporting actors, too much of the writing veers from crude to lazy and uninspired. Grade: C