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'When Time Was New': 'Wonder Woman' Brings Sunlight To The DC Universe


"Wonder Woman" opens this weekend. It's the first superhero film headed by women both in front of and behind the camera. In a moment, NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the director's lifelong affection for the character, but first, Bob Mondello has this review.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The camera zooms in on an island formed long ago when time was new, a phrase that suggests both sharp writing and a fresh start to the DC cinematic universe. Batman and Superman may be dark and dreary, but Wonder Woman's story begins in bright sunlight on an isle of warrior Amazons. A tyke named Diana sees a sword and wants to join them.


LILLY ASPELL: (As Diana) It's beautiful. Who would wield it?

ROBIN WRIGHT: (As Antiope) Only the fiercest among us even could, and that is not you, Diana.

MONDELLO: Oh, but it will be. She grows up to be quite the warrior, played by Gal Gadot and trained by the best.


WRIGHT: (As Antiope) Never let your guard down. You expect the battle to be fair?

MONDELLO: At about the moment she is ready, a man falls from the sky. Wouldn't you know? Chris Pine in a biplane, bringing with him flashing blue eyes, double entendres and World War I. After determining with a Lasso of Truth that mankind needs help, Diana and old blue eyes zip off on a screwball comedy-ish (ph) trip to London where she's told she can't go to the front, being a woman and all.


GAL GADOT: (As Diana) They will die.

CHRIS PINE: (As Steve Trevor) We're going anyway.

GADOT: (As Diana) You mean you were lying?

PINE: (As Steve Trevor) I'm a spy. That's what I do.

GADOT: (As Diana) How do I know you're not lying to me right now?

MONDELLO: He grabs the Lasso of Truth...


PINE: (As Steve Trevor) I'm taking you to the front.

MONDELLO: ...Which makes him say more than he means to.


PINE: (As Steve Trevor) We are probably going to die. This is a terrible idea.

MONDELLO: He's a charmer whose mom clearly brought him up right, butting heads with Gadot's righteous Diana. And Jenkins has their old-school movie chemistry pretty much combust when they hit the Belgian trenches. There in an aptly named no-man's land, the movie reaches for the stars, machine guns blazing almost as brightly as Diana's eyes.

Given that there will be lots of sequels, the film should have ended there. Alas, DC Comics movies apparently have superhero bloat written into their contracts. Until the last few scenes, though, "Wonder Woman" is pretty wonderful. I'm Bob Mondello.


GADOT: (As Diana) I am Diana of Themyscira.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: And I'm Mandalit del Barco. That onscreen chemistry Bob referred to was also a force between Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins. The star gushes about her director.


GADOT: For me, it was just an amazing experience working with such a talented, smart, brilliant, magnificent woman.

DEL BARCO: Gadot says they worked together to make Diana Prince Wonder Woman relatable - a powerful warrior who is also vulnerable and naive to the world beyond her island.


GADOT: I was worried that Diana's going to read dumb because there's a fine line between playing naive to play dumb. And Patty always made me trust her that what we're doing here is the right thing. She's not dumb because she is not dumb. You know what you're doing. You have a bigger mission here.

DEL BARCO: Jenkins says, for years, her mission was to get Wonder Woman on screen. She's a longtime fan girl.


PATTY JENKINS: There's the 7-year-old me that pretended to be Wonder Woman running around the schoolyard. Like, what an incredible thing to imagine that when the bully shows up or the villain, you would be strong enough to do something about it. But, also, you look like Lynda Carter while you're doing it like, oh, my God.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Wonder woman, wonder woman...

DEL BARCO: Jenkins says she grew up watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV. And in high school, in Kansas, she was even nicknamed after the superhero.


JENKINS: It was because I had, like, tripped really spectacularly on my way in. And it was like some sarcastic, hey, Wonder Woman.

DEL BARCO: Jenkins says she was also influenced by another DC hero, Superman, specifically Richard Donner's 1978 version.


JENKINS: The themes are very serious - love and death and sex and hope and, you know, horror - all of those things. And it rocks my world completely. As a seven-year-old, like, I was him. I believed that I could fly. I thought, wow, to do that one day - to make people feel something like that one day. What an incredible experience.

DEL BARCO: Every superhero has an origin story. Here's Patty Jenkins. She was born in 1971 on an air force base in Victorville, Calif. Her father had been an F4 fighter pilot during Vietnam. And the family moved around a lot - Cambodia, Thailand and Kansas after he died. In Lawrence, Jenkins' mother worked as an environmental scientist, raising two daughters as a single mom. Elaine Roth remembers her little sister Patty was a dynamo.


ELAINE ROTH: She was a powerhouse even as a very small child.

DEL BARCO: Roth is now a film studies professor at Indiana University South Bend. She says, in junior high, Patty stole the show singing and dancing in the school version of "The Pajama Game." But even more than acting, Roth says, Patty always loved directing.


ROTH: I remember when she was a little kid. We've got pictures of her in the backyard training our dog, who was kind of a lazy, fat golden retriever, to jump through a hula hoop. She looks like a little miniature lion tamer in the backyard. It was adorable.

DEL BARCO: Jenkins landed her first film job at 14, assisting on a documentary about beat poets. At New York's prestigious Cooper Union, she studied painting but fell in love with moving images and designed herself a major in film directing.

For years, she was a camera assistant on hundreds of commercials and music videos. Then while getting her masters at the American Film Institute, she wrote and directed a short film called "Velocity Rules." Roth says it foreshadowed her sister's latest film.


ROTH: It was about a woman who's a superhero on the down low. Her husband doesn't know (laughter). And it's just - it really suggests that she's always been interested in superheroes and female superheroes and female power.

DEL BARCO: A few years later, Jenkins decided to make a low-budget movie about serial killer Aileen Wuornos.


JENKINS: If I was being calculating, that's not how I would start my career - to start with something so dark. But I think there's a great genre of films of that style. So, OK, let me try.

DEL BARCO: The result was the 2003 film "Monster" starring Charlize Theron as a troubled prostitute. In this scene, she makes a confession to her girlfriend played by Christina Ricci.


CHARLIZE THERON: (As Aileen) And I didn't want to die thinking that maybe - maybe he could love me. So I killed him. I shot him, all right?

DEL BARCO: For her performance, Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar.


THERON: I have to thank my incredible director, Patty Jenkins. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


DEL BARCO: Theron and Jenkins researched Wuornos' story, pouring over hundreds of letters she'd written while on death row. On Charlie Rose's TV show, Theron again thanked Jenkins for giving her the role of a lifetime.


THERON: From the first time that I met Patty, the two of us, for some reason - call it chemistry. Call it two tough-ass chicks in a room. I don't know. Call it whatever - I felt that we were definitely on the same page. This woman's fazed by nothing, absolutely nothing. And I'm tough.

DEL BARCO: After "Monster," Jenkins spent a decade directing commercials and television shows, including AMC's "The Killing" and HBO's "Entourage." She almost became the first woman to direct a male superhero movie - "Thor: The Dark World." That didn't pan out. But now she's making history by directing "Wonder Woman."


GADOT: (As Diana Prince) If no one else will defend the world, then I must.

DEL BARCO: Jenkins says she believes in the power of mythical stories to inspire. Still, she was taken aback at first by the overwhelming emotional response from people who've seen the movie.


JENKINS: You know, there must be something that we're all craving. Certainly, we were expressing something that's been truthful to us our whole lives. Oh, I'm a little strong. And I'm a little not strong. And I'm all of those things. And maybe it's not something that people have seen much of.

DEL BARCO: This weekend, the feminist superhero finally gets her own movie. And for those craving even more, Wonder Woman will be back this fall in "Justice League." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.