Richard Donner’s “Superman” spoiled us. When the Man of Steel first soared toward the heavens with Lois Lane on an exhilarating flyover date, the 1978 movie heightened our expectation for most superhero films to follow: Future costumed crimefighters with love interests would surely deliver not only the thrilling action, but also magnetic romantic chemistry.
How sadly seldom that’s been the case.
Christopher Reeve imbued Superman/Clark Kent with a special blend of assured physical presence and throwback screwball-comedy charm - like some corn-fed Cary Grant who could carry off a cape. And Margot Kidder’s winning Lois adroitly pivoted, again and again, from needling Clark’s vulnerabilities to swooning over Supes.
Who knew that such a dynamically sizzling duo might not be found again in superhero cinema till this year? Yes, there have been some highly memorable couplings over the decades: Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in “Spider-Man”; Andrew Garfield and Emma Watson (mimicking real life) in the Spidey reboot; Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell in the Captain America films; and the R-rated heat between Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin in “Deadpool.”
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Yet none of those had quite the crackling banter and engaging range, from coyly comic to heroically tragic, as Gal Gadot and Chris Pine’s characters in Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman.”
When Yankee spy-pilot Steve Trevor (Pine) crash-lands off the Amazons’ isolated isle of Themyscira and then revives on the shore looking into the doe eyes of his rescuer, Princess Diana (Gadot), the film begins to launch into a different elevation.
For the next two hours, in fact, every great scene in the film includes both Gadot and Pine as the actors find a rare shared spark for a DC Comics film. The matchhead has been struck on the paradise isle’s beachhead, and every scene between them after that - as they follow their intertwined wartime missions - is like watching the entrancing dance of a flame.
Jenkins and the DC team, including comics writer-turned-film executive Geoff Johns, should be given much credit for crafting scenes between Gadot and Pine that summon echoes of not only “Superman,” but also “Casablanca,” “Roman Holiday” and the Indiana Jones films.
“Steve Trevor should be important to the Diana legacy ... and you hit the nail on the head when you said Indiana Jones,” Jenkins tells The Washington Post, of the warm intelligence and air of derring-do she wanted for her film’s male lead.
The dialogue really begins to sparkle, too, when they tease and spar, thrust and parry – whether Diana is catching Steve out of uniform, wearing not even a watch; or they set sail by speaking all around their attraction, with Diana’s knowledge anchored entirely in the academic; or they debate gender roles upon docking in London. These scenes are expertly filled with the filigreed inflections of growing affection, so that even when Diana rejoices in a simple introduction to ice cream, it registers like a heroine willing to explore her fresh appetites. (The moment is right out of 2011’s “Justice League: Origin” by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, but also harks backs to Audrey Hepburn’s own princess-out-of-water tale in “Roman Holiday.”)
And at the core of this dynamic duo, of course, is two talented actors who were able to mold performances from the clay of the sharp script, then heat their craft in the kiln of mutual art.
“They both got along so well and have so much on-screen chemistry,” Matthew Jensen, the film’s director of photography, tells The Washington Post. “They’re both so funny – both are such skilled comic visual performers – and they really complemented one another.
“I think they both just really responded to the characters and the difference in the world views that each character had,” he continues. “I think that provided them with a lot of great material to work with.”
Then Jensen, with a visual stylist’s expert eye, nods to the obvious.
“They’re both so photogenic,” he says, “I would have to work hard to make either of them look bad.”