This weekend’s release of Wonder Woman represents multiple cinematic milestones. It’s the first female-led superhero film in more than a decade, and with Patty Jenkins at the helm, it’s the first to be directed by a woman. Wonder Woman is also the first female superhero to get her own movie in either of the two shared universes from rivals DC and Marvel. Jenkins is just the second female director to make a movie with a budget of more than $100 million, (Kathryn Bigelow, with K-19: The Widowmaker, was first) and she now holds the record for the largest opening of all time for a female director, with an estimated $100.5 million.
DC’s previous films have been subjected to a wide array of criticism, in spite of its defenders. But Wonder Woman, notably, has been greeted with generally positive reviews (and is generally very entertaining, to boot). Considering that those other DC films, such as Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, are largely male-dominated, it’s worth noting that DC broke the glass ceiling in its fourth film while Marvel hasn’t done so in 15 films. (If we add Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, that makes seven for DC, but the gap remains.)
These are all milestones for DC and for Hollywood, but they shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t have taken until 2017 for a major studio to hand over the reins of a big-budget blockbuster to a female director as well as a female star, and DC deserves credit for beating Marvel to the punch.
For all its enjoyable films and characters, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is plagued by indecision around its female leads. By the spring of 2019, Marvel will release its first film led by a woman: Captain Marvel, with Oscar winner Brie Larson as the title character. Even so, the movie has two directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Boden and Fleck are talented filmmakers, the team behind Half Nelson and Sugar, yet the optics of Marvel waiting so long to let a woman lead one of their films while only having a woman co-direct are unavoidably bad.
Seeing as Marvel has characters like Black Widow, the Wasp, and Scarlet Witch at the ready, why did DC beat the studio to the punch? Whatever else Marvel has done right, its handling of female characters has been a sore spot for a while. In 2015, an email leaked in which Marvel chairman Ike Perlmutter decried the concept of female-led superhero films, using Catwoman, Elektra, and the 1984 film Supergirl as examples. Those are, admittedly, bad superhero movies. But, arguably, the same could be said of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk or Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World. (Don’t forget: Patty Jenkins was originally attached to direct Thor: The Dark World. With Wonder Woman, she made the right decision.)
Leaving that leaked email aside (and it’s worth noting Perlmutter no longer has the sway at Marvel Studios he once wielded), there have been other baffling miscues on Marvel’s part. In 2015, tying into the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the studio failed to include Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in its merchandising line. Considering that Black Widow is a member of The Avengers, and Johansson is a worldwide movie star, her exclusion was headscratching. Marvel is making changes, true: the Ant-Man sequel notably includes Evangeline Lilly’s character in the title, suggesting an equal share of the story. And Black Panther boasts a number of female leads, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
DC made the right choice in making Wonder Woman now, and Jenkins behind the helm was equally shrewd. Gal Gadot’s utterly sincere take on Diana Prince feels like a stark and sharp rebuke to the emphasis on dark-and-gritty stories that show up in so many tentpoles (even earlier DC films). Though the film’s third act shows signs of creakiness that crop up in a lot of other superhero stories, the first two-thirds are propelled by an openness, honesty, and upbeat quality that’s welcome in a time of turmoil.
The character of Diana Prince (the words “Wonder Woman” are not uttered in the film, nor do they need to be) is an embodiment of inspiration. The success of Wonder Woman this weekend, if we are eternally lucky, will help end the foolish myth within the industry that people will not see a movie about women. Hopefully, it will allow more female filmmakers a seat at the table to direct other tentpole projects.
Successful tentpoles like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Grey, along with comedies like the Pitch Perfect series, the second of which was directed by Elizabeth Banks, show the hunger audiences have for female-driven stories.
Next spring, on a positive note, Ava DuVernay will become the third female director to make a film with a budget over $100 million, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. And Gina Prince-Bythewood has been set as the first woman of color to direct a comic book movie, the Spider-Man spinoff Silver & Black. It’s unfortunate that in 2017, a film directed by a woman, starring a woman, should be such a monumental step forward culturally. But that’s where we are. Wonder Woman matters, and it’s to DC’s credit that they pushed this movie, with this star, and this director, now.