At a time when Deadpool seemed to portend the need for superhero movies to ratchet up the edgy hard-R content and excessive snark, Patty Jenkins had the courage to defy this new conventional wisdom and, instead, go in the exact opposite direction.
Studio analysts and entertainment pundits are already dissecting why Wonder Woman was such a huge success over its debut weekend, with a $103.1 million domestic haul that far exceeded initial tracking of $65 million just a few weeks ago.
No doubt many of the strengths that analysts cite are on point: solid script, well-developed characters, strong leads and ensemble, humor balancing out drama, and a director that didn’t reinvent the wheel but knew exactly what to do with it. Plus, this blockbuster finally delivered a female superhero, something that audiences apparently had a pent-up yearning for (women in particular; they bought 60% of the tickets).
Bottom line, this is more than just a hit. Look no further than social media and you’ll see that Wonder Woman has really struck a chord.
Yet it’s not like there haven’t been attempts at female action stars before.
You know the failures, Catwoman and Elektra primary among them, and even dating back to Supergirl. So where did Wonder Woman succeed where the likes of those attempts or even Angelina Jolie’s mildly successful Tomb Raider films fail? Clearly there has to be a deeper lesson here than to simply make a woman the hero and throw in some jokes/romance to leaven the action. Even the unstoppable Marvel brand has been skittish to test their Midas touch with a female led franchise.
Also, it can’t merely be chalked up to the fact that Wonder Woman is the most iconic of all female superheroes. That factor can’t be discounted, certainly, but if she were that much of a box office slam dunk then we would’ve already seen multiple franchise trilogies and reboots of Wonder Woman by now – like we have of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man – rather than this long-overdue effort being the first ever feature length stand alone for the Amazonian.
So what did Patty Jenkins finally figure out that no one else had? It’s this: a female superhero has to be more than just tough or “a man’s equal” (I use quotes because the notion itself is condescending, and why reduce a woman to that anyway?). In crude terms, she has to have more than balls.
She has to be aspirational.
This Diana Prince isn’t just a role model in the general sense, and her feminine virtues weren’t boosted by testosterone or somehow marginalized; they were magnified. This Wonder Woman is the incarnation of what makes women vital to our humanity. She’s the kind of woman that every other woman (and person) wants to be, in their souls, whether they can kick somebody’s butt or not.
It’s not Wonder Woman’s abilities that are empowering; it’s her ideals.
If studios don’t grasp this salient point, future attempts at female superheroes (and even other male ones) that are driven by marketing checklists or PC identity politics will come up short.
In today’s comic book movie landscape of jaded superheroes and their conflicted, self-doubting alter egos, the ideals that Diana Prince unabashedly fights for are sorely lacking. Even Superman has baggage.
Audiences are tired of reluctant heroes.
Diana is a woman who doesn’t question and deconstruct her ideals when they’re confronted by the horrors of the real world. Instead, her response is to double-down on those ideals. She doesn’t question if they’re true; she realizes that the inherent, unchangeable truth of her ideals is what’s needed now more than ever.
This conviction comes from her purity, not in spite of it. In Diana Prince, we see that innocence need not equal naiveté. It can actually produce wisdom, and action. As I said in my review, “She’s not the rube; we are, in our stultifying moral relativity.”
This portrayal also resonates with how women often feel about their position in the world today. There’s a scene early on, when Antiope (Robin Wright) is training Diana to learn how to fight in battle. Diana drops her guard. In that moment Antiope attacks, driving Diana to the ground, yelling, “Never let your guard down! You expect the battle to be fair! The battle will never be fair!” Every woman watching probably feels the truth and depth of that disparity in the real world, of what they have to face and fight through on a daily basis simply because of their gender.
And then they’re inspired by how Diana responds to Antiope’s challenge.
It took director Patty Jenkins to see all of this clearly, not only within the DC universe but even within the quandaries that Marvel tries to layer upon the likes of Captain America. Before Jenkins, filmmakers and studios were afraid of their superheroes coming off as corny, or cheesy, believing they needed an angst or an edge, or a troubled backstory.
Jenkins, on the other hand, knew instinctively that earnest sincerity is what these tentpoles were lacking, and what audiences were longing. And instead of Diana’s sheltered, virtuous upbringing being a liability, Jenkins used it to lay the groundwork for Wonder Woman to be unshakeable.
Jenkins lays this out quite plainly, and passionately, in this quote from a recent New York Times interview that has understandably gone viral:
- Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis. I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.
In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince brings beauty to the world because even in its darkest moments (World War I, in this case) she can still see the beauty that’s there, and that beauty isn’t fragile but a foundation.
When faced with the brutal realities of the human condition, this Wonder Woman doesn’t psychologically collapse into some existential spiral. She rises to a righteous cause, almost on instinct.
At a time when all of our superheroes are burdened by the cynicism of our modern age, Wonder Woman is the first to cut right through it, not just with confidence but with genuine moral clarity.
Plus, she really loves ice cream.
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