Welcome to MEL’s “Women of Action” series, a week-long deep dive into five landmark action films made by female filmmakers. Far too often, writers have fixated on what women look like in the action genre — instead, I’ll be unpacking the creative influence that these five filmmakers have had behind the camera. As such, every day, I’m taking a look at one female filmmaker who has made a groundbreaking action film, as producers, auteurs, upstarts and finally, as breakthroughs, and attempting to outline their creative influence and impact on the genre, in some of the most notable (one way or the other) action films ever made.
Our final installment is a hopeful one, looking at the breakthrough that was Wonder Woman, and how director Patty Jenkins went from making an Oscar-winning film about a female serial killer to a film about a female superhero, and becoming something of a superhero herself.
In the summer of 2017, Patty Jenkins did something that no man had previously done before: She made a good DC Extended Universe movie. With Wonder Woman, both saving the world and salvaging the embattled DCEU proved to be women’s work. There was a lot riding on the success of Jenkins’ film, and her breakthrough seems to have (so far) shattered the glass ceiling on women directing comic book movies and big budget action movies.
Jenkins also did something no woman had ever done before: direct a film that earned more than $100 million in its opening weekend. And for the sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, due later this year, she’s become the highest paid female director ever, something that’s symbolically more important than financially. As she told Variety in 2017, when she graced the cover of the “Power of Women” issue, “I’ve never been more aware of a duty than I was in this deal. I was extremely aware that I had to make sure I was being paid what the male equivalent would be.”
There is data to prove that Wonder Woman was, indeed, the first good DCEU movie. 2013 heralded the arrival of the first installment of the series, Man of Steel. Zack Snyder’s Superman movie clocked in with a 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and made $291 million domestically. The numbers faltered from there. Snyder’s 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earned a dismal 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but had a slightly better box office haul: $330 million. The largely reviled (yet Oscar winning!) 2016 DC villains flick Suicide Squad clocked in at a 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with $325 million in domestic box office. Finally, Wonder Woman swooped in to save the day in the summer of 2017, with a whopping 93 percent Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, raking in $412 million domestically. Later that year, the much-ballyhooed Justice League would garner a 40 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes and take in $225 million.
So there you have it: cold hard facts. It was a breakthrough film for Warner Bros. and the DCEU, the underdogs battling against the box office behemoths and critical darlings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. DC fans had been so outraged at the lack of critical love for the DCEU films up to this point that they concocted a conspiracy theory about critics being bribed with Disney bucks to give MCU films better reviews (as one of those critics, let me set the record straight: I have not received compensation for any fresh scores I gave Marvel movies). But finally, here was a film that critics actually loved.
Jenkins was the first woman to helm a big budget superhero movie (asterisk here to acknowledge Lexi Alexander’s 2008 Marvel Knights/Lionsgate movie Punisher: War Zone, a medium budget dark comic book adaptation), one with a female superhero to boot. Game of Thrones director Michelle MacLaren was originally slated to direct Wonder Woman, though she and Warner Bros. parted ways in 2015, with the studio bringing on Jenkins, director of Monster and a couple of episodes of The Killing. After the success of Wonder Woman, Marvel/Disney would quickly fall in line with hiring female directors to helm female-fronted superhero films: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck co-directed Captain Marvel, Gina Prince-Bythewood was attached to Silver & Black and Jac Schaeffer and Cate Shortland were tapped to co-write and direct Black Widow, respectively. And DC/WB continued their push for bold female voices behind the camera on female stories, with Cathy Yan helming the delightfully demented and colorful Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (a Certified Fresh 78 percent).
The casting preceded the director in this case. In 2012, Snyder, looking for a new Wonder Woman for the DCEU, cast Gal Gadot, a lanky, low-voiced former Miss Israel and IDF combat trainer, with an easy grin and a curious brow, best known for a trio of mid-franchise Fast and Furious movies. Diana of Themyscira had turned up briefly in Batman v Superman, but 2017 was her time to shine, and the cultural impact of the film Jenkins made was enhanced in the wake of the devastating 2016 presidential election. Jenkins and WB couldn’t have known while shooting the film that what we (women) needed to see in June 2017, four months after Trump’s inauguration, was Robin Wright wasting three German soldiers with one triple arrow shot (it still brings a tear to my eye).
The film opens with Diana’s narration over a shot of planet Earth: “I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But I knew so little then. It is a land of magic and wonder, worth cherishing in every way. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness simmering within. And mankind? [rueful chuckle] Mankind is another story altogether.” Cue internal (or external) screams — girl, we feel you.
Here were a few hours where we could bask in the fantasy of a feminine utopia, where women fighting men wasn’t only necessary and effective, but it was inherently good. The film allowed us to engage in a fantasy where women fight men and win. It was cathartic. The violence of the Amazons is beautiful, balletic, acrobatic and aspirational. We were all little Diana yearning to participate.
The shiny, beautiful and noble violence against men in Wonder Woman was the inverse of Jenkins’ first (and so far, only other) feature film, 2003’s Monster, in which Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos. That film similarly offered the promise of a woman-only utopia, in the lesbian relationship between Aileen and Selby (Christina Ricci).
The audience, and Selby herself, wonders if Aileen is even attracted to her, or if she’s just had it up to here with being used and abused by dudes. The violence in Monster is ugly, terrifying and all too real, because Aileen’s story was real, and Jenkins stayed true to both Aileen’s expressed experience (as a victim of sexual abuse and a sex worker who killed in self-defense), as well as the grisly violence she inflicted on real victims, with real consequences. Wonder Woman offered the opposite: a kind of female violence against bad men that is laudable and moral.
The good and beautiful violence of Diana and Wonder Woman is reflected in how Jenkins shoots the action, in long, CGI-enhanced takes that speed ramp in and out of slow motion so that we can take in the grace and beauty of each movement: the sweep of a leg or a long backflip. This isn’t the awkward, fumbling, bloody violence of Monster, but something gorgeous, pure and right.
Naturally, this wouldn’t be the “Women of Action” series without at least one mention of James Cameron, who mansplained female empowerment in an interview with The Guardian. Cameron claimed Diana was “an objectified icon” and a “step backwards.” Jenkins cooly clapped back, saying that his inability to understand the response to the character was, “unsurprising as, though, he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman.” She continued, “If women always have to be hard, tough and troubled to be strong, we aren’t free to be multidimensional. … There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman.” Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the tough, brawny, heroines of Cameron’s films were the popular template for women being heroic. Here, though, was a woman directing a female superhero who was actually feminine, and her power was in her femininity, not because she looked or behaved like a man.
But it was always about the hero, and not the hero’s gender, that Jenkins focused on, which allowed her to make Diana such a unique female hero. As Jenkins said in an interview with the New York Times, “I wasn’t directing a woman, I was just directing a hero.” That focus on the personal allowed her “to go broader with her personality than someone might be able to do if they were afraid to make her vulnerable and loving and warm, and not always right, which is absolutely imperative to a leading character.” Jenkins was brave enough to make Diana vulnerable, which ultimately makes her strong.
In 2017, the culture could embrace a blatantly feminist film (and Jenkins could actually make one). In a fifth wave of feminism, which cropped up around 2012, the vestiges of early 2000s post-feminism were long swept aside, the term no longer an insult, embraced by millennial women, screen-printed on a million T-shirts. And yet, the feminism of Wonder Woman still needed to be couched. The screenplay, by Allan Heinberg, Snyder and Jason Fuchs, set these modern attitudes in the past, during World War I. It’s common practice to utilize a period setting to deliver a more pointed message: When it’s just too intense to look directly at the issue, set it in the past or use genre to package it (the sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, is obviously set in the 1980s). Westerns allowed audiences to reckon with the realities of modern warfare or violent colonialism through the filter of a genre period piece. So the thoroughly modern Wonder Woman is a World War I movie, with a surprisingly Renoir-ish quality for a CGI spectacle superhero film. Parts of it feel inspired by the 1937 Jean Gabin-starring film La Grande Illusion.
Our heroine can be unabashedly feminist because she’s an outsider who simply doesn’t know this world — she embodies an alternative to our patriarchal society. Diana’s otherness allows her to refuse oppressively gendered social norms (especially highlighted in a period setting), turning up her nose at modest and restrictive clothing that inhibit her fighting, barging into men-only meetings and commenting that secretarial work is like slavery.
The film wrings comedy out of this, especially between Diana and her love interest, the American-British spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). She’s a stranger in a strange land, a quirky type who’s just not like other girls. In yet another layer of sub-genre, Wonder Woman is also a classic screwball comedy — you can draw a direct line from Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night to Steve and Diana in Wonder Woman.
Like our world, there are women in Wonder Woman who know, and even uphold the evils of the cruel world of men all too well. One of the main antagonists is Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), a sadistic scientist known as Dr. Poison, who mixes up increasingly toxic gases to be deployed in warfare. Disfigured, wearing a facial prosthetic, Dr. Maru has turned bitter and sour. She scoffs at Steve’s advances and rolls her eyes as if to say “typical” when his eye wanders to Diana sweeping into the room. Inured to the misogynist reification of female beauty, she has turned her energies toward destroying men themselves, becoming a female enabler of fascism.
But it’s far too easy to think of Diana simply as a “naïf” who hasn’t been exposed to the evils of men — she’s not naive, she just embodies a matriarchal alternative. Her power is something mystical, elemental and primal. She embodies a feminine intelligence that’s intuitive and emotional, juxtaposed against the science and logic of men, and it proves to be the only kind of power that can defeat the industrialized war machine in this fantasy.
It’s Diana’s emotion and empathy that activates her superpower, whether it’s crossing No Man’s Land because she wants to save the villagers at Veld, or channeling her love and grief to transform into the Godkiller and destroy Ares after Steve is killed. “It’s about what you believe,” she says, “and I believe in love.”
The scene of Steve’s death and Diana’s subsequent transformation is even more poignant when you consider that Jenkins’ father, an Air Force captain and Vietnam vet, died in a similar manner at age 31, when Jenkins was only seven. She told Variety, “He passed away after taking off from a runway exactly like the one that Steve takes off on. He crashed in the ocean.” How the crash happened is still unknown: “He was in the middle of a NATO mock dogfight,” Jenkins explained. “They crash a lot. You’re doing a tricky maneuver.” There is a dedication to her father in the credits.
Shortly after her father’s death, Jenkins experienced a life-altering moment of her own, when she saw Richard Donner’s Superman. The superhero movie had a profound effect on her: “It really hit me in that way of exactly what I think superheroes were designed to do — to inspire you to metaphorically imagine the superhero within.” Jenkins decided then to make movies. After experiencing tragedy at such a young age, movies were a way for her to “experience wonder somewhere. I didn’t think I would experience it in real life,” and she wanted to “make a movie that makes other people feel like that movie made me feel.”
Diana and Clark Kent are very similar characters — outsiders experiencing the troubles of life on Earth and doing their best to save us from ourselves. Donner’s Superman remained a key text for Jenkins. She watched it carefully for inspiration, saying, “It hit these pockets so perfectly of comedy, action, romance. That balance was an inspiration to me. I wanted to do something that felt as good to go and see and have that adult stuff going on simultaneously.”
She also celebrates the brightness and beauty of Wonder Woman, such a far cry from the dark, crushing bleakness of Batman v Superman or even the gritty cynicism of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Jenkins told Rolling Stone that she wanted to “make something uplifting and magical and personal,” and that, “the thing I think is so important to always keep in mind about her is how positive and bright and shiny she is — very much in the same way that Superman has been. Staying true to the spirit of that seemed incredibly important to me.”
What makes Diana different from other superheroes is her ability to envision a different kind of world; her empathy is what makes her powerful, not firepower or bombast. She believes in doing the right thing and acts on it — a quality all too rare these days, even more rare since the mere three years ago when Wonder Woman proved to be the escapist female empowerment we needed.
Here’s the thing: We don’t deserve Diana, that’s for sure, but that’s the fantasy comic book world. Here in the real world? We absolutely do deserve, and need, Patty Jenkins, the heroine she gave us, and the path she’s paving, with a belief in sincerity, vulnerability and strength.