In her first big-screen outing this weekend, Wonder Woman handily defeated a power-mad German general, a cabal of skeptical British Intelligence officers and even Ares, the Greek god of war. But Diana of Themyscira's biggest victory is easily against an entertainment industry built upon a century of sexism.
Or, that's the hope.
After pulling in $100.5-million (all figures U.S.) at the box office, director Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman has shattered the North American opening record for a movie helmed by a woman. With its lead star Gal Gadot, it has set a new benchmark for comic-book cinema, loudly and proudly featuring the first lead female superhero in our current spandex-obsessed era. With its high ratio of female audience members (about 52 per cent, in a genre that averages only 40 per cent), it has proven there is an underserved market just waiting to be catered to with quality, testosterone-light cinema. And with its strong critical consensus (93 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, a 76-point rank on Metacritic), it has almost single-handedly saved a summer movie season that was already looking bloated with ill-conceived remakes and crass franchise extensions.
But as much as Wonder Woman should logically herald a new age of gender-based triumph in the film industry, Jenkins's work may turn out to be a mere outlier.
First, let's look at that box-office record. It sounds impressive, but only before you consider that a paltry few female filmmakers have been afforded the opportunity to even helm a project with such blockbuster potential. The closest competitor to Jenkins is Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose 2015 romance Fifty Shades of Grey earned $85.1-million its opening weekend. After Taylor-Johnson, you'd have to go back seven long years to 2008, when Catherine Hardwicke's young-adult catnip Twilight brought in $69.6-million.
The simple fact is that women are not given the opportunity to succeed in the movie business in the first place, and any success, like Jenkins's, is thus regarded as an extraordinary game-changer. The problem is, Hollywood is loath to change its own game.
The next three years of the film calendar spell out this dilemma perfectly, if depressingly. Of the approximately 149 movies in development from the Big Six studios – Warner Bros., Fox, Sony, Disney, Paramount and Universal – from now until the end of 2019, only about a dozen will come courtesy of female directors. The remainder of 2017 promises just three women-led films with even mild expectations of financial success – Lucia Aniello's dark comedy Rough Night (via Sony), Trish Sie's Pitch Perfect 3 (Universal) and Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit (Annapurna, a smaller studio operating outside the mainstream). With the exception of Bigelow's period piece, the titles are also primarily engineered as female-friendly films – not a potential blockbuster or gender-divide-crossing hit in the bunch.
Even Warner Bros., home to Wonder Woman and now so eager to crow about its progressiveness – "Wonder Woman is a woman for our time, and her message and the tone that Patty Jenkins set forth connects with now," Jeff Goldstein, domestic distribution chief for Warner, said this weekend – has scheduled just two other female-helmed films this year, both of which (Denise Di Novi's thriller Unforgettable and Stella Meghie's YA romance Everything, Everything) are of the low-budget variety, designed to act as standalone films rather than franchise-starters.
Speaking of those much-coveted brand extensions, the next few years of superhero cinema, Hollywood's current bread and butter, is looking especially male-centric. It will take until March, 2019, for another woman to helm a comic-book property – and even then, Captain Marvel director Anna Boden is sharing duties with creative collaborator Ryan Fleck. (Another superhero feature, the sorta-Spider-Man spinoff Silver and Black, just signed Gina Prince-Bythewood as director, but it does not have a release date.)
Warner, meanwhile, has at least four DC films (Justice League, Aquaman, The Flash and Gotham City Sirens) in various stages of production, with at at least another four sitting in the distant horizon – and none has a female director attached. And while Jenkins is contracted for the now inevitable Wonder Woman sequel, she might want to pay careful attention to her box-office forebears. Sam Taylor-Johnson and Catherine Hardwicke both scored with their respective blockbusters – but both were replaced by men for the sequels.
Wonder Woman and Patty Jenkins are the heroes Hollywood needs – if only Hollywood would admit it needs saving.