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Box Office: Will Hollywood Try to Explain Away Wonder Woman’s Success & Return to the Status Quo?

Before I start into my whole spiel about how this could all go horribly wrong, let’s just stop to scoreboard watch and celebrate:

Context: As of 4 days ago, the experts were predicting a domestic opening in the $65-75m range with a ceiling of $90-95m. Similarly, the foreign opening wasn’t expected to exceed $100m.

They did it. They actually did it. Patty Jenkins just broke through the glass ceiling for female directors everywhere, easily setting the record for largest opening weekend for a film directed by a woman, beating the $85m posted by Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Gal Gadot just made Brie “Captain Marvel” Larson’s life easier and gave hope to any other actresses hoping to someday star in their own female-led superhero movie. WB finally has a financial AND critical hit from its much beleaguered DC Extended Universe, which suddenly has positive buzz and momentum, two things it’s never really had before. And women finally have a superhero movie of their own to support, turning out in unprecedented numbers in making up 52% of Wonder Woman’s domestic audience, an unheard of total for a superho movies since they typically skew 60% male.

In short, Wonder Woman is a giant hit. It’s a hit here, with a stellar RottenTomatoes score, “A” on CinemaScore, premature Oscar talk and a $100m opening, the sixth biggest of all time for any non-sequel comic book movie. It’s a hit everywhere else, with Warners claiming it came in ahead of Man of Steel in most markets (particulalry China, where it made $38m) and is currently pacing ahead of the first two entries in each of the following franchises: Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor. Sure, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad all had superior domestic openings, but they also all cost considerably more to make (in BvS‘s cases, twice as much) and engendered little good will with audiences. Besides, Wonder Woman is arguably more comparable to one of Marvel’s sub-franchise (i.e., solo) films, and it’s already beating the crap out of every Thor and Captain America film other than Civil War.

As Lexi Alexander, the last woman director to go through the studio system and make a superhero movie (Punisher: War Zone), once explained this could have all gone south fast: “How many male superhero movies fail? So now, we finally get Wonder Woman with a female director; imagine if it fails. And you have no control over marketing, over budget. So without any control, you carry the f—ing weight of gender equality for both characters and women directors. No way.”

Jenkins pulled it off, though. Moreover, according to THR she’s definitely coming back for Wonder Woman 2. It’s worth stopping to point out that the two women now below Jenkins on the list of biggest openings for woman directed movies – Sam Taylor-Johnson for Fifty Shades and Catherine Hardwicke for Twilight –  were replaced by men on the sequels.

Recent years have brought increased interest in improving diversity in front and behind the screen, but the pace of change has been so glacial that it actually triggered a federal probe into discriminatory hiring practices in the industry. There have been gains in TV and documentaries, but in the feature film world the problem keeps getting worse. According to Stacy Smith of the University of Southern California, “Just 4% of all directors across 1,000 top movies from 2007 to 2016 were female, and of those only three were black women.”

As such, Jenkins’ career path is not unique – she made one Oscar-winning indie (Monster) and then a lot of TV despite brief flirtations with various feature film projects which didn’t pan out (most notably Thor 2). Her success with Wonder Woman now gives hope to any number of other woman directors whose body of work in extreme indie film and/or TV suggests an ability to do much more and succeed if simply given the chance to make a blockbuster film.

There are already signs of progress. Captain Marvel, due in 2019, will be co-directed by Anna Boden, working with her longtime collabroator Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind). Silver & Black, Sony’s Silver Sable and Black Cat team-up, recently hired director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), setting her up to become the first black woman to direct a superhero movie (assuming Silver & Black gets made, which is not a given, not with Sony’s track record). Plus, outside of the superhero genre Niki Caro (Zookeeper’s Wife) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) have been entrusted with blockbuster budgets to respectively bring Mulan and Wrinkle in Time to life.

Prince-Bythewood and DuVernay pledged their support for Wonder Woman over the weekend:

But Hollywood is still an industry overwhelmingly run by men. You would think that Wonder Woman disproves all the old excuses, that Jenkins and company have shown a woman with little feature-film expereince can indeed command a sizable budget and (mostly male) crew and translate it into positive results and that the failures of Catwoman and Elektra are no longer acceptable excuses for not making female-led superhero movies. However, it’s not hard to imagine some studio suit writing all of this off as simply the inevitable result of being the first – the first female-led superhero film of the current era, the first Wonder Woman movie ever. It didn’t matter who directed this because Wonder Woman is the most popular and long-lasting female superhero in all of comics. It was going to be a hit no matter what. Let’s see how one of these movies focused on a lesser known female superhero plays, or so one line of thought might go.

That view might be in the minority. In fact, I’d be shocked if by the end of Wonder Woman‘s monumental Friday someone at WB hadn’t already called Margot Robbie and David Ayer to see if they can possibly get moving on Gotham City Sirens any quicker:

But, historically speaking whenever female-led or minority-led movies hit they are viewed as the exceptions to the rule.  Sure, there will be brief pockets of time where Hollywood will try out new diversity-leaning concepts based on a breakthrough success, but the moment a The Heat knock-off like Hot Pursuit fails is the moment the era of the female buddy cop movie ends. Same goes for Hunger Games wannabe Insurgent.

Here in 2017, Ghost in the Shell bombing is the rule; Wonder Woman the exception. Similarly, Sleight, J.D. Dillard’s indie drama-superhero hybrid with Jacob Latimore as the lead, bombing is the rule; Get Out the exception.

So, while Wonder Woman‘s success is a watershed moment in Hollywood history for its impact to be long-lasting Patty Jenkins can’t be by herself on the list of highest-grossing woman directors for too long. Men are allowed to fail all the time and often end up failing upward (e.g., After Guy Ritchie utterly failed to turn his $75m-budgeted Man from UNCLE into a franchise-starter WB gave him a $175m budget to repeat that failure with King Arthur). Women are not afforded that luxury, not yet at least. Wonder Woman‘s a hit? Great. But now we need to support Zoe Lister-Jones’ Band Aid next weekend and Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde later this summer (both of which have received moderate-to-good reviews). Slowly but surely we’ll have to reach a point where every single woman directed and/or starring movie doesn’t have to carry the f—ing weight of gender equality, where a success is not an exception and failure not a damning death sentence for any and all films with any remote similarities in cast or crew composition.

But for now, damn, let’s just go see Wonder Woman again because it is really, really good.

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About Kelly Konda (1854 Articles)
Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

9 Comments on Box Office: Will Hollywood Try to Explain Away Wonder Woman’s Success & Return to the Status Quo?

  1. Correct me if I wrong, but doesn’t GotG have a sizable female audience, too, which is part of its box office success?

    I just hope that the exes at WB now feel like an idiot that they have made (not counting BvS) six movies about Superman, eight movies about Batman (none if you count Mask of the Phantasm) but have allowed Wonder Woman to languish in development hell for decades in which they could have made a lot of money out of her.

    Concerning female directors: I still think that Ava is a terrible pick for Wrinkle in Time and I don’t like what I have heard so far about the Mulan project, but let’s wait and see.

    • Most of the Marvel movies tend to play to male AND female audiences, but I don’t recall any superhero movie ever having a majority female audience for its opening weekend. WW’s female audience domestically was 52% vs. 44% for Guardians 1 & 2. The female audience is definitely a big part of GotG’s success; just not quite as big (percentage wise) as WW’s (so far).

      To be fair to WB, the people who are currently in charge have been in those positions for a couple of years. The Dark Knight trilogy happened under somebody else’s watch, and it wasn’t so much them but Joel Silver who dragged his feet on Wonder Woman for too long after he took charge of the project due to The Matrix’s success. But it is under the current leadership’s watch that Wonder Woman was almost squandered away on a CW TV show, and they had some bullshit excuse about toy sales to explain why they didn’t take the success of the Wonder Woman animated movie more seriously.

      WB has actually been more progressive than Marvel in the range of DC comic books its adapted, trying out Constantine, Jonah Hex, V for Vendetta, A History of Violence, Stardust, The Losers. But for too long and spanning several different regimes it’s been Batman, Superman or bust as far as WB was concerned with superheroes, and when the few times they branched outside of that (Catwoman, Green Lantern) didn’t work out they turned right back to the Martha boys. For 12 years, Patty Jenkins would ask them what was going on with Wonder Woman, and it was never the priority it should have been. Good on her for sticking at it and never giving up; bad on them, be they with the studio anymore or not, for not realizing the potential until now.

      As for the female directors: Chris Pine is going to be in A Wrinkle in Time as well. I didn’t know that until earlier this morning. Just thought I’d share that. We’ve discussed Wrinkle and Mulan before. At this point, the new developments are the Captain Marvel and Silver & Black hirings. I don’t really know how to feel about either of those because I’m not overly familiar with the work of either of the pertinent female directors. For Anna Boden, I’ve seen “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” (which is surprisingly good) and “Mississippi Grind” (which felt like a grind to me). For Gina Prince-Bythewood, I haven’t seen anything she’s done, and I have no idea how a Silver Sable and Black Cat movie works without some minimal Spider-Man screen time. I don’t have much faith in Sony’s ability to make any of these non-Spider-Man movies actually happen.

      • Well, the team they have for Captain Marvel has so far gotten good critics for everything they did, so I am very optimistic. I admit, I didn’t really pay attention to Silver and Black just yet, because that is one of those projects which might never made it in the end. It’s not worth to get worked up over it. Captain Marvel on the other hand will happen in one form or another. So far Marvel has been pretty good on its word when it comes to movies.

      • Boden and her partner seem like a classic Marvel Studios hire. Come to the job with nothing more than a resume full of little-watched-but-critically-admired indies. Never even worked in anything remotely resembling the superhero genre before. Will probably do a great job of working within the Marvel style and add their own unique flavoring. Let Feige, Alonso and D’Esposito hold their hands through all the effects work and promotion to allow them more time to focus on getting good performances from the actors, especially Brie Larson (obviously). Nothing in Marvel Studios’ history to this point gives cause for concern.

        As for Silver & Black, well, that’s another story entirely, but not even worth going into until Sony’s endless talk turns into actual action.

  2. You seemed to like this 100% more than I did. Box office success, cinematic disappointment for me. Gadot was tremendous, the rest of the movie…super meh, very average, overhyped. Great post!

    • I saw another reviewer say that she couldn’t possibly fool herself into believing Wonder Woman is truly some flawless masterpiece, but because of the way it made her feel and the inspiring feeling it left her with she also couldn’t possibly walk away disappointed. That’s close to how I feel because, yeah, that third act betrays so much of what came before, and a lot of its fairly familiar to anyone who remembers First Avenger or Thor. But I just feel like Gal Gadot and Penny Jenkins’ version of Wonder Woman is exactly the superhero we need right now. Since so many others feel similarly, though, the hype machine is certainly in hyperdrive right now.

  3. Wonder Woman was an ace film and I relly hope this is the movie that opens the floodgates for more flicks like this one. No, not all of them need to be action-packed, but it’s way past time for women directors, actors, and characters to have their chance in the spotlight. Sure, WW wasn’t perfect, but it’s already inspiring millions of little girls around the world to shatter the ceiling.

    That said, would you be interested in sharing your work on Movie Pilot? I’d like to invite you to the platform as one of our content creators. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail, my contact details are on my “About” page. (o^.^)b

  4. I think you have a really good point about how this may not open up the floodgates to women directors. Malcolm Gladwell talked about the phenomenon of tokenism and moral licencing in his podcast, especially as it relates to minorities and women. Hollywood may simply pat themselves on the back for being so open minded and feminist for giving Patti Jenkins the job, and then give all the other films to men. And if anyone challenges them for being sexist, they can say, “We gave Patti Jenkins the chance to direct Wonder Woman, so we can’t be sexist.”

    I also loved your frustrating point about how men directors are allowed to direct a flop and then Hollywood turns around and gives them more money so they can flop even bigger. Grr.

    Unfortunately, Band Aid is not playing in my area (yet) but I will keep my eye out for it. Thanks !

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