The Complex Gender Politics of the ‘Wonder Woman’ Movie
Can Patty Jenkins make the superhero world safe for female directors? Warner Bros. gambles $150 million on its first woman-centered comic book movie with a filmmaker whose only prior big-screen credit was an $8 million indie: "I can't take on the history of 50 percent of the population just because I'm a woman."
Patty Jenkins is sipping some sort of healthy soup-like sludge at a restaurant in Burbank called Olive & Thyme. Dressed in black jeans and a white tank top, with a pair of aviator sunglasses perched on her forehead to keep her straight black hair from falling into her brown eyes, she looks like a grad student taking a break between classes. You’d never guess that this petite woman drinking green gunk is actually the most important female film director in the business today. She doesn’t think so, of course.
“I can’t take on the history of 50 percent of the population just because I’m a woman,” says Jenkins, bristling when asked about the heavy responsibility of directing Wonder Woman, the most expensive film ever shot by a person with two XX chromosomes (its $150 million budget surpasses Kathryn Bigelow’s $100 million K-19: The Widowmaker). “I’m just trying to make the greatest version of Wonder Woman that I can for the people who love the character as much as I do and hope that the movie lives up to all the pressure that’s on it.”
And that pressure is superhuman, to be sure. When the biggest female-centered comic book movie ever premiered at the Pantages Theatre in L.A. on May 25 (it goes wide June 2), it was Jenkins’ name leading the credits. That would be nerve-wracking enough even for a director with lots of experience working on big-budget superhero movies. But aside from the pilot of AMC’s The Killing and occasional gigs on other high-profile TV shows — shooting episodes of Arrested Development and a couple for Entourage — Jenkins’ biggest accomplishment (indeed, her only big-screen feature) was 2003’s Monster, the indie drama about a female serial killer that earned critical raves and Charlize Theron a best actress Oscar.
Hiring Jenkins, 45 — who had come close to directing a superhero movie before, the 2013 Thor sequel, but ended up backing out — was obviously a big gamble for Warner Bros., a studio that has been having creative if not necessarily financial issues with its superhero franchise films ever since the Dark Knight trilogy. But her taking the helm of Wonder Woman is also a big deal for pretty much every female director in Hollywood with tentpole ambitions. If Wonder Woman is a hit, then doors that have been kept shut for decades could potentially swing open (they are already, at least a crack, with Gina Prince-Bythewood just getting hired to direct Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff Silver & Black). If, on the other hand, Wonder Woman turns out to be another Catwoman, the superhero universe could remain a boys club for eons to come.
“That’s the challenge — how to tell a story of a woman and make it universal,” says Gal Gadot, the 32-year-old Israeli actress who stars as the Amazonian princess with bullet-deflecting bracelets. “We are all used to having male protagonists in movies [directed by men]. But the way Patty has captured the Wonder Woman character, she is very relatable to everyone. Boy, girl, man, woman — everyone can relate to her.”
Jenkins grew up in California. And Thailand. And Kansas. And Germany. Her dad was an Air Force captain (who won a Silver Star in Vietnam) and her mom an environmental scientist; and Patricia Lea, as she was christened, spent most of her childhood moving from one air base to another. As far as she’s concerned, it was the perfect training for a future career in filmmaking. “To be a director, you need to be reliable, on time, confident, calm, all of those things you see demonstrated in the military,” she notes.
As a kid, she’d always been interested in storytelling and visual arts. Her first job in movies was during junior high, when she was a production assistant on a documentary directed by a friend of her mother’s. She ended up studying painting at Cooper Union in New York, where she took a course in experimental filmmaking, and after graduation spent nine years in New York learning filmmaking by working on “literally thousands” of commercials and music videos until she moved to L.A. and enrolled at AFI for directing.
After AFI, she made a couple of shorts of her own, which she used to raise money ($8 million) for her first feature. It was at this point that she first demonstrated a talent for making unexpected but fortuitous choices: She cast Theron, then considered more of a pin-up than a serious actress, as the film’s lead, the decidedly unsexy serial killer Aileen Wuornos. “I said to her, ‘You know, you’re absolutely f—ing crazy,’ ” remembers Theron of her conversation with Jenkins over her casting. “Nobody else would have done that. It was very, very unusual. She looked at me in a way that nobody has ever looked at me.”
The film became such a breakout success that dream opportunities began falling into Jenkins’ lap. Famed test pilot Chuck Yeager approached her to make a movie about his life story, but she opted to develop it independently rather than at a studio, and it eventually fell apart. Then she was set to team with Ryan Gosling on an indie drama titled I Am Superman (no relation to the DC Universe). But she got pregnant with her now-8-year-old son (she’s married to travel writer Sam Sheridan; the three live in Santa Monica, where Jon Favreau is a neighbor), and it got put on hold (she still plans to make the movie with Gosling). Instead, she started directing TV shows — a much less time-consuming job for a new mom — including that pilot for The Killing, which drew critical raves and earned Jenkins an Emmy nomination.
At one point, Jenkins was attached to direct Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, the critical misfire that Alan Taylor wound up shooting after Jenkins left the project (it ended up grossing $645 million worldwide). She won’t say what transpired with that film but will talk more generally about a certain unnamed tentpole that she ultimately walked away from (rhymes with “s’more”). “There have been things that have crossed my path that seemed like troubled projects,” she says. “And I thought, ‘If I take this, it’ll be a big disservice to women. If I take this knowing it’s going to be trouble and then it looks like it was me, that’s going to be a problem. If they do it with a man, it will just be yet another mistake that the studio made. But with me, it’s going to look like I dropped the ball, and it’s going to send a very bad message.’ So I’ve been very careful about what I take for that reason.”
The problem is that tentpole opportunities for women — or any movie directing jobs, for that matter — are still pretty rare … and getting rarer. Despite an increased spotlight on diversity and inclusion, female filmmakers actually lost ground in 2016. Women made up just 7 percent of all directors on the top 250 films, a 2 percent decline from 2015, according to San Diego State University’s Celluloid Ceiling report. That downward trajectory puzzles Jenkins. “I’m sure there’s a long history of belief that certain jobs are masculine,” says Jenkins. “But why a director would fall into that [category] makes me very confused. Because it feels like a very natural job for a woman. It’s incredibly maternal in a way. You’re caretaking all of these sorts of things.”
But around the same time Marvel was making its sequel about the Norse god with the big hammer, Warner Bros. was trying to figure out what to do with its greatest untapped superhero resource. The studio had been toying with the idea of making a big-screen Wonder Woman for decades, with producer Joel Silver going through at least a half-dozen screenwriters (including Joss Whedon) looking for a greenlight-able script (until Silver was relieved of the brand when Diane Nelson was named entertainment president and tasked with shaking up the studio’s comic book development). At one point in 2010, there was an effort to bring Wonder Woman back to TV for the first time since Lynda Carter wore the tiara on ABC in the 1970s, with David E. Kelley writing a pilot for NBC. But that never panned out either.
Jenkins herself came to the Warners lot and pitched her version of a Wonder Woman feature back in 2010. She wanted to make it an origin story set against the backdrop of World War I, beginning with Princess Diana of Themyscira at age 7. But the studio hired another female director, Game of Thrones helmer Michelle MacLaren, who had a different vision — one that turned out to clash with the studio’s. “We parted ways over just never being able to agree on the direction we wanted to take the material,” says producer Charles Roven of MacLaren’s departure from the project. But even before MacLaren left, Roven made sure his daughter, executive producer Rebecca Roven, stayed in contact with Jenkins, “just in case there was a reason that it wasn’t going to work out with Michelle.” And in 2015, Warner Bros. finally agreed to let Jenkins make her Wonder Woman period piece.
As is so often the case with superheroes, this one arrives just in the nick of time, or so at least Warner Bros. hopes. The studio’s past three DC Comics adaptations — Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad — have all made respectable money but also have been disappointments to fans and critics alike (Gadot’s debut as Wonder Woman in 2016’s Batman v. Superman was about the only bit of that film hailed by reviewers). The studio undoubtedly had concerns about hinging the fate of a priceless superhero brand on a director with no big-screen action experience to her credit. But few female directors outside of Bigelow do, and Warners was committed to hiring a woman, or so it was widely reported. “That was important,” admits Roven. “But it wasn’t critical.”
To Jenkins, though, all budgets are created equal. “My last two TV pilots — Exposed and Betrayal — were over $10 million each,” she says. “But you only shoot for eight or 10 days, so it’s actually the same budget per day as what I was working on with Wonder Woman. Obviously, Wonder Woman is a bigger budget expanded throughout, but I feel like every experience I’ve had has been exactly the same from my short film to Wonder Woman, which is, you have 20 percent too little money for what you’re trying to do.”
And as far as Gadot is concerned, Jenkins would have gotten the job even if she’d been a man. “It might translate to some people that the only reason they took Patty for the job was because she is a woman,” she says. “Honestly, they took her for the job because she was the right person to deliver the movie with a similar vision to theirs.”
That vision — crafted with screenwriter Allan Heinberg — is what one might describe as a postfeminist Wonder Woman. Jenkins says she strove to temper the character’s traditional strength with vulnerability, pointing to Richard Donner’s original 1978 Superman as one of her inspirations (“It wouldn’t mean as much when he saves Lois Lane if you hadn’t gone on that journey with him as a little baby being sent to Earth …”). But it’s also clear there’s more than a little piece of herself under Wonder Woman’s armored bodice. “I have an aggressive streak of my own,” admits Jenkins. “I grew up in a family of fighter pilots, and I have a real kindred spirit to that kind of fast-moving aggression and momentum.” (Not surprisingly, her two favorite non-work, non-mom pastimes are skiing and speed skating).
“Credit Patty for not turning [Wonder Woman] into a ballbuster,” says Gadot, a onetime Israel Defense Forces soldier turned model turned actress (before Wonder Woman, she co-starred in four of the Fast and Furious films). “Wonder Woman can be very charming and warm and have so much compassion and love for the world. She can be soft and naive. At the same time, she just happens to be this demigoddess who can beat the shit out of you and can be a super badass and smart and confident. Ultimately, she’s very relatable.”
Theron puts it slightly differently. “Patty loves conflicted women,” she says. “She believes women are more conflicted than men, and she tells her stories very much through that eye. That’s why you can’t take your eyes off her girls because they’re showing you something maybe you haven’t seen before.”
When she’s on set, Jenkins can be a pretty exacting boss, both physically and psychologically. “The shoots were so intensive, six days a week for six months,” recalls Gadot. “But what Patty really cared about most was the emotional fate of a fight because we’d do the drills and the choreography, and you can have them down technically, but if the emotion is not specific, then Patty would say, ‘It’s not going to translate as well. Let’s do it again.’ ”
Theron has similar memories of working with Jenkins on Monster, recalling a 14-hour day shooting a scene in which her character kills a man execution-style. “I’m not lying. I think I did that scene 50 times — if not more,” she says. “By the end of it, I was literally lying facedown in that grass being so exhausted. And she wouldn’t stop. And I’m grateful for that. You want somebody to push you further than you can push yourself. A lot of directors don’t know how to do that, and Patty is very, very good at that.”
On the eve of Wonder Woman‘s release, box-office omens look promising (even if a London premiere had to be canceled after the May 22 terrorist attack in Manchester). Tracking for the film predicts its opening weekend at a very respectable $87 million, although judging by early word-of-mouth, that could end up being a conservative estimate (reviews have been overwhelmingly positive — “Offers a welcome change of pace from a superhero realm that’s often overloaded with interconnections and cross-references,” says THR — with Rotten Tomatoes giving it a 96 percent fresh rating.) Curiously, tracking also indicates that the film is appealing more to fanboys than fangirls, although producer Deborah Snyder insists “the marketing push is to get everyone” and that female audiences “want to see a strong, empowered woman kicking ass.” Roven looks at numbers the same way. “I actually think that with the pressure comes an opportunity,” he says. “Historically, audiences in this genre are male — 60 to 40 percent — but if you can really tap the market and maintain the males and actually add a significantly greater female audience, it’s a great win-win. You’ve accomplished something that hasn’t really ever been accomplished before.”
In other words, the big question mark hanging over Wonder Woman isn’t whether a female director can make a successful superhero event movie; it’s whether a female superhero can upend that long-standing formula and do something that the male ones haven’t accomplished: expand the female base. And at this point, there’s no reason to suspect Wonder Woman can’t. After all, not all female superhero movies have to go the way of such bombs as Catwoman (or Elektra or Aeon Flux), just as not all male superhero movies go the way of Green Lantern. And if it all goes according to plan, Jenkins is more than ready to return to the character for a contemporary-set Wonder Woman sequel (she and Gadot are contractually committed to a second film). Not that Jenkins wants to limit herself just to tentpoles. She’s also hoping to squeeze in a limited TV series based on something her husband wrote — maybe starring Chris Pine, who plays Lyle Waggoner’s old role, Steve Trevor, in Wonder Woman — before returning (fingers crossed) to Paradise Island for another go.
“What I never want to do is start phoning it in and making things just to show that I can keep my foot in the door and do big movies,” says Jenkins, scraping the last bits of gunk from the bottom of her soup bowl. “I don’t care about that at all. I just want to make great movies. And that could come from any direction. It might be a $10 million movie or it might be $200 million movie.”
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.