How Wonder Woman Became a Blockbuster Underdog
Wonder Woman, the first big-screen adaptation of the most iconic heroine in superhero lore, is a 9 figure blockbuster epic directed by Patty Jenkins, making her only the second female director in history to command a budget over $100m. The film stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, and will follow the Amazon Princess Diana’s journey from the all-female paradise island of Themyscira to World War 1 era London. Believe it or not, the film comes out next month.
Many have written about the bizarre absence of marketing for what is arguably the most anticipated blockbuster of the year, and the increasingly crumbling DC Extended Universe’s first chance to achieve something Marvel have yet to do - release a woman led superhero movie. With a month to go until opening night, there’s been a perplexing dearth of promotional campaigns across TV and the internet. By this point in DC’s seemingly never-ending marketing blitz for the catastrophic Suicide Squad, we’d all heard about the method antics of Jared Leto and seen Harley Quinn’s booty shorts on the side of every web page. Even Justice League, which won’t be released until November, seems to be commanding more space in the pop culture sphere than Wonder Woman. Visit the Wikipedia page for the movie and under marketing, you’ll see one sentence about Danica Patrick driving a car with a Wonder Woman paint scheme.
It seems as though Warner Bros. have no idea how to market their own movie, so instead of even trying, they’re letting it languish and hoping fans will just turn up. The assumption is that a movie like this is critic proof, as proven by Worst Movie Ever Suicide Squad still grossing over $700m despite most critics pleading audiences not to give it their hard-earned money. Sadly, it seems that outdated notions of target demographics and what audiences want has left the studio treating their most unique property as a niche frivolity.
Hollywood is an industry where progress remains deathly slow and maddeningly incremental. One of the assumptions that fuels its decision making is the archaic notion that women’s stories are only for women, while men’s stories are for everyone (this assumption also applies to ideas of race and sexuality demographics). Every time a film comes along and blows this lie out of the water - Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games, Hidden Figures - it’s written off as a fluke, or the think-pieces emerge questioning how on earth this happened. If such a movie underperforms, then we must face the barrage of condescending nonsense theorizing if this signals the end of women-led movies in Hollywood. I’ve yet to see this logic applied to male-led blockbusters. Hell, Green Lantern lost boatloads of money and I never saw people interrogating the possibility of Ryan Reynolds’ career ending.
All of this means something very odd and has created an impossible situation for fans. By merit of treating the property like a risky anomaly, Warner Bros. has made Wonder Woman a 9-figure underdog.
Women-led superhero movies don’t have a great history. While Spider-Man gets a reboot every few years and we’re required to have a new Batman movie as regularly as clockwork, attempts to bring the comic book world’s most famous women to the big screen have been universally disappointing: The Supergirl movie, starring Helen Slater and an evidently drunk Peter O’Toole, has some camp appeal but failed to excite audiences; the Daredevil spin-off Elektra with Jennifer Garner is competently made but mostly boring; and Halle Berry’s Catwoman is aggressively terrible, practically assaulting audiences with its badness at every possible moment. More indie comic adaptations led by women have made their way to film, but with similarly underwhelming results: Tank Girl is frenetic and has its moments but little holding it together; and Barb Wire, starring none other than Pamela Anderson, is a dystopian take on Casablanca with the kind of female empowerment as imagined by a teenage boy (who would later grow up to be Zack Snyder). While none of these films were hits, they weren’t the catastrophic box office bombs they’re perceived as. Catwoman tanked, yes, but compare that to 2011’s Green Lantern, which needed at least $500m to break even and missed that by $300m. Elektra made close to $57m from a $43m budget, which doesn’t account for promotional costs, but puts it around the same level as the previous year’s first attempt at a Punisher movie. Heroine-led superhero movies, and indeed the entire blockbuster medium, is graded on a much steeper curve of success, and the possibility of underperforming sends out a ripple effect that hurts half the population.
There’s something almost galling about having to treat Wonder Woman as an underdog, because it’s a $100-120m industry tent-pole tied to a multi-billion dollar franchise that’s so far treated its female characters like dirt and reduced decades of fascinating mythos to grimdark faux edgy misery porn. This should be a done deal, and a perfect chance to let a woman director have the kinds of opportunities any scruffy white dude with a baseball cap seems to get handed to them in Hollywood. Because the sad reality is that an under-performing Wonder Woman won’t just hurt women in front of the camera; it’ll be the stick used to batter down every question a studio faces over its lack of women directors. “Well it’s just too risky to let a woman have that kind of budget without experience to back it up. Now this guy here whose indie debut cost $60k? He’s the future, give him Jurassic World.” If Wonder Woman doesn’t meet the stratospheric peaks it needs to reach to be the success Warner Bros. needs it to be, then prepare for a myriad of think-pieces on Patty Jenkins’s one way trip to director jail.
Progress has been made in other mediums. Supergirl on the CW network is a sweet and sparky show that balances kick-ass superhero antics with genuine optimism; Jessica Jones on Netflix delved deep into rape culture and abuse tactics with a noir twist; and Marvel have finally realized women exist and have put a team together for Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson in the lead. Of course, there’s also the cultural pushback to anything remotely female centred right now, from the MRA hate screeds directed at the Ghostbusters reboot to the right-wing takeover of the Hugo Awards by reactionaries afraid of all the women and people of colour in the sci-fi genre. All of that toxicity in the atmosphere makes Wonder Woman’s success more urgent, and exemplifies how a hugely expensive blockbuster has become a symbol of the scrappy underdogs taking on the big bad world. The mere act of womanhood is a politicized life, now more than ever, and the pop culture we consume plays a pertinent part in shaping conventions and smashing expectations. Think of the successful rectifying of historical whitewashing with Hidden Figures, or the brutal feminist anger of The Handmaid’s Tale, or even the twisted sexual power of American Gods. We could use all the heroines we get, and Diana of Themyscira is one of our most potent symbols, one worthy of a movie and studio that understands her impact. So when you’re at the cinema next month, just remember that yes, this movie exists.