“Wonder Woman’s” Success Puts Myth of Female-Led Superhero Films to Rest as It Paves the Way for More

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Wonder womanWarner Bros.

This weekend,  is set to pass $387M in total domestic box office, thus leaping over Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as the highest-grossing film of the summer to become the second-highest-grossing film of the year behind Beauty and the Beast ($504M). With this welcome news comes an important lesson, and one that Hollywood must heed if it wants to succeed — it’s time to finally bury the notion that a female-led superhero film is unlikely to be a financially successful venture for a studio.

For too many years, we’ve heard how female-driven superhero movies can’t be successful at the box office, as analysts point to the terrible box office numbers for Catwoman, Elektra and more recently, Ghost in the Shell. They claim that male moviegoers won’t see these movies in large numbers because they can’t identify with a female protagonist, though women seem to have no problem identifying with male protagonists on a regular basis. Since comic book films have been traditionally supported by large swaths of male moviegoers, studio have considered female-led action films to be financial suicide, and honestly, if you just looked at the box office numbers, you might have a valid case.

But what seems to get lost in this narrative is that those aforementioned films were not particularly well-written or constructed, instead presenting uninteresting heroines who lacked depth, complexity and compelling back that connected with audiences, regardless of their gender. The female leads stumbled upon their abilities in unbelievable ways and followed conventional arcs en route to confronting the villain with their newfound powers. They were given male leads that questioned them as heroes, undercut their strength, and in an ironic twist, required them to prove their worthiness as romantic partners. Such arrogance!

Fortunately, Wonder Woman shatters those tropes and offers a heroine who has her own fascinating, layered and mysterious backstory. An Amazonian warrior, Diana has been trained to fight a God. She’s on a journey of self-discovery as a burgeoning adult, yet she’s stubborn, determined and beautifully naïve about the world. We can all identify with this. We’ve all had to leave the nest at some point with our idealistic notions of the world — notions that were promptly shattered, forcing us to pick up the pieces, put them back together and become stronger for it. Ever the optimist, Diana never loses her faith in our world, even when her beliefs are challenged. She doesn’t become embittered or suspicious of us humans, she just becomes even more determined to save our world, even and especially from ourselves.

Wonder WomanWarner Bros.

Patty Jenkins’ approach to Wonder Woman reminds me of Joe Johnston tackling Captain America: The First Avenger and Richard Donner directing Superman. Jenkins even shoots her own version of the alleyway scene from Superman, wherein gun-toting criminals confront Diana and Steve. But Jenkins and scriptwriter Allen Heinberg provide a special twist. Macho man Steve initially wants to nobly defend Diana, but when he sees what she’s capable of, he just steps back and lets her handle business for the both of them. He’s a male character who supports Diana rather than stand in her way, as we saw with the male characters in past female-driven superhero films. This is what makes the Diana-Steve relationship so unique in not just comic book movies, but all of cinema. Steve doesn’t judge or question Diana, or make her prove herself to him. Instead, he chooses to understand Diana and appreciate her hopeful approach to the world, as that optimism is part of what makes her unique. And Steve does this while not getting caught up in the traditional and antiquated views of manhood, or feeling worried that he’s being emasculated.

It’s incredible to think about the task that Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment had in front of them when they decided to make Wonder Woman. Though recent DCEU films had been poorly reviewed by most critics, they also enjoyed various degrees of financial success, while female-led superhero films didn’t have the same track record. There were also quiet (and some not-so-quiet) rumblings about Gadot’s acting ability and whether she could carry a film on her own. I was certainly guilty of this, and took a wait-and-see attitude towards the film. But each time I’ve seen Wonder Woman, I enjoyed the movie even more. Diana’s combination of innocence and worldliness presented a very thin tightrope to navigate, and Gadot deserves all the credit in the world for being able to deftly walk that line in her performance. She is the beating heart of the film, and without her wide-eyed charm, it simply wouldn’t have resonated with so many moviegoers or become the cultural touchstone that it has.

Jenkins and Heinberg have constructed a well-written, fantastically-directed film that honors the tradition of the best comic book movies while also providing us a female superhero that both men and women can identify with. This is what had been missing from all the previous female-led superhero films. Quality — both in front of and behind the camera. You simply can’t argue with the glowing reviews or its stunning box office success.

For the first time, WB and DC have turned the tables on Marvel Studios, which is now playing catch-up as it preps its own female-led superhero film, Captain Marvel. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and Marvel’s Kevin Feige will no doubt find their own unique way to introduce a new heroine, and with Wonder Woman having set a new bar, it’s exciting to think about Marvel trying to raise it. The future of female-led superhero films is alive and well, and fans of all comic book movies should celebrate that fact, regardless of their gender.

To paraphrase Queen Hippolyta, “we do deserve her,” and every great female-led superhero movie that Hollywood now makes because of Wonder Woman. If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.


John Steven Rocha is a host, actor and voiceover artist in LA. He currently hosts the Outlaw Nation and The Top 10 podcasts on the SK Plus channel and The Cine-Files podcast on iTunes. When he’s not doing that, he’s winning and losing belts as The Outlaw on the Movie Trivia Schmoedown. Feel free to send him a tweet or Instagram post at @TheRochaSays.

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2 Comments

  1. WubALubADubDub on

    I’m going to challenge your premise a bit here, because I think there’s a distinction that isn’t being made and a question needing to be asked: Why do so many shitty, poorly-directed and shallowly-charactered films with MALE leads succeed so often? Films like, oh, I don’t know, ANY Transformer film ever made. If the common wisdom is that big money can’t be made on the backs of female leads and the only evidence of that theory is that those movies suck, why doesn’t the common wisdom apply to male leads?

    I guess my point is an age-old tale of a higher bar for everyone but white males. Tom Cruise just utterly shit the Franchise Bed with The Mummy but no one will say “Oh, those white men in leading roles, always pulling a movie down. No one wants to see that!” But if the lead in The Mummy had been a woman, the entire story would have been how female leads can’t carry a big-budget action/SciFi/fantasy/adventure/comic book/horror film, oh noes! Damn those wimmins!

    I think Wonder Woman is the exception that proves the rule: That in order to be a woman and succeed in today’s macho marketplace, you have to A) be smoking (SMOKING) hot; B) star in a film with an above-average script; C) be directed by a strong female director whose guiding hand strips out the sad, masculine tropes you mention in the article; D) be I MEAN SMOKING SMOKING HOT OH MY GOD SHE’S SO HOT!; and E) probably follow a string of ludicrously bad DCEU films that just absolutely suck and thus by comparison your movie looks like Citizen Kane. I honestly think if you take any one of these out of the equation (especially A and D), this film would fail.

    Hollywood will continue to churn out truly garbage fire movies starring white men who will never be blamed for how badly their products suck. It’s time more women were given lead roles so they can crank out enough garbage that eventually we stop blaming them, too.

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