After a record-breaking weekend at the box office (over $100 million in domestic returns alone, the highest-ever for a female-directed feature) and an enviable Rotten Tomatoes score of 93% Fresh, Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” seems poised to join the ranks of the superhero genre’s very best offerings, a new classic in the making.
After decades in on-and-off development, the Gal Gadot-starring feature landed at box office in dire need of a fresh new hero to liven up the bloated genre, and Jenkins’ film delivered to sold out, cheering crowds around the world. How did she do it? We’ve got some ideas.
1. Creating A Positive and Inspirational Hero
DC often opts for going “dark and gritty” in ways that other comic book properties (like the ones from Marvel and Sony) tend to avoid, a characteristic that’s become something of a hallmark for the DCEU franchise as a whole. Both Superman and Batman are portrayed as stereotypical brooding dudes — par for the course for Bruce Wayne, a little more jarring for the usually sunshiny Clark Kent — and while that allowed the duo to unexpectedly (but very necessarily) bond in “Batman v Superman,” it does cast a pallor over the rest of franchise.
Superheroes can be fun, and Gadot’s Diana Prince is brimming with the kind of wide-eyed optimism that’s been so far missing from the rest of the series. She’s also driven by an unshakeable moral code that all but requires her to seek out and defend goodness and justice for the human race. It’s a lofty, hard-won goal that pushes the film (and Diana) forward even during its own dark moments (the film is mostly set during the last terrible gasps of World War I, after all). She’s a stand-up-and-cheer kind of hero, one that’s so often in short supply in a genre that seems to have forgotten that being pure of heart doesn’t always have to be terribly painful.
Jenkins has made no bones about taking inspiration from Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” (a second act alley-set brawl even looks and functions like a similar fight in the Christopher Reeve-starring film), and it’s that indomitable, positive spirit that makes Diana such a fresh standout in the superhero landscape. As Jenkins told us, “I knew that I one day wanted to make something that made to just feel like Superman had made me feel.”
“Wonder Woman” accomplishes exactly that.
2. Building an Exciting and Informative Backstory
Not familiar with the mythology of Wonder Woman? You don’t have to be to enjoy Jenkins’ film (though audiences who have long loved the superhero will find plenty of nods to her long and rich history to savor). As we wrote in our review, “Allan Heinberg’s script (with story credits for both Zack Snyder and franchise newbie Jason Fuchs) provides a compelling backstory for the Amazons and Diana that pulls from various incarnations of the classic character,” and much of the film’s first act focuses on her early years on Themyscira.
The origin of the Amazons is explained (via an inventive and visually daring animation sequence), as is Diana’s crazy, clay-based creation. We see young Diana grow from plucky tween to badass warrior princess, while getting to know her mother (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt (Robin Wright, who steals every scene she’s in) and the way the Amazon society functions. By the time Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) lands on the island’s shores, “Wonder Woman” has given life to an exciting new backstory that’s long been begging for the big screen treatment and that more sharply explains our main character’s motivations and values. Every origin story should be so smart.
3. Adding in a Seriously Special Romance
One thing that didn’t make it into our interview with Jenkins was her overwhelming love for Pine’s Steve Trevor and the ways in which his romance with Diana only adds to the story she was aiming to tell. When we asked just how important to her it was that Heinberg’s script included a romance for Diana and Steve, Jenkins said, “It was absolutely imperative because love and relationships is a massive part of life. I didn’t want her to do without any of that, I wanted her to have all of it.”
Diana and Steve’s relationship is built on mutual admiration and respect, and even a hardened soldier and spy like Steve can’t deny the full force of Diana’s power. The pair meet when she saves him from imminent death, an impressive enough feat that’s almost immediately followed by a massive battle between the Amazons and a slew of German troops that shows off not just Diana’s skills, but the fierce tribe from which she comes. Instantly, Steve is forced to recognize Diana’s skill set, and he loves her for it. It’s a relationship built on equal footing.
“That’s the great thing about Wonder Woman to me, is that she doesn’t lose anything for her power,” Jenkins added. “I love that Steve Trevor exists in the world and I love the idea of aiming for the greatest Steve Trevor that could ever be. He’s a badass himself, but…I love that dynamic of such a pragmatic, world-weary soldier that they’re like ‘Listen, you’re gonna take the better weapon.’ He falls in love with her but he also can’t deny his admiration and need for her skills.”
4. Not Being Beholden to a Larger Franchise
While the majority of Jenkins’ film is set in and around World War I, “Wonder Woman” is framed by a look at Diana in the present day, post-“Batman v Superman” and pre-“Justice League.” That device allows the audience to easily place her inside the current DCEU timeline (with an easy nod to her growing bond with Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, who doesn’t appear in the film but is represented by a lovely gift) without forcing “Wonder Woman” to be beholden to the expanding franchise.
Instead of shoe-horning Diana into the series — one that is already leading up its next big team-up effort, “Justice League,” which arrives this November — Jenkins’ film serves as a standalone that fleshes out Gadot’s Wonder Woman, a take on the classic character that we’ve gotten to know a bit from her “Batman v Superman” appearance. Learning more about where Diana came from adds context to the earlier film (go back and watch “Batman v Superman” after seeing “Wonder Woman,” and marvel at just how much of her current persona feels indebted to her badass attitude at the ill-fated German gala) and gets us excited for what’s to come for Wonder Woman in upcoming DCEU films.
Yet Jenkins accomplishes all of this while still allowing her film to exist on its own, a rarity in the world of franchise-driven filmmaking that frequently dilutes storytelling and encourages a uniformity that places the wider story above the power of individual tales. “Wonder Woman” is a standout on its own, but one that still encourages being excited about what else the DCEU has to offer, a tricky balance that most other series are struggling to figure out.
“Wonder Woman” is in theaters now.