Why it Matters that ‘Wonder Woman’ Was Directed by a Woman

No one doubts that there is such a thing as the feminine touch when they walk into a newly married guy’s place. The interior bears no resemblance to any place he had owned previously, and nobody has to ask why.

Less obvious is the possibility that a woman’s touch can change the quality of an action film. But that is exactly what I realized might be the case after speaking to a friend about why she liked Wonder Woman so much.

“The humor is much more clever than other superhero movies,” she stated matter-of-factly. She also said that Wonder Woman’s super powers make more intuitive sense than those of other heroes. I pressed her on this point, having just heard Jonathan Last criticize the movie for those very things on his podcast. The Weekly Standard writer said that it was a “minimally competent superhero movie,” while my friend could not have disagreed more. For a superhero film, she found the titular character unusually relateable, the humor unusually fresh, and the themes unusually subtle.

I saw Wonder Woman myself the next morning, and I ended up agreeing with her; I couldn’t help but think the movie benefited from a woman’s touch. It’s not just that Gal Gadot commands the screen with charm and grace, or even that director Patty Jenkins has the skill to bring out the best in her star (spoiler: she does). The fact that the star and the director are both women has a tangible effect onscreen—neither as apparent as the cinematography nor as sweeping as the score, but nevertheless present.

A subtle feminine sensibility is what provides the freshness audiences have enjoyed, and they also helped unlock the critical female market. Friends provide useful anecdotes, but the numbers bear it out: Women showed up to see the movie and spread the word, making Wonder Woman a box office force. More than any social justice platitude or equality imperative, that should encourage studios to put more women in the director’s chair.

Hollywood has remained stubbornly unwilling to let women helm big-budget movies for decades. As Richard Rushfield and others have pointed out, the film industry has very real gender barriers. Studios only have a few dice to roll in a given year, and they almost exclusively place their biggest bets on men. Anyone knowledgeable of free markets should recognize this poses a business opportunity owing to the risk-aversion (perhaps even sexism) of executives sticking to the formula. And Hollywood’s superhero formula has been wearing thin lately.

Wonder Woman mixed things up, and the results are a nearly unprecedented pair of weekends at the box office. Considering the movie’s $103 million opening weekend, its second-weekend box office drop of only forty-five percent is fantastic news for the Warner Bros. execs who have seen the exact opposite happen with other superhero offerings. Each previous DC Expanded Universe movie has fallen at least sixty-four percent in its second weekend, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice plummeted sixty-nine percent. Scott Mendelson at Forbes argued that Wonder Woman’s post-debut legs appear to be the strongest for a superhero tent pole since Spider-Man (2002).

It may seem strange to say that the mere fact that a director is a woman could change the character of a film, but in fact it’s the logical result of the movie-making process. In feature film production, the endless creative decisions presented to the director imprint his or her personality on the finished product. Since I also believe that innate differences exist between males and females, I find it too simplistic to consider Patty Jenkins’ sex a mere media talking point. I don’t care if that’s sexist or if it’s woke—I just think it’s true.

The movie exhibited its feminine touch in ways that I could perceive, and likely many more I could not. Gadot was the perfect choice to bring the mythical princess to life, satisfying the desire of women such as my friend to see “a badass woman” headlining a superhero flick. Yet the movie doesn’t compromise her dignity or womanhood. Her character’s reaction to a first taste of ice cream—telling the vendor, “You should be very proud of this achievement”—wouldn’t have had such sincerity coming from Captain America.

It’s also in Chris Pine’s wish that the princess he just met would find his body as “above average” as he knows it is. And it’s sensed by the female viewers who see a character representing them in a way that no superhero movie has managed to do before. Putting aside gender politics or mystical notions of “female intuition,” it is a simple fact that films are comprised of millions of little decisions, and having a woman supervise those decisions changes the superhero formula that we’ve seen dozens of times.

It’s a change that works. My female friend derived a sense of personal representation from the movie, and I did not—but we both enjoyed seeing a different kind of superhero movie. I’m especially excited for the infusion of new blood that more female directors (and other creative role players) could do for Hollywood generally. Such a trend, executed prudently, would bring more of the unexpected to movie screens that have trafficked too long in the stale and predictable.

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  • ralphpal

    The SJW might disagree with you