A plane crashes into the blue Aegean. A swift, sure superhero comes to the rescue, diving off the cliff and soaring through the sky. Is it a bird? Is it a bullet? Is it a vaguely familiar male actor who has just been forced to spend six months in the gym? No, it’s Wonder Woman, risking everything for the piteous, kittenish drowning pilot who is – and this is the stroke of genius, the touch of kitsch that re-makes the genre – the first man she has ever seen. As she drags him onto the beach, she is at once satisfied with her strength and piqued by this strange new creature.
Role reversal is reanimating the old tropes of the superhero genre, as Wonder Woman proved when it became one of the three highest-grossing films of 2017, with its director Patty Jenkins clinching the biggest-ever US opening for a female director. Its sequel, released earlier this year, was set in 1984, and also sent the actress Gal Gadot to save the day, this time in the Oval Office. Then there was 2019's Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, the first Marvel Studios film to be built around a female superhero. It brought in over $1 billion at the box office, while Black Widow, the long-awaited spin-off for Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel character, directed by Cate Shortland and co-starring Rachel Weisz and Florence Pugh as her fellow Black Widows, is set for success this summer.
With budgets of at least $150 million, these films own the centre ground. There’s nothing niche or narrowly ‘female’ about them; created for everyone, they are simply more evolved blockbusters, without the embarrassment of the cut-out ‘girlfriend’ character and with a more nuanced approach to violence. In Wonder Woman 1984, Gal Gadot refuses to use swords on the White House staff, exclaiming "It’s not their fault!" before unleashing her own karate kick-ass action. Similarly, last year, when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) broke away from her no-good boyfriend the Joker with her standalone film Birds of Prey, ultra-violence was exchanged for the carnivalesque: in shooting up a police station, she used colourful smoke bombs and stun guns.
These new blockbusters knock the Bechdel test out of the park: not only do two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man, but their relationships with each other – as sisters, frenemies or implacable foes – are front and centre. In Wonder Woman 1984, Gal Gadot has a troubled friendship with Kristen Wiig’s character, the archaeologist Barbara Ann Minerva (who transforms into the classic baddie, Cheetah) while in Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh play estranged 'sisters'. Yes, these are still genre movies, designed to be intelligible over the munching of popcorn, but they have female directors, and that changes everything.
For Patty Jenkins, change starts with running a film set in a fairer, more inclusive way. "My approach is familial and civilised, but strict at the same time. I don’t tolerate bad behaviour," she says. "But if you have a young family, we will accommodate you." Gal Gadot was in the early days of pregnancy with her second daughter Maya during the first shoot; she filmed retakes while five months pregnant, her costumes cut open and belly covered in green-painted fabric to help post-production airbrushing. "This time, no one was pregnant, thank God!" says Jenkins. "But there were lots of little children running around."
Jenkins herself gave birth to her son soon after completing her first feature film, Monster in 2003, which won Charlize Theron an Oscar for Best Actress. "Making a feature is not compatible with the first years of a child’s life," Jenkins said at the time. Instead, she directed episodes of cult series such as Arrested Development and created the Emmy-winning pilot of The Killing, swerved some ‘troubled’ projects, conscious that a female film director cannot put a foot wrong – and didn’t make a second feature until Wonder Woman, a dozen years later. "It was a journey to get there," she says.
Today, Jenkins doesn’t recruit with equality quotas in mind. "I’ve always hired a lot of women, I didn’t even think about it, but I also have a lot of long-term creative relationships with men," she says. "I feel I’m doing so much representation [on-screen]… I think it’s important to be aware and to make an effort, and, of course, I’m going to invite diversity onto my set, but to me the greatest and most important thing is the success of my film. I’ve always wanted to make cool, successful, sincere work."
Sincerity is part of what makes Wonder Woman so refreshing. Gal Gadot radiates truth and virtue – qualities unfashionable in our post-modern age, but that positions her cleverly as the heir to Superman, who was also unassailably good. Oddly, the gender flip often allows these films more continuity with the archive; like many a classic hero, Wonder Woman is at first reluctant to join the fray. "She will fight if she has to fight," says Patty Jenkins. The sense of innocence about the Wonder Woman franchise even extends to the period lovingly evoked by Jenkins. "We shot Wonder Woman 1984 not as a pastiche of the Eighties but as if we were actually making it in 1984," she says. "I love the music, fashion, style and sense of social change of that era." The era she portrays is not Orwellian; rather, "it’s peak Eighties, before the stock market crashed".
Money, of course, is power: when women are in charge, and bringing megabucks into the studios, they can pull rank and promote their beliefs or ideas for change. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has made her the highest-grossing actress of all time, earning studios an estimated $3.3 billion, so it’s small wonder she got to call the shots on her standalone film, which she also executive produces. After 2016’s Suicide Squad came out, Margot Robbie insisted she would not participate in a spin-off movie for her character Harley Quinn unless a woman director was attached – Cathy Yan got the job. Robbie also refused to do any solo magazine shoots without her female co-stars, arguing "we all need to be making conscious efforts to even out these statistics".
Storylines are changing, too. Amazon is currently making a series of Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, which uses a superhero trope to deliver a feminist punch, showing us a world in which young women have the power to deliver electric shocks at will. In turn, its director Reed Morano flexed her own power by deciding to withdraw from making large sections of the film in the American state of Georgia last year, after its governor signed a bill that effectively banned abortion after six weeks.
Just as female directors are increasingly empowered to succeed, so screen heroines are given a greater opportunity to flourish, no longer punished for their audacity or sacrificed for the greater good. Before the closing credits on Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn walks away whistling, while by the end of her first cinema outing, Wonder Woman had fallen in love and put a stop to World War I. Studios love successful films to have sequels, of course, so the survival of the superheroine is increasingly guaranteed.
But there are fights to come, for the critics have thus far been merciless. Kevin Maher in The Times gave Birds of Prey one star, calling it "scrappy" and "screechy"; Anthony Lane in The New Yorker saw Harley Quinn as "peppering us with unceasing chatter, as if words were buckshot". Forgive me, because we all want to be gender-blind, but I can’t help noticing that these are classically sexist put-downs. Films featuring lots of women just seem to be a little harder for men to enjoy, especially when they aren’t art house or explicitly ‘female’.
In Wonder Woman 1984, Robin Wright presides over a thrilling all-female triathlon in the mythical female kingdom of Themyscira, in a stadium full of Amazons, cheering. And yet Jenkins never says this is a film for women. "I have always wanted to be last-wave feminism, where you’re so feminist, you’re not thinking about it at all. Where you’re like, “Of course this superhero is the greatest superhero of all time. Oh, she’s a woman? I wasn’t even thinking about that!’" Change is here; all that’s now needed is nonchalance.
Black Widow is in cinemas from 9 July. Wonder Woman 1984 is available to stream now.
You Might Also Like