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Patty Jenkins never expected women's reactions to 'Wonder Woman'

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The director hoped "Wonder Woman" would do well, but she says she's overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and emotion.

When director Patty Jenkins was working on "Wonder Woman," she was well aware of the pressure of directing a big-budget superhero movie. The lack of opportunities for female directors in Hollywood and the failure of the female-led "Ghostbusters" were making headlines as she was deep into production.

Jenkins told The Frame: "I think the only way to handle it was to not think about it, but I was aware. And then, in the aftermath, I've been extremely aware. And in the weeks leading up to its release, it's been more nerve-wracking thinking, Oh my God! Of course, the self-interested director wants her movie to do well, but then the person inside of me who has nothing to do with this is really hoping that the movie does well for what it could say for other people. And that's a lot to think about."

"Wonder Woman" surpassed many expectations — including Jenkins' own — when it shattered the domestic box-office record for the biggest opening for a feature film directed by a woman. The film raked in more than $103 million in its first weekend in the U.S. As of this writing, it has earned more than $263 million worldwide and it is set to dominate the box-office again this weekend.

"Wonder Woman" currently holds a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a general consensus that the film, starring Gal Gadot in the titular role of Diana, Princess of Themyscira, may have just saved the DC Comics cinematic universe.

But aside from box-office results, critical reviews and audience ratings, another key metric of the film's success has been the numerous think pieces it has amassed since its release.

Actors Gal Gadot and Chris Pine with director Patty Jenkins and extras on the set of "Wonder Woman."
Clay Enos
Actors Gal Gadot and Chris Pine with director Patty Jenkins and extras on the set of "Wonder Woman."

Jenkins, whose last feature was 2003's  "Monster," says she never expected the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film, and the emotional response from women. Female writers and critics wrote about crying during the many battle scenes that featured women front-and-center because it was something they had never seen before:

I never saw that coming. Basically, in Act One of this, you're on an island of all women. And they're very well-trained warriors who have freed themselves from mankind. And that's where Diana has grown up and then she goes to man's world.

So all of those things are inherent to the story. You have to have this civilization of incredible women. So going into the story, I'm a woman who has known many incredible women and — tough women and cool women — so I was so far down the road by the time we shot it that I did take note of the overwhelming visuals.

Certainly, when I was on the beach and all women come riding in on horses and go into combat, of course, I thought, Wow, this has never quite been done before. But I was never realizing the impact that that was going to have on a certain amount of the population ... that actually caused something very emotional in them.

Another big surprise for Jenkins was the women-only screenings of "Wonder Woman" that drew criticism from some male moviegoers:

I actually have sort of mixed feelings about all of that only because I do believe in not excluding anyone from anything. And so, on the one hand, I'm so delighted by those screenings and want people to be able to have those screenings. On the other hand I can imagine being offended if I'm excluded from those screenings, particularly because Wonder Woman herself has a very, very passionate fan base, many of whom are men.

And many of whom are men who are disenfranchised from their own gender or their own identity. And I would never want to leave them out of anything, you know? ... I could switch to either side of the argument, but I certainly think it's wonderful ... there have not been that many female-skewed things and certainly there have been many, many male. So I celebrate that.

Jenkins says it was her vision to create a classic Wonder Woman origin story that ultimately got her the directing role:

I'd been saying since the very start [that] I want to do the straight up, classic Wonder Woman story. I don't want to do the modernized version. I love Wonder Woman. I think she's great. I think she's massive. And so I think that was it. It's very much the film that we've made.

It's a classic take on a classic character that has not only the strength and the coolness of Wonder Woman, but also the beauty and the warmth and the love — all of the warmer dimensions of the character as well. And so I feel like Wonder Woman had to earn her keep as [a] more different character, more in the past. Finally, now she can just be Wonder Woman.

Director Patty Jenkins and actor Gal Gadot on the set of "Wonder Woman."
Clay Enos
Director Patty Jenkins and actor Gal Gadot on the set of "Wonder Woman."

As the first woman to direct a big-budget studio superhero film, Jenkins says the reason more male directors than women directors graduate from the Sundance Film Festival to Marvel or DC movies is due to dated assumptions about movie audiences and gender roles:

The brass tacks assumption was that teenage boys were the leading box-office revenue to go after for a tentpole [movie]. That was the belief system for a long time. That's actually been proven not true for quite some time now. It's been awhile that they've shown that that's just not true, because of piracy. The bottom has fallen out of that box office.

But yet there's been fear to embrace whatever that next step is, of like, Okay, if they're not the biggest audience, and actually middle-aged women are the biggest audiences in the world, what does it mean to start going after a more diverse audience? So that's the main thing.

But then of course there's ... [the] sadder belief systems about leadership. I've been amazed how obsessed people are with asking me how I could handle all this action. It's no different than every time you direct, you're handling everything else. It's not that different. So there's obviously some belief that there's something more natural to males about large-scale leadership.

It was important for Jenkins to stay true to Wonder Woman's values due to her character, which differs from some of the more recent superheroes featured in comic book movies:

I love those movies too and I think that's great. And I think that oftentimes that is more true and intrinsic to those characters, you know? That is the tone of those characters. That is not the tone of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is an incredibly sincere character with great cleanliness of purpose and grandiosity of size and scale.

So it's less about me having to do a movie that way, and more about that's the right way, I felt, to do her movie. And they’re so rare that you have that opportunity to [depict] one of the big superheroes who's never had an origin story. So, if you're going to do a first Superman ever, or you're going to do a first Batman ever, it would be a weird thing to do an alt-version of it first. Just do the grand, classic origin.

Though Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry Peter, Jenkins says one of her greatest influences for the film was writer and artist George Pérez, who rebooted the character for DC Comics in the mid-1980s:

William Moulton Marston had really built this wonderful basis of this character. And he put in place a lot of very strong concepts about what she stands for and who she is. What Pérez did was, he stayed very true to that spirit and to that character, but he expanded it into one layer deeper of more thorough detail, but also a slightly more modern level of details.

Whereas Marston is talking about the gods in a slightly more distant way, Pérez got more detailed. So what is the truth? How did those gods work? And who were those gods? And all of those things. And so, I think he was one of the great people to continue.

Even when I met Lynda [Carter], I said, What's important to me is that I'm not trying to make a new Wonder Woman. I'm trying to carry the torch forward of something that we all love. Marston, Pérez, Lynda Carter … There have been these many stops along the way. Far more than I could ever say here. But people who have been carrying a very similar version of Wonder Woman forward. And I wanted to stay very in line with that. Each of them added something new to that story.

Clay Enos

To uphold the legacy of Wonder Woman, Jenkins wanted to focus on her as a universal hero:

The goal that I went into making this film with was to give her all of the universality that one would give a male superhero. Traditionally for the last, I don’t know, couple hundred years, we’ve been fixated on only telling universal stories mostly from the male character's perspective. There've been universal characters of all kinds. So I really wanted to focus on her being a universal character, her being a hero, and what her ambitions are.

The same way Superman is not about being a man, Wonder Woman is not about being a woman. They're both about saving mankind. They're both about a bigger, bigger issue. So it's actually been great that so many people of both genders have a similar reaction, that one is not feeling more strange than the other.

However, I think that there’s an added layer for women of identifying something that they've never seen or felt before, and some sort of power being embodied in a way that they don't feel free to express. So there's definitely that added bonus for women.

Jenkins says she did not expect the kind of success the film has garnered in just a week:

It's extremely surreal. [laughs] I feel like it's been so wonderful, touching, rewarding, a release ... I really assumed it would be a more controversial experience in some sort of way, where it's like, Oh, you win some, you lose some, not everybody's going to care about what you care about. And so it's been mind-blowing.

And to see what it means to different people has been incredible. I've been so blown away by the people reaching out from all over the place, including competing projects, to support us. It's funny — it restores one's faith in mankind in a way.

And that sounds narcissistic because we're talking about my movie, but it's also just to see so much warmth and love coming back at us and people talking about really powerful, emotional, intimate, personal things to themselves. It's been a connective tissue to the rest of the world. It's been beautiful.

Jenkins related her thoughts about being a female director to her experience directing the film:

I really aspire one day to just be a director ... I'm just a person. I can't represent all people and all of us are not the same. However, is it important in a world where nobody is hiring women to do these jobs? Of course it is.

It wasn't an easy job to do, but it's not that big of a deal. Hundreds of men have done it before because it's a doable thing. So I think it is important in that context. It's not some impossible thing to believe that a woman could do it.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 25:  (L-R) Actor Gal Gadot, director Patty Jenkins and actor Lynda Carter attend the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Wonder Woman" at the Pantages Theatre on May 25, 2017 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 25: (L-R) Actor Gal Gadot, director Patty Jenkins and actor Lynda Carter attend the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Wonder Woman" at the Pantages Theatre on May 25, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Jenkins says the success of the film could lead to greater opportunities for diverse directors:

There's been financial fear about what's a safe bet for a tentpole, what's a safe bet for a blockbuster, what's a safe bet to make money. And anytime you're proving that what your assumptions might have been in the past are actually wrong, it's a great step forward towards creating space for other people to also make successful films that have a more diverse background.

To hear John Horn's conversation with Patty Jenkins, click the play button at the top of the page.

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