“Wonder Woman” has pulled in $816 million at the international box office this summer. And on Monday, the news broke that director Patty Jenkins was going to get paid for the sequel accordingly: She will reportedly make about $8 million for writing, directing and producing the movie. This is no real surprise: Joss Whedon, who directed Marvel’s “The Avengers,” has been frank about the fact that he got a much richer deal to direct its sequel, “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The shocker — and a testament to the potency of Hollywood sexism — would have been if Jenkins hadn’t leveled up for the “Wonder Woman” sequel.
On a personal level, this is delightful news for Jenkins, and I’m always happy to celebrate when an artist gets a big payday. But, as I’ve cautioned over the past few years, there’s a difference between individual victories and actual systemic change in the highly sclerotic entertainment industry. While it’s worth raising a glass for Jenkins, moments such as this shouldn’t be considered the end of the struggle for pay equity, or for equity of opportunity in a business that loves to promote a few women or people of color at a time as long as those changes don’t imperil the established order. Instead, we should use them to create new baselines and ask hard questions of Hollywood.
The first benchmark that’s useful to extract from Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” contract is monetary: Her deal apparently makes her the highest-paid female director ever and sets a new mark that other women will be able to use in comparable situations. One measure of whether Jenkins’s contract is a force for change in Hollywood is whether another female director is able to sign a similar deal or whether Jenkins will end up alone on that pinnacle, a marker of a rare and exceptionally high tide.
Of course, we should also be careful not to over-interpret this baseline, either. If Kathryn Bigelow or Ava DuVernay decides to take the minimum weekly salary of $18,676, as guaranteed by the Directors Guild of America contract, in order to make a movie come in under budget, that doesn’t make them sellouts to feminism or mean that their production companies are being unfair. Instead, the test is whether female directors in the same situation as Jenkins — directing a sequel to an extremely popular movie — get paid the same. A secondary measure is whether salaries for first-time female and nonwhite directors of blockbusters keep pace with those of their white male counterparts.
The second measurement to keep an eye on is whether Jenkins’s deal gives her a meaningful amount of creative freedom, keeping in mind that she’s working in a highly regimented franchise system. This isn’t about whether Jenkins gets to veer off entirely from DC’s continuity (though given the challenges the other movies in that franchise have had, the whole thing might be due for a reset anyway). Instead, it’s about whether she can continue to infuse the next “Wonder Woman” movie with the sort of warmth, optimism and tenderness that characterized the first movie, while potentially jettisoning the more burdensome elements of DC’s house style. When I heard the news about her new contract, my first hope was that she would be able to ditch DC’s penchant for third-act fight sequences that look like poorly animated video-game boss fights.
And finally, the real test for whether big franchise deals for innovative directors is a good thing for the industry is what they do next. Since directing “The Avengers,” Whedon has directed a low-budget adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and is rumored to be working on something called “Untitled Joss Whedon/WWII Horror Project.” But otherwise, he has been largely sucked into the world of superheroics. Ryan Coogler, the director of “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed,” is directing “Black Panther,” but he’s also working with director Destin Daniel Cretton and playwright Chinaka Hodge on a television series about the institutionalization of children, and with Ta-Nehisi Coates on a movie about a standardized testing scandal.
Unless Jenkins decides this is what she wants to do full time, I would consider Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” deal a failure if it means that she spends the rest of her career directing franchise movies. Because blockbusters are by definition the biggest movies in the world, it’s a good thing if they’re directed with some verve and wit rather than by committee. But in an ideal world, the relationship would go both ways. Franchises like Marvel, DC and “Star Wars” would get an infusion of energy and personality from promising directors with distinctive visions. And in turn, those directors would get a lot of attention and the credential of having directed a huge, logistically complex movie in a challenging corporate environment that ought to make it easier for them to get their original projects funded.
Otherwise, the exchange looks a little bit vampiric: Talented directors get paid large sums of money to essentially take themselves off the original movie market. I’m excited for Jenkins to get paid because she deserves it, and because I want to see what she does with that money and reputation. “Wonder Woman” was fun, but it’s not the true revolution that Hollywood needs.