SOME FILM FANS bemoan superhero saturation while also rightly spotlighting the lack of diversity among top-grossing Hollywood directors. What they perhaps don’t appreciate, though, is that nerd-culture films might well be the best spear point for changing the entertainment landscape.
Case in point: WB/DC’s “Wonder Woman.”
Over the weekend, Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman,” buoyed by mostly glowing critical and audience reaction, grossed $100.5 million domestically and $223 million worldwide in its debut, according to studio estimates Sunday — in the process setting a number of notable box-office records. (Update: The final weekend totals are $103.3 million domestic and $228.3 million worldwide, according to Monday’s revised numbers.)
Those milestones include the largest North American opening ever for a female-directed film (not adjusting for inflation), and the first to top the $100 million mark. (Lilly and Lana Wachowskis’ “The Matrix Reloaded” opened to $91.7 million back in 2003, and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” opened to $85.1 million in 2015, according to Box Office Mojo.)
Now that the box office has affirmed Jenkins’s masterful work as a cultural milestone, the conversation turns to what effect this might have on changing the Hollywood landscape for female directors at large.
First, it bears noting that in terms of exacting change, box-office returns generally speak louder than awards hardware. Nearly a decade ago, industry observers wondered whether there would be a “Bigelow effect” of more female representation in the director’s chair after Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win for 2008’s “The Hurt Locker.” (Short answer: There wasn’t — despite Bigelow’s continued success.)
But now, thanks to the massive reception for “Wonder Woman” (the sixth-biggest June opening ever, if numbers hold Monday), the new question is: What might “the Jenkins effect” be?
Which leads to a second point: Can two of the entertainment industries most often tagged historically for giving women short shrift — creatively and representationally — now help each other evolve? Commercially speaking, are nerd-culture films now the fastest elevator to the top for women directors?
Two years ago, upon Warner Bros.’ hiring of Jenkins for “Wonder Woman,” Comic Riffs wrote of efforts to grow diversity in the directing ranks: “The time has arrived for the comic-book movie to save Hollywood from itself.”
Now, with her “Wonder Woman” as a towering symbol, the landscape should really begin to change — especially when you consider that according to some surveys, half of all consumers of geek culture are now female. (Worth noting: 52 percent of the opening weekend for “Wonder Woman” was female.)
Female directors have made strides in animation in recent years, with such box-office smashes as “Frozen” (Jennifer Lee), “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” (Betty Thomas), “Kung Fu Panda 2” (Jennifer Yuh Nelson) and “Brave” (Brenda Chapman).
Now, what superhero films offer is the massive connected universe and their related projects, which means WB/DC should relish the prospect of handing the Wonder Woman sequel to Jenkins, as well as more of its films after (a la DC’s Zack Snyder). Anna Boden will co-direct 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” and Gina Prince-Bythewood will direct the Spider-Man spinoff “Silver & Black” (another ceiling broken: She’ll be the first woman of color to direct a major comic-book movie.)
Sometimes, the pace of change feels glacial. But as film fans clamor for more female-led superhero movies, Hollywood should respond in Pavlovian fashion to the ring of that cash register.
The Jenkins Effect, like Wonder Woman herself, should obliterate those decades-old walls.