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Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins persisted with her vision for 10 years

Superhero flick Wonder Woman breaks new ground with its female director and female lead

Hollywood has long been convinced that only men will watch superhero films and have no desire to see a woman headline one.

This is one of several reasons why director Patty Jenkins' new Wonder Woman movie, which opens in Singapore today, represents a leap forward for the representation of women on-screen.

Last night, Straits Times subscribers who won the 160 pairs of tickets to the premiere of Wonder Woman at Shaw Lido under the ST+ loyalty programme watched the movie ahead of its general release.

Yet, as Jenkins and her cast promote the film, you can see them tiptoeing around labelling this a feminist victory - out of fear, perhaps, of provoking the anti-feminist backlash experienced by the all-female Ghostbusters movie last year.

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But even with the most careful phrasing, there is no getting around how ground-breaking the movie is.

For one thing, when Jenkins first pitched her vision for a Wonder Woman movie more than 10 years ago, she says she was told flatly that "nobody would watch a movie like this".

With female superhero flicks such as Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) tanking at the box office, this was the received wisdom for a while. The tide began to turn, however, with the successes of The Hunger Games (2012) and Divergent (2014), both big action blockbusters centred on young female characters.

 

So Jenkins' patience is finally being rewarded as she sees her long-awaited origin story of Wonder Woman - the beloved Amazonian warrior princess also known as Diana Prince - in cinemas this week.

It marks not only the first liveaction film about the DC Comics character created in 1941, but also the first female-directed movie with a budget of more than US$100 million (S$139 million) - it reportedly cost US$120 million to make.

Why did it take so long to reach both milestones? Its 45-year-old director is asked this as soon as she sits down with The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles earlier this month, and you can see her choosing her words carefully.

"Honestly, I don't think there was any one reason. And I don't think there was any conspiracy," she says diplomatically, although she later obliquely references the well-documented gender disparities in Hollywood, adding: "I'm sure there's all kinds of depressing reasons as well."

Her initial pitch for the movie - made after she directed Charlize Theron to a Best Actress Oscar with her debut feature, serial-killer drama Monster (2003) - was shot down, but in 2005, the idea was briefly resurrected.

"They thought it was going to happen and asked me to rewrite and direct, but I was pregnant," says the film-maker, who is married to author Sam Sheridan and took that year off to have their son.

The project then hit multiple obstacles and had different directors attached at various times. But Jenkins believes the main roadblock was the preconceived notion about what the audience for such movies looked like.

"The clearest answer I have is that for almost 30 years, the studio industry has been dominated by the idea of tentpoles and the idea of teenage boys driving that box office."

That reliance on male-driven tentpoles - big-budget titles whose earnings are expected to make up for a studio's less profitable films - is "changing wildly right now" as unexpected hits reveal audiences for films once deemed unviable, she says.

There still has not been a hit female-superhero-led movie - which is why there is so much riding on the success of this one.

The movie has been racking up glowing early notices, including a thumbs-up from actress Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on the small screen from 1975 to 1979. Following the underperformance last year of Warner Bros superhero films Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Suicide Squad, it would be a much-needed win for the studio.

But the bigger prize is that if it does well, it would pave the way for more female superhero movies as well as female film-makers.

"It's not until we're reflecting ourselves in the world, and that shows up financially, that people are forced to open their eyes and (reject) what they have grown up thinking," Jenkins says. "And luckily, I do think it is happening."

And part of her simply wants to prove those naysayers wrong.

"Deep down inside, there is another me that did not make this movie, that heard people saying 'nobody will watch a movie like this' for a long time, and that's sitting by going 'I hope that we prove them wrong' - in the same way I was delighted when The Hunger Games and Divergent did it.'"

Jenkins and her cast - which includes Robin Wright as Amazonian General Antiope and Connie Nielsen as the all-female tribe's Queen Hippolyta and Diana's mother - also hope that the movie allays some of the fears surrounding the women's movement, which they note is often incorrectly interpreted as women wanting to have the upper hand.

Wright, the star of television drama House Of Cards, says: "We're trying to re-educate people. Let's get rid of the negative connotations of the word 'feminism', which happened in the 1970s and 1980s, when I think it got a bad rap.

"We don't want disparity between the genders, it's just inclusive. Can we re-educate the boys that are going to the theatre and wanting to see Wonder Woman just as much as the girls are, and for the same reasons, which are bravery, strength, justice and love? That's the symbolism of Wonder Woman," adds the 51-year-old.

Nielsen, 51, agrees. The Gladiator (2000) actress says: "It's not about preference for one gender or a battle cry for women to take over the world. It's just about the best possible state of humankind, which is when everybody is welcome and included."

Tough on- and off-screen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'Wonder Women'. Print Edition | Subscribe