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Three Reasons ‘Wonder Woman’ Has Already Made History

“Wonder Woman,” judging by the reliable early reviews, appears on track to be a smash hit and a much-needed shot in the arm for the DC Comics extended universe. Indeed, the movie is just hitting theaters Friday, and we can spot three different ways it’s already primed for groundbreaking success.

Melissa Silverstein, who advocates for change in the film industry through her group Women and Hollywood, couldn’t be more thrilled with the film’s potential. “This is huge,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve taken a chunk out of the glass ceiling here. I can’t overstate how important this is for representation onscreen and behind the scenes. This is a historical moment.”

First, “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins is storming onto the scene as one of the genre’s best directors in her debut. At 93 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and no huge downward swing in the cards, the movie’s looking at one of the highest scores for a superhero genre film since “The Dark Knight.” That kind of flash is a huge boost for a director, and the fact that Jenkins is crushing it in a field where it has historically been tough for women to obtain opportunities and financing makes the feat even more compelling. Last year’s report from the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg found that women directed only 4.1 percent of the annual top 100 films at the box office from 2007 to 2015.1

SHARE WHO ARE…
YEAR NO. DIRECTORS MEN WOMEN
2015 107 93%
7%
2014 107 98
2
2013 107 98
2
2012 121 96
4
2010 109 97
3
2009 111 96
4
2008 112 92
9
2007 112 97
3
Women don’t get many chances to direct big-budget movies

Study not conducted in 2011. Includes directors of the 100 highest-grossing films per year.

Source: Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg

“It’s clearly going to be the top-grossing opening weekend” for a live-action movie directed by a woman, Silverstein said. That means it’s all but certain that Jenkins will join these ranks — the exclusive club included only 29 female directors in that eight-year stretch.

The critical success of “Wonder Woman” will be a huge deal for the DC Cinematic Universe, until now composed of “Man of Steel” (55 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (28 percent fresh) and “Suicide Squad” (25 percent fresh). Two years ago, ahead of the release of “Jurassic World,” I laid out a new approach to grading the success or failure of individual elements of a franchise. The method was predicated on the idea that the films were no longer designed to stand entirely on their own and should instead be judged in the context of what comes before and after.

Most franchises deteriorate, typically at a rate of about 2 points off the average franchise Rotten Tomatoes rating per new film. That means you could distill out a “disappointment rating” quantifying the difference between how good a film is compared to what audiences had expected from the franchise based on earlier films. For example, “The Phantom Menace” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip” both sucked and were the fourth film released in their respective franchises, but I’d argue that the former is far more hated than the latter because the expectation going into it — the average Rotten Tomatoes score was 89 for the first three Star Wars movies versus 20 for a Chipmunks film — was so much higher.

I’ve updated the data — there are now 49 franchises2 with a total of 273 films that met the criteria of making more than $1 billion worldwide across three or more films, according to The Numbers — and checked in to see how the D.C. extended universe fares.

The main takeaway for “Wonder Woman” is that, based on early reviews, it will be responsible for the greatest observed jump in franchise reputation for a film that isn’t an immediate sequel to an original. Only the Wolverine franchise’s “The Wolverine” and “Logan” and Star Trek’s “The Wrath of Khan” are comparable. It’s unprecedented for the fourth film in a franchise to be responsible for a turnaround like this. Diana of Themyscira is the answer to Warner Bros.’ prayers.

And while that boost to the overall franchise is great, it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees: There is a Wonder Woman movie now. The industry is clamoring for what Silverstein calls “the type of characters who can appeal to both male and female audiences, especially in these mega-blockbusters.”

The third factor that makes “Wonder Woman” an impressive feat is the performance of Gal Gadot, the actor behind the bracelets. Nailing the part of Wonder Woman has the potential to land someone generational fame and icon status. And given the expected box office success, it will put Gadot in an exclusive club of the now 250 women who were top billed in a top-100 domestic grossing movie released from 1996 to 2016. Women get top billing on only 24 percent of top-grossing films, according to data from The Numbers, and they are top lead in only 17 percent of the top 25 films in a given year. Here are the 100 highest-grossing films with a woman in the top-billed role in those two decades. Gadot will probably be joining them in just a few weeks, because she and Jenkins have succeeded where others in the DC extended universe have failed: They’ve made a movie people actually want to see.

*Domestic box office, in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars.

Source: The Numbers

Footnotes

  1. Excluding 2011, when Annenberg didn’t do its study.

  2. The franchises are: Alien; Alvin & the Chipmunks; Batman; Bourne; The Chronicles of Narnia; Die Hard; The Fast and the Furious; The Hangover; Harry Potter; The Hobbit; The Hunger Games; Ice Age; Indiana Jones; Iron Man; James Bond; Jurassic Park; The Lord of the Rings; Madagascar; Marvel Cinematic Universe; The Matrix; Meet the Parents; Men in Black; Mission Impossible; The Mummy; Night at the Museum; Ocean’s; Pirates of the Caribbean; Planet of the Apes; Resident Evil; Rocky; Shrek; Spider-Man; Star Trek; Star Wars; Superman; Terminator; Toy Story; Transformers; Twilight; X-Men, with new additions since 2015 of Despicable Me, the DC extended universe, Captain America, Kung Fu Panda, Da Vinci Code, Wolverine, King Kong, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Smurfs. We removed four films from their franchise list because they were animated or otherwise discontinuous: “Batman: Gotham Knight,” “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (2008) and “Transformers” (1986).

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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