The Lessons Warner Bros. (And Hollywood) Should Learn From 'Wonder Woman'

Wonder Woman arrived last weekend and proved that every stuffy studio exec who said a female-driven superhero film wouldn't work was full of it. Patty Jenkins' DC Extended Universe (DCEU) debut is a box office hit, with a $103.2 million opening weekend – the highest domestic opening for a female director. But there's more to Wonder Woman than boffo box office: it's actually, well, wonderful – an exciting, emotional summer movie that proves the DCEU isn't the garbage fire many were afraid it might be. Not only did the film clean up at the box office, but it also ended up with a staggering 93% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the archenemy of DCEU fans everywhere.

Any time a film of this nature is a success with critics and audiences alike, the inevitable question Hollywood asks is: what next? How does one use this success as an example and run with it? There are several lessons to take away from Wonder Woman, but the most important one may not be the most obvious. The biggest lesson to learn from Wonder Woman is that sincerity is no longer a dirty word.

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The New Sincerity

In his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, David Foster Wallace brought the post-postmodernism facet of "new sincerity" into the limelight, positing that in the future, instead of rebelling against what's being presented to you with a stab of irony and detachment, the truly rebellious act would be to embrace the sincerity of the work. "The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn," he wrote, "the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal.' To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness."

Speaking with the New York Times, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins touched on this very aspect, revealing that sincerity was essential to the film. "I'm tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing," Jenkins said. "It's been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that's what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis. I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It's terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world."

This sincerity, along with the focus on a "hero who believes in love," are paramount to making Wonder Woman work. Wonder Woman isn't afraid to embrace the humanity and inhumanity inherent to the story. When Diana (Gal Gadot, in a star turn that recalls Christopher Reeve's breakout performance in Richard Donner's Superman) witnesses the ravages of war, she's shocked and appalled to the point that she believes there must be a malevolent force at work. Mankind cannot be this cruel  they must be under the influence of Ares, the fallen god of war. Later, when she learns that isn't the case, she's understandably heartbroken. Yet she realizes that just because mankind can be flawed and destructive, perhaps that doesn't mean we're entirely worth giving up on. We just need guidance. It's reminiscent again of the Donner Superman, with the powerful line from Marlon Brando's Jor-el: "Live as one of them...to discover where your strength and your power are needed.... They can be a great people; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way."

In a sense, Wonder Woman ends up becoming the Superman movie that Man of Steel could only dream of being. The Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman wants almost nothing to do with humanity. His heroic actions seem like a burden to him – more of a chore than a noble pursuit. Wonder Woman rectifies that – Diana wants to help humanity, even after she sees how terrible we can be. 

"Be careful in the world of men," Diana's mother warns her before she leaves the island of Themyscira. "They do not deserve you." Diana becomes the hero she was destined to be once she realizes that it's not about "deserve." "It's about what you believe," she says. "And I believe in love."

"Love can save the world" may instantly seem like a hokey cliche to some, but Jenkins rejects that notion with her film. In the world of Wonder Woman, love really does have the power to save the world. And who wouldn't want that to be true? Why instantly reject such a notion as cheesy when there's great strength in embracing it? There's nothing to be gained from fear or cynicism. There's everything to be gained through hope.

Wonder Woman

Embracing Conventions While Taking Chances

As exciting and entertaining as Wonder Woman is, it doesn't exactly break the comic book movie mold. It exists firmly within the conventions of superhero origin stories, and it even falters a bit in the finale when it descends into loud bombast and big explosions.

Yet part of what makes Wonder Woman so successful is how comfortable it feels in its own skin. It knows it's a comic book movie, and it's having fun with that. When you watch a film like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad (or better yet, never watch them again), you get the sense of a film at war with itself. The films' tones are slapdash, their narratives jumbled. They don't seem to know what kind of movies they want to be. Wonder Woman has none of those problems. It's a film completely confident with what it's trying to do. Most of all, it doesn't feel assembled the way all of the other DCEU films and even many of the Marvel MCU films do. Instead, there's a very clear three-act structure at work here, first introducing us to Diana's world, then introducing Diana to our world and concluding with Diana becoming the iconic hero she was meant to be. It's a simple, effective structure that calls back films like the Indiana Jones series and The Rocketeer.

Wonder Woman also takes some chances. In an interview with Fandango, Jenkins stated that one of the film's most powerful scenes was almost left on the cutting room floor. Dubbed the "No Man's Land" scene, this sequence follows Diana as she does what no man in the trenches of World War I had done before: crossing enemy lines, taking on a hail of bullets and coming out victorious in the end.

"It's my favorite scene in the movie and it's the most important scene in the movie," Jenkins said. "It's also the scene that made the least sense to other people going in...I think that in superhero movies, they fight other people, they fight villains. So when I started to really hunker in on the significance of No Man's Land, there were a couple people who were deeply confused, wondering, like, 'Well, what is she going to do? How many bullets can she fight?' And I kept saying, 'It's not about that. This is a different scene than that. This is a scene about her becoming Wonder Woman.'"

In this scene, we get our first real glimpse of just how powerful Diana is, and how brave and assured she is. The scenes leading up to this moment are filled with the other (male) characters repeatedly telling Diana that they have to keep moving; that they can't stop and help; that no one can do what she's claiming she wants to do. Her reaction is to do it anyway. She climbs up out of the trenches into the muck and mire, her shield at the ready, and charges forward. When the men in the trenches see this, they follow. In this scene, Jenkins shows us both Wonder Woman's physical strength as well as the way she can inspire others.

It's an incredible moment, and the fact that anyone behind the scenes could look at this bound-to-be-iconic scene and want to cut it proves that perhaps some of the people making these movies just don't know what the hell they're doing. But Jenkins knew precisely why the scene worked and what made it so important. Which leads to the next point.

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Hire. More. Female. Directors.  

Hollywood would be wise to use Wonder Woman as a springboard to finally hire more female directors. But don't be too sure they'll learn that lesson. In 2015, two of the year's top-grossing films – Pitch Perfect 2 and Fifty Shades of Gray – were helmed by women. Yet by 2017, the number of female directors had actually grown worse instead of better. Per Variety, "women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a decline of two percentage points from the level achieved in 2015 and in 1998."

Just before Wonder Woman was released, THR ran a much-criticized story that claimed that Warner Bros. was taking a "gamble" by hiring a female director "whose only prior big-screen credit was an $8 million indie." Yet this "gamble" theory never seems to come up when Hollywood hires male directors like Colin Trevorrow and Jordan Vogt-Roberts to jump from small indies to big franchise tentpoles. It's a disturbing double standard, and it's time for it to end. Wonder Woman was a big hit, and rightly so, but one gets the sickening feeling that had the film failed at the box office or with critics, Hollywood would use it as a justification to keep female directors away from big blockbusters. Again, this is a standard that does not apply to male directors. Suicide Squad was one of the worst reviewed films of 2016, yet Warner Bros. went ahead and re-hired David Ayer to direct their upcoming Gotham City Sirens film. The lesson shouldn't just be to hire more female filmmakers – it should be to keep hiring them even if they don't deliver a huge blockbuster right away.

The DCEU's Wonder Woman was introduced in the abysmal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where she slinked around in the background before being thrust into a headache-inducing battle scene. She seemed nothing more than eye candy there; a prop to be used and leered at via the male gaze. There's no such male gaze present in Wonder Woman, and the film thrives because of it. Wonder Woman is, of course, attractive, but the camera's focus on the character isn't sexualized. Rather, it highlights her physicality and her strength. I'm not sure many male directors could've achieved that as successfully as Jenkins does here.

Wonder Woman TV Spots - Gal Gadot

The New Frontier

Where does the DCEU go from here? Well, the obvious answer is Justice League. And that concerns me. The trailer for Justice League, despite a few stabs at humor, gives off the same doom-'n'-gloom vibe that plagued Batman v Superman. There's a sense that now that the DCEU has finally found its footing on steady ground it's about to stumble backwards into a murky bog. There's a lot to be learned from Wonder Woman, but perhaps the most important lesson of all is that maybe, just maybe, studios should start spacing their franchise films out a bit more. If there was more time between Wonder Woman and Justice League, Justice League could have been effectively retooled to reflect the hope and optimism on display in Wonder Woman.

In Batman v Superman, Diana has given up on the world of men and hung up her shield. It takes the arrival of the monster Doomsday to call her to action again. Wonder Woman doesn't touch on just what made Diana stop being Wonder Woman, and honestly I'm in no hurry to find out the reason. For now, we should be content in the sincerity of this film. The future is inevitable, but for now let's focus on today. And hey, if Justice League ends up being a dud, there's always Wonder Woman 2 to look forward to.