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‘Wonder Woman’: How Patty Jenkins Saved the DC Extended Universe

Variety logo Variety 6/4/2017 Seth Kelley
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Ten months before “Wonder Woman” was released, an open letter made headlines for claiming the movie was a “mess.” Director Patty Jenkins responded.

“Real lasso of truth, time, will reveal that letter to be false soon enough,” she wrote. “But lame something so transparent in its agenda gets traction.”

Ten months later, Jenkins got her validation. The film won over 93% of critics, and audiences responded too, giving it an A CinemaScore overall. And now, with over $100 million at the domestic box office, “Wonder Woman” has been crowned the largest opening weekend ever for a female-directed film.

“She has a mindset and a vision and just an approach that is so smart and exciting,” Warner Bros. distribution chief Jeff Goldstein said of the director. “She is a great storyteller — fun and innovative.”

It’s a sentiment that’s tough to argue with now, but when Jenkins responded to the open letter in August of 2016, she was fighting an uphill battle; that was before she shifted the narrative of the DC Extended Universe.

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the obligatory point of comparison for all DC films, and visa versa) had found a way to appease the critical community with Joss Whedon’s witty “Marvel’s The Avengers” and James Gunn’s joke-dense “Guardians of the Galaxy,” DC Extended Universe movies had earned a reputation for being dark and dour. Earlier that month “Suicide Squad” was panned by critics, as was “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” before it. With “Wonder Woman,” Warner Bros. and DC didn’t just need another movie that made a lot of money — it needed a quality film (that also made a lot of money).

Which is what they got, but it wasn’t always a sure thing. For example, Jenkins wasn’t the studio’s first choice. In April 2015, Michelle MacLaren parted ways with the project, citing the clichéd “creative differences” that only sparked more questions. “Wonder Woman” also had the added pressure of being the first of 19 films between the Marvel and DC movies universes to be centered on a female character, let alone have a woman at the helm. That made the film inherently political, leading to events like the screening in Austin, Texas that sparked backlash (and backlash to the backlash) for hosting a screening exclusively for women.

But in the end, Jenkins got results. In an interview with Collider, the director said she has no deleted scenes to add as bonus content for the “Wonder Woman” DVD because they don’t exist — the movie that’s in theaters is the movie she wanted to make. That’s more than can be said for “Suicide Squad.” She also knew the movie had to appeal to young girls, who would inevitably see the film. That wasn’t just a creative decision, but a business one as well. When “Suicide Squad” was released, Goldstein told Variety, “We’re resonating with a younger audience. The younger the audience, the higher the [Cinema]Score.” And then there’s that tone. “The thing I think is so important to always keep in mind about her is how positive and bright and shiny she is,” Jenkins told Rolling Stone.

Andrew Barker hit on a lot of this in his review for Variety: “It says quite a lot about the general tenor of the DC cinematic universe that a film set in the trenches of WWI, with a plot revolving around the development of chemical warfare, is nonetheless its most cheerful and kid-friendly entry,” he wrote.

For Warner Bros. and the DCEU, “Wonder Woman” represents a shift in tone that might set a precedent for the films to come. Although he emphasized that each movie is treated as an individual entity, and each director is privy to their own style, Goldstein acknowledged the crucial timing of “Wonder Woman’s” success across the board.

“We realized we had issues at the beginning of this process. We were heavily criticized. Some movies work, some movies don’t work. We all hope for movies like this. This, for us, couldn’t have come at a better time,” he said.

“Wonder Woman” — like any super hero movie with over $150 million riding on it, but with more loaded gender politics — could have been a mess. Now there’s almost sure to be a sequel. Thank goodness Jenkins held onto her lasso of truth tight.

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