‘Wonder Woman’ may flip the superhero franchise script
Diana, princess of the Amazons, better known as Wonder Woman, has spent 75 years saving the world in DC comic books and TV shows, and has fought alongside Batman and Superman with her sword and Lasso of Truth. Still, her male counterparts have hogged the big-screen glory.
That ends this weekend when Warner Bros. finally releases its $150 million production of “Wonder Woman,” which could become the first superhero blockbuster with a woman in the lead. The film also features a female director, Patty Jenkins, a rarity in an industry often faulted for its lack of diversity.
“We have a female carrying a large tent-pole film, which is extraordinary,” said Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor who studies diversity issues in Hollywood. “’Wonder Woman’ is absolutely a step in the right direction.”
“Wonder Woman” represents a major test for Warner Bros.’ key DC comic book movie franchise. The studio has made a massive bet on films adapted from DC’s superhero library, including last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad,” which together generated $1.6 billion in global ticket sales, but were panned by critics and some fans.
All signs point to a strong box-office debut for Wonder Woman, a character who last commanded a mass audience when Lynda Carter played her in a 1970s TV show. Anticipation kicked into high gear last year when the bracelet-wearing warrior, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, first appeared in “Batman v Superman.” The studio’s Thursday premiere at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood drew legions of fans, with some dressed in the superhero’s shoulder-less costume.
“There is a pent-up appetite for seeing a female hero with the strength that Wonder Woman has,” said Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment, whose office door is decorated with the hero’s image. “People are ready for it.”
“Wonder Woman” is on track to debut with $80 million to $90 million in ticket sales from the United States and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys. Warner Bros. is downplaying opening weekend expectations, predicting $65 million to $70 million in sales.
The movie is likely to benefit from growing anticipation for Wonder Woman to reclaim her pop culture throne after past false starts. Director Joss Whedon was tapped to make a Wonder Woman film for Warner Bros. more than a decade ago, but that project fizzled. A 2011 TV pilot for NBC never aired. Before Jenkins, Michelle MacLaren was hired to direct the upcoming “Wonder Woman” film, but she left the project in 2015 because of creative differences with the studio.
And after multiple Batman and Superman reboots, Diana is a relatively fresh presence at the multiplex. So far, critics have praised “Wonder Woman” for its humor, action and performance by Gadot.
“It sounds like it’s getting DC on the right track,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst for BoxOffice.com. “It could really turn the tide for them. Buzz is ramping up in a pretty big way for it.”
Warner Bros. is coming off a strong first quarter, when revenue jumped 8 percent to $3.4 billion, helped by strong ticket sales for “The Lego Batman Movie” and “Kong: Skull Island” and home video sales for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spinoff from the Harry Potter series. But the studio’s recent release, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” flopped.
A successful launch for “Wonder Woman” would help solidify Warner Bros.’ footing as it competes with Disney’s Marvel Studios. Warner Bros. has several other superhero movies underway, including “Justice League,” “Aquaman” and “Cyborg.” Expanding the DC franchise has been a crucial pillar of Chairman and Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara’s plan to grow the studio.
“Wonder Woman is about much more than a movie,” Tsujihara said in a statement.
Beyond ticket sales, superhero movies fuel sales of toys, video games and even fashion lines. The studio is teaming with brands and retailers for clothes and accessories such as Betsey Johnson backpacks, Alex & Ani charm bracelets and Nanette Lepore watches featuring the famed double W insignia. Pieces from designers such as Louis Vuitton and Versace will be displayed and auctioned for charity at a Wednesday event in Paris.
The film is also part of a wider effort by Warner Bros. and its DC Entertainment subsidiary to make better use of its deep library of female superheroes and villains. In 2015, the studio debuted its “Supergirl” television series, which airs on the CW network (the first season ran on CBS). Last week, Warner Bros. announced a Cartoon Network series based on its DC Super Hero Girls line of toys and other products. The series reimagines characters including Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Catwoman and Poison Ivy in a high school setting.
Jenkins’ new grown-up “Wonder Woman” is an origin story set in 1918. Diana has trained as an unstoppable warrior in the lush, secret island paradise of Themyscira, which was given to the Amazons by Zeus. But she discovers her true calling as a hero when she meets World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).
Fans have been waiting for decades for a successful female superhero movie, which would counteract outdated industry reservations about the ability of women to carry blockbusters (a notion already shattered by Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games”). A recent USC study coauthored by Smith found that women made up 4 percent of directors of the 1,000 top-grossing films of the last decade.
“The fact that Superman and Batman have gotten a bajillion reboots and we’re finally getting a Wonder Woman movie is crazy,” said Myisha Haynes, 31, a video game marketing artist in Berkeley. “I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt.”
Though women have played supporting roles in big superhero movies — notably Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in the “Avengers” films — studios have been criticized for not giving them their own pictures. Previous attempts to make female superhero movies, including 2005’s “Elektra” and 2004’s “Catwoman,” were widely panned financial disasters.
In a sign of shifting attitudes, however, more female-centric superhero movies are coming. In 2019, Disney is to release “Captain Marvel,” starring Brie Larson and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Sony Pictures last week named Gina Prince-Bythewood to direct the Spider-Man offshoot “Silver & Black.” Some people hope that a big win for “Wonder Woman” will even boost salaries for female talent.
“If ‘Wonder Woman’ can be as big as ‘Iron Man’ with a female lead, that can help women close the pay gap in Hollywood,” said Laura Martin, a media analyst at Needham & Co.
Girl power has fueled much of the “Wonder Woman” marketing campaign, estimated to total $125 million to $150 million in spending. The posters for the film feature Gadot in muscular poses on her own, largely leaving out male costars such as Pine from the recent “Star Trek” movies.
Nostalgia also played a supporting role in the campaign. Carter, of the 1970s series, made a winking appearance in one TV spot showing Supergirl of the CW show wearing Wonder Woman’s signature boots. Carter also joined Gadot at the Thursday night premiere, to the delight of fans.
“It’s amazing how people of all ages go crazy when they see her,” DC’s Nelson said about Carter. “It’s like she’s still on television.”
Times staff writer Sonaiya Kelley contributed to this report.
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