How Patty Jenkins secured a future for female heroes in the action genre
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Patty Jenkins turns 46 today, after this year becoming the first woman to ever direct an American studio superhero movie, and being only the second female director in history to command a budget of over $100 million. The reality of Hollywood is that it is a field dominated by men, and the superhero genre is even more so. Jenkins is a real-life superhero, forging through patriarchal obstacles and establishing her success unapologetically, much like the superhero that secured her a place in the history books. Much of the reason for Jenkins’ success with Wonder Woman is down to her integrity. It allowed her to turn down projects whose narratives betrayed her purpose, and led her instead to a project over which she could have control and tell the real story, the way nobody else could have. Rather than succumbing to the well-rehearsed formulas that have made Marvel and DC movies such a success in the last decade in particular, she utilised other principles to steer this project into becoming the highest-grossing movie ever directed by a woman. She brought to the table new principles of peace, love, and compassion that the genre had previously cast aside, preferring the overly used sequences of white males repeatedly throwing punches at one another. Patty Jenkins was only drafted onto the project after being originally rejected for the job, once the first choice of director left over creative differences with the studio. The talks surrounding Wonder Woman began as early as 2005, and Jenkins initially didn’t secure the directing job with Warner Bros. because her vision for the heroine’s narrative did not correlate with the studio’s. This very strength and integrity allowed her, the second-time round, to hold fast to her conceptualisation of the superhero, and create something truly different and beautiful. “Fighting does not make you a hero,” her mother, the Amazonian queen, tells a young Diana. In some ways, this might make the entire premise sound hypocritical, since Diana preaches peace and for the downfall of god of War, yet exists within a genre that requires her to fight. Yet once again Jenkins steps in to ensure the film stays true to both the core of the heroine and to the comic book. She ensured Gal Gadot’s choreography was defensive, never hateful or destructive, setting her apart from her male peers in the genre, who are often portrayed to enjoy the act of exerting brute force in damaging and lethal ways. Jenkins’ open embrace of the heroism and optimism characteristic to 1941’s Wonder Woman, ensures her 2017 portrayal would stay true to her original purpose. William Moulton Marston created Diana Prince to be an allegory for the ideal leader, one who led through love over force, and for the kind of women whom he believed should run society. A creation of the second World War, part of her purpose was also to inspire hope and faith, at a time when violence, cruelty and death was all around. And in many ways, the political and social climate today has these themes in common with the early 1940s. Therefore, Jenkins’ decision to remain faithful to Wonder Woman’s optimism is key to her success, and makes her movie a beacon of light over other recent superhero productions. Jenkins could so easily have ceded to the bleakness that has plagued DC, but instead stuck to her vision: “I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love…who believes in the change and betterment of the world”. And that is precisely the spirit and purpose of the superhero genre, that has somehow been lost as it became such an intrinsic part of popular film culture. Criticism arose from online communities in particular, from individuals who found that Diana’s appearance was contradictory to her status as a feminist icon. Her outfit has been criticised for being too revealing, which some believe is perpetuating the idea of female characters as products of a patriarchal system that designs them for the male gaze. Once again Jenkins jumps to her hero’s defence: “When people get super critical about her outfit, who’s the one getting crazy about what a woman wears? That’s who she is; that’s Wonder Woman”. In the lovely dress-up montage during which Diana must find civilian clothing to wonder the streets of London in, she complains of each outfit being impractical to fight in. It’s a scene that undermines the casual sexism displayed when calling her out on her attire, and legitimises her choice of clothing once in battle. In my opinion, sticking to the original costume is about reclaiming the character, and rejecting the idea that her appearance is intended for the satisfaction of men. This isn’t objectification anymore. It’s a cultural reset that celebrates the female body for its strength, and that is a feminist act. The turning point of the movie celebrates this. In a sequence that Jenkins had to fight to keep in, Diana defies orders to stay in a trench and instead braves the way through No Man’s Land, to go and rescue a village of starving innocents. This scene, when she steps out in her legendary outfit, and becomes Wonder Woman, is the pinnacle of the entire movie. This is a woman who will not obey men, and takes agency over her own destiny. It’s symbolic of what not just what Diana can be, but of what everyone can be. It’s representative of a belief in people’s ability to inflict good change on the world. Once again Jenkins’ bright optimism shines through an otherwise grim context. She allows Wonder Woman to hold the camera and the audience for longer than a female superhero has ever been given the chance to; the scene isn’t about the enemy, the conflict, or the people in the trench. It’s about her.
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