Gal Gadot is the perfect Wonder Woman. And not just because she spent her two years in the Israeli army as a combat trainer and loves wielding Bracelets of Submission. It’s not even because she’s a feminist. (Though she’s that, too.) Gadot is the ideal heroine because, like Diana Prince herself, very few people in America knew she existed until she came to save the day.
For a few years now, movies in the DC Cinematic Universe—of which today’s Wonder Woman is one—have been using the appeal of big actors to try to get audiences into theaters. Warner Bros. (DC’s parent studio) trotted out Ben Affleck at Comic-Con International in 2014 to mean-mug in Hall H and not answer a single question, then handed him Batman’s cowl for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Will Smith gave Suicide Squad A-list ballast as Deadshot. At the box office, the trick worked: both films made north of $700 million worldwide. But both also got weighed down by their stars, pulling in so-so receptions from audiences (and getting savaged by critics).
Wonder Woman doesn’t have that problem. If anyone knows Gadot, it’s likely because of her role as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise. She’s a talented actress, but not a well-known one—which works out well for WW. “In some ways, I think there is an advantage to casting some unknown,” media analyst Doug Creutz told The New York Times last month in a piece headlined “Can Gal Gadot Make Wonder Woman a Hero for Our Time?” (Hey, no pressure.) “When it’s Ben Affleck playing Batman, it’s hard not to look at that and see Ben Affleck.” When you see Gadot these days, though, all you see is Diana Prince.
Casting Gadot was surely a risk, though. After un-stellar movies in the early 2000s like Catwoman and Elektra, Hollywood seemingly lived in fear of female-fronted comic-book movies. The Hunger Games crushing the box office helped assuage those worries, but it wasn’t until Gadot proved her mettle in Batman v Superman that Wonder Woman finally got her own movie…75 years after her comic-book debut. “I think they needed to feel sure I could handle it,” Gadot told the Times. Warner Bros. could have played it safe and backed a Brink’s truck full of cash up to Jennifer Lawrence’s house and guaranteed a hit, but they stuck with Gadot—and guaranteed their heroine didn’t look like one you’d seen before.
This is, of course, DC’s rendition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe model. For years that studio—either looking to keep costs low or mold stars in their own image—has gone with just-under-the-radar actors to play its Captain Americas and Hawkeyes. (Yes, Robert Downey Jr. was a household name when he took on Iron Man, but he was also coming out of period of personal turmoil, and was anything but bankable.) The result has been a series of actors known best for their roles in the MCU. Chris Hemsworth has been in a lot of movies, but he’ll always be Thor. Scarlett Johansson has built an entire action career out of her turn as Black Widow, but her Marvel incarnation is likely to go down as her biggest box-office splash. (Hey, maybe she deserves a movie!)
Marvel has done the same behind the camera. When he was brought on to launch the MCU with Iron Man, Jon Favreau had most recently directed Elf, the Swingers pseudo-follow-up Made, and some TV. Good stuff, but not a barn-burner in sight. The Russo brothers were primarily known for goofy comedies before they got the directing gig on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now they’re working on Avengers: Infinity War and handling a big chunk of the MCU. Hell, when Marvel hired Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers, the nerd-TV god had only directed one film: the Firefly spinoff Serenity. Each time, these directors brought some style to their Marvel movies, but were also able make films that fit in the larger universe.
For the DC Universe, that vision has largely been the work of Zack Snyder, who directed both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While not famous at a Spielbergian (or even Bay-watched) level, Snyder was still an established director with an immediately recognizable palette, thanks to previous comic-book adaptations like 300 and Watchmen. To frame it in the movie’s own mythological terms, Wonder Woman breaks out of that mold like Athena out of Zeus’ head. MoS and Batman v Superman both felt like Zack Snyder Films; Wonder Woman, praise Athena, doesn’t. Director Patty Jenkins went from Monster to Arrested Development to Entourage to The Killing—a career path that looks distinctively Marvel-ous in its combination of chops and circuitousness. Most, if not all, superhero stories start with an unknown, a nobody, being called to greatness. Wouldn’t the best movies about them be made by filmmakers on a hero’s journey of their own?
Most, if not all, superhero stories start with an unknown, a nobody, being called to greatness. Wouldn’t the best movies about them would be made by filmmakers on a hero’s journey of their own?
Watching Wonder Woman, it’s hard not to think that both its star and its director know what Diana is going through—what it’s like to be overqualified and still disregarded. Jenkins directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar for 2003’s Monster, yet hiring her for Wonder Woman was still considered a “gamble,” and the movie’s fate will inevitably (and unfairly) determine how major studios think about female directors in the future. Meanwhile, nearly every story about Gadot mentions she used to be a model.
It’s all the more ironic, then, that the movie feels like one made in a world where those politics didn’t exist. Wonder Woman herself comes from a matriarchal civilization, and is aghast at women’s roles in World War I-era society: relegated to secretarial work, shut out of decision-making. Some of the film’s best moments are those when the audience is meant to ask, “Can you believe anyone would treat a superhero that way?” The gag, of course, is that Wonder Woman is every woman. And it’s hard to imagine a male director—especially one handed a franchise after just one successful indie—imbuing Wonder Woman with the same tone. It’s unfortunate Jenkins didn’t get to bring her superhero vision to the big screen before now, but her experience in Hollywood might just have made her the best person for the job. (In a telling quote to The Hollywood Reporter she revealed that her departure from directing a superhero flick that is probably Thor: The Dark World was that the movie was in trouble “and I thought, ‘If I take this, it’ll be a big disservice to women. If they do it with a man, it will just be yet another mistake that the studio made.”)
This weekend, Wonder Woman is projected to make more than $175 million worldwide at the box office. It’s currently getting an impressive 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It won’t be a mistake anyone made; in fact, it’ll pull the DCU out of its slump with a critical hit at a critical time. It’ll prove studios with superhero movies should gamble on female directors and female leads even more. It’ll also make Gal Gadot into a massive star—and by the time Justice League hits theaters, audiences will no longer wonder what woman she is.