The consensus in Hollywood has long been that female-led superhero movies don’t perform, pointing to flops like Elektra and Catwoman as proof. See, the bigwigs must’ve said. Stories with female protagonists just don’t sell!
And then came Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, with her shield, tiara, and lasso of truth in hand to prove them wrong. In just two weeks, Warner Bros. reports that the release has already pulled in $232.2 million overseas — money that’s crucial for the stateside investment to feel like a success. In China, sales reached $8.1 million; in Mexico, $5.9 million. Russia brought in a whopping $12 million, and even the United Emirates is experiencing Wonder Woman fever, with $2.14 million in ticket sales so far. Since June 2, the film has already surpassed the international lifetime gross of Captain America: The First Avenger, and in the Asia region (China excluded) it’s far outperformed the openings of Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, Thor, Iron Man, and Wolverine.
Wonder Woman has swiftly laid the smackdown (like only a superhero can) on the tired excuse that movies starring women won’t perform around the world, and therefore aren’t worth the money to make. Oh, and this one’s directed by a woman, too.
“The market is there, and the money is there,” director Patty Jenkins said at the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York on Tuesday. “As long as you’re obsessed with young male audiences and you’re writing stories with men and directing them with men, nothing will change. The world is changing, so if Hollywood wants to get rich, pay attention to this: Women are our biggest audience in the world right now. It would be wise to go after them.”
Jenkins and co. went after that audience, indeed. It was clear immediately that Wonder Woman would be a domestic success; the long-awaited project (17 years in the making, in fact) earned a cool $205 million in the U.S. alone in just one week — and took the title of highest-grossing opening weekend for a woman-directed film from 2015’s Sam Taylor-Johnson-helmed Fifty Shades of Grey.
Blockbuster status is attained globally, though, and Wonder Woman certainly got it, managing to lasso the elusive international market — the No Wo-Man’s Land, if you will — that we’ve long been told won’t buy tickets to movies like this. Diana's popularity in countries like France, the U.K., Australia, and Brazil may not be that surprising, but the success in places where it’s more difficult to be an outspoken, powerful woman — like Russia, the United Emirates, or China — is evidence that films directed by, starring, and uplifting to women can perform everywhere. Plainly: People will go watch them.
“Before this, action movies with female leads were not getting the budget or the amount of marketing and advertising they’d need to be a successful large-scale international release, because no one was willing to give them money,” explains Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood. “The decision-makers believed it was just too risky. But Wonder Woman shows that the way that we get women to be successful at the box office worldwide is by investing in large-scale stories with female protagonists.”
This way of thinking has prevented the industry from investing any real money (or faith) in female-led action projects over the years. And yet, Diana and the Amazons are currently blowing box office records out of the water, and studio heads are undoubtedly taking note. Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for CommScore, points out that a film’s success outside the U.S. has become even more important over the last five years, thanks to franchises like The Fast and the Furious — the latest installment, The Fate of the Furious, raked in a record-breaking 1 billion dollars, solely overseas. But, he emphasises one more key element in the formula for a successful film.
“Wonder Woman really grabbed onto the tuning fork of the current zeitgeist and hit us at the exact right moment,” he says. “In the uncertain times that we live in, a hero like her couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Yes, there was more funding and a bigger budget, but it also just so happened that the director and makers of this movie created the perfect superhero movie at the perfect time.”
A combination of both fan support and positive reception from critics isn’t hurting, either. A 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 8.2 out of 10 on IMDB, and rave reviews from the media helped lead Wonder Woman to an impressive second weekend both domestically and abroad, with only a 45% drop in sales from opening weekend. That’s rare for a superhero movie, and a much stronger follow-up weekend than both Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, which each dropped 69 and 67% the week after their debut, respectively. (On Twitter, Buzzfeed’s Adam Vary calls this a “phenomenon,” the “lowest 1st to 2nd domestic weekend drop for a modern superhero movie.”)
“This movie is good,” Dergarabedian says. “And let’s face it: If this movie had been a terrible movie by any measure, then getting more movies out there like it wouldn’t really come into play. But it is absolutely kicking ass, especially in the international marketplace, which was previously always just a code word for Hollywood to not gamble on something they considered not a sure thing.”
One question still remains: Will Hollywood finally start delivering the women-starring (and directed) films audiences are clearly craving? After all, Wonder Woman hasn’t just exceeded expectations, it’s obliterated them; WB only projected the movie would earn about $65 million domestically, and it’s already brought in more than $435 million total worldwide, which doesn’t even include the upcoming debut in Germany and, later this summer, Japan.
So what’s next for blockbusting women? There are a few promising projects already in the works for the coming years. This summer will bring Charlize Theron to big screens as an undercover agent in Atomic Blonde; Disney’s got the 2018 Ava Duvernay-directed adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time starring 13-year-old Black actress Storm Reid, plus a live action version of Mulan; in 2019, Brie Larson will star as Marvel’s Captain Marvel.
Still, Silverstein says, we need more than one or two female-led blockbusters each year to actually make Hollywood more equitable.
“Do I think this will help people not freak out about having a female director and a movie about a woman in power? I sure hope so. All of these studios were starting to feel the heat about not having enough female-led movies, so this is exactly what everybody was waiting for. The moment is here, so now we just have to wait and see what Hollywood is going to do next.”
Dergarabedian agrees that while it seems cut-and-dried that Wonder Woman’s success should mean more movies like it, it’s not that simple.
“I think the people in the Hollywood board rooms making decisions will now start to look twice at some of these scripts, because now they can justify their investment in a movie,” he says. “This should be a purely merit-based decision-making universe that we live in. It’s not, but maybe Wonder Woman will help us get a little bit closer to that place.”
The Hollywood Reporter has rumours that Jenkins will soon begin negotiations for a potential sequel to Wonder Woman, and this box office response all but guarantees viewers would show up for it. So here’s hoping Diana and moviegoers will meet again. She wasn’t 100% right when she said only love can truly save the world — badass female superheroes can shake things up, too.