What DC, and Hollywood, Needs From Wonder Woman

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Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros.

This week, Warner Bros. got to breathe a big sigh of relief: Finally, the DC Extended Universe has produced a movie that critics don’t totally hate. Wonder Woman has received almost unanimously positive reviews so far, charting in the mid-90s on Rotten Tomatoes, and many reviews are praising not only its likability and narrative coherence but also its sense of humor — not exactly common features of the DCEU so far. (Though it’s worth noting that Vulture’s own David Edelstein was a little less ecstatic.)

But relief often precedes a renewed sense of nerves when it comes to launching movies, and now, Wonder Woman has to meet the public. And the film’s burden doesn’t stop at reviving DC’s moribund onscreen presence: As the first female-fronted superhero movie of the Marvel era, as well as the first to be helmed by a female director, Wonder Woman also carries with it the (unfair) prerogative of proving the international viability of female-oriented tentpoles. If it succeeds, studios will have even fewer excuses for their currently pathetic rate of hiring women to direct, and for making blockbusters centered on female characters and stories.

When considering how to judge Wonder Woman’s performance, there are two different benchmarks worth using. The first is the DCEU to date. The openings of the last two DC movies, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, came with good news and bad news. The good news was that each made a massive amount of money on its first weekend: BvS took $166 million domestically, then a March record, plus another $254 million overseas, good for the fourth-best global opening of all time; Suicide Squad managed $134 million domestically, the record for August, with $132 million more coming in from international markets.

Compared to those numbers, Wonder Woman’s forecasted haul might seem pretty pedestrian. According to Deadline, the film is tracking in the $65–75 million range, with a $90+ million debut possible if the good buzz can give it a boost. Overseas receipts should add $100 million or so, meaning that a bow in the $175 million range seems like a reasonable prediction. But it’s important to remember the difference between Wonder Woman and its DC predecessors, and that’s where the second benchmark comes into play: Marvel.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are two types of films: the individual sub-franchises, in which heroes like Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man star with limited involvement from the other major characters, and then there are the team-up movies, in which these heroes assemble for maximum Marvel-ness and marketability. Part of why the MCU has been so successful is because they slowly ramped up to the first team-up movie, The Avengers, which followed five sub-franchise entries. DC took a different route: Both BvS and Suicide Squad were essentially team-up movies, showcasing a number of different, brand-name heroes and actors at the same time, often in their first outings. That meant these films had to compare with Marvel installments like The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War, but without the anticipation and buildup the MCU provided.

In that sense, we can start to understand why BvS and Suicide Squad were such disappointments despite grossing $873 million and $746 million worldwide, respectively. While those numbers might seem impressive in isolation, and would rank in the top half of MCU performers, they both pale in comparison to the performances of the Marvel team-up movies, which all topped a billion dollars easily. To make matters worse, Suicide Squad also fell short of the comparably lower-stakes Guardians of the Galaxy. And to make matters worse-er, they were critically reviled and, at best, divisive among the core fan base.

But Wonder Woman is a different story. It’s the first solo installment of a DC sub-franchise since Man of Steel in 2013, and, like the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther in the MCU, it has the interesting distinction of properly introducing its subject character after they’ve already appeared in a team-up movie. If you compare it to its closer parallels in the MCU, then, those projections start to look a lot better — in fact, they start to look pretty good. The first Thor and Captain America movies each opened with $65 million domestically, eventually grossing $181 million and $177 million, respectively; worldwide, they came in at $449 million and $371 million.

Compared to them, Wonder Woman’s forecast seems promising. If the film can top Thor and Captain America, which seems likely, it will solidly establish Gadot’s Wonder Woman as not only a viable sub-franchise of DC, but also the only element of that universe unsullied by prior disappointment, controversy, and turmoil. If Wonder Woman premieres closer to $90 or even $100 million, though, that would place it on par with the second installments of Thor and Captain America.

You could argue that, this far into the development of the superhero-industrial complex, that’s where a movie as big and expensive as Wonder Woman should land; after all, Doctor Strange opened to $85 million last year, and Deadpool, Fox’s R-rated upstart with a $58 million budget — about a third of Wonder Woman’s — opened with a remarkable $132 million. But that would be discounting the difficulties DC has faced in comparison with the goodwill Marvel’s been building for a decade now, as well as the exceptional cult appeal of Deadpool, and it would also underestimate the achievement of a film by and about women.

In an industry that saw just 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing domestic releases in 2016 directed by a female filmmaker, the mere fact that Patty Jenkins helmed Wonder Woman is notable. Since women have received so few shots at directing big-budget, live-action studio movies, every addition to their ranks serves to highlight the wrongheadedness of that imbalance, and Wonder Woman should make a very strong case. If the film opens at the higher end of its projections, it has a chance to become the best-opening live-action feature directed by a woman, surpassing Sam Taylor-Johnson’s 50 Shades of Grey, which earned $85.2 million in its debut, and Catherine Hardwick’s Twilight, which made $69.6 million. (It’s worth mentioning the telling fact that the sequels to both of those movies ended up being directed by men.) Even if Wonder Woman ends up closer to more conservative estimates, it’ll put Jenkins in their company.

Should Wonder Woman top $75 million, and even approach a nine-figure opening, DC will have its first reason to celebrate in a long, long time — not to mention an indication of what its future might need to look like. (Hint: It would be a lot more like Marvel, a lot more female, and a lot less like the version we’ve seen so far.)

What Wonder Woman’s Success Would Mean for Hollywood