It’s reductive to put it this way, but the most vital blow this summer's Wonder Woman film has landed is financial. This is what fundamentally matters in Hollywood. Flawless as Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is, however irreproachable her gender politics, these would have meant nothing had this most high-profile, female-fronted, female-directed blockbuster failed at the box office. In an era fuelled by hothouse identity politics, this is the cross every mainstream “female” film now has to bear.
Happily, Wonder Woman surpassed all expectations. It’s the No 1 US film of the summer, with over $400m. Riding identity politics to dominate the wider 2017 summer movie conversation, Wonder Woman evidently broadened its appeal to other demographics beyond the obvious one; it’s the most resilient superhero film at the box office since 2002’s Spider-Man. Not bad for the girl who was in principle the bronze-place draw of the DC Cinematic Universe, behind Batman and Superman. She has rescued this floundering mega-franchise – finally giving it a USP by doing what rivals Marvel seem reluctant to do, and commit to female-led blockbusters.
Patty Jenkins’ film isn’t the first commercially successful blockbuster with a female lead. There’s actually a near 20-year history of viable franchises, from Underworld to Resident Evil to Tomb Raider to Hunger Games. But it’s highly significant that Wonder Woman has made its mark in the absolute bullseye of the mainstream, in the dominant genre of the day – the superhero film. The one to which young pop-culture junkies look to most readily for role models; women certainly got one with the unabashedly idealistic and inspiring Diana Prince. Having a female director – still the exception at this level of film-making – made it feel like a complete triumph for women both on and behind the screen.
The path has surely been opened to more female-fronted blockbusters. It’s already been a promising year on that score, with Rogue One, Alien: Covenant and Beauty and the Beast all driven by women. And the statistics seem to confirm a brewing sea change: 29% of the top 100 films in 2016 had female leads, the highest ever proportion. The picture on pay parity is less clear, but stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain and Diane Kruger denounced a gap with their male counterparts that suggests cinema may be in line with general North American trends where the pay-divide between the sexes is currently growing. Progress on the representation front shouldn’t be downplayed though, building on a long line of films that have helped crack open mainstream cinema for women:
Sigourney Weaver’s tough, self-reliant Ellen Ripley was groundbreaking at the end of the 70s – there were no precedents for action heroines aside from Pam Grier’s blaxploitation films and camp TV predecessors like Emma Peel in The Avengers. But Ripley, utterly serious, was of a whole different order; maybe so singular and intimidating for a male-dominated industry that the new wave of female ass-kickers didn’t properly get going until over a decade later when Paula Hamilton shocked audiences with her cut biceps and way with an assault rifle in Terminator 2. Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight and Demi Moore in GI Jane soon followed.
Pretty Woman (1990)
This Pygamalion rewrite about an LA hooker who falls for her wealthy Mr Right isn’t exactly obvious feminist material. But its colossal worldwide success (nearly $470m – huge for 1990) made Julia Roberts a star and vastly increased her earning power. One of the first women to have access to the historically high A-list salaries of the 1990s, her fee of $300,000 for Pretty Woman had ballooned to $25m by 2003’s Mona Lisa Smile. It’s clear how much work remains to be done on the pay gap when you hear that Gal Gadot, 25 years on, received the same $300,000 for Wonder Woman. But Roberts showed how high the bar can be placed.
Aeon Flux (2005)
Female-fronted action films were more common by the mid-noughties, but Aeon Flux was a significant casualty on the warpath. Taking just $52.3m worldwide on a $65m budget, it’s certainly true it lacked familiar source material like Wonder Woman and that its post-Matrix aesthetics were a little dated. But it also fell foul of studio machinations that ended up seeing the film taken away from director Karyn Kusama and re-cut. "The emotional core of things was always being questioned as sentimental, over-romantic, short of literally saying the words 'female' or 'feminine,'" Kusama has said. It did, though, establish Charlize Theron’s action credentials; imperious in the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and this month’s Atomic Blonde, she’s superseded Angelina Jolie as the queen of modern action cinema.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Important for finally securing the best director Oscar for a woman: Kathryn Bigelow. Ironically for a film with barely any women in it, though Bigelow has hitherto been something of an action pioneer in a mostly all-male saloon. She made her name with a string of 80s and 90s thrillers – Blue Steel, Near Dark, Strange Days and the now universal guilty pleasure Point Break – and gave Jessica Chastain a career-making role as the CIA analyst who nailed Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.
Paul Feig’s wedding-stress masterpiece broke open modern raunch and grossout comedy to the girls: we’ve since had Bad Moms, Trainwreck, Rough Night and the recent Girls Trip. It also introduced audiences to one of the decade’s best paid female stars in Melissa McCarthy. But by exceeding all commercial hopes ($288m worldwide), it opened up a serious discussion about the centrality of female-fronted films in the mainstream. That viewing them as niche material is outdated and restricting women to certain genres makes no commercial sense. But, for the moment, this new frontier of identity politics-conscious film-making seems to entail a new level of scrutiny and pressure, as Feig later discovered with online animosity to his all-female version of Ghostbusters.