There’s a pivotal moment midway through Wonder Woman when our hero finds herself deep in the heart of war-torn France, at the edge of “No Man’s Land,” an apocalyptic stretch of terrain that’s been deemed off-limits by both sides. It’s much too dangerous she’s told, especially for a woman. But when Diana learns that a nearby village is under siege, she ignores the pleas of her male handlers and steps up to the plate. After shedding her disguise, she emerges from the trenches a woman transformed—armor-clad, sword and shield in hand—ready to stand up for what she believes in. Driven by compassion and an unwavering faith in humanity, she leans into the enemy fire, shrugging off bullets like they’re dirt on her broad shoulders. If it didn’t make you shed tears of joy—or at least come close—you were on an island.
Wonder Woman was supposed to come out years ago. Maybe it was delayed because her character was seen as too “challenging” to merit her own movie, or because studio executives weren’t convinced that they could cash in on a female-led superhero movie. Instead, it was unleashed in 2017, a year when women found themselves on the frontlines of the cultural and political battlefields. They marched for equality on American streets and spoke out against systemic sexual abuse in Hollywood and beyond. Wonder Woman was more than a triumphant piece of popcorn entertainment. It was a big, bold, joyous rebuttal to a pretty terrible year. In a genre traditionally dominated by spandex-clad men, it was a woman who had the most profound impact.
Wonder Woman wasn’t supposed to be good. Nothing in Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ joint arsenal—which was responsible for the palatable Man of Steel, the somber Batman v. Superman and the hastily patched together Suicide Squad—suggested that it would be. If DC had any hope of competing against Marvel’s mighty superhero industrial complex, it needed a savior.
In the end, it got two.
It’s hard to say if Wonder Woman would have had the same cultural impact had it come out in another year.
First came Gal Gadot. Best known for playing Gisele Yashar in three Fast & Furious movies, the ex-Israeli soldier was ready to quit acting altogether when director Zack Snyder cast her as Wonder Woman in BvS. In hindsight, nothing could have rescued Snyder’s superhero slog—not even an Amazonian warrior princess with a luminous lasso of truth. But Gadot came pretty damn close. With just under 10 minutes of screen time to work with, the actress showed off a winning combination of charisma, physicality and heart. If movie stars were assembled in a lab, Gadot would be the end result.
Patty Jenkins was a wild card in her own right. Prior to landing the coveted Wonder Woman gig, the director had only one feature under her belt—2003’s small and gritty crime drama Monster, about the serial killer Eileen Wournos, a woman who in many ways was Wonder Woman’s polar opposite. The film was highly acclaimed and earned Charlize Theron an Oscar, but it wasn’t the type of fare that made Jenkins an obvious choice to direct a sprawling CGI epic about a glamorous demigod who saves people for a living. (Then again, plenty of male directors have made quick jumps from low-budget to blockbuster.)
Jenkins had pitched Warner Bros. her idea—an origin story set against the backdrop of World War I—in 2010, but the studio went with accomplished TV director Michelle MacLaren instead. When MacLaren exited after clashing with the studio, Jenkins was brought on board to execute her vision.
There’s bound to be stakes any time a studio sinks hundreds of millions into the making of a piece of pop entertainment. But it’s hard to overstate just how high they were in the months leading up to Wonder Woman’s release. Wonder Woman was the first female-led superhero film in a decade after Hollywood had become allergic to the subgenre, thanks to box-office duds like Catwoman and Elektra. Jenkins, meanwhile, was only the second female director to get the keys to a movie with a budget north of $100 million (K-19: The Widowmaker director Kathryn Bigelow was the first). In June, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel wrote that if Wonder Woman is a hit, the “doors that have been kept shut for decades could potentially swing open.” If it failed, however, “the superhero universe could remain a boys club for eons to come.” No pressure, right?
Unfortunately, the track record of DC’s burgeoning Extended Universe did little to inspire confidence. The film’s thrilling first trailer helped ease some concerns when it debuted to raves in June of 2016, but that enthusiasm was dimmed by rumors of on-set turmoil. Jenkins refuted the claims via Twitter and later told Playboy that the toxic internet speculation was “the most tiresome” and “truly shocking” thing about making the movie.
Despite the cautious optimism that comes with a good trailer, no one could have anticipated what came next. Wonder Woman was released on June 2, and its impact was immediate. Critics praised Jenkins’ “earnest” and “uplifting” take on the character as an antidote to many of the humorless, self-serious superhero movies that had become de rigueur. (To this day, it sits atop Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best-reviewed superhero movies of all time.) Audiences stormed the multiplexes. It obliterated industry expectations, grossing $100.5 million in its first three days—Jenkins became the first female director to achieve that feat—on its way to becoming the highest-grossing superhero origin movie of all time.
In the months since its release, the ripples of Wonder Woman’s overwhelming success are still being felt. Jenkins will get $8 million to helm the sequel, making her the highest-paid female director in history. Gadot became something of a real-life superhero when she refused to reprise her role if Brett Ratner—the powerful Hollywood producer who had a hand in the first film and has been a key figure in the sexual-abuse scandal that has rocked Hollywood—was involved with the sequel. And with the Oscars fast approaching, Wonder Woman has a chance to become the first superhero movie to nab a Best Picture nod, thanks in large part to the prominent “For Your Consideration” campaign launched by Warner Bros. in October.
It’s hard to say if Wonder Woman would have had the same cultural impact had it come out in another year. But in a year when hope was scarce, Wonder Woman felt both essential and long overdue—a big-screen hero who, as GQ’s Caity Weaver put it in her wonderful profile of Gadot, “was not at the mercy of men.” But perhaps the best summation of why Wonder Woman was the perfect hero for the moment came from Jenkins herself, when she accepted her Glamour Women of the Year award in November.
“There was a 75-year-old hero that has been brought to life here and there who stands for something very new, which is that she stands for a new kind of hero who is strong and powerful and can fight the bad guy, but also believes in love and thoughtfulness and a better way and a different way,” she said. “I feel like that’s the hero that we need right now. … I feel like I got to make this movie about this incredible woman, and in so many ways, for women, because we need those women to go on and save the world for everyone.”