Getting Wonder Woman Right With Patty Jenkins

We were in the Wonder Woman edit bay with Patty Jenkins, seeing battle footage and discussing how to make a "classic" Wonder Woman movie.

Of all the impressive things glimpsed on a trip into Warner Brothers’ Wonder Woman edit bay, none was quite so promising as the passion director Patty Jenkins displayed for the project. We might’ve borne witness to a detailed and intriguing plot synopsis of Wonder Woman’s first act, as well as around 15 minutes of actual footage from the movie (including a major action sequence that we’ll unpack momentarily), yet beyond any guarantee of extra doses of humor or noble Amazon deeds, it was Jenkins’ insistence that Wonder Woman was “my Superman” which most caught my attention. And I believed her.

… After all, she’s been trying to make this movie for the better part of 15 years.

“I don’t love all superhero films, but I love a great one,” Jenkins said with a smile. It was a fairly sunny morning, at least by English standards, in the London neighborhood of Soho. Flanked by a group of nine journalists, including myself, the American filmmaker sat not in her actual editing suite, but in a more accommodating screening room several floors below. Having literally just made the journey straight from a monitor bestrewn with Amazon badassery, Jenkins’ mind could’ve been running in a million different directions at once. However, as she remarked about her affinity of the genre, she was specifically recalling the path she’s been traveling since first pitching to write and direct a Wonder Woman movie for WB following her success on the Oscar winning Monster.

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“My first meeting with Warner Brothers was in 2004. They said, ‘Hey, so we’re interested. We want to meet you, and what do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Wonder Woman! I want to do Wonder Woman.’ And since then I came in every year to have a meeting about it at some point.”

For the director, it’s been a quixotically fast yet long courtship with the studio. She didn’t officially get the greenlight to helm the picture until April 2015, but there were plenty of false starts in-between, including a missed opportunity to begin working on the project in 2008 that had to be turned down due to her pregnancy, and then there was her own fleeting collaboration with Marvel Studios when she almost directed Thor: The Dark World. But perhaps that collaboration didn’t happen for the same reason she always kept coming back to Diana of Themyscira.

“You just start to have respect for [the] need to have the right director for the right thing,” she reflects about Thor’s ship passing in the night; it also applies to how she is finally nearing the finish line on a movie that will see Gal Gadot wield the Lasso of Truth without having to share the spotlight with any other brooding capes. In fact, the final hurdle for Jenkins seemed to be that, for a moment, WB was most interested in where Wonder Woman fit amongst building a massive and crisscrossing shared universe.

Yet, Jenkins seems to have has gotten what she wants: Beyond a framing device that features Ben Affleck’s Batman sending a World War I photograph to modern day Diana Prince, who’s working in Paris at the Louvre’s antiquities department, this is entirely a “straightforward” origin movie that is meant to embrace the heroism, adventure, and, well, wonder of the Wonder Woman character.

For Geoff Johns, who is credited as both a screenwriter and executive producer on Wonder Woman, this origin story is as definitive as what “Dick Donner did with his Superman movie.” But it’s Jenkins’ added elevator pitch about what she’s looking for that is most persuasive, and it’s a decided step away from anything else we’ve seen thus far from the onscreen DC Extended Universe.

“I ended up being very ‘Superman meets Casablanca,’” Jenkins recalls of her previous discussions on influences. “[Those] came up a lot, and Indiana Jones. It was those three films where I was like, ‘It’s a classic film. We are making a classic film.’ We care about humor, we care about epic, we care about heroism, we care about arc and story, and [we] make it elegant… Indiana Jones or Rick from Casablanca meets Wonder Woman? It’s like, I’m in for that story.”

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And given the footage we saw, and its emphasis on both the adventure and drama above simply action or angst, it’s fair to say they’re off to an encouraging start with it.

The Footage: Comedy & Drama

During our 90 minutes inside Wonder Woman’s post-production process, we were shown four scenes that amounted to about 15 minutes of the overall film, with the samples highlighting the two aspects WB likely wishes to emphasize: It’s going to be a departure from the grimly brooding undertones of the first DCEU movies, but it’s reaching for a level of dramatic tension that remains absent from most of the superhero genre’s biggest stalwarts. For now, these elements seem fairly complementary.

The first scene, which is reminiscent of what Anna Obropta, production liaison on Wonder Woman, called the picture’s “enormous amount of light and playfulness, and humor,” is a moment from near the end of the movie’s first act. At this point, Gadot’s Diana has elected to ignore the strong warnings and reservations of her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who had forbidden helping the recently captured World War I spy, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).

For thousands of years, Hippolyta and her Amazons have forsaken the world of man in favor of their island paradise on Themyscira. Diana has never seen a male specimen… particularly one as affable as Chris Pine, who apparently has an emotional puppy dog confession when the Amazons lasso out his secrets in an interrogation. So in the dark of night, she steals away with Steve, a sword called the God Killer, and new armor that looks awfully similar to 1940s comic book designs.

When our scene opens, it is accompanied by lush romantic strings on the film’s temp score, and Steve and Diana are alone on a ship traveling to England, yet the dialogue is less sweet nothings and more evocative of the kind of sex comedies from the 1960s and ‘70s that might’ve starred Jane Fonda or Audrey Hepburn once upon a time. In this scene, it involves the American pilot trying to explain why it might be construed as improper for him to sleep next to an Amazon princess beneath the stars on the bow of a ship.

“You don’t sleep with women?” Diana asks while Trevor stammers and drifts to the other side of the boat. Pine in perfectly flustered comic timing gets out, “I do sleep with women—yes, I do. But out of the confines of marriage, it’s just not polite to assume.” One gets the sense that their relationship will play along the fish out of water staples that have worked for decades too. I was particularly reminded of Disney’s Splash where much of the humor and repartee is derived from Tom Hanks simply trying to explain why 20th century humans do what they do to Darryl Hannah’s mermaid, although here, there’s the sense that despite being naïve to man’s customs that Diana is almost gently tormenting her companion.

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The sequence goes a long way to building the relationship and characterizations of both Diana and Steve through humor. Clearly, Trevor is a world-weary vet who is being thrown off guard by not only Diana’s naiveté to the world, but also her resilient individuality. She is insisting that he take her to the frontlines for she believes that is where she’ll find the Amazons’ greatest foe, Ares the God of War, but he is dismissive, suggesting the only way to win the war is to get his latest stolen intelligence to the men who can fight. “I’m the man who can,” Diana says with both a sense of obliviousness to Steve’s initial patronizing, as well as in a lighthearted way to show the film’s rejection of putting Wonder Woman in any kind of box.

“[It’s] a funnier way of looking at it and talking about it,” Jenkins says of the scene and how it plays into society’s expectations for gender roles, particularly in the early 20th century. “That’s absurd! Why wouldn’t I fight?”

Indeed, for Jenkins the whole scene might suggest a more organic approach to mine comedy out of a story than a bit of self-aware quipping, right down to the juxtaposition of the music and the characters’ noticeable discomfort. “That’s such a romantic track, you wouldn’t think it would turn out to be so funny. Turns out that’s exactly what’s being funny while they’re just incredibly awkward.”

Yet, the scene that strongly indicates the film works well is one that is entirely devoid of comedy at all. While one of the other sequences we viewed also underscored the fish out of water laughs, there’s a decided grit to Wonder Woman that appears to strike an appropriate balance.

The standout, by far, is what happens during Diana’s second major action sequence in the film, here along the trenches of No Man’s Land in France. Unlike the pulpy self-awareness and lightness of the World War II action scenes in Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Jenkins plays the horror of war straight when Steve reluctantly takes Diana to the frontline against the wishes of his men and even his superiors, including David Thewlis as Sir Patrick Morgan, a member of the British War Council.

The sequence opens with Diana seeing displaced refugees and visitors struggling with a dying horse as they flee the nearby carnage. The Amazons have apparently mastered hundreds of languages (they’ve had millennia to do so), and Diana can hear the fear and horror in the French villagers’ voices, but Steve and the Allied soldiers refuse to let her help: There is no time and in the Great War, you can’t save everyone.

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“This is No Man’s Land, Diana” Steve screams over the sound of mortar fire and men dying behind him. “It means no man can cross it! This battalion has been here for nearly a year, and they’ve barely gained an inch.” No man can cross it… but a Wonder Woman can.

In what will certainly be a moment enshrined in fan culture for years to come, the action scene becomes not about winning a battle, but Diana understanding that she can save lives by realizing her own confidence in her powers. The temp track used in the scene we watched is John Murphy’s epic third act score from Sunshine (and which was also used memorably during Hit-Girl’s big scene in Kick-Ass), and it’s every bit as grandiose and operatic here as Diana finally drops her robe and steps out onto the battlefield in her Wonder Woman armor. Rupert Gregson-Williams is composing original music for the final version of this scene, and he’ll likely be striving for something every bit as massive for this moment of self-realization in the face overwhelming violence.

The sequence is hard to undersell since it is staged with the kind of dignified glory that has been missing from DC films over the last few years. It’s Wonder Woman striding across a field of death, slowly gaining determination and speed as she goes. And to the shock of the Allied soldiers, she’s able to shrug off mortars and bombs with her shield, and deflect bullets with her bracelets. She is such an unstoppable moving target, bounding higher than a tall building into the midst of the German defenses, that she gives Steve Trevor the opportunity to lead a brigade charge, shotgun in hand, across No Man’s Land behind her and into the German trenches, bullets blazing.

It’s a unique approach to a superhero action sequence, particularly following Batman v Superman, since Wonder Woman is focusing on heroism over just sheer spectacle.

“It’s an interesting thing, because not a lot of people understood what I wanted with No Man’s Land,” Jenkins explains afterwards. “It’s like, ‘What is she going to do? How many bullets can she block?’ And I was saying it’s not about that. It’s not about action or fighting. It’s about her. It’s about ‘I’m going to do this thing’ and then getting her way across…. As a result, I storyboarded and treated it very much like I would a dramatic scene. It’s this rhythm, you know? So I needed to see how many shots I wanted for each of those moments to build to that rhythm.”

If all the action packs a similar punch, Wonder Woman could return the kind of heft to DC set-pieces that hasn’t been seen since Christian Bale flew off in a jet over the bay.

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Let Wonder Woman Be Wonder Woman

But above all else, the takeaway from the visit is the desire for this to be a singular and inclusive representation of what Wonder Woman has meant to fans and pop culture over generations. For Jenkins, this is about realizing a character she’s been imagining from a period well before she directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar in Monster.

 “I had been making superhero short films,” Jenkins recollects of her time prior to the 2003 drama. “I went on to see a door open to write and direct Monster, and I was like, ‘Oh great, I’ll do that.’ And then suddenly, I was a super dark director. But people who knew me growing up were like, ‘Of course you’re making Wonder Woman.’”

And for Jenkins that means making the type of movie she’s always generally envisioned. While the World War I setting was a particular invention by WB and Zack Snyder as they first incorporated Diana Prince into 2016’s Batman v Superman, Jenkins says throughout her multiple pitches over the years, she always was determined to tell a Wonder Woman origin story set in the past—she even initially imagined it could be set in the 1960s as a bit of an homage to the iconic Wonder Woman TV series with Lynda Carter from 1975. Nevertheless, her vision for Diana always leaned toward the more noble and aspirational.

“She’s my Superman,” Jenkins states. “Like she can’t be dark or angry or nasty, and I kept seeing female heroes had to be some alt-character.” Jenkins also credits her interest in the character partially to growing up in a “feminist fantasy” with her single mom who shielded her away from the thought that she couldn’t do something. And over the years, it became a matter of convincing studio brass that Wonder Woman herself also didn’t need restrictions.

“She’s just got to be Wonder Woman, she is Wonder Woman. I love Wonder Woman, let her be, you know?” She then adds, “The thing that surprised me is that I came in naively thinking, let’s make that. But there was more fear in the world at every studio about doing that kind of thing. Just a belief only boys liked action movies, and boys didn’t like female characters, so what do you do to address that? And that’s what changed. Things like Hunger Games started to show something else was possible, so I think the way I always wanted to do it became possible.”

And we’ll see exactly what Jenkins and Gadot’s Wonder Woman can do do when they (finally) get their big screen bow on June 2.

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