The superhero genre appears to be having a moment. Despite recent and vocal condemnations from some quarters in the industry, superhero films continue to be the most reliably bankable genre in Hollywood. But more impressive still, nearly every major studio release in 2017 featuring masks or tiaras was also a critical hit, from the gritty and elegiac Logan to the good comedy vibes of Thor: Ragnarok. Still, none hit the industry or zeitgeist more significantly than Wonder Woman, the Patty Jenkins-directed epic that reconfigured Diana Prince as, once more, a feminist cultural icon in perilous times.
The movie has had its detractors too, but from its euphoric critical reception last June to its stunning box office performance—having the most impressive holdovers of any $100 million-plus budgeted blockbuster ever—Wonder Woman has clearly captured the imaginations of most American moviegoers, young and old. It is probably for that reason it surprised again Friday afternoon when the Producers Guild of America included Wonder Woman in its 11-film lineup for the Daryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures. Or in layman’s terms: the PGA nominated Wonder Woman for their version of Best Picture. This vote of confidence is large enough to give the movie the momentum it needs to potentially reenter the awards race and achieve its own big win by getting nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
This change in the wind might surprise some outside observers who are just as likely to associate the acronym of PGA with the Professional Golfers Association as they are with Hollywood producers. Indeed, the PGA awards are just one of a slew of guilds, and unlike the Screen Actors Guild or the even more glittery spectacle of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes, there are no televised ceremonies with celebrities giving interview blurbs to breathless fashionistas at the PGAs. Nevertheless, this guild has a more significant role in determining who gets nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards than any other awards ceremony in Hollywood. In essence, this is because despite the recent spotlight on the vilest of abusers who have enjoyed this power, producers still drive the movie industry, and as goes their opinion, so too usually goes the rest of Hollywood.
Which is why Wonder Woman’s nomination is all the more important. Gal Gadot may have been ignored by the SAGs, and we don’t know yet how Patty Jenkins will fare with the Directors Guild, but the nomination of Wonder Woman shows that Hollywood producers are able to recognize its virtues more easily than critics or other guilds. For while Logan receiving some love from the Writers Guild Association is promising, nothing better suggests industry opinion is high than a boost of confidence from those who care most about what drives this town: box office.
Again, Wonder Woman played a major and nigh unheard of role on the industry’s bottom line in 2017. With a multiplier of 3.94x—which means it nearly quadrupled its opening weekend tally at the U.S. box office—Wonder Woman struck a chord with audiences who were likely more than just entertained by the sight of Gadot’s Diana ignoring a man telling her no and striding triumphantly across a World War I battlefield; they were inspired by it.
That kind of feel-good story, and the feel-good numbers that accompany it, appeals to producers perhaps more than other voting branches of the Academy. For while the Oscars have failed to ever nominate a superhero film for Best Picture, the PGA has previously nominated two superhero yarns for its top prize: The Dark Knight and Deadpool.
In the former’s case, The Dark Knight was another box office and cultural touchstone that set minds racing in much more somber and dramatic directions in the final days of the Bush Years and economic uncertainty. While the arguable masterpiece received major recognition when Heath Ledger earned a posthumous Oscar for his haunting turn as the Joker, it was snubbed for Best Picture during a period when the race only permitted five nominees. This is all the more indicting of the Academy as the years have passed, because The Dark Knight has aged far better than a number of nominees for Best Picture in 2009, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and especially The Reader, a lukewarmly received Holocaust drama that, executive produced by Harvey Weinstein, rather miraculously ended up in the fifth slot for Best Picture.
Yet the snubbing of The Dark Knight has had major consequences, beginning the following year when the Academy moved to allow up to 10 nominees for Best Picture, as opposed to merely five. Obviously, the intent was to get some more mainstream films nominated, albeit the results have not been so egalitarian as that. Indeed, no superhero movie has received that kind of love.
Then again, there have been few superhero movies of the quality of The Dark Knight, if any. In a genre that typically emphasizes narrative convention and simplicity over depth and innovation, and which rarely asks for 100 percent from its actors, it is easy (if not agreeable) to see why some would turn a blind eye. But times have changed since the awards season of 2008 and ’09. Superhero movies are now ubiquitous and as defining a genre in the 21st century as Westerns and musicals were in the 20th. They’re also becoming generally more nuanced and ambitious.
The best example of aspiration toward breaking down expectation and convention is currently Logan. A grim and thoughtful drama with harrowing violence, it is a movie for adults that is elevated by layered performances from its stars Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. In a perfect world, it probably would also be in the running for Best Picture. But while it made money, it did not have the phenomenal impact that 20th Century Fox’s 2016 effort Deadpool did…. Or Wonder Woman.
Because while the PGA nominated Deadpool, its snubbing at the big dance on Oscar night was hardly surprising. It might be another box office Cinderella story; but this Cinderella still had the mouth of Jonah Hill in Superbad. Wonder Woman’s role in 2017 is much more celebratory. For while the film has the classic three-act structure of most superhero movies, it also moves with an intelligence and warm grandeur generally absent from the Marvel Studios stable and the rest of Diana’s DCEU peers that have come to dominate multiplexes. Jenkins instead evokes the sweep of 1940s war melodramas from Hollywood’s Golden Age, as much as she homages Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie.
And in the process, she made a film that has had a profound impact. In a year that began with the Women’s March in response to a self-described serial assaulter of women being elected President of the United States, and ended with the #MeToo movement bringing to account powerful men and alleged sexual abusers who have been isolated in their power and money (beginning with Hollywood), 2017 appears to be only the start of a seismic shift and needed purge in what is acceptable. And a major bridge between those events in 2017 was the rapturous reception to Wonder Woman, a mainstream tentpole movie starring a woman and directed by a woman; it likewise celebrated traditionally feminine attributes that are mostly ignored in Hollywood action films. Qualities like compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance.
These elements are what made Jenkins’ vision unique in the traditional superhero landscape, and it is what helped elevate the movie from being a hit to becoming something more meaningful to people. It also may be what makes Wonder Woman the first superhero film to finally break the Oscar barrier and receive a Best Picture nomination.