Ten years ago, there was a Transformers movie and a Pirates of the Caribbean movie and a Spider-Man movie. Times don’t change — or maybe, blessedly, they do. Summer 2007 was a lean season for female-centric filmmaking. Women could be Jason Bourne’s sidekick, John McClane’s daughter, Shia LaBeouf’s love interest, Spider-Man’s girlfriend, one-fourth of the Fantastic Four, or Hermione Granger. As for films that centered on a female character, the options for actresses — and for female audiences — were narrow and limited. There were only six such summer movies that grossed more than $20 million — and one of them was Knocked Up, in which Katherine Heigl played second fiddle to dudes in a rom-com best remembered today for inaugurating the era of the Bromance.
There were some bright spots. Nancy Drew leveled Emma Roberts out of her Nickelodeon phase. The musical adaptation Hairspray brought playful Broadway spirit to mainstream audiences. Angelina Jolie flexed her celebrity to help push A Mighty Heart into theaters, and a little-known French actress named Marion Cotillard was a revelation as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. Other summer offerings included The Nanny Diaries (Scarlett Johansson), No Reservations (Catherine Zeta-Jones), License to Wed (Mandy Moore), and Waitress (Keri Russell), films of varying caliber that traced the established Hollywood template of meet-cutes and mostly happy endings that had provided the lucrative foundation of so many superstar actress’ career for generations, from Meg Ryan to Julia Roberts to Sandra Bullock.
Films of this vein were chronic and frustrating to any actress who hoped for the diversity of choices their male peers enjoyed. “About four years ago I got sent an awful, terrible script,” Reese Withersoon told EW last year. “And this male star was starring in it, and there was a girlfriend part. And I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. No, I’m not interested.’ They said, ‘Well this actress is chasing it, that actress is chasing it: three Oscar winners and two huge box office leading ladies.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s where we’re at? You’re fighting to be the girlfriend in a dumb comedy? For what?’ And by the way, two Oscar winners did it.”
If it seems like there was a glass ceiling on what female characters could do onscreen, perhaps that’s because there was a glass ceiling for women behind the camera: of the top-100 box-office hits of 2007, only 2.5 were directed by women: August Rush (Kirsten Sheridan), The Nanny Diaries (co-directed by Shari Springer Berman), and Across the Universe (Julie Taymor).
Cut to 2017. While the latest Pirates and Transformers movies have failed to match the predecessors at the box office, Wonder Woman skyrocketed past the $300 million mark, giving director Patty Jenkins the most successful live-action blockbuster ever directed by a woman. It’s a triumphant moment for Warner Bros. after decades in development hell – decades during which Hollywood made movies starring every A-list, B-List, and even some C-list male superheroes, Ant-Man and Ghost Rider and Jonah freaking Hex. And the success of Wonder Woman comes in the midst of a summer that is redefining the very idea of a “woman’s picture.” The new “chick flick” could be a superhero blockbuster, or an R-rated action film, a vulgarian raunch-com, or an all-demographics animated threequel. In 2007, Kirsten Dunst was the best thing about a sequel full of superpowered dudes with the word “MAN” in the title. In 2017, Dunst and Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning and every other woman in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled are making Colin Farrell rethink his life decisions.
Nothing isn’t political anymore, and it’s intriguing to consider Wonder Woman against the backdrop of America mid-Trump Year One. Of course, blockbuster films take years to produce, and when Jenkins started working on the film in 2015, our current president was still a longshot candidate. “I wasn’t making a female empowerment film,” Jenkins tells EW. “I was making what I thought would be the greatest thing for female empowerment, which is just to make a great movie where that’s not the key issue. Make a great movie about a female character where it’s just a great universal film.”
As a result, Wonder Woman taps into some deep elemental questions about war and heroism; it also features a scene where Robin Wright fires three arrows at once, which is as universally thrilling as cinema gets. But unquestionably, the Amazonian vision of a female-populated utopia has struck a chord with audiences. “I found us coming into this hotbed of questions surrounding those issues, which suddenly put us in this very curious place,” Jenkins says. “I feel like the greatest thing is that people have celebrated the aspect of it being a woman, but lots of people have celebrated it for other reasons, too.”
Of course, Wonder Woman is a superhero comic book, a property with 75-plus years of cultural history, with narrative roots stretching back into ancient Greek mythology. Next month’s Atomic Blonde promises a more raucously modern vision of female heroism. In the buzzy spy thriller from John Wick co-director David Leitch, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent adrift in late-Cold War Berlin. “It was a relatively unconventional female story,” says producer Kelly McCormick. “It’s not a typical female love story. She’s not saving a kid. It’s not a conventional woman-in-jeopardy story that we’re so used to. She’s a unique spy doing her job.”
Like Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde has been in the works for a couple years, and it’s intriguing to consider it landing in theaters in some alternate political universe, where Hillary Clinton had made history and been elected the first female U.S. president. “We were anticipating that,” McCormick says. “It would have been a different ride on the feminist train.” As it is, the producer thinks that the wild energy of Atomic Blonde can thrill audiences on every level. “It feels like one of those moments where you just happened to drop the right message at the right time, politically and emotionally,” McCormick says. “I secretly call [the film] a feminist manifesto wrapped in cotton candy.”
Not every female-fronted film has connected at the box office this summer, of course. Snatched marked a significant box office drop-off for Trainwreck star Amy Schumer, while Rough Night proved decisively that a gender-swapped version of Very Bad Things can be precisely as unpopular as Very Bad Things. But whereas, in the past, any female-fronted genre picture could seem like a make-it-or-break-it proposition, now a film like Rough Night is merely one of many female ensemble comedies arriving in 2017: Make way for Girls Trip, A Bad Moms Christmas, and blockbuster threequel Pitch Perfect 3!
“Hollywood is a reactive industry,” says Girls Trip producer Will Packer. “It’s easier now than it was years ago, because you’ve had successful movies, unashamedly aimed squarely at female audiences, that have worked.” Girls Trip stars Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, and Tiffany Haddish as four friends traveling to ESSENCE Fest. It’s the kind of comedy that used to be all-but-exclusive to Y-chromosomes: “Rated R,” the MPAA has declared, “for crude and sexual content throughout, pervasive language, brief graphic nudity, and drug material.”
The producer of female-audience hits like Think Like a Man, About Last Night, Packer thinks “there is a little bit of a moment happening, when you look this summer at films that were aimed at female audiencee. The icing on the cake is Wonder Woman. It would be disingenuous to say that’s only because of women, or it’s only a movie for female audiences. But certainly, at its core, the driving factor for its success was that fact that it felt like an empowerment moment for women, that they fully embraced. Women were definitely the catalyst. And then it was just a really good freaking movie. No matter who was in it, or who directed it, what it was about, it was just really, really good.”
Will there be a Wonder Woman effect in Hollywood? Again, Packer points to how the reactive nature of the movie industry. Hollywood follows success — but it also responds to what audiences are feeling. “You will see movies aimed at audiences with an empowerment theme over the next three-four years, and I don’t think that will be by accident,” Packer says. “Whoever you are, whatever group you are or identity with, people want something that represents them. You’ll see a bigger diversity of content, and you’ll see content that continues to make people feel empowered.”
That’s already in evidence in some of the film industry’s most profitable franchises. The hottest new trend in Hollywood’s franchise era has seen an intriguing new focus on female characters. Just look at Cars 3, which finds Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen paired with Cristela Alonzo’s Cruz Ramirez, a trainer with unfulfilled racing dreams. In a film about talking cars, their dynamic has intriguing resonance in the current cultural conversation. At one point, Cruz asks Lightning how he knew he could be a championship racecar. “I just never thought I couldn’t,” answers Lightning. “I wish I knew what that felt like,” Cruz says.
In discussing that moment, Cars 3 director Brian Fee brings up the Confidence Gap, a topic of growing popularity from universities to workplaces. “We don’t want our movies to be for any one particular person, for any one age group, for any one gender,” Fee says, and indeed, half the Pixar movies released this decade have featured prominent female protagonists. (That’s not to mention their corporate siblings at Disney Animation, who released the anti-bias allegory Zootopia the same year that Chief-in-waiting Moana declared, “I’m not a princess!”)
“I think the reason why we get male-dominated stories so often throughout history — this is my own outlook on it — is because it tends to be a male-dominated industry,” Fee notes. “Animation is technically changing, but it’s still a male-dominated industry.” Fee notes how being the father of two daughters has shifted his worldview and creative process. “Now I’m seeing the world through my daughters’ eyes. The female perspective, what’s out there for them, and what’s out there to influence them. Who they have as role models – or don’t have, I guess I should say.”
By the end of Cars 3, Cruz has risen as the new face of the film’s racecar universe – and, maybe, the face of the franchise’s future. It’s an intriguing echo of the otherwise-totally-different saga-wrapping Logan, which sees Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine decline just in time to make way for Dafne Keen’s X-23. Perhaps we can call this the Rey effect: For aging franchises even half as old as Star Wars, the hip-new-now thing is to bring in a young female protagonist. (Next year’s Transformers spinoff Bumblee is circling Hailee Steinfeld.) The X-Men franchise is casting all your favorite Game of Thrones actresses. And 11 years after Ocean’s Thirteen, the franchise launched by the bad boys in the Rat Pack will pass a few dozen Bechdel tests with Ocean’s Eight, starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Helena-Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, and Sarah Paulson.
The important thing to remember, of course, is that this isn’t just some hiccup in female-centric big-screen entertainment. Taken all together, it feels like Hollywood has reconsidered what it means to produce feature film entertainment: Who can star in a blockbuster, and how audiences will enjoy those stars. That’s the core message brewing in other upcoming high-profile projects. Later this year, Emma Stone and Steve Carell will square off in Battle of the Sexes, the story of tennis star Billie Jean King’s ballyhooed 1973 grudge match with over-the-hill chauvinist Bobby Riggs; Cate Blanchett will put Thor on his ass; and Meryl Streep will play trailblazing Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, advising Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee and the boys club that edit the 1970s paper how to handle the Nixon Administration in Steven Spielberg’s The Papers. There will always be romantic comedies (Reese Witherspoon in Home Again, Sept. 8) and low-budget prestige bait (Frances McDormand in Three Billiards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Nov. 10). There always should be. There needs to be. But for one summer at least, women – who make up 52 percent of moviegoers – are looking at the screen and seeing a reflection of their best and most complex selves.
And that opens eyes not just of women, but of everyone. Take it from Jenkins, currently working on a sequel to Wonder Woman. “For kids to be inspired, and take these pictures where now they want to be Wonder Woman…” she begins, before pausing mid-thought to proudly clarify. “Both boys and girls! Completely macho boys wanting to be Wonder Woman, and playing with Wonder Woman dolls! That blows my mind, and is wonderful.”