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A lot is riding on the bare shoulders of Wonder Woman

  • WARNER BROS. PICTURES

    As Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot is a warrior endowed with superpowers who protects the good.

Wonder Woman squared her shoulders, stared grimly across a war-torn desolation, then began to sprint, holding her shield high against a rain of bullets coming from German guns.

“Yes! Go, Gal!” shrieked Patty Jenkins, director of the new “Wonder Woman,” who was wrapped in a duvet-thick coat and staring at the action on a monitor. Minutes later Gal Gadot (pronounced “gah-DOTE”), the Israeli actress who plays the title superhero, was being draped in her own padded coat and given a hot drink while her hair and headpiece were adjusted. “Brrrrrr,” Gadot said with a smile. “This is fun.”

The temperature was hovering just above freezing on a February morning last year, outside the Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, England, and Gadot, clad in Wonder Woman’s outfit of leather bustier, very brief skirt and knee-high boots, had just finished the umpteenth take of her heroic dash across a stretch of muddy ground.

“The cold, ugh, that was the hardest thing about shooting the movie,” Gadot said during an interview in Los Angeles in early March, chatting comfortably about the role that might turn her into a household name after “Wonder Woman” is released on Friday.

The film will be the first superhero movie in over a decade to feature a woman as its title character, and the first time a female director will be in charge of such a film.

It will also be the first time that Wonder Woman — a seminal character dating from 1941 in the DC Comics universe — will be the star of a feature film.

“I think what the studio realized was that they had an asset to exploit, to pull in a larger section of the populace that would ordinarily not be our demographic for that kind of film,” said Charles Roven, a producer of the film. “When you open your eyes to that opportunity, you get excited about it.”

Asked whether she felt the pressure of being the first actress in a long time to carry a live-action superhero movie, Gadot laughed. “When you put it like that, yes!” she said. “But at the end of the day, that can’t be something that drives me. I tried to focus on what is important for me: the heart of the character, and how to deliver the best result in the most interesting way.”

Gadot, who made her first appearance as Wonder Woman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (the second in the Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe series), is little known to moviegoers and represents a gamble for the studio.

But Doug Creutz, a media analyst at Cowen and Co., said that because Wonder Woman was such a well-known character, he didn’t think that audiences would necessarily care about a big-name actor in the role. “In some ways I think there is an advantage to casting someone unknown; when it’s Ben Affleck playing Batman, it’s hard not to look at that and see Ben Affleck,” he said. He added that Warner Bros. had a lot riding on the film, apart from having a female lead.

“The first two films in the series, ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman v Superman,’ did well but were panned by critics,” he said. “So I think the pressure is on to make a better movie, or they risk burning out interest in their universe.”

The path to a Wonder Woman feature film has been a long one for Warner Bros., with various development projects dating to the mid-1990s, and with many directors attached, including Joss Whedon. In late 2014, after reports that the studio was looking for a female director, Michelle MacLaren signed on to the project but left a few months later, citing creative differences. The studio turned to Jenkins, best known for “Monster.”

“I had been talking to them about ‘Wonder Woman’ for 10 years,” Jenkins said in a recent Skype interview. “They were interested, but they had a certain idea of what they wanted to do and didn’t feel I was the right director. Then I think they realized that they did want to go in my direction.”

That direction, Jenkins said, was “a very straightforward origin story, true to the positive spirit of Wonder Woman, a great love story, a good sense of humor.”

To that end “Wonder Woman” is faithful, she said, to the legend told by the original comics. Diana Prince, born on the all-female island of Themyscira, is trained as an Amazon warrior and first sees a man when an American pilot, Steve Trevor (played by Chris Pine), crash-lands on the island and tells of a world at war. After the island is attacked, Diana decides to go with Steve to try to stop the war. (The one deviation from the original story, Jenkins said, was to switch the time period from World War II to World War I.)

William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, posited Diana as an alternative to aggressive male superheroes. She is a protector of the innocent, beautiful and good, as well as endowed with superpowers, magical weapons and great strength. The comic-book drawings also convey sexual allure, with Diana in cleavage-baring bustiers and high heels that can seem at odds with the feminist message the character is said to embody.

Gadot said she is frequently asked how to reconcile her skimpy costume and the film’s message. (Last year the United Nations dropped Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador for women and girls after tens of thousands objected in a petition that cited, among other things, her image in the comics.)

“I think, as a feminist, you should be able to wear whatever you like!” Gadot said. “Feminism is about equality and choice and freedom. And the writers, Patty and myself all figured that the best way to show that is to show Diana as having no awareness of social roles. She has no gender boundaries. To her everyone is equal.”

Jenkins, the first woman to direct a big-budget superhero movie, answered with a firm no when asked if she felt all eyes were upon her. “I don’t think about it,” she said. “I just wanted to make a great film about a great, universal character and not be laden down with issues.”

Reflecting on making the movie, Gadot said that as the mother of two girls, she felt proud to have played a superhero who can offer a new role model. “We have seen so many male-driven stories, so the more strong, female narratives we have, the better,” she said. “I’m sure the movie will inspire girls, but you can’t empower women without empowering men, too. I hope Wonder Woman will be an icon for them, too.”

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