How 1978 ‘Superman’ Influenced 2017 ‘Wonder Woman’

Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins pays homage to Superman helmer Richard Donner, explaining how his superhero movie influenced her vision.
Chris Tilly
Copied to clipboard

Superman director Richard Donner recently sat down with Wonder Woman helmer Patty Jenkins to discuss how his 1978 classic influenced her 2017 hit. The pair spent 30 riveting minutes discussing Wonder Woman as part of a Director’s Guild podcast, and talk turned to the WWI setting, changes made to the origin story, and following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder. But the best bits revolved around Jenkins paying both tribute and homage to Richard Donner’s original Superman.

The Early Influence of Superman on Patty Jenkins

It seems that Jenkins first fell for Clark Kent at an early age. "When I was 7 years old my mother’s car broke down and she dropped my sister and I at the movie theatre to see Superman 1," she explains to Donner. "And I’ll never forget it. It was a cold, snowy day, and I sat there and it rocked my world. Like it rocked my world. I cried. I sobbed. I’ll never forget every single moment... I was Superman. And I watched that movie and the little boy picked up the car and every step of that movie I fell in love with. I’ll never forget the way it made me feel afterwards. I believed that I could be Superman. I wanted to be Superman."

She also discovered the Wonder Woman TV show at around the same time, and then Diana Prince quickly became her favourite superhero.

Art school followed, and Jenkins explains that while her friends were advising her to make movies in the style of Woody Allen, she just wanted to make a Superman of her own, telling them, "I want to one day make people feel what I felt when I saw that."

Tonal Similarities Between Superman and Wonder Woman

Jenkins says that she enjoys all the different kinds of superhero movies, but when it came to making Wonder Woman, she wanted to hark back to the more grand and classical style of Richard Donner's movie. But it took time to convince Warner Bros. that old-fashioned was the right way to go.

"I think that Chris Nolan did his films and Zack Snyder is doing his films and both of them have a slightly more serious and darker tone. But when I came in on Wonder Woman there was some resistance over the years I was talking to them. I think one of the stumbling blocks possibly was that I felt very insistent on this style and tone of telling the movie. So if they were going to do it another way I wasn’t the right director for that. They didn’t say they were, but I definitely believed strongly that this was the way to do it.

"Then by the time they realised that that was what they wanted to do too – tell the origin story of Diana – they were very open to what I was saying. Because I said Superman 1 right off the bat. ‘That’s what I want to do. I’m going to cast it with comedians and funny people. I want to do grand, classic cinema.’ They were incredibly supportive the whole time we were shooting the film. Zack Snyder was incredibly supportive. Everyone was supportive that I was doing something different."

Getting Wonder Woman's Early Scenes Right

Regarding Superman's opening scenes, Jenkins tells Donner: "What’s a mainstay of thousands of years of storytelling is universal character storytelling. It’s where you show me a planet and you show me two parents in crisis with a baby and they hold that baby and they say, ‘We have to send our own baby away and what is going to happen?’ I am in. I’m in. For the 45-minutes it takes to get to Superman as an adult, I am in."

And the director tried to mirror that in Wonder Woman, with Jenkins telling Donner that she took time to set the scene on Themyscira before launching into the action. "I loved getting to tell the story that way – loved it," she explains. "Any nervousness that we ever reached about it I would always, unfortunately, call your movie up and say, ‘Let’s look at Superman. Superman – 56 minutes in before the helicopter rescue and the first time you see him in the… 56 minutes in, or maybe a little longer.’ And boy does it make it good.

"When he pulls that thing off and flies up and saves the helicopter you’re crying with joy because you’re so invested in the story already. If that happened right away it would be a totally different thing."

Shooting THAT Scene

In Donner's Superman, Clark Kent – in clumsy mode – struggles to get through a revolving door at the Daily Planet, then rescues Lois Lane from an alleyway thief by catching a bullet. Jenkins plays homage to this scene by having Diana Prince – dressed like Clark – struggle to get through a revolving door due to the size of her sword, then rescuing Steve Trevor down an alleyway by deflecting a bullet.

Jenkins explains: "I think that’s such a great scene, and I loved the idea of there being that misunderstood reversal of who blocks the shot. I just loved it. We had a great time blocking and creating that whole thing. And then it was funny the scene before when she leaves Selfridges and is walking down the stairs, I had it blocked in a totally different way in my head… and all of a sudden I realised it was a revolving door!"

"On the day I was standing there and I was like: ‘We’re doing it! We’re doing the revolving door 2!' That’s the best scene where right before he runs into Rex Reed on the other side. I was like: ‘We’re doing that too!’ So that became the set-up – I just loved doing it so much, it was so fun. And it felt like it was just the right amount, where we were clearly tipping our hat, but we’re not ripping somebody off."

So those were our favourite bits of what is a brilliant interview. If you want to check out the full recording, head to the DGA site and take a listen.

Chris Tilly
At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.