NEW YORK - With Wonder Woman blazing a trail at theaters across the United States, the female superhero is being hailed as a powerful new role model for girls and a break away from sexism in Hollywood.
The film, starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot, smashed box-office records on its opening weekend, raking in more than $103 million in the United States — a record for a movie directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. The previous record holder was Sam Taylor-Johnson's Fifty Shades of Grey.
Online debates ahead of the film's release about the Amazonian superhero's lack of armpit hair and the furor surrounding her selection last year as a U.N. honorary ambassador have only served to boost box-office takings.
But it is above all the depiction of the sword-wielding, lasso-tossing character as an empowered woman that accounts for the film's triumph, said Melissa Silverstein, founder of the Women and Hollywood blog and co-founder of the women-focused Athena Film Festival.
'Our stories matter'
"It's almost an exclamation point on what women have been saying for a long time, in the industry, outside the industry — that our stories matter, we are the heroes of the stories, we can kick butt as well as anyone else and we're equal," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Wonder Woman was first imagined in 1941 as an icon of female empowerment — even appearing on the inaugural cover of the flagship feminist publication Ms. magazine three decades later.
But her modern portrayal has been criticized for shifting to a sexualized buxom character, typically clad in a red-white-and-blue body suit.
The United Nations dumped Wonder Woman less than two months after naming her as an ambassador for women's and girls' empowerment amid criticism that her pin-up image sent the wrong message.
The film reverts to her original incarnation.
"Wonder Woman" is one of three comic-book superheroes from the 1930s and 1940s whose stories have been published almost without interruption — alongside Batman and Superman — according to Harvard history professor Jill Lepore.
Debut sparks celebrations
Yet, Jenkins' film is the first theatrical release starring the Princess of the Amazons. Her debut on the silver screen has prompted a host of celebratory initiatives.
In New York, Wonder Woman enthusiasts have raised more than $8,000 in six days to send high school girls to a screening in Washington, D.C.
And female-only showings by the cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse have sold out from Austin, Texas, to New York, with promises of proceeds going to Planned Parenthood, a women's health care provider.
Silverstein said the blockbuster should herald a new era in a Hollywood film industry skewed in favor of male characters and filmmakers.
Last year, females made up just 29 percent of protagonists among the 100 top-grossing U.S. films, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University in California.
Behind the scenes, women made up just 7 percent of directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016, a study by the same center showed.
"The bigger picture is, for me, that women stories are as valid as male stories," said Silverstein.