Gal Gadot, the Wonder Woman Wowing the Box Office

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This month, an exhausted 32-year-old mother of two young children posted a make up-free photo of herself on Instagram with the caption: “Sleepless night, colic 3 months old baby and an early wake up by my 5 year old. Went to the garden to get some fresh air with my coffee to help me wake up . . . ” Within days it had been “Liked” more than 1.25m times. “The real Wonder Woman,” wrote one admirer.

Gal Gadot, an Israeli model and former soldier, turned actor, is indeed Wonder Woman, taking the title role in this summer’s juggernaut blockbuster, directed by Patty Jenkins. The Warner Bros production has so far taken more than $600mworldwide, and is on course to become the highest-grossing film directed by a woman — a title held by Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s Kung Fu Panda 2 ($665m in 2011). A Wonder Woman sequel is already in the works.

Over the past decade, Disney’s Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers DC Entertainment have produced a string of male superhero franchises. (Ms Gadot first appeared in the Wonder Woman role last year as part of the ensemble cast of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Warner Bros eventually took the gamble that audiences would turn out in sufficient numbers to make a female-led film, fronted by an unknown actor, commercially viable. It worked, and injected new life into Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s alter ego, who first appeared in a comic book in 1941.

The woman embodying this cultural phenomenon had been acting for years, including in the Fast and Furious series, but stardom eluded her. Ms Gadot was on the verge of giving up when invited to audition for a secret part — she was only told later it was Wonder Woman.

Israel, a country of 8.7m people, has produced a disproportionate number of Nobel laureates, acclaimed writers such as David Grossman and Amos Oz, and political household names like Golda Meir. It is also making a mark in quality TV: Homeland and In Treatment have been adapted for global viewers. But it has few pop-culture celebrities. Ms Gadot may live in Los Angeles, with her property developer husbandJaron Varsano and their daughters, but her homeland has greeted her global stardomwith rapture.

“She was a nice Israeli girl who lived 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, and now you go into a theatre and you can see her beautiful face 25 metres high,” says Goel Pinto, the host of a daily radio and TV show on culture on Kan, Israel’s state broadcaster. “When she first appears on the screen, people applaud.”

Wonder Woman benefited from generally good reviews (it has a 92 per cent approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator site) and was further boosted by an extraordinary, outpouring of online and “IRL” word-of-mouth love. Oprah Winfrey tweeted a video from her Wonder Woman-themed party for a group of young girls; Wonder Woman merchandise is flying out of stores; and screenings of the film to all-female audiences have been sell-outs, attracting dressed-up fans — and heaps of online abuse from misogynists.

Audiences living through the uncertainties — and activism — of 2017 have been highly receptive to the feminist superhero fantasy. Diana strides across the battlefields of the first world war, deflecting bullets as she goes; she is smart (she speaks hundreds of languages); oh, and she’s immortal (“My mother sculpted me from clay, and I was brought to life by Zeus”). The movie is fun, fearless — and surprisingly affecting. Women report being moved to tears, such is their surprise and delight at seeing Ms Gadot’s superpowers on screen.

Translated literally, Ms Gadot’s first name — common in Israel — means “wave” and her surname means “banks” (as in riverbanks); the family’s original name was Greenstein, but like many immigrants to Israel they Hebraicised it (her surname is pronounced with a hard “t” as Gad-OT).

After she left school, her mother suggested that in the months before she joined the Israel Defense Forces for her compulsory national service she could enter the 2004 Miss Israel pageant. “I never thought I would win — and then I did win and then it scared me,” she told an interviewer. At 20, she went into the army and became a combat instructor.

Ms Gadot has been forthright in her patriotism, which doesn’t attract controversy with most Israelis, but made her a target for abuse by the Jewish state’s critics. During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation against the Islamist militant group Hamas in 2014, Ms Gadot posted a Facebook tribute to IDF soldiers “protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children [ . . . ]”.

Ms Gadot’s nationality has been controversial among some Palestinians and other Arabs. Neighbouring Lebanon banned the film. Jordan, where animosity towards Israel runs high but which has a peace treaty with the Jewish state, allowed it to be shown. Mohammad al-Momani, the kingdom’s communications minister, said that an actor’s citizenship could not be grounds for banning any film.

Wonder Woman has been re-adopted as an inspiration for women and girls who enjoy her on-screen fight to end “the war to end all wars”. Ms Gadot’s exceptional performance makes that hope possible, but a century on from those battles the entrenched conflicts endure, in her homeland and beyond.

The writers are the FT’s assistant editor for comment and its Jerusalem bureau chief. This article originally appeared in the Financial Times and is reprinted with permission. 

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