By The Washington Post · Michael Cavna
Jenkins delivered a breakout hit with 2017's "Wonder Woman" by meticulously laying down the trackwork of an origin story. For the second go-round starring Gal Gadot - out in the U.S. theatrically and on HBO Max after a pandemic delay - the filmmaker seized the increased freedom to tackle heartfelt themes great and small.
Writing and guiding the sequel meant "really getting to do whatever I wanted," Jenkins said this month in a Zoom call from the Los Angeles area. What she wanted was to place Wonder Woman and her civilian alter ego, Diana Prince, in the Washington of Jenkins's own '80s youth.
"When you think about different towns that are synonymous with different superheroes, there's something right about Washington" for Wonder Woman, says Jenkins, who has praised Lynda Carter's '70s TV series, in which Diana Prince worked out of the nation's capital.
"First of all, where would Diana go?" Jenkins says of the Amazonian warrior from the isle paradise of Themyscira, who headed to World War I's European theater in "Wonder Woman." "She would go to the heart and center of where power is."
Once Jenkins and co-writer Geoff Johns were settled on setting, the director plunged deep into her own memories of Washington, where she often visited before moving to the area as a teenager in 1987, staying for a bit over a year.
"The style of D.C. is so wonderful" for Wonder Woman, says Jenkins, who shot numerous scenes on the National Mall, in the Georgetown neighborhood and in northern Virginia. "Having her live at the Watergate, the modernity of it, cut against the Reflecting Pool and the Hirshhorn - it just felt elegant and beautiful and intellectual and pop at the same time."
To summon visual specifics as if pulled from a dusted-off scrapbook, Jenkins decided "to lace little things of that era throughout the film," such as re-creating the punk/new wave retail shop Commander Salamander, which closed on Georgetown's Wisconsin Avenue a decade ago.
"Geoff Johns and I were arguing about it when we would pass the script back and forth to each other," Jenkins says of including Commander Salamander, noting that it was "like the best punk-rock store in the country." Johns "kept rewriting it to be like the Sunglass Hut, and I would write it back to be Commander Salamander." She told her co-writer that he wasn't understanding the nostalgic meaning of these authentic District of Columbia touchstones.
By the time Jenkins moved to Washington, "the best days of D.C. hardcore had kind of already peaked and were going away," says Jenkins of the city's influential punk scene of the early '80s that included Bad Brains.
The filmmaker, who liked to frequent such night spots as the Hung Jury Pub, notes: "Some of my favorite D.C. bands were not around so much - I was there for kind of the tail end of the stuff that the D.C. hardcore scene is famous for - but I tried to weave a ton of that into this film because it was all raging in '84, at the height of it all."
In the film, Diana visits the Hirshhorn Museum - a moment that includes a visual punchline about just what qualifies as art. "I spent a huge amount of time at the Hirshhorn - I was going to art school and working on my portfolios," the director says. The film also shot in the Smithsonian's nearby National Air and Space Museum; aviation was a central part of Jenkins's childhood, when her father was an Air Force pilot.
On another level, far weightier than the film's retro fanny-packs and futon couches, she wanted to explore American politics of that era, as well as this one, through a personal lens. Wonder Woman is "a great avatar for me," Jenkins says. "I don't feel like I'm Wonder Woman, but I feel like she's my idealized self."
"The struggle to do the right thing in the world is a great metaphor for all of our struggles - and one I can really identify with," the director says. "That's why I like to give her complexity and problems and make it about her journey of doing the right thing."
One of the character's superpowered accessories dating back to her World War II roots is her golden Lasso of Truth, as dreamed up by Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (who is generally credited with developing the polygraph machine). The new movie's villain, Maxwell Lord (played by Pedro Pascal), is a land-grabbing TV con man on the international grift - one who even pays a visit to the Oval Office - prompting some reviewers to compare him to President Donald Trump. Even the director has said the departing president was one of many inspirations for the tycoon.
Jenkins says she felt compelled to explore society's need for shared facts, particularly when dealing with greedy leaders and social media silos. The film, knowingly set in Orwell's infamous year, makes a point when Wonder Woman wields her lasso against a would-be overlord's worldwide deception: Only unified truth will set us free.
"I think we're in a really weird, lost place where the misinformation that's available on the Internet is so obscuring the idea that there is one truth," says the director, adding: "There are real, hard truths going on in our world, and we're all so busy fighting about versions of talking about it that we're missing the forest for the trees."
Speaking as both storyteller and concerned world citizen, Jenkins says going after geopolitical prevaricators is not enough when dealing with such existential crises as climate change. Rather, people need to come together over larger truths. "Beating up the bad guy," she says, "is not going to save us if we don't open up our eyes."
So what would Jenkins's version of Wonder Woman think of the American future?
"I think she'd be very, very worried," says Jenkins, emphasizing her belief that nations must work as partners to focus on long-term solutions.
"I hope that we can get there" or else we're looking at grave environmental threats, she says. "But it's going to take change. We'll see."