Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Some thoughts on Wonder Woman, female directors and internet entitlement

About two weeks ago, Warner Bros announced a slate of ten superhero films between now and 2020. (12 movies if you factor in the claim that there will be standalone Superman and Batman films in addition to that list.) This included the announcement of a solo-Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. Though some outlets mistakenly called it the "first female superhero movie," that's not quite accurate. Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra would beg to differ.  However, it IS the first female superhero movie of the modern superhero film era, so that counts for something.

Then yesterday, Marvel announced it's own slate of eleven superhero films between now and 2019. One of these also features a female superhero, but not Black Widow, as many might have expected. This one is Captain Marvel, who will arrive in 2018.

Of course, this has provoked the usual outcry that Marvel and Warners MUST hire a woman to direct both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. A few sites have even gone so far as to put together lists of their top choices. On one hand, I'm glad we're having this conversation. For one thing, the fact that most of the lists keep coming up with the same five or six women should tell you something about how few female directors there actually are out there. And even then, some of those lists are padded because they contain a candidate or two who's probably only a serious contender in the eyes of some very small circles on the internet.

Don't forget that Warners takes a very different approach to their tentpole directors than Marvel does. Marvel often seeks out less-experienced - and cheaper - feature directors. Warners tends to go with people who have climbed the ladder from modest budgeted to hugely budgeted films. These movies are going to probably go to guys with resumes approximating Zack Snyder's - solid genre work and solid relationships with the studio. Warners wouldn't have handed Man of Steel to the equivalent of 2008 Jon Favreau. This is why I think that we're probably more likely to see a woman helm Captain Marvel than Wonder Woman.

Let me say that I think both Warners and Marvel would be smart to seek out female writers not just for projects where the lead is female, but also for ANY projects. The same for female directors, though I realize we're working from a smaller pool, at least as it relates to female directors equipped to take on a $150 million dollar project. (The number of men who can dive into that scale of project isn't exactly huge either, and many a director has gotten eaten alive by that machine.)

But do I think a good Wonder Woman movie can ONLY be directed (or written) by a woman? No.

As a character, Wonder Woman has had a lot of men write her and only a couple women. Some really fantastic work has come from male writers dealing with her character.  There's also been some really shitty work from male writers too (don't get me started on some of John Byrne's storylines.) As far as female writers, I read acclaimed author Jodi Picoult's brief run on the character and it... really wasn't good, showing that a great writer in one field might not see those skills translate to another character. 

Look, I've sat through too many bad superhero movies to get pissy about who writes and directs it as long as it's good. I don't want another True Detective Season Two situation, though, and the way the internet's getting all activist-y over these films, I can see that happening.

See, a while back, the rumor was floated that True Detective would change gears for season two and focus on a female partnership. That was never officially stated (seriously - check this timeline of official news), but somehow people got it in their heads that this was a done deal. And then when Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell were announced as leads, the internet got really ugly. There were accusations of sexism, cries of betrayal and just general venom directed at the creators for "going back on their word." But that's just it. The all-female True Detective was never a promise that was made. It was the result of a game of telephone and wishful thinking. A creator should not be responsible for what the audience thinks they are entitled to.

THR has said - without quoting anyone - that Warners is "looking" for a woman to direct Wonder Woman. That's not any kind of official statement, nor does it mean that if a man gets the director's chair they're breaking some kind of promise. I'd like to hope that if the helmer ends up being, say Drew Goddard, the primary reaction won't be to tell Drew and Warner execs to rot in hell.

But here's the other possible outcome that occurred to me, and one I find far more intriguing. What happens if they go to everyone's number one choice, Kathryn Bigelow... and she passes?

In all of this "Hire THESE ladies, WB!" has anyone ever actually thought to ask those women what they want to do? Maybe they don't want to be stuck spending a year making a giant product that will be overseen by a host of studio executives second-guessing every decision. (And let's face it, that already happens to a number of male directors on these films, so odds are it will be at least as hard on the women.) And then there's the audience second-guessing every decision too. Some of that is just part and parcel of making a comic book movie and some of that is the inevitable microscope that the press is going to put any female director under in this situation.

So let's say Bigelow feels like she and Warners aren't on the same page with this project and she'd rather make another drawn-from-real-life feature. Her heart's not in Wonder Woman. But CAN she say no? We saw the internet turn on True Detective when it didn't provide that wish fulfillment. What happens if Bigelow says to Warners and the internet, "Thanks, but no thanks."

And then how bad does the reaction get when her passing opens the door for a candidate who happens to be male? Should Bieglow feel obligated to take the gig just because of the larger implications, that it's important for film history that this movie be directed by a woman? Should she take it just to show that a woman can handle these films just as well as a man?

Basically, I'm wondering if all this pressure being put on WB isn't also creating a situation where whichever woman ends up being leaked as the top studio choice (and let's be honest, this WILL leak as deals are being negotiated) is essentially drafted. A cynical person might assume that making a public offer to a woman is a PR move that will cover the studio in the event of a pass. They can say, "Well, we tried" and then feel cleared to hire 300: Rise of an Empire's Noam Murro. (Or maybe they go for the Wachowskis first, which lets them work with directors in the Warner stable and enact some sort of progressiveness with regard to inclusion.)

I would hate to see any director take that job out of obligation. If Green Lantern proved one thing it's that these movies really need a helmer who's passionate about the character. Martin Campbell is an excellent action director - so good he actually directed TWO reboots of James Bond, both of which were fantastic for different reasons. However, he didn't appear to connect to the Green Lantern character at all, even after being handed a script that was relatively true to the comic book elements that should have made it a solid performer. The result was a movie that was neither good for Campbell, nor Green Lantern, nor WB's comic book franchise.

If the best ideas - or at least, the ideas that the studio is going to be most supportive of - happen to walk through the door along with a penis, so be it. Here's what I might do if I was running a studio and the best director pitch on a female superhero movie came from a man: You find one of the truly talented female directors like Bigelow or Michelle MacLaren and go through their passion projects. Whatever it is, make sure it's something they're as invested in as James Cameron was for any of his. When you make the announcement, trumpet how much this is their project. You're not putting them on a franchise to baby sit. You're hiring a woman director to give you something different. Not be just be a shooter.

If you want to change things THAT's how you do it.

Back in the 70s, Spielberg almost directed Superman. Did you know that? The producers waited to see how "his fish movie [does.]" Big mistake. Or not... if Spielberg does Superman and Superman II (which were shot together), maybe he doesn't do Close Encounters. In fact, given the timeframe, he wouldn't have made Close Encounters until a few years later. And then what about Raiders of the Lost Ark?

And even Raiders came about because he wanted to do a James Bond. If Lucas got Flash Gordon, there'd be no Star Wars. What would you rather have had? A Spielberg James Bond and and Lucas Flash Gordon - or two new franchises that inspired so much more? Can you name anyone who directed a James Bond movie in the late 70s and 80s? Do you know who directed Flash Gordon or anything else they directed?

But you sure as hell know who created Star Wars and Indiana Jones, don't you?

So stop begging for women directors to be accepted in the "pre-existing IP" toybox. Why not make some noise so they can tell their own stories? And yeah, maybe that means that they get $60 million to play with instead of the $150 million through at these marketing juggernauts. But they'll get to make movies, their movies.

One way or another, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are going to get their own films, and that will make an impact, no matter what genitals the person calling "cut" and "action" has.


  1. Sorry, but I disagree with you. Hiring a woman director for these films is very important. Honestly ask yourself what are the chances of a woman helming any of the non-female centric superhero films. Most likely, they're not even being considered for those job, so if they can't even get the job for Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, then what chance do they have for getting anything else?

    Also, I believe there are more female directors out there than we realize. The problem is, they're not given as many chances and opportunities as the male directors. Same with minorities. The industry keeps saying the pool is shallow, but that's only because they're glancing at it from afar.

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  3. Part 1 of 2

    Why can't women make both their own films and pre-existing IPs? I don't think this is your intention, but your argument reinforces a situation in which women's art is ghettoized. There is a very long history in every medium of women being confined to only producing certain kinds of art. In comics, we often see the argument that women are flourishing in non-superhero genres such as memoir, so why should it matter if women aren't being given opportunities in superhero genres?

    It's a false sense of equality and equal opportunity. There are women who love superheroes, and as Kelly Sue DeConnick said in an interview for my film, the power fantasy of heroism doesn't uniquely appeal to men only.

    You speak of letting the handful of women on these Internet short lists choose their own projects -- well, what if they DO want to make a superhero movie? The Internet will always churn out extreme wishful thinking, but to counter it with the other extreme is just another way to deny women's agency in choosing the kinds of projects they want to do. Everyone can have their own opinion on the matter, of course, but it seems uncomfortably reactionary to dismiss the people suggesting that the studios consider talented women to helm their movies. Do you not come up with your own director wishlists, even if you keep them to yourself, when you read about a new project on Deadline?

  4. Part 2 of 2

    And -- again, not that you intended this -- but I think your final statement suggests too much that we ought to be satisfied just to be getting two solo female-led superhero movies. I disagree. We shouldn't be satisfied until there is equal representation across the board -- and we have a long way to go until that happens. The argument that it shouldn't matter the gender of the director derails from the fact that today, it DOES matter. We're not yet at equal representation, especially in the film industry, so we need to do all we can to give women, people of color, LGBT people, etc. opportunities that have previously been afforded to (mostly) straight, white men. The argument that "well, if a dude is best for the job..." would hold water in a world where women aren't constantly discriminated against, subtly or otherwise. We don't yet live in that world. And there are plenty of female directors and writers who are more than capable of being the "right person for the job;" the powers-that-be just don't look hard enough out of habit.

    I also have to take issue with your attack on fan entitlement. While I agree that creators shouldn't be beholden to their fans, I don't think it's a negative form of "entitlement" to want -- or even demand -- that Marvel and Warners do better to diversify their slate and talent rosters. Are we not entitled to our media and culture reflecting the realities of our diverse world? Are we not entitled to hold the powers-that-be accountable? Even those who know nothing of how studio filmmaking works are entitled to have an opinion on the matter, as irritating as their thoughts may seem to those of us with more inside knowledge. Sure, some Internet pieces come across as whiny and are linkbaity, but it doesn't automatically invalidate their arguments.

    I know you're on the right side of this, Bitter, and I usually tend to agree with you, but this post rehashes a lot of arguments that are used to sideline the importance of actively cultivating a diverse roster of creatives in this industry. The example of Spielberg is compelling, but hindsight is always 20/20. We can't know what the future holds, so we shouldn't trust that everything will work out for the best. We need to fight for progress. If the process of doing so annoys some people, that's a small price to pay.

    And to go back to my initial statement, there's no reason why women can't tell their own original stories AND superhero stories. Their male counterparts in the industry are doing it all the time. Sure, an individual signing on to one project tends to exclude the ability to work on another, but that's just the nature of the business. Women aren't some monolithic entity that can only focus on one element of progress at a time. There are women who want to direct superhero films, so let them have the opportunity.

  5. While I could off the top of my head say Mike Hodges directed Flash Gordon and his next film was the Mickey Rourke film A Prayer For Dying and that John Glen and Guy Hamilton were the two Bond directors prior to Campbell that came to mind - I am just one guy, and while I didn't have to look that up, most would have to. (I simply craned my neck and looked at my DVD library where Flash Gordon, Live and Let Die and The Living Daylights are shelved)- but alas, the Mickey Rourke flick isn't there because it was a bad film)

    I have seen the "lists" of women directors as well, and it stuns me that there seem to be two omissions, and when I bring those two names up in comments or a chat I always get one of these answers

    ""You do know Patty Jenkins was FIRED from Thor The Dark World!"

    "You do know Lexi Alexander bombed with Punisher War Zone - and you hated Punisher War Zone!"

    To which I usually retort

    "She wasn't fired. Besides we got THIS CLOSE. Amazing how she's not even being mentioned anywhere"

    "So why is Karen Kasuma in the top five? She's there because of Aeon Flux, right?"

    To which the next response is namecalling, saying how dumb I am, or that I should walk out in open traffic on the nearest freeway. I find these things counter productive, but what's more shocking is that, yes, I can only two or three more. But the anger usually happens when I bring up these two examples. One directed a comics based film with a male lead. Another was very close to doing so. And what if you are right and fans are "outraged" when Kathy Bigelow passes on Wonder Woman because she wants to do...say 'Aquaman'? Or that she knows that even though she's made good/great films. the big budget films have struggled to find an audience (such as K19) the films film buffs know her for before Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty are Near Dark, Point Break and maybe Blue Steel (well, me anyway) but her Oscar winning and nominated work were films that did not have huge mega studio budgets.

  6. If you suggest that you only hire a woman for "something different," then you are de facto suggesting that EVERYTHING mainstream naturally goes to men.

  7. It's also incredibly condescending to suggest that women should go make "their" little low-budget movies instead of the big-budget studio films that are the brass ring of a directing career. How do you know women don't want to make big-budget movies? Maybe some of them are making low-budget movies because that's the only chance they get. Peter Jackson did a lovely job with Heavenly Creatures, but was also capable of a blockbuster. So presumably are some female directors, but they get ghettoized.

    What's infuriating is the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose rhetoric that you are repeating without thinking it through: Does Wonder Woman "need" to have a female director? No. But then Iron Man, et al, don't "need" a male director either. What's happening now is that men automatically get the male-skewing movies because, hey, it's male-skewing. But when there's a female skewing film, men get those too because, hey, a writer/director can is a creative person who can work with a lead character of the opposite gender.

    Pick one -- either it matters or it doesn't. I don't even care which side you pick. But you can't have it both ways.

    1. Where did I state that making "'their'" movies meant only "little low-budget movies?" In fact the statement right before that clearly invokes pre-existing IP films. AND it follows a paragraph where I expressly champion why it was better that Spielberg and Lucas made "their" own original (and incidentally, big budget) films. Condescension to women was neither intended nor implied.

      The only reference to budget is where I call out $60 million (which is far from low budget) versus $150 million (which is generally the budget for the pre-branded IPs. And while this opens the door to an entirely different subject, I think both male AND female directors could stand to get a lot more work in the $40-$60M budget range before platforming up to the huge blockbusters.

      (You mention Peter Jackson going from HEAVENLY CREATURES to LOTR, but you forget he had his mid-range budget film in-between: THE FRIGHTENERS)

      It's a huge problem that studios have moved increasingly towards making either ultra low-budget or ultra-big budget. Used to be a director would make his indie movie, then maybe do a mid-range $30M film, and then maybe move up to the $60-$70M range before finally graduating to the huge tentpoles. Directing these tentpoles is a case of stamina and frankly, it breaks a lot of people. I know a director who did two films in the $30-50M budget range and then was utterly rundown by the grueling process of helming a major tentpole. It wasn't good for him and it wasn't good for the movie.

      I've heard agents talk about clients whose careers got derailed because they jumped for the huge movie too soon. The one guy who's really growing his career smartly is Affleck. GONE BABY GONE was $19M, THE TOWN was $37M, and ARGO was about $45M. If he goes after the tentpole, that experience is going to protect him a lot more than a guy who directed a $2M film and finds himself running a $150M operation.

      Regardless of gender, I feel studios are going to have to invest in more mid-budget films just out of survival. Fail to do that, and they'll be left with few helmers outside of the current crop.

      So when I'm calling for more women helmers at the $60M range, it's also about protecting them and putting them in a stronger position so that they don't get run over on a huge studio film. Also, I'd love it if every studio product wasn't either ultra-cheap or as expensive as the budget of third world nation.

      As far as your IRON MAN argument, I address that in an earlier paragraph, where I say, "Let me say that I think both Warners and Marvel would be smart to seek out female writers not just for projects where the lead is female, but also for ANY projects."