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Cross Post: Dear Hollywood: Hiring Women Directors Could Rescue the Superhero Movie. Love, Half the Human Race

by Susan Wloszcyna
July 10, 2013 2:00 PM
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The superhero picture is suffering from female trouble, and not just because a franchise based on Wonder Woman keeps going in and out of development limbo. Any creature on screen minus a 'Y' chromosome tends to be a side player in this cinematic universe, whether it's Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow in "The Avengers," Natalie Portman's Jane Foster in the "Thor" series, Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts in the "Iron Man" films, or Anne Hathaway's Catwoman in " The Dark Knight Rises."

And, as "Man of Steel" most recently demonstrated, even the Superman saga isn't immune to the genre's knee-jerk focus on males. While the movie contains two potentially strong women --Amy Adams as intrepid reporter-love interest Lois Lane and Antje Traue as General Zod's hench wench Faora-Ul -- the mass destruction wrought by General Zod and Superman's struggle of wills takes up almost a third of "Man of Steel," and barely leaves room for the actresses to be anything but accessories to musclebound suits. The film's handling of Superman's parentage -- which might be summed up as "father knows best" -- could easily be a metaphor for how Hollywood fails to do justice to women in comic book films. In "Man of Steel"'s opening, the soundtrack resounds with the gasps of a woman in labor, a welcome bit of maternal humanity amid the coldly familiar sci-fi trappings. But the film fails to let the audience make a connection to our hero's birth mother (Ayelet Zurer), opting to kill her off as soon as the planet Krypton blows up. Meanwhile, Superman's equally dead father (Russell Crowe) gets to hang around for much of the running time, delivering portentous monologues as if he were the ghost in "Hamlet." Considering this is how 1978's "Superman, the Movie" -- the first mega-budget comic-book-inspired feature --handled the same plot point, it seems that little improvement has been made when it comes to equality of the sexes.

In the nearly-four decades since Christopher Reeve took flight, superhero films have grown into Hollywood's most popular and profitable genre. Sadly, these films continue to be directed by males and marketed to boys of all ages. This situation would not be quite so dire except for the fact that a growing number of these mighty crusader tales, with their endless remakes and sequels, are monopolizing multiplex screens. Given that most of the plots involve troubled male outsiders who fret about not fitting in and/or bearing the responsibility of saving humanity, the stories tend to be boilerplate specials with little room for real emotions -- or real women.

It's time to put a woman behind the camera.

That so few female directors ever get to direct a major motion picture of any kind is bad enough. But in the past half-decade when such films soared at the box office, only one woman -- German karate and kickboxing champ Alexi Alexander -- has helmed a comic-book-inspired film, namely 2008's relatively minor " Punisher: War Zone."

Significant progress almost took place when Marvel Studios announced that Patty Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to her Oscar in 2004's " Monster," had been hired to oversee "Thor: The Dark World," the sequel to the 2011 hit. But two months after the announcement of Jenkins' hiring last October, she was out -- with the common excuse of "creative differences" given as the reason. Taking her place: Alan Taylor, an Emmy winner for his work on TV's "The Sopranos" and a regular helmer on "Game of Thrones." And, of course, a man.

Women tend to get plenty of opportunities in the low-budget art-house arena -- half of the 16 titles in competition at Sundance this year were directed by females. And two took home directing prizes in the U.S. dramatic and documentary categories. But if you aren't a rom-com queen like Nancy Meyers or an Oscar-winning action specialist like Kathryn Bigelow, it is increasingly difficult to break through mainstream Hollywood's directorial glass ceiling.

Consider the fate of Brenda Chapman, a pioneer in the field of animation. She co-directed the 1998 DreamWorks feature "Prince of Egypt." She was set to become Pixar's first female director after pouring her heart into last year's "Brave," the story of a rebellious Scottish princess who was based on her own daughter. She found it "devastating" when the decision was made to replace her with a male director, Mark Andrews, because of -- yes -- "creative differences." She fought to keep her name attached as a co-director, however, and she was there onstage Oscar night with Andrews when "Brave" won best animated film.

Then there is Catherine Hardwicke, who launched the first of five films -- and arguably the best of the lot -- based on Stephenie Meyer's best-selling Gothic romance "Twilight" series. After making the most important decision of the franchise -- pairing the charismatic leads Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson as the high-school loner Bella and her vampire Romeo -- she backed out of doing the first sequel, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," when the studio wanted to rush the much more CGI-heavy drama into production. Needless to say, the rest of the directors in the series were all men, even though "Twilight"'s main audience is adolescent girls.

Some would argue against female directors doing comic-book action movies for all sorts of reasons, sexist or otherwise. Let's line a few of them up -- and quickly shoot them down.

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  • KR Ward | July 29, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    Mary Harron directing a female superhero movie would be amazing! Considering how she presented Bettie Page correctly as both intelligent and sexy it would be great to see what she could do with Wonder Woman or Batwoman.

  • Eric Truong | July 20, 2013 1:38 AMReply

    I think that an increase in the amount of films directed by women would vastly improve the quality of films coming out of Hollywood. Of the few films I have watched in recent years they seem to lack true emotion and depth. The majority tends to be witless satires or endless explosion of computer generated graphics dominated works. It’s hard to argue against the fact that women are inherently more emotional than men; therefore I believe that they would have a far better ability to convince the audience to feel what is happening on screen. I also think that Super Hero movies are more about the hero in action using his or her powers to defeat their opponents in the never ending battle over good and evil. Emotions are more fitting for dramas, such as Hurt Locker or Monster. Although in my opinion having a woman direct or at least be completely involved in developing Wonder Woman would produce a far more convincing character on screen that could be just as commanding in her own right if ever presented in a Justice League or Trinity film.

  • Gillian | July 17, 2013 2:50 AMReply

    I thought this was a great article that delved into the rare discussion of the marginalization of women in the film industry. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of people are aware that women are struggling in the film industry and if it weren’t for my recent Women Studies class, I would have never known either. That being said, I think women bring a creative edge to films that most men lack. Kathryn Bigelow proved this with the film Zero Dark Thirty. She not only appealed to the nations emotions in the film but also crafted an amazing action film. If a man had directed this film, the entire concept and view would have been completely different and probably not as powerful in my eyes.

    One thing that I find somewhat humorous is that these Hollywood blockbusters are supposedly marketed towards men and younger boys who love action films, yet myself, a woman, actually went to this movie and almost the entire theater was packed full of women. Although these male directors think that they are creating a guns-blaring, explosive film, a lot of these so called superhero movies really just reverse the male gaze and offer women a chance to see an overly attractive man who happens to also look good in tights. This is a nice break at least from the overused objectification of women in film industry.

  • Star | July 11, 2013 1:32 AMReply

    "In the nearly-four decades since Christopher Reeve took flight, superhero films have grown into Hollywood's most popular and profitable genre. Sadly, these films continue to be directed by males and marketed to boys of all ages."

    Soooooooo, you say these superhero films are continually directed by and marketed to males, and they have grown into Hollywood's most profitable genre? Yeah, good job undercutting your own argument.

    If it ain't broke...

  • Brenda Chapman | July 10, 2013 7:56 PMReply

    Great article. I just really wish some of the male studio execs who make the "hiring of director" decisions would actually read it! I hope for the best success for those who are working as directors and future success for those who are doing their best to get there!

  • Julian | July 10, 2013 4:05 PMReply

    I think i would take almost any other female director over Hardwick. I support more women directing/writing/having lead roles in blockbusters, but from everything i've seen from hardwick her directing is meh.

  • Donella | July 10, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    I listened to the commentary for Near Dark, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. She had to hurdle plenty of obstacles thrown in front of her by the studio and producers who seemed to go out of their way to make her directorship of the vampire flick harder than it had to be. I just shook my head listening to it. Bigelow earned her Oscar fair and square, proved herself to the world, and inspired many new and veteran female directors to put their heads down and grind through the misogyny, sexism, and good-ole-boy network. Well done!

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