While supervillains try to conquer the world, superheroes have already conquered Hollywood. Over the past decade, studios have come to rely on the men in tights, throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into the production of superhero blockbusters and crossing their fingers for smashes like The Avengers, which raked in a mind-boggling $1.5 billion worldwide. It's the new backbone of the studio system— and with so much money at stake, one might expect studios to select a director who has proven him or herself with numerous big-budget blockbusters. But a close examination of the superhero films released over the past decade shows a surprising willingness to take risks on off-beat, unproven, and relatively green directors.
As long as those directors are men.
The trend began with the films that kicked off the modern era of superhero blockbusters. After Hollywood burned through three Batman directors in the '90s, Bryan Singer took comic adaptations in a new direction with X-Men. While Hollywood heavyweights like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were busy with flicks like AI: Artificial Intelligence and Star Wars: Episode I, Singer switched from dramas like Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects to create X-Men, and remind Hollywood that there was a whole comic-book universe outside of the Caped Crusader. Sam Raimi followed suit a couple years later, leaving behind his indie horror roots and modest dramas like A Simple Plan to introduce Spider-Man to the big screen. And when both films proved to be massive hits, Hollywood saw a whole new formula for success.
Over the last decade, the directors of most superhero films have followed the same arc. Sure, some of these directors had already proved adept at special effects-laden action — Guillermo del Toro nabbed Hellboy after Blade 2, Joe Johnston took on Captain America after a long career of films ranging from Honey I Shrunk the Kids to The Rocketeer, and Matthew Vaughn helmed X-Men: First Class after getting his feet wet with Stardust and Kick-Ass. But men like Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) and Shane Black (the upcoming Iron Man 3) earned two of Hollywood's hottest franchises after helming only one small-scale film apiece: 500 Days of Summer for Webb, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for Black.
Gavin Hood's biggest credits were talky dramas like Tsotsi and Rendition when he suddenly landed the job of making the first Wolverine. Tony and Joe Russo nabbed the upcoming Captain America sequel with a single mainstream film credit — the Owen Wilson comedy You, Me, and Dupree. Tim Story was known for modestly budgeted comedies like Barbershop and Taxi before landing Fantastic Four. Kenneth Branagh was primarily known for directing and starring in a series of Shakespeare adaptations before he was tapped for Thor. And let's not forget Christopher Nolan, who was given the task of reinventing Batman with just three (arthouse) features on his resume: Following, Memento, and Insomnia.
When the directors hired for superhero films aren't relative unknowns, Hollywood has done something even more out of character: Hired directors who have failed them in the past. Marvel forgave Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon's box-office bombs (Zathura and Serenity, respectively) and put them behind the camera for Iron Man and The Avengers. James Gunn, who's slated to direct the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, earned the gig despite two money-losing movies, Slither and Super — and then kept the gig when controversy arose over an old blog post he wrote about "The 50 Superheroes You Most Want to Have Sex With."
There has, technically, been one Marvel superhero film helmed by a female director — Lexi Alexander's Punisher: Warzone, which Roger Ebert dubbed "one of the best-made bad movies" he'd ever seen in 2008 — but it wasn't until Marvel started planning the sequel to Thor that a female director got a shot at a mainstream superhero. In 2011, Marvel announced that Patty Jenkins would direct the upcoming Thor 2, becoming the first female director to be tapped for a tent-pole superhero film. In many ways, Jenkins fit the established mold: Like Webb and Black, she had directed only one film before (the Oscar-winning Monster). But less than two months after she was hired, Jenkins was dismissed from the project. According to a source at The Hollywood Reporter, star Natalie Portman's support of Jenkins had originally led to her hiring, but Marvel executives decided "they really weren't comfortable" with Jenkins, and that she was "not moving decisively enough" — even though the movie's script hadn't been finalized. No other women were considered for the gig, and Marvel filled the empty chair with Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor.
There is, perhaps, no genre that offers a more telling example of Hollywood's gender imbalance. If studios only selected directors with proven technical experience and box-office success for superhero films, the discussion wouldn't be about women directing them — it would be about women directing the action films and pulp fare that would lead them to superheroes. But that's not the case. Women with similar resumes to the men listed above aren't even considered for these high-buzz films — let alone given the opportunity to sign on or refuse.
The line is clearly drawn. Studios are willing to take risks on fresh male talent and give critically acclaimed male auteurs a shot; they are not willing to offer that same opportunity to female filmmakers. "Fluke" is the watchword when it comes to discussions of female directorial success. For years, the likes of Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club), Naomi Foner (filmmaker/producer), and even Judd Apatow have commented on the studio habit of naming women-centric success as a "fluke," as if the very idea that a woman can direct a successful film is an aberration in the Hollywood system.
Despite a snub from the Academy for Zero Dark Thirty, many are quick to acknowledge Kathryn Bigelow — who helmed movies like Point Break and Strange Days before becoming an Oscar winner — as a female filmmaker capable for the job. But using the qualifications outlined above, she becomes just one of many talented women with the right credentials: Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Lone Scherfig (An Education, One Day), Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), Julie Taymor (Across the Universe, The Tempest), Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums) all have filmographies that mirror the male directors routinely chosen to take over a superhero franchise — and are never even mentioned as potential contenders for a superhero franchise.
There is, understandably, a certain reluctance lingering between female auteurs and the Hollywood establishment. Some, like Ginger & Rosa director Sally Potter, express a disinterest in losing control: "I do get offered scripts, but so far I've turned them all down. I write my own so I don't go in the waiting position. I generate my own material. I initiate it, I set it up, retain control, and that — if anything — is my secret on how to proceed because there is nothing diluted." One might attribute this to some reductive, gender-specific approach, but it's just as likely that this attitude reflects the combative nature between women directors and the studio system. As "flukes," after all, they have little choice.
The truth, whether acknowledged or not, is that women have been creating films that defy antiquated stereotypes for years. Amy Heckerling directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Nancy Dowd penned the hockey cult classic Slap Shot. Bigelow gave us the surfing-and-robbing flick Point Break. Penny Marshall made Big. Penelope Spheeris directed Wayne's World. Mimi Leder gave us Deep Impact. Tamra Davis filmed Billy Madison AND Half-Baked. Mary Harron brought us the bloody American Psycho. Given a real opportunity, this list could easily include some time with Professor Xavier, or a web or two, or even — God forbid — a cinematic outing for Wonder Woman, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel…
Take the "risk," Hollywood.