This is one of the best films of 2015.
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 Lexi 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.
* Women don't go to these films anyway.
Take a look around you next time you are at Comic-Con. There are plenty of females who will pay to see these blockbusters — just ask "Man of Steel"'s blushing female Army captain (who delivers this trenchant observation: "He's kind of hot"), although the beefcake component is just one draw. Besides, 2012 stats on movie-going habits released by the Motion Picture Association of America show females make up 52% of the audience. Don't they deserve to have more of a say in how these movies depict their gender, especially with that extra percentage on their side?
*Women are already contributing creatively offscreen, so who cares if they direct, too.
Not so fast. Superman director Zack Snyder's wife, Deborah, might regularly act as a producer on his films. Producer Laura Ziskin may have had a great deal of influence on the first "Spider-Man" franchise (whose 2002 debut featured probably the most romantic moment ever in a superhero adventure — the upside-down Spidey kiss). But as movie historian Jeanine Basinger told me last year while discussing the new generation of female action figures in such films such as "The Hunger Games" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," it is important for women to be directors, because it is the director's vision that ultimately defines what you see onscreen. As she put it, "Letting woman take charge of bringing images to life onscreen will result in more living, breathing models of female behavior."
*Not enough female directors are equipped to handle the complicated special effects required by these blockbusters — or even know much about the backstories of these characters.
The least-informed excuse of them all. Consider the backgrounds of the male directors who launched all these mega-budget franchises: Bryan Singer ("X-Men"), Sam Raimi (the original "Spider-Man"), Christopher Nolan ("Batman Begins"), Ang Lee ("Hulk"), Jon Favreau ("Iron Man"), Marc Webb ("The Amazing Spider-Man"). They might be big deals now, but they all got their starts in low-budget films. Why is Webb, known for his 2009 Sundance romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer," any more qualified to direct a comic-book movie than female festival darlings such as Debra Granik, whose gritty "Winter's Bone" from 2010 was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?
Besides, a boyhood spent reading comics in bed with a flashlight is not required for bringing these stories to the masses. Singer, who made his reputation with the small, smart "The Usual Suspects" in 1995, has always owned up to the fact he had little knowledge of the X-Men comics before directing the first movie in 1999. It certainly didn't hurt his ability to translate Wolverine and company into a big-screen success and turn the title into a durable movie franchise.
One recent hiring gives a glimmer of hope: Sam Taylor-Johnson, who did the well-received 2009 John Lennon bio "Nowhere Boy," is about to call the shots on the much-sweated-over film version of E.L. James' erotic novel "Fifty Shades of Grey," which is to ladies of a certain age what "Twilight" is to tween girls.
When I asked some male colleagues this year why they thought no women had directed a major comic-book film yet, their guess was that female filmmakers did not want to do such films. To that, I cry bull.
I, for one, would love to see what the likes of Sarah Polley, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Kasi Lemmons, Lynne Ramsay, Kimberly Peirce, Courtney Hunt, Phyllida Lloyd, Lone Scherfig and Mary Harron would bring to the superhero table. I bet a few of them would like to get their creative hands on one, too.
And, although "Zero Dark Thirty" was essentially a real-life female superhero film, nothing would blow my mind more than if they gave "Wonder Woman" over to Bigelow, a true superwoman herself.
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