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Goddesses of the galaxy: women directors take over the blockbuster universe

From Star Trek to Captain Marvel, a super squad of female film-makers are proving action and sci-fi movies arent just for the boys

Move over, Avengers: female directors and screenwriters have been assembling their own super-squad, spreading their powers across major movie franchises as they reshape Hollywoods image of a blockbuster and who can make one.

Captain Marvel, out next year, will be the Marvel franchises first female-led blockbuster by every rubric: Oscar-winner Brie Larson stars, six of the seven screenwriters are women, and co-director Anna Boden is the series first female director to see an entire film through. (Patty Jenkins was hired, then fired, from Thor 2: The Dark World in 2011, before breaking box-office records with last summers Wonder Woman.) In the DC universe, Ava DuVernay is directing the fantastical heaven-versus-hell epic The New Gods, and Cathy Yan is doing the same for Margot Robbies Harley Quinn girl-gang spin-off Birds of Prey, written by Christina Hodson, who is also scripting Batgirl.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, SJ Clarkson is helming the next Star Trek, while here on Earth screenwriters Kira Snyder, Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Amanda Silver have been rejuvenating established properties such as Pacific Rim, Planet of the Apes, Tomb Raider, Jurassic World and Transformers.

Girls and women have always loved comics and fantasy, says writer-director Angela Robinson, whose biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women saluted the two female muses who helped create DCs Diana Prince. Theres a land where Wonder Woman would have been a man if not for Elizabeth Marston, explains Robinson. William Moulton Marston wanted to create a superhero and [his wife] Elizabeth Holloway Marston quipped: Fine, but make her a woman. That dare inspired an army of female heroines, who mostly stayed on paper in 2D, or scampered around the margins of major male characters movies.

Patty
Patty Jenkins directs Gal Gadot on the set of Wonder Woman, 2017. Photograph: Clay Enos/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

When I was starting out as a screenwriter, the people I met with often made me feel like a unicorn: A woman who loves to write sci-fi and action? How unusual! says Snyder, who co-wrote Pacific Rim: Uprising and is a writer and supervising producer on The Handmaids Tale. But the fact was and is that this isnt unusual.

The women were there; the jobs werent. So whats behind the industrys rapid change?

The historical hurdle has been Hollywoods refusal to let these geek-loving women prove their worth in the office and in cinemas. Studios credited male audiences for the success of male-directed hits, assuming that the women in the cinema had simply been dragged in by their dates. With their opinions calcified, producers wouldnt even give female film-makers and female films a shot.

Rachel Talalay became the first woman to direct a comic-book flick with 1995s Tank Girl, a cult hit that fell short of mainstream success. Hollywood didnt green-light another girl-powered property for a decade, and the stinging back-to-back flops of Catwoman and Elektra in 2004 and 2005, both directed by men, closed the door for another 12 years, until Wonder Woman. I felt like I was gonna make this female action picture and we were going to kick through the glass ceiling and that was going to be that, says Talalay. We all know how naive I was.

In its earlier days, Comic-Con the Las Vegas extravaganza of all things mainstream geek entrenched the image that genre was guys-only. When Talalay brought Tank Girl to the convention, the only other women there were booth babes. Lori Pettys snarling, fabulously nasty heroine encouraged more women to take up space the beginning of some female fandom actually coming out.

Look around Comic-Con today and its clear fandom equalised long before Hollywood caught on. The nerds have taken over in such a positive way, says Talalay. Social media has had an effect social media shaming does make some difference. Online, they have championed the hiring of female directors, which has also pressured TV shows to hire more women. Talalay was the first woman to direct an episode of Supernatural, and only the second to tackle Doctor Who.

Ava
Ava Duvernay directs A Wrinkle In Time. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Talalay survived what she calls the dark ages of the 2000s, post-Catwoman. There was a whole vocabulary of We dont like working with women directors, she recalls. Our show isnt for you, We had a woman director and she didnt work out it was just completely accepted like smoking on aeroplanes.

Talalay did what her advisors recommended Put your head down and keep working while fuelled by Tank Girls motto: Dont let the bastards grind you down. Eventually, the discrimination became so obvious that a handful of female directors contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which alerted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which then launched a years-long investigation into Hollywood hiring practices that culminated in a legal letter sent to every studio informing them that they had to correct their employment violations or face a lawsuit. Then things started to change, Talalay says.

Suddenly, lots of things have changed. The ACLU and EEOC camps arent directly tied to #MeToo or #TimesUp, but together, these movements have united the women of Hollywood. Crucially, women are talking to each other more than ever, says Snyder. Social media and in-person meet-ups have been a great way to come together to share resources and recommendations and connect mentors and mentees.

From actors to directors, many of the women had spent their careers feeling isolated by the pressure of competing for a single female spot: the one tag-along girl in the all-guy action flick, the one female film-maker entrusted with the rare high-profile gig who cant screw it up for everyone else. In the tradition of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Feud, women were encouraged to tear down each other, not the system.

Margot
Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad, 2016. Photograph: Allstar/WARNER BROS.

Weve heard Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock say on the red carpet that for so long they tried to keep us separate: that you cant have two major actresses on a movie you know those divas, theyll fight, says Vanity Fair writer Joanna Robinson. This week, Kidman has vowed to work with at least one female director every 18 months and the Twitter feeds of everyone from Ava DuVernay to Zoe Saldana are a continuous celebration of other women in the industry, whether they have won an award, signed on to a new project, or simply had a birthday.

Im in conversation all the time with other female film-makers about the future and what it all means, says Angela Robinson. Everybodys head is exploding careening from euphoria over the possibility of systemic change, to deep despair and cynicism about the nature of the machine.

Consider this burgeoning bond an unofficial union, forging ties across the screen actors, directors and writers guilds. Like when Suicide Squad star Margot Robbie insisted she wouldnt participate in a stand-alone Harley Quinn film until the studio hired a female director. We all need to be making conscious efforts to even out those statistics, she declared. Five years ago, she might have been cautioned to simply be grateful for the lead in her own comic-book blockbuster. But in the current climate, Robbie felt confident raising her voice.

Its tremendously encouraging to me that she felt like she had the power to do that, says Joanna Robinson. A Margot Robbie relatively early in her career can say no with the spiritual strength of this core body of women whove survived Hollywood behind her. And, she adds, men are also consciously supporting the cause. When I see a woman get hired for the Star Trek franchise with only TV credits to her name [Brit SJ Clarksons resume include episodes of Collateral, Jessica Jones and Doctors], I feel like thats a man saying: Lets give this person the same shot we would give a young man in a baseball cap who had one small film at Sundance.

Lori
Lori Petty in Tank Girl, 1995. Photograph: Allstar/UNITED ARTISTS

As for the online trolls who rail against girl cooties in their popcorn flicks, most recently at the heroines at the centre of Rian Johnsons Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there is a growing awareness that their opinions dont matter. At least one studio has calculated that geek reactionaries comprise such an insignificant sliver of the potential box office that it can ignore their demands to go back to the early Comic-Con days of submissive babes in bikinis. Theyre small but loud, and theyre disproportionately blown out of proportion, says Robinson. The real fight is changing the studios ingrained idea that girls will go to boy movies, but boys wont go to girl movies a trope Walt Disney himself dismissed back in 1959 when he wrote that female audiences are the ones who drag the men in. If the women like it, to heck with the men.

Robinson is particularly cheered by Clarksons appointment. Star Trek is really exciting because its not like: Oh, this is the one with a female captain of the Starship Enterprise, so we want a woman to direct it. No. Its nice to have a female perspective on a female superhero film, but in my utopian future, a woman can direct whatever, a man can direct whatever. LBGT, any race, your perspective on a different persons experiences is also valuable.

Thats a point every woman echoes: true equality will come when the gender reveal of the latest Marvel director is as casual as a coin flip, not the high-pressure attention of Jenkins Wonder Woman the first female-directed superhero film in 22 years starring the most legendary comic-book heroine having to hit a home run for Team Female.

Many times it upset me in the past when people were saying: Oh, so they brought a woman director because its a Wonder Woman movie, star Gal Gadot told me last autumn. And I always say: No, Patty was the right person for this job because she knew exactly what she wanted to get and how to get it.

Wonder Woman had to be amazing, it had to be the best DC movie and I think it was, says Varietys Jenelle Riley. Its critical and financial success shattered the fossilised idea that female-driven blockbusters were jinxed. I think going forward, its going to be hard to at least not consider women and people of colour, says Riley. We have 18 movies in the Marvel universe. If they didnt start to expand their director pool, it would look a little funny. Even if one female-headed flick stumbles, there are enough in the pipeline that Hollywood will continue marching forward.

I do think there is a slight lifting of the veil, says Angela Robinson. I feel like a lot of executives and gate-keepers are looking around, like out of a haze, and saying: Wow, theres a lot of people out there who want different kinds of stories. There is an unprecedented opportunity right now to create a whole new generation of characters and stories that speak to under-represented voices.

And speak for over-represented voices, too. Looking ahead, I hope to see more women spearheading big franchises that dont necessarily star women, says Snyder. Theres still much work to be done in achieving parity in stories and roles created for women, of course, and I love that women are being sought to write and direct these projects, but were writers and directors. We can write and direct male characters. Hell, men have been doing that on womens stories since Sophocles.

It has been more than 2,400 years since the Greek tragedian wrote his version of Electra. Time for todays generation of female storytellers to take their bow.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/may/11/goddesses-of-the-galaxy-women-directors-take-over-the-blockbuster-universe

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