Wondering Woman: Why Warner Bros. Axed Michelle MacLaren, and What That Tells Us About the State of Female Directors in Hollywood

Jungyeon Roh

On April 13, Warner Bros. announced that Michelle MacLaren, the director it had hired to bring Wonder Woman to the screen, had left the project due to “creative differences.” This was disappointing, and not just because “creative differences” is one of those crisis-management terms that, like “conscious uncoupling” or “corporate rightsizing,” seems to be constructed out of so much aerated bullshit that it almost doesn’t matter that somewhere within it is sometimes a kernel of actual truth. When the news broke, Twitter erupted, a phrase we should probably retire since erupting is more or less Twitter’s permanent condition; as a social network, it is essentially a teenager’s forehead.

In this case, the distress and noise were understandable. MacLaren, after all, was going to be the first woman to break into the all-male This Is Our Gigantic 12-Part Plan To Make Nothing But Comic-Book Movies Forever business model. And although Wonder Woman would have been her first feature, she pretty clearly earned it by directing some of the most visually dynamic and narratively taut episodes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones — work that had won her not just two Emmy nominations but notice from critics, a rarity for a medium in which writers, not directors, are the stars. She was going to bring sharpness and maturity and sensibility to a category that too often smells like Axe.

One day after the departure became public — and after rumors started flying that Angelina Jolie was being courted by both DC (to direct Wonder Woman) and Marvel (to direct Captain Marvel) Warner Bros. announced MacLaren’s replacement: Patty Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar for Monster and who, though not a veteran of superhero movies, is, perhaps more importantly, a veteran of “creative differences” over superhero movies.

When Jenkins left Thor 2 in late 2011 because of you guessed it, she was replaced by a man, Alan Taylor, and nobody kicked up much of a fuss. But things move forward, and this time, there would have been a fuss. The most generous possible reading of Warner Bros.’s decision to replace MacLaren with Jenkins is that it looked for the best possible director for Wonder Woman and found her. The second-most generous reading is that the studio looked for the best possible woman to direct Wonder Woman, because it thought a woman would be better for the job. The least generous reading is that Warner Bros. would have been happy to hire a man to replace MacLaren but didn’t want the public grief it knew it would get, so it grimly, grudgingly, sourly realized that, uh-oh, better hire a woman, because, you know, everybody’s so touchy these days.

That would be a cynical, unpleasant, contemptibly motivated rationale. It would also be progress. When it comes to gender, male-dominated corporations do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons all the time. So doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is a step forward. And if merit has anything to do with anything, we’ll soon hear that MacLaren is in the director’s chair on another feature — maybe even one that doesn’t require her primary job to be the propping-up of an out-of-fashion character being used as a rope bridge to get moviegoers from one movie with Batman and Superman to the next.

Michelle MacLaren with her 2013 Emmy for 'Breaking Bad.'

Phil McCarten/Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Michelle MacLaren with her 2013 Emmy for ‘Breaking Bad.’

I’m being glass-half-full here because the news about Wonder Woman was pretty much all cloud, no silver lining. If you care about movies and how they are made, the trade stories about this project probably confirmed every suspicion you might have about the horrifically dispiriting way these movies are conceived. I use the word “movie” reluctantly because right now, Wonder Woman is certainly not one: It is a release date (June 23, 2017), and it is a promise to stockholders (as the third of 10 upcoming connected DC Universe films that are meant, between 2016 and 2020, to show that DC can play on Marvel’s field), and it is a recognizable — albeit dusty — title. Right now, that’s all it is. It’s certainly not a movie in the sense of being an entertainment product that starts with an idea and then results in a script that is good enough to attract a director and stars.

We know Wonder Woman isn’t that kind of movie based on what has been reported, none of which has been refuted by anyone involved. From The Hollywood Reporter, we learned that MacLaren “had been heavily involved in shaping … scripts” by “various writers” of the project. (Note: scripts, not script.) From Variety came the madcap bit of doublespeak that Warner Bros. was “concerned about MacLaren directing a large-scale, action-packed production,” because she hadn’t directed any action (except, of course, for all the action she had directed on all the shows that got her the job in the first place). But we also learned that maybe Warner Bros. didn’t want Wonder Woman to be an action movie but rather “a character-driven story that was less heavy on action,” in which case, maybe it didn’t hire MacLaren to do the action movie it didn’t want and thought she couldn’t direct. Meanwhile, however, those “various scripts” allowing the studio to “simultaneously test story concepts” were actively happening.1

To translate all of that into English: Since studio development executives are now asked to be property managers rather than movie developers, not many of them are capable of sitting down and talking about what a story should be. And none of them wants to risk his neck by committing early to the wrong choice. So, like many modern-day blockbusters, Wonder Woman will be developed via the monkeys-at-typewriters approach: Let’s have a bunch of different people write different Wonder Woman scripts, pick the parts that we sort of like better than the others, proceed to humiliate the “winning” writers by asking them to interpolate the stuff from the “losing” scripts that we also kind of liked, let the WGA work out the credits and mop up the blood and tears, sew everything together, and sell the resulting Frankenmovie to an audience we will have programmed (via an incessant drumbeat of teasers, trailers, and post-credit sequences) to show up for whatever this thing turns out to be.

That certainly sounds like every writer and director’s dream.

This is not an anti-comic-book-movie rant. There is a way to make these movies well, as evidenced by the fact that some of them are good. Ass-backwardness is a bad habit, not a requirement. To my taste, the most enjoyable recent comic-book movie was last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was written by two guys, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who, not coincidentally, were the same two guys who wrote the first Captain America movie. According to interviews with the writers, they batted around ideas soon after the original Captain America came out, ran with their fondness for 1970s conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, came up with a story line that threaded their DNA into the comic-book genre without bending it too far out of shape, pitched it to Marvel, got it approved, and wrote it. The resulting movie was entertaining, as many of these movies are, but it was also tonally coherent, as few of these movies are, and did not reek of the denatured compromise that suggests the heavy hand of too many corporate cooks, as most of these movies do. Process still counts; that movie planning now operates in five-year cycles driven by brand management, tie-ins, and the imperatives of the international marketplace does not, it turns out, mean you can’t make movies the old-fashioned way. You can — even if they’re Products of the Age of Ultron and Beyond.

A few months ago in this space, I unloaded an ever-so-slightly gloomy (OK, apocalyptic-ish) set of thoughts about where the movie business is headed. I would like to update that to say this: We’re there. In eight days, Joss Whedon’s new Avengers movie will open. I hope it’s good — as comic-book-movie history teaches us, Part 2s, freed of the burdens of origin stories and character introductions, are often better than Part 1s.2 Nonetheless, Avengers: Age of Ultron is also the first of these movies to open since DC and Marvel announced their competing engulf-and-devour plans last year, so I’d sort of been marking its arrival in my mind as the beginning — the new dawn of how things are going to be.

But it turns out I’d been staring so intently at the horizon that I forgot to look behind me. That new dawn already dawned. It happened three weeks ago with the arrival of Furious 7, a movie that in 17 days of release has grossed $1.15 billion worldwide, making it the seventh-highest-grossing movie in history.

furious7_diesel_carUniversal Pictures

In every way but the strictly technical absence of a comic book to serve as its basis, Furious 7 is a comic-book movie, and it is also an emblem of the new incoherence. There is, of course, a tragic circumstance behind it — the death of Paul Walker 17 months ago midway through the film’s production, which necessitated a months-long hiatus, a major rewrite, and no small amount of technological trickery involving Walker’s face being CGI’ed onto the bodies of stunt doubles and/or his own brothers. These scenes in the movie are, I think, pretty apparent (and it’s very hard not to look for them), and they are awkward. But it would be dishonest to suggest that they are, in any jarring way, out of sync with the approach of the rest of the film, which is entirely about grafting one thing to another in the committed belief that it doesn’t need to make sense, it just needs to move.

Furious 7 is an amalgam of many things. Here is the ingredient list: the action set pieces that, rather than “story,” are its reason for being and thus reportedly the first things to be conceived. The 50 or so trailer-ready lines that Vin Diesel is given to lay on us in his deliberate, syllable-by-syllable monotone, the point of each of which is not to mean anything but to provide a rhythmic transitional BOOM! that takes you into the next scene. Brazenly noisy product placement (this sentence has been brought to you by Corona). Bizarre fan service (in one sore thumb of a scene set in Tokyo, the movie rounds out the retconning of the third movie in the series, which now apparently takes place between 6 and 7). God knows what tax breaks or cofinancing deals or financial incentives, all beyond our sight lines, basically made China (from which almost a quarter of the movie’s gross revenue has come) a coproducer and Abu Dhabi the recipient of what amounts to a long tourism ad. Women’s ornamentally jiggling asses and thong-protected cracks (but all in a tasteful SI swimsuit issue PG-13 way!). Fistfights any five seconds of which, in real life, would kill you, presumably performed by large and patient bald stuntmen. Bro sentimentality served up by the 55-gallon drum. And car crashes mysteriously free of fireballs (which would trigger upsetting associations for moviegoers) or consequences (which would relate to laws of physics and/or human vulnerability, any acknowledgment of either of which would topple the whole house of cards instantly). Combine. Stir. Half-bake. Serve.

The Furious franchise — which its masters, or rather servants, at Universal hope goes at least three more movies — is now almost 14 years old, and at the end of Furious 7’s two hours of clamor it downshifts for a few minutes into a Paul Walker tribute and we see some clips from the early movies. They are shocking: They look ordinary, grubby, modest, human-size. Walker looks younger and blonder; Diesel looks smaller, lighter, less like foam rubber sprayed over lead. I was jolted by the reminder. The Fast & Furious franchise, notwithstanding the avalanche of hand-on-heart dudely commemoration that has greeted this installment, may never have been very good (effing awesome!!! is not the same thing), but it did start out, way back in 2001, as movies. Those movies are now steroidal Brand Edifices, and their journey from one thing to the other has been the journey of franchise films in the post-9/11 era. “It will probably win Best Picture at the Oscars, unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever,” Diesel recently told Variety, speaking of the installment now in theaters. “There is nothing that will ever come close to the power of this thing.” Was that bombast or ironic bombast? Was he being serious or funny? It’s always so hard to tell with him. And maybe it doesn’t matter, because in either case, he’s articulating a reality: The Esthetic of Embiggening. It is here to drown out or roll over all dissent. And meanwhile, Michelle MacLaren is looking for a job.

Filed Under: Movies, wonder woman, Comic Books, Furious 7, Fast and the Furious, Captain Marvel, d.c. comics, Marvel, Marvel Comics, Patty Jenkins, Charlize theron, Monster, Breaking Bad, Angelina Jolie, Thor, The Avengers, Alan Taylor, captain america: the winter soldier, Joss Whedon, Vin Diesel, paul walker