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A Great Director — Who's Also A Woman — Might Direct 'Wonder Woman'

Michelle MacLaren, seen here accepting an award as a producer on <em>Breaking Bad</em>, may direct the upcoming Wonder Woman<em> </em>movie.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
Michelle MacLaren, seen here accepting an award as a producer on Breaking Bad, may direct the upcoming Wonder Woman movie.

Michelle MacLaren is a familiar name, or at least a familiar creator, to fans of high-end television: She directed episodes of Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and other series, she's worked extensively as a producer (including on Breaking Bad), and she's one of a handful of television directors whose presence behind the camera can stir enthusiasm about upcoming projects. And Variety and The Hollywood Reporter both say she may direct the Wonder Woman movie slated for 2017.

This is far from a done deal — directors attach to and detach from projects all the time. But if it happens, it will be an important moment in choosing superhero directors for one simple reason: MacLaren made her name in brilliant, smart television and is now talking about lending her talents to a popcorn movie.

Kidding, kidding. (Kidding!)

No, it's making news because the modern avalanche of big-budget superhero movies has been directed by men. Of course, they've been mostly about men, too. There's no rule that says that a Wonder Woman movie being about a woman means it has to be directed by a woman. Down that road lies ache; down that road lies "well, then I guess Kathryn Bigelow can't direct an Aquaman movie, nyah." The issue is more, for me, that I've lost all belief that they're anywhere close to entrusting a male superhero to a female director, so it's either this or nothing for the indefinite future.

I think the Hollywood Reporter story rather extravagantly overestimates the influence of those who argue in favor of behind-the-scenes gender parity when it says, "The character is so iconic and such a symbol for female empowerment that Warners could find itself in hot water were it to hand the project to a male director." I mean ... so far, there's not really any indication that they're too worried about the "hot water" that consists of countless female writers (including me) writing countless pieces (including mine) pointing out that this (by which we may mean superheroes, movies, Hollywood or Earth) is a very fella-driven world, still, some more.

If they're looking for a female director, it's hard to imagine it's to stay out of "hot water." It's either to improve the marketability of the movie by giving it an attention-grabbing narrative or, possibly, ideally, someone actually has concluded that by looking at expanded pools of talent, you might find ... talent.

After all, anybody who thinks you need a special reason to hire Michelle MacLaren isn't looking at the evidence very hard. You know who else they tapped to direct Breaking Bad? Rian Johnson, who is now working on ... let's see, let me consult my notes ... ah, yes — Star Wars movies. I believe Mr. Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers, has also done some television. As has Mr. J.J. Abrams. These lines between directing film — even film spectacle — and directing TV have grown nearly meaningless, and when people are known to be good at what they do in television or (as in Johnson's case) television and smaller films, they haven't had trouble getting jobs making vigorously budgeted action movies.

There's a moment late in that Hollywood Reporter piece where the search for a female director is framed with the following sympathetic-sounding statement:

"There are very few top female directors who would seem suited for a project that would combine elements of action and palace intrigue (if it were to include the Greek mythology aspects of Wonder Woman's origins) or world politics (if the project draws from the comics era in which the heroine was an ambassador for her home of Paradise Island)."

Oh, that phrase "top director." And oh, that phrase "would seem suited."

What makes a top director? Top director of what? When Marc Webb got the Spider-Man assignment, his big credit was (500) Days of Summer, a movie so far removed from explosions and superheroes and so friendly to ukeleles and vintage clothing that it actually had Zooey Deschanel in it. It was a movie the most famous sequence of which involved a cartoon bluebird alighting upon the shoulder of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Don't get me wrong — I liked that movie, and I am an outspoken defender of Webb's Spider-Man movies too, but if we're talking about "top directors" and "seeming suited," I'm not sure that standard was applied.

I'm not sure it was applied to Johnson before a studio would back Looper. I'm not sure it was applied to Christopher Nolan, who, before Batman Begins, was most famous for the moody Memento. I'm not sure it was applied to Jon Favreau, who was not a "top director" until Iron Man. The problem with phrases like "top director," particularly when they are applied to some people and not others, is that they incorporate ... well, opportunity loops, if I can put it that way. They incorporate ways that existing advantages are reinforced.

Those who are "top directors" are those who have been given opportunities already, and to say "we are considering both women and men as long as they are top directors" would be equal but not equitable treatment; it's facially fair, but in practice, it locks out those who have been locked out before on the basis that they've been locked out before. Even if you're just following the loop where it takes you without passion or prejudice, it will take you back to where you've already been, because that is its nature as a loop.

This is often why it's frustrating to follow industries that tend to represent the same voices over and over. When you go on who's established, who you know, who's "top," who's a superstar or who "seems suited," it's really easy to wind up writing in reasons not to expand the scope of who you're hearing from. Not out of a conscious desire to exclude, but because the path of least resistance is often the path that's already been traveled.

Make no mistake: What makes MacLaren sound like a great pick for this movie is her reputation and accomplishments as a director. She needs absolutely nothing else. It's not, "Hey, they might pick her, which is great because she's a woman!" It's more, "Hey, they might not not pick her because she's a woman, which is great."

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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