Marvel’s picks for director have often elicited a common response from fans: “wait, who?” James Gunn had directed only two indie films, the most recent of which, Super, opened in incredibly limited release and made less than $350,000 at the box office. The Russo Brothers were best known as directors of TV comedies like Arrested Development and Community, having not directed a feature since the critically derided You, Me, and Dupree, released in 2006. Heck, even Joss Whedon, a geek legend well before The Avengers, was best known for his passion projects being cancelled, and though adored by fans, Serenity wasn’t particularly successful at the box office, unable even to make its production budget back. All of these picks were considered risky, and at this point Marvel’s out-of-the-box director choices have become as much a signature of the MCU as the highly anticipated post-credit scenes.
In contrast, Angelina Jolie — the current rumoured front runner to direct 2018’s Captain Marvel — feels positively safe. Unbroken, her first studio feature, received mostly warm to tepid reviews but was a smash at the box office, making over $160 million worldwide on a budget of 60 Million. Her next film, By The Sea, is an indie romantic drama, written and starring Jolie alongside husband Brad Pitt, and is scheduled to come out sometime later this year. And of course, Jolie is best known as an actress, having starred in over thirty feature films, including numerous blockbusters and CGI extravaganzas that give her a practical background on big budget films unlike any previous Marvel director. Jolie is more than qualified, and I’m sure with a great script from Meg Lafauve and Nicole Perlman, along with brilliant guidance of Kevin Feige and the Marvel team, she’d make a very good Captain Marvel — maybe even a great one.
But the possibility of Jolie just doesn’t feel as strange, daring, or exciting as Marvel’s past director choices. It’s possible that’s an intentional decision. Captain Marvel isn’t due out until a year after Wonder Woman, but there’s still a whole lot of expectation being placed on Captain Marvel, as Marvel Studios first film to feature a woman in the lead role, and (if they hired Jolie or another female director) their first directed by a woman as well. It’s possible that Marvel is inclined to try to minimize risk and uncertainty and go with a more familiar name — and Jolie’s celebrity would be likely to draw additional attention.
Yet it’s Marvel’s unexpected choices that have sent comic book fans scrambling for google and that have led to such exciting films. And quite frankly, “safe” is very much against the adventurous spirit that makes Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, such a fantastic character. It’s my hope that Marvel picks a director who’s a little less familiar to the average movie fan, and with that in mind I’ve comprised a list of directors who I think could help continue shaping the MCU in bold directions, and do the character of Captain Marvel justice.
Jen & Sylvia Soska
It’s hard to imagine bigger fangirls than the incredible directing team of Jen and Sylvia Soska, affectionately known as “The Twisted Twins”. Twin sisters from Canada and huge comic book nerds, they got their start as directors with the super low budget Dead Hooker in a Trunk before taking the indie horror world by storm with their critically acclaimed 2013 hit American Mary. They recently released their first studio film with WWE and Lionsgate, the slasher sequel See No Evil 2, which garnered strong reviews, and they have already completed their next film with the same studio, the action thriller Vendetta (which they boast features 47 distinct kills) coming to theatres and VOD on June 12. It’s worth noting that Marvel has already demonstrated an interest in horror directors — Scott Derickson, the director for Doctor Strange, has done nothing but, and James Gunn’s first feature was the small creature horror “Slither.” The Soskas interest in horror and monsters means they’d be a great get for Inhumans as well, but given the Inhumans early introduction in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I’d guess there’s a good chance the royal family will show up before Inhumans comes out in 2019, and if they want to be established before Infinity War, Captain Marvel seems a natural place for their inclusion. The bright, classic superhero feel of Captain Marvel would contrast nicely with the weirdness of The Inhumans, and the Soskas have shown they can handle contrasting tones beautifully.
Not only are the Soskas incredibly talented filmmakers, they also have a passionate fan base they are actively engaged with. It’s not a trivial point. It’s hard to know exactly what to attribute the massive success of Guardians of the Galaxy to, but I think at least one relevant factor is James Gunn’s engaging interaction over social media, which has helped build a loud and active fanbase. It’s hardly a requirement for success — the Russo brothers aren’t even on twitter, and are relatively demure in interviews — but having filmmakers who are charming, insightful and full of candor like the Soskas certainly helps make fans feels connected to the work and serves as tremendous promotion.
Evidently not requiring sleep, the Soskas are already working on their next movie, Painkiller Jane — which just happens to be an action film comic book adaption with a female lead — and have recently launched a Kickstarter for their original graphic novel Kill-Crazy Nymphos (which is just days away from ending, and worth supporting for the title alone). In other words, it’s hard to imagine filmmakers with more relative experience and demonstrated talent.
A young adventurous woman, driven by a sense of wonder and exploration, is unprepared to accept the boundaries of society and forges her own path with bravery and charm. You could say that’s a pretty decent description of Carol Danvers, but it’s equally applicable to the plot of Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut feature, Wadja. While most of the attention on Wadja centred on the fact that it was directed by a woman in Saudia Arabia — where women are not even allowed to drive, requiring al-Mansour to direct the action remotely via walkie-talkie while hiding in a van — the focus on the extrordinary conditions under which al-Mansour made her film has often taken precedence over focusing on just what a stunning film Wadja actually is. Avoiding all the familiar trappings of “struggles in a foreign land” movies, Wadja is an incredibly graceful and moving account of adolescence that captures the particulars of its setting while telling a story that is universal and incredibly relatable.
Al-Mansour was announced as the director of A Storm of Stars, a biopic about Mary Shelley (the author of “Frankenstein” and considered one of the founders of modern science-fiction literature) with Elle Fanning attached to star. Though nothing further has come out about the project since it was announced last year, al-Mansour has also begun work on another film, Be Safe I Love You, an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel about a young woman struggling to adjust to life and work back home after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Carol Danvers is a highly decorated Air Force pilot, and while she hasn’t suffered from PTSD (due to military service — her superhero history is pretty twisted and better off mostly ignored), al-Mansour’s experience delving into the lives of soldiers will help provide a nuanced, grounded portrait of Carol Danvers as a realistic soldier. Arguably even more important than al-Mansour’s ability to tap into Captain Marvel’s military background is her ability to capture the character of Carol Danvers — a young woman who is brash, reckless, and fearless, with a great sense of adventure and an incredibly generous heart. It can be challenging hard to craft a character like that and have them not become just a caricature of a hero, but Wadja shows that al-Mansour knows exactly how to show a plucky young hero who can’t help but make you smile.
Mimi Leder should have been the next Steven Spielberg. She was the very first woman to be accepted into the American Film Institute, and was in fact championed by Spielberg after becoming one of the principal directors of ER. Spielberg hired Leder to direct the action thriller The Peacemaker, starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney, and was so impressed by her that he then hired her to direct another film before The Peacemaker was even released, this time the sci-fi disaster film Deep Impact (the first — and still one of the only — modern blockbusters to be directed by a woman). Spielberg’s faith paid off — both The Peacemaker and Deep Impact were huge box office successes, with the latter making over $350 million dollars (in 1998 dollars — today that figure would be a little over 500 million).
So why isn’t Leder a household name, suggested by every geek for the next big franchise? Well, she directed a flop — 2000’s Pay it Forward – and suddenly she was trapped in directors’ jail (Directors’ jail – the expression used to describe when a director has a movie bomb and can’t get any work subsequently – disproportionately affects female directors. In a weird coincidence, Kelly Sue Deconnick – the comic book writer most responsible for Captain Marvel’s increased popularity and vocal fandom – has a new and utterly superb creator owned comic out, entitled Bitch Planet that sorta kinda explores similar issues – but with actual prisons in space and a healthy dose of gladiatorial combat).
Since then, Leder’s directed only one feature film — 2009’s barely seen Thick as Thieves — but she’s kept busy, returning to her TV roots. She’s directed shows across all genres, including Shameless, Almost Human, the prematurely cancelled HBO series Luck (cancelled due to animal deaths, not lack of ratings), and the hit HBO series The Leftovers, on which she is also an executive producer. She’s demonstrated she’s still got the directing chops, and there are few directors who have her combination of genre background, action thriller expertise and special effects heavy blockbuster experience. It’s time for Leder to make a comeback.
Brad Bird proved with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol that animation can be great preparation for live-action blockbuster direction, and there’s no one better suited to follow in Bird’s footsteps than Jennifer Yuh. A long-time storyboard artist for Dreamworks Animation and head of story on Kung Fu Panda, Yuh was selected by Dreamworks CEO to direct the sequel. The choice paid off — Kung Fu Panda 2 did gangbusters at the box office, earning over $650 million worldwide (more than the first) and making Yuh the highest grossing solo female director of all time. Yuh has returned to direct Kung Fu Panda 3, due out in early 2016, this time joined (at Yuh’s own request) by fellow Dreamworks veteran Alessandro Carloni.
Though her career began in animation, Yuh’s passion for film is rooted in live-action blockbusters, particularly action heavy science fiction. She lists The Terminator, Blade Runner and Jean Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg as her three favourite and most personally influential films, praising them for both their dynamic world building and kinetic action. And while Yuh works in animation, she says that she always thinks in term of live action, likely a key reason the fantastic fight scenes of the Kung Fu Panda series work so well — it has a feeling or realness and impact lacking in the weightless fantasy of many other animated action sequences.
As a further qualification, one could argue that Yuh already has directed a big budget superhero film — the Kung Fu Panda series borrows heavily from the superhero formula, from the unexpected hero who rises to the occasion, to the mysterious backstory that the hero must investigate, to the cast of oddball characters who make up a team, each with their own unique abilities and corresponding personalities. Yuh’s talent for telling an exciting emotional story within that framework, combined with her love of sci-fi and action, makes her a perfect for shepherding Captain Marvel’s own jounrey into the MCU.
Like Jolie, Lake Bell is best known as an actress. She’s appeared in over thirty films and TV series, including HBO’s How to Make it America, Million Dollar Arm, and will star alongside Luke Wilson and Pierce Brosnan in the forthcoming action thriller No Escape. Unfortunately, most of her roles (including the ones just mentioned) are of the boring, “girlfriend part” variety, though she nonetheless manages to add welcome energy to the frequently underwritten parts.
If there was any question that it’s the roles holding Bell back rather than her talent, one need only watch In A World…, which Bell not only stars in, but also wrote, directed and produced. In A World… is a romantic dramedy about a struggling voice over actor trying to make it as a woman in a male dominated industry. That might sound like an insufferable bit of meta-commentary mashed up with twee indie navel gazing, and of no interest to a more mainstream audience, particularly one most interested in superheroes. But you’d be wrong. In A World…is not only incredibly funny (a prerequisite for any Marvel film) but also an incredibly powerful exploration of relationship dynamics told with a skill and command of storytelling that many more senior directors could take notes from. And it’s laden with a plethora of brilliant geek references to boot. The content might not seem like a natural precursor for a big budget, but the resolve of a confident and brillaint young woman struggling against powerful forces in an effort to see her vision realized is the core of Captain Marvel.
And for that matter, In A World… is precisely the sort of film that has paved the way for numerous other indie directors who’ve gone on to helm blockbusters features — Safety Not Guaranteed led to Colin Trevorrow directing Jurassic World, Marc Webb was hired to direct Amazing Spider-Man on the strength of 500 Days of Summer (blame Kurtzman/Orci for ASM’s failure — that’s not on Webb), and Kings of Summer’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts is not only directing the upcoming King Kong prequel, Kong: Skull Island, but is also in talks to direct an adaptation of the video game series Metal Gear Solid. Kings of Summer, for the record, made only $1.3 million at the box office, while In A World… (admittedly in a larger release) made almost $3 million.
Bell’s experience in front of the camera is of course a great asset, but it’s her skill as a director — her great comedic sensibilities, her command of story, and her ability to communicate emotion without becoming saccharine — that make her such a great choice for Captain Marvel.
Sam Taylor-Johnson might not be a name immediately familiar to all comic book movie fans, but unlike many of the other names on this list – who after googling fans might think “huh, well that’s an odd choice” – Taylor-Johnson would likely inspire cries of “The director of Fifty Shades of Grey?!?” followed by misogynistic vitriol of the type that so often typifies the rants of a certain sad subsection of fandom. But here’s the thing they’d be missing: Sam Taylor-Johnson is a damn fine director.
I haven’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey myself, but I’m prepared to go with critical consensus on this one: the movie is terrible (love that Beyonce remix though). Yet most critics praise Taylor-Johnson’s direction, suggesting that the film is in fact better than the book, no doubt a difficult task given the various accounts of author E.L. James involvement in the project. And of course, the movie has made a shit-ton of money, something studios always respect (though as has already been stated, not a prerequisite for Marvel). But a better indication of Taylor-Johnson’s talent is her debut feature, Nowhere Boy. The story of a young, pre-Beatles John Lennon (an “origin story” you might say), Nowhere Boy avoids all the standard bio-pic tropes and is instead a constantly surprising, deeply moving portrait of a young man. To be able to take a legend like John Lennon and tell a story that feels grounded and unique is no easy task, and a skill that is well suited to the challenge of taking a popular comic book character and presenting their story in a way that feels both real and original.
Experience with high profile adaptations, an talent for translating iconic characters to the screen, even an existing connection to Marvel — Sam Taylor-Johnson is married to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Quicksilver — all suggest Taylor-Johnson would be a great pick for Captain Marvel. And hell, initial fanboy outrage might even be a good thing – more often than not, the bigger the outcry, the better it turns out on screen (caveat: Leto will be great, but he’s still gonna look dumb as hell).
Honurable Mention: Elizabeth Banks
I’m including Elizabeth Banks as an honorable mention because I haven’t actually seen her directorial debut — Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t come out for another two weeks — but the film’s got a lot of positive buzz, receiving a warm welcome at Cinemacon and earning Banks the “Breakthrough Filmmaker of the Year” award. Though this is Banks’s first time in the director chair, she was also a producer on the first Pitch Perfect — the surprise monster success that has now spawned what looks to be a continuing franchise — and is executive producing a number of forthcoming projects. She’s of course best known as an actress, but if Pitch Perfect 2 is as successful as the first one she’ll immediately have established herself as a director to watch. Her comedic background and franchise experience (both as an actor – in the Hunger Games films – and now as a producer) make her a great fit for Marvel, and she even appeared in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy as J. Jonah Jameson’s put upon secretary Miss Brant. Those films were executive produced by Kevin Fiege, who I hear has some sway when it comes to Marvel Studios. If she has an existing relationship with Fiege, than Banks may already have one foot in the directors chair.
Why Hiring A Female Director for Captain Marvel Is Important
You may noticed that all of the above directors are women, and no, that’s not a coincidence. But it’s also not just a “coincidence” either that every Marvel director has been a white man — it’s an indication of systemic prejudice. Of course, this isn’t just a Marvel problem — female directors helm only 7% of the highest grossing movies — and that percentage has actually been falling over the past fifteen years. It’s even worse when you look at movies with a proper blockbuster budget (which I consider to be $100 million or more, in today’s dollars). Including animated films and co-directors, there have been only seven women who have directed big budget movies in the history of cinema. To repeat that, in caps locks: IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF CINEMA. (In case you’re curious, that list is Elaine May on the notorious flop Ishtar, Mimi Leder on Deep Impact, Kathryn Bigelow on K-19: The Widowmaker, Brenda Chapman on Brave, Jennifer Yuh on Kung Fu Panda 2, Jennifer Lee on Frozen, and all of Lana Wachowski’s films after The Matrix).
Captain Marvel is a perfect place to being correcting this egregious gender imbalance, and luckily there’s every indication that Marvel will indeed hire a woman to direct Captain Marvel, particularly given DC’s admirable decision to ensure a woman is directing Wonder Woman — it would look rather poor if Marvel wasn’t providing the same opportunities for their own flagship female character. This isn’t because the film “needs” a woman director, in the sense that there’s something essentially feminine about Captain Marvel that only a woman could illuminate. Men can and should make films that tell women’s stories, just as women can and should make films that focus primarily on men. Rather, it’s that that women aren’t allowed to tell stories of men or women — to cite just one particularly telling example, every single episode of Agent Carter was directed by a man (all but one of whom were white, to briefly highlight another important diversity issue). It’s not some kind of “reverse-sexism” to begin correcting this gross gender imbalance, and the suggestion that if a female director is hired it’s just “because she was a woman” is nonsense — Marvel will hire a director because they’ve suggested an exciting cinematic vision and proved they have the talent to realize it. In fact, lists like this which spotlight female directors illustrate the blatant sexism at play in both fan wish lists and studio short lists. It’s never suggested that James Gunn or the Russo Brothers got hired “because” they were white men, and that’s because “white man” is treated as the default normal. To shift from this assumption requires conscious thought for most people, and it’s part of what inspired this article series in the first place (I wrote a similar piece in relation to Black Panther and may do a further one using The Inhumans to spotlight additional directors of colour and women). The hope is to prompt some reflection in readers, and, in a perfect world, Marvel execs as well. If you’re making a list of hoped for directors, whether you are a fan or studio head, and your list is exclusively white men, you’re drastically reducing the number of exciting voices to pick from. I’m not arguing that the rest of Phase Three needs to be exclusively directed by women (though that’d be kinda awesome — have Michelle MacLaren take on Thor: Ragnarok, put Mira Nair on Black Panther, and let Lily Amirpour go wild with Inhumans) — but by systematically ignoring all but the most visible of director candidates, studios are missing out on the dynamic and exciting voices that actually make franchise films worth watching.
Ultimately, I just hope Marvel hires a director who can capture the spirit of Carol Danvers. And what sums up that spirit best? Well, I’ll let Carol speak for herself — and, I hope, the director of Captain Marvel: