Michelle MacLaren to direct ‘Wonder Woman': How significant is it?

Michelle MacLaren
Michelle MacLaren on the set of “Breaking Bad” in 2011.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Word that Warner Bros. has lassoed Michelle MacLaren to develop and direct its upcoming “Wonder Woman” movie no doubt came as welcome news to fans of her work on such TV series as “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” and to the many moviegoers who wish to see more women behind the camera.

It’s refreshing to see a woman filmmaker take on such a high-profile project, given the dearth of women in key movie positions in Hollywood. After all, it took 10 movies in the Marvel cinematic universe even to see a woman screenwriter. But while there’s plenty to be hopeful for about “Wonder Woman,” there’s also reason to keep a grain of salt handy.

First, some background. Warner announced a standalone “Wonder Woman” film last month as part of an ambitious slate of DC Comics-inspired movies planned through 2020, and reports soon followed that the studio wanted a woman director to bring the iconic heroine to the big screen.

MacLaren soon emerged as a front-runner for the gig. Though she has yet to helm a feature film, she’s proved herself to be a crackerjack director of both drama and action. In addition to “Breaking Bad” and “GoT,” she’s directed episodes of “The Walking Dead,” “The X-Files” and others.


(It’s also worth noting that Warner rival Marvel Studios has had success tapping television veterans — Alan Taylor, the Russo brothers — to direct its own superhero movies. As filmmakers, they tend to be budget-friendly, comfortable with serialized storytelling and amenable to the studio’s well-established house style.)

When it comes to superhero movies, women filmmakers are rarer than their on-screen counterparts, and there’s something apropos about a woman director ushering in what could be the first mainstream female-led superhero movie in more than a decade, since 2005’s “Elektra.” (The only other woman to direct a superhero movie in recent memory is Lexi Alexander, who made the modestly budgeted “Punisher: War Zone” in 2008.) That scarcity has prompted plenty of criticism from those who say that producers and studio executives look only to men for their most prized gigs.

In the studios’ defense, there aren’t a ton of women directors out there to choose from, especially ones with an action pedigree. It all comes down to a bit of a Catch-22: a system that the studios are a part of creates an environment not hospitable to women filmmakers, and then studios don’t have those directors to choose from, deepening the problem.

In that light, it can seem pessimistic to read anything negative into MacLaren taking the director’s chair for “Wonder Woman.” Even so, the news does raise a few potentially thorny questions. Not to be too nitpicky, but one can wonder why women directors are seemingly only being considered for female-led movies. The possibility of a female director was only seriously raised with “Wonder-Woman” -- and not with a Batman, Spider-Man or Iron Man movie.


There’s also the matter of perception after the fact. If “Wonder Woman” is a hit, will MacLaren get the credit, or will Warner Bros. be hailed for choosing her?

And say the movie underperforms — will MacLaren bear the blame? That particular scenario is one that Alexander (whose name had been tossed around online as a potential “Wonder Woman” director) has said she wanted no part of.

“Imagine the weight on my shoulders,” she recently told Fast Company. “How many male superhero movies fail? So now, we finally get Wonder Woman with a female director, imagine if it fails. And you have no control over marketing, over budget. So without any control, you carry the … weight of gender equality for both characters and women directors. No way.”

It’s a valid concern. And yet it’s also a risk that one hopes MacLaren and WB take with their development project. The alternative — of one more year passing without a female-directed superhero film — seems even more burdensome.

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