Ava DuVernay will not be directing Marvel’s Black Panther.
It’s not that the rumor was nothing but rumor. Marvel made her an offer. She considered taking the gig, but ultimately decided to pass. As she told Essence:
I’m not signing on to direct Black Panther. I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be. Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do. I loved that they reached out to me… I loved meeting Chadwick and writers and all the Marvel execs. In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn’t see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences later.
The “creative differences” to which DuVernay refers as the go-to justification for a director getting ousted from a comic book movie are all too appropriate: just look at the case of Edgar Wright, dropped from Ant-Man, a project he’d been tied to since 2006, in May of last year. His version of Ant-Man, according to one of the film’s stars, Evangeline Lilly, “wouldn’t have fit in the Marvel Universe. It would have stuck out like a sore thumb, no matter how good it was.”
DuVernay’s refusal also calls to mind Joss Whedon’s experience directing the first two Avengers movies. While it was arguably Whedon’s personal touch — his Buffy-banter in particular — that made The Avengers such a relative delight in the post-Christopher Nolan Dark Knight comic movie scene, he found himself totally hamstrung by Marvel’s demands for movie number two.
The second Avengers couldn’t be an independent storytelling vehicle unto itself. Instead, it needed to serve a million masters: set the stage for sequels and introduce new characters for standalone flicks (that, if past behavior is a true predictor of future behavior, will likely not be left to stand alone at all). Any one Marvel movie is part of a shared, synergistic universe, where individual vision is sacrificed on the altar of the franchise. Whedon’s diplomatic way of describing this process: “With so much at stake, there’s gonna be friction.” He is not directing the third Avengers installment.
There are plenty of reasons for a passionate filmgoer to want to see DuVernay’s name attached to Black Panther. The Selma director, through that work alone, demonstrated that she has strengths specifically in the areas where this latest batch of comic book movies have struggled. Take the way violence is deployed in Selma: it’s gripping and horrifying, yet the scale is human. Action sequences contribute directly to the story rather than deviate pointlessly from it. Yes, DuVernay was working with real events, but when she needed to, she bent history to fit the narrative arc of her piece, and the result was emotional, gorgeous and intense.
Zero superhero movies have been directed by women. (I’ll believe that Wonder Woman, whose original female director, Michelle MacLaren, was replaced with Patty Jenkins, is actually going to be made with a woman at the helm when I am sitting in the theater on opening weekend, and not a nanosecond before.) If your definition of comic book movies includes graphic novel movies, there is one exception to the all-white-guys rule: Robert Rodriguez co-directed Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. An are-you-kidding-me total of 90 percent of last year’s summer movies were directed by white men. Sexism in Hollywood is so systemic and rampant, it could actually be a civil rights violation.
So DuVernay would have been making some long overdue history — women of color making long overdue history may well be the theme of the summer — in an industry where progress for anyone but white men is hard to come by. As Manohla Dargas pointed out in a New York Times discussion, “Heroines Triumph at Box Office, but Has Anything Changed in Hollywood?”, most of the lady-leading movies of 2015, which feature female-centric stories and diverse, fully realized female characters, were directed by men. (To name a few: Spy, Inside Out, Trainwreck, and Mad Max.) Progress for women on-screen is not necessarily indicative of progress behind the camera. Plus, all the main female characters in those movies are white. (Technically Joy and Sadness, stars of Inside Out, are yellow and blue, respectively, but they reside in the mind of a white girl.)
Comic book movies are, for better or worse, one of the dominant vehicles of popular culture, shaping the discourse, values, and fantasies not just for millions of Americans but audiences worldwide. Marvel and DC Comics have a monopoly on major opening weekends from now until 2020. The people who get to tell those stories wield tremendous power. It would be refreshing — scratch that, it would be revolutionary, if that power were wielded by a woman of color, especially one with DuVernay’s gifts.
But: perhaps DuVernay’s gifts are better spent elsewhere. (Let us not make the mistake of thinking we know better how to guide that career than she does; that would be a “Jessica Williams has imposter syndrome” level misstep.) DuVernay will be channeling her time and energy into a love story set during Hurricane Katrina, starring David Oyelowo, with whom she collaborated on her Sundance breakout, Middle of Nowhere.