The announcement that Joss Whedon is stepping down as writer and director of the “Batgirl” film that’s currently in pre-production at Warner Bros. arrives as good news, even if you’re not one of those people (like me) who thinks that Whedon, as a creator of comic-book cinema, has shown more energy than poetry (especially in the egregiously chaotic “Avengers: Age of Ultron”).
Whedon admitted yesterday that he’d “failed” to come up with a story that could make a “Batgirl” movie work. But given how rarely most people in the film business admit to failure, could it be that his heart just wasn’t in it? Whedon first staked his claim, in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” by shepherding a key pop-culture heroine. But it now seems likely that he felt the pressure, in the post-#MeToo world, of being a male director struggling to contort himself into the mindset of one of the most legendary of female superheroes.
With Whedon’s exit, the door is now open for a female director to take on the job of forging a “Batgirl” for our time. And let’s be explicit about why that would — and hopefully will — be a fantastic thing, quite apart from the obvious and essential moral issue of equality in hiring in Hollywood.
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Superhero movies are fantasies, but the best of them have found a way to overlap the real world. The question at the heart of any “Batgirl” movie, at least if it’s going to be more than just another overcooked action cog in the DC Universe, needs to be: Who — really — is Batgirl? What drives her, what possesses her, what makes her tick? Like Batman, she’s a night stalker with no superpowers, emerging from an impulse of dark nobility. So for this movie to work, she needs to be not just a bat-eared icon, but a character with layers, a mistress of the night who can speak in a larger-than-life way to the experience of women. Because let’s not forget that that’s what great comic-book characters do. In saving the world, they say something about us.
Yes, a male filmmaker could direct “Batgirl” and, theoretically, work on that level of drama and understanding. But isn’t this one case where it simply makes sense to say that a woman filmmaker has the potential to bring something bold and new and experiential to the equation? (Writer Roxane Gay has already offered to pen the script.)
Batgirl didn’t appear on the 1960s “Batman” TV series until its third and final season, starting in 1967 (her appearance coincided with the January 1967 Detective Comics issue “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!”), but like everyone else on that show, she was suffused with personality. Each time she showed up, the actress Yvonne Craig made her presence felt. As Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, she was a demure librarian minding her manners, but when she put on her spangled purple-and-yellow Batgirl suit, with its mask attached to a mane of flaming red hair, she was a woman transformed, with a touch of the dominatrix fury that Diana Rigg brought to “The Avengers.” Batgirl drove a cool motorcycle (also purple) and had an authoritative martial-artsy way of kicking her way to glory during the show’s bam!-pow! fight scenes.
But in that sense, she was literally a sidekick. The “Batgirl” movie will place her front and center, and that’s an opportunity that will hinge on the imagination of the woman behind the camera. So who should that be?
Many would rush to nominate Kathryn Bigelow, and as someone who always loves to see the most brilliant and bravura of filmmakers tackle pop genres, I’d be among the legions to say: Of course! Thirty years ago, Bigelow’s first solo directorial outing, the vampire thriller “Near Dark” (1987), was a night-bloom fantasy, at once sensational and subtle; in a better world, she might have made “Batgirl” back then. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Bigelow isn’t interested, it’s worth noting a crucial piece of background about who can, and should, helm a superhero fantasy.
Last year, Patty Jenkins, the director of “Wonder Woman,” became a filmmaker who spearheaded a paradigm shift. But that success could hardly have been predicted by her resume before that movie: a sprinkling of television episodes (“The Killing,” “Arrested Development,” “Entourage”) and exactly one feature film, “Monster” (2003), the grisly docudrama that won Charlize Theron the best-actress Oscar for playing the tormented serial killer Aileen Wuornos. It was a movie that, in tone, spirit, and technique, couldn’t have been further removed from the action-soaked, CGI-spangled DC universe. And, indeed, it’s become routine for studios to tap indie filmmakers with no experience in the mega-budget franchise machine — like, say, James Gunn — to suddenly be the directors of epic-scale comic-book movies.
So the person who directs “Batgirl” doesn’t have to come with a kinetic/fantasy background. If you were looking for someone who did have that background, a sturdy choice might be Michelle MacLaren, the veteran television director who’s known for her work on “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Game of Thrones,” and who very nearly did direct “Wonder Woman.” But, in fact, it might be more exciting if the director of “Batgirl” arrived from a different angle.
It would be thrilling to see Ava DuVernay take a crack at it. She, of course, now has one big-budget fantasy under her belt — the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time,” set to hit theaters on March 9 — and what DuVernay brings to the table, based simply on my viewing of her indie work (like the terrific “Middle of Nowhere”) and the masterly “Selma,” is a visual elegance and a singular ability to dramatize the inner power dynamics of any situation. I see DuVernay as a filmmaker of three dimensions who could root a comic-book movie in something real.
Dee Rees, the director of “Mudbound” and “Pariah,” has the technical chops and the empathy, though I’m not sure she could inject the levity that’s become a requirement in superhero fare. A director who very much could is Lisa Cholodenko, and I’m compelled to say that even as I write her name, there’s a part of me that thinks, “Wait a minute! ‘The Kids Are All Right’ is a great film, but surely that’s a movie worlds removed from ‘Batgirl.’ She would be all wrong for it!” And then I have to remind myself that I’m thinking that way because I’m so locked into the rigid slots to which Hollywood has consigned female filmmakers.
Which brings me to my first choice: Greta Gerwig. She’s a filmmaker who, at this point, will almost surely have a chance to direct a franchise blockbuster — that is, if she wants to go that way. And considering that she’s only just approaching her first Oscar ceremony as a nominee, with exactly one movie as a writer-director, the glorious “Lady Bird,” under her belt, taking that leap now might seem premature.
But consider it: If Gerwig were to choose to direct a comic-book movie, what would be more ideally tailored to her playful intelligence than the prankish goth grandeur of “Batgirl”? She could imagine the character from the ground up, as someone funny and fierce, humane and empowered, iconic and mysterious. A woman who calls herself by a different name (Lady Bat?). The point being that hiring a female director to make “Batgirl” isn’t just about equal opportunity. It’s about Hollywood using the equality of opportunity as a new way to think outside the box. It’s time that people started saying things like, “Greta Gerwig making ‘Batgirl’? I’m not sure if I can see that. But actually, now that you mention it, why the f— not?”