Full disclosure: Ava DuVernay and I are friends, having first worked together when she was a publicist and I was an assistant arts editor at New Times LA. This past weekend, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, of which I am a member, gave her an award, and I was one of the people she thanked. If you wish to use this information to invalidate any of the points I’m about to make, go ahead – but I think the argument stands on its own merits.
In the ongoing game of cinematic one-upmanship between DC and Marvel – a game both of them deny they’re playing – what is the next move?
DC/WB took a leap forward when they announced a slate of movies through 2020, which included a female-led film in Wonder Woman, an African-American-centered adventure in Cyborg, and a post-racially cast Aquaman, with Jason Momoa as the undersea king who is traditionally portrayed as extremely white and blond. Marvel’s countermove was to announce Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies; DC’s counter-countermove was to hire a female director for Wonder Woman.
A female director of color seems like the next best logical step for the diversity audiences are now looking for. But if that were the end of the argument, they could hire Kasi Lemmons and be done with it. No, Marvel and DC need directors who understand their sensibilities. Zack Snyder, love him or hate him, is best utilized at DC, where characters and stories are supposed to be about larger than life heroes who are better than you. Jon Favreau, who had previously demonstrated his skill with cocky guys who are secretly insecure, was a great fit for Tony Stark’s tale. And what Ava DuVernay has done with Martin Luther King (as played by David Oyelowo, Star Wars Rebels‘ Agent Kallus) has convinced me that Marvel needs her to take on one of their characters next. And I don’t mean Black Panther – for whom there will be strong pressure to get a black director, and possibly a greater degree of flexibility in dealing with a lesser-known character. I say give her an Iron Man or a Thor. I’ll explain.
If you haven’t seen Selma, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s a typical Oscar-bait hagiography of a guy who’s as close to a historical superhero as, say, an Adolf Hitler is to being a supervillain. (If you want the typical hero biopic, there’s The Theory of Everything‘s Super-Stephen Hawking – DC can have director James Marsh, and good riddance.) Instead, Selma is a movie that’s important precisely because it refuses to be Important-with-a-capital-I. It takes a man who has been turned into an icon, and turns him back into a man again. He is insecure. He is humbled. He cheats on his wife. He seeks the spotlight at times that he shouldn’t. He sometimes backs down. And perhaps most drastically, he calculatingly weighs “good of the many/good of the few” odds in a manner that inevitably will get people killed for his cause; in the service, he hopes and trusts, of less people suffering and dying in the long run.
Yet ultimately, despite all this, he prevails. He is, in short, the real-life version of a Marvel hero. Tony Stark and Thor, the arrogant icons made humble, would see some of themselves in this version of Dr. King, as would punier men made large by their ideas (and magic science) such as Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner. By the time Oyelowo’s King has made the Selma march and is delivering a triumphant speech, it feels like we have witnessed the origin story, if you will, even though King was already something of a known figure.
But Selma, despite having King’s head large and in charge on the poster, isn’t about just one person. It’s about a lot of people. King has his own Avengers: Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), John Lewis (Stephan James), even Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young). Over the final scene, as titles tell us what each person did next, the thought may occur that if Paramount really wanted to be calculating, and they thought there would be a market for it, it would be easy enough from a narrative perspective to springboard a “Shared Cinematic Universe” of Civil Rights Superheroes. I would think that at the very least, a Nigel Thatch Malcolm X spin-off would make money, and then fans of the Spike Lee film could have some very similar debates as those of us who consider Christian Bale’s merits versus Michael Keaton’s as Batman.
Selma is obviously dealing with more serious subject matter than comic-book superheroes, and nothing I write here should make us lose sight of that, or be seen as making light of it. But in a field where it is so often directors of music videos and effects reels who get the big call-up to make blockbusters…why not someone who instead understands the real stakes of struggle, and can depict the humanity and flaws of said struggle’s heroes in a way that strengthens them onscreen rather than diminishing?
But does she understand superheroes? As a publicist, Ava worked on Spider-Man 2. The good one. You’ve heard of it, right?
And I suppose – based on every Internet discussion I’ve been having lately – that it’s not possible to talk about Selma without someone bringing up the fact that experts on the topic of Lyndon Johnson are upset that the movie depicts him as a political pragmatist rather than the principled patron saint of Civil Rights. I have opinions on LBJ – and I’m sure some of you do too. But for the sake of our current thesis, the point is this: people also have opinions on how Iron Man, or Captain America, or Thanos is supposed to be correctly portrayed, and we need a director with a strong point of view on that who’s willing to piss people off. Although, on the Internet, it’s arguable that comic-book fans are far, FAR scarier than Johnson Democrats, when enraged.
Finally, I suppose we have to ask – Marvel may need a director like Ava DuVernay, but does she need Marvel? After all, her stock in trade is intimate, independent cinema. My sense is that she absolutely would – I impersonated the Joker some years back at one of her Oscar parties, and she loved it.
Ava for Marvel. Make it happen, Feige.