DC Movie Universe Creator: ‘There Are Too Many White Male Directors’
David S. Goyer, the acclaimed writer behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Man of Steel, and the Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons, opens up about sexism and superheroes.
David S. Goyer and his Da Vinci’s Demons crew were putting the finishing touches on their third season when they got the news that Starz was sounding the death knell: Season 3 would be the last for dashing young Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci, played with aplomb by Brit star Tom Riley.
“We knew it was in the cards,” Goyer shrugged on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, days before the historical fantasy premiered the first episode of its final season. Da Vinci’s Demons was one of the more successful television shows of Goyer’s career, a superhero-heavy arsenal that includes Dark City, the Blade trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, Man of Steel, and the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Goyer, who helped change superhero movies by giving Hollywood its most brooding Batman, created his fictionalized take on Italy’s most famous genius as a sexy Middle Ages MacGyver battling secret conspiracies for Starz and the BBC back in 2013. Fans and industry-watchers alike were taken by surprise when the network announced its sudden cancellation months before the Season 3 premiere.
The heads-up nonetheless allowed Goyer & Co. to end Demons on their own terms in an arc set during the bloody 15th-century Ottoman siege of Otranto, he says. But it also pre-empted a hypothetical fourth season that would have seen the cable series finally dive into the most salacious and controversial persisting element of the Da Vinci legend: his bisexuality.
The show’s producers and star have been deflecting criticisms of “straight-washing” since they briefly addressed Da Vinci’s long-rumored love for men in a first season episode depicting his 1476 trial for sodomy. Ratings were strong. For the rest of that season and the next, however, Da Vinci’s Demons backed away from the topic while emphasizing Da Vinci’s romantic relationship with Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock).
“In Season 4 he was going to have a homosexual relationship for the majority of the season,” said Goyer, who added that he considers Da Vinci to be bisexual. “There’s an interesting scene toward the end of the third season between Lucrezia and Leonardo, that if people listen closely she’s providing certain commentary on that.”
“The problem with Season 3 is that because it all takes place during the Siege of Otranto, in war, and for a certain portion of it Leonardo is himself a prisoner, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on his sexuality, period,” he lamented, choosing his words carefully. “There just wasn’t time. But for the fans, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, and a couple of the characters absolutely end… in appropriate ways.”
Da Vinci’s Demons fans may yet see him explore his sexuality, Goyer teases. The end may not really be the end. “Had we continued, we had an idea for Season 4 that would have taken place during the Bonfire of the Vanities, which was about 14 years later, so we would have leapt forward quite a bit. And the door is still open. I suppose we could always do a limited series or something like that.”
In the last year, Goyer backed away from Da Vinci’s Demons to turn his attentions on a bustling slate of film and television projects, handing the showrunner reins to John Shiban. Rather than dive all the way into the superhero game he’s best known for, Goyer says he’s making an effort to branch out beyond spandex blockbusters.
“I spend about 50 percent of my time in TV,” said Goyer, who is prepping to shoot the pilot for USA Networks’ J.T. Petty comic book adaptation Brooklyn Animal Control and is developing Superman prequel Krypton for SyFy, which follows the Man of Steel’s grandfather and takes place 200 years before baby Kal-El is jettisoned off his home planet.
On the big screen, he’s executive-producing James Cameron’s Fantastic Voyage remake and has the thriller The Forest premiering in January starring Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer. Goyer and producing partner Kevin Turen (99 Homes) are executive producers on Nate Parker’s Nat Turner slave rebellion drama The Birth of A Nation, an example of the kind of “grown-up movies” Goyer’s hoping to make more of. “That was one that was good for the soul, and we’re developing quite a few of those now.”
There was a time when Goyer was the guy with the keys to the DC movie kingdom. He’d already scored with Marvel before Marvel Studios became Marvel Studios, bringing the black superhero Blade to life with a timely undercurrent, he says: vampirism as AIDS metaphor.
He directed the trilogy-ending Blade: Trinity in 2004 and the following year joined forces with Nolan to breathe new life into the Batman mythology with a dark take on the Caped Crusader. “These iterations of these characters are a reflection of their time,” he said. “That was happening in a post-9/11 world, and society really had changed. So it was appropriate then to a certain extent for those films to reflect the anxieties of the time period.”
Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises took in over $2.4 billion worldwide for Warner Bros. Goyer had been additionally developing several DC universe properties before an executive regime change deemphasized the studio’s focus on flagship characters Batman and Superman. “We had an early version of Suicide Squad that didn’t end up happening,” said Goyer. “It was smaller in some ways and it was kind of ahead of its time.”
Meanwhile, rival company Marvel burst out of the gate with Iron Man in 2008, creating their profitable and sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe from increasingly esoteric properties. DC and Warner Bros. had to play catch up, and Zack Snyder stepped in to guide the future of their connected superhero films.
“I didn’t want to be an architect of [the DC movies],” Goyer said. “I love it, but I’ve done a lot of comic book stuff and I want to do some non-comic book stuff. Between the Dark Knight films, Man of Steel, and Batman v. Superman that’s five, and there are a couple others I’m involved in that haven’t been announced. It’s a lot. You don’t want to keep repeating yourself over and over again.”
Not that Goyer’s leaving the comic book world he loves altogether. He’s also producing a high-profile adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which he optimistically thinks will begin shooting next year.
“Sandman’s different. He’s not a superhero, he’s a god. I hope people are ready for that,” Goyer said. “It’s about creation and it’s about the relationship between the creator and the creation, between the people who pray to their gods and the gods themselves.”
“It’s very meta, and it’s challenging,” he smiled. “There’s a reason why people have been trying to develop it for 18 years. We’re not there yet, but I think we’ve cracked it. I don’t know that I could have prior to adapting Batman v. Superman. I think I was able to step back and identify the key elements that made Sandman Sandman, and through a series of conversations with Neil [Gaiman] asked, ‘Do you think this is true? Does this feel like Sandman to you?’”
Forecasting the future of superhero movies is Goyer’s niche, after all. He teases his involvement in another shared cinematic universe (“I can’t talk about it”) and predicts that within a few decades the studios will cycle back to the campier tone that marked 1960s-era superheroes, a la Adam West’s Batman.
“By nature Hollywood is a very slow-moving beast, so they tend to do something and then lean into the curve, try to keep doing it over and over and over again, and we’re constantly saying, ‘You don’t want to kill the golden goose, you’ve got to keep changing it,’” he said. “Do something different. There’s always that constant tension.”
Goyer’s still sheepish about controversial comments he made a year ago about Marvel superheroine She-Hulk, in which he called the character “a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could fuck.”
“It was part of a very off-the-cuff evening, and if people listen to the whole stream there was no one on that panel who was being remotely serious the entire night,” he explained. “My comment was one of a bunch of off-the cuff-comments. What I was trying to say, and I realize people took offense to it, was that when I was a kid people were saying this was a sort of a model character but there were nuances that were lost to me when I was a 13-year-old.”
Goyer wasn’t alone in pissing off geeks on the subject of She-Hulk—podcast host Craig Mazin started the topic by referring to her as “Slut-Hulk,” and both were joined on the panel by co-host John August, Andrea Berloff, and Captain America scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—but Goyer bore the brunt of the blowback. He says the point they were trying to make was that female characters have long been objectified by reductive creators and fans alike.
“If you listen to the whole stream, that was the point that all of us were saying,” he said. “We were saying it in a joking way, but that’s what everyone was saying. I think that as a kid, as a prepubescent boy, I said even in my quote that something like 90 percent of the creators were male, as were the readers. So it’s a very biased view of the world.”
For many comic book fans, Goyer’s comments were symptomatic of a larger, more urgent and persistent problem. Namely, if the shepherds of the Marvel and DC movie universes were so cavalier about sexism in comics, who could they trust to shape the inclusive future of superhero culture?
“I think the world would be a better place if more filmmakers were either female or came from more diverse backgrounds, because there are too many white male directors,” Goyer said. “I was on the board of the Writer’s Guild and that was a big issue for us, sort of the chicken-and-the-egg thing: How do we add more diverse voices, especially when the audience is so diverse? On the last show I was on, Constantine, I was very happy that close to half of our writing staff was either female or not white. That was something that we tried really hard to do. But females and minorities, they’re not represented in terms of the aggregate pot of writers and directors. It’s not 50/50 in terms of females. It’s a real problem.”
Both Disney and Warner Bros. have struggled to prioritize women and minority characters, from Marvel’s Black Widow problem to its Avengers merchandising, its highly publicized search for a Black Panther director, and the release date delay of Captain Marvel, the first and only female-led superhero movie in the foreseeable MCU future. DC, meanwhile, saw Michelle McLaren exit the Wonder Woman directing gig before they inked Patty Jenkins to replace her and have yet to add more prominent female-led stand-alones to their long-term big screen road map.
I asked Goyer what efforts are underway behind the scenes to make the superhero world more inclusive. “I do [see it happening],” he said, avoiding specifics. “Everyone is aware of the problem and wants to amend it... Nicole Perlman worked on Guardians of the Galaxy… Look, at least there’s a Wonder Woman movie going into production. There’s a Black Panther movie that’s coming. At least there’s a Captain Marvel. That is some form of progress. It’s not enough progress, but it’s something.”