Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who will oversee Disney’s development of the “Star Wars” franchise, has an impressive roster of smart action movies on her résumé: Her first credit as a producer is Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.,” and she went on to put together new entries in the canon including “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” While her credits don’t exactly suggest a rebellion against Hollywood’s existing order, throughout her career Kennedy has also steadily worked on movies about women’s inner lives like “The Color Purple,” “A Dangerous Woman,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Persepolis” and the forthcoming “Emma’s War.”
The best point of comparison may be the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an expansive set of interlocking movies and television shows overseen by Kevin Feige. Like “Star Wars,” Marvel is another sprawling property with a strong creative voice at the top, rather than a studio where the chief executive has to put together a more varied mix of projects to appeal to different markets. Women have yet to direct any of the Marvel movies that Feige has put into production, and they have served or serving as showrunners on just three of Marvel’s television offerings, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” “Agent Carter” and the forthcoming “A.K.A. Jessica Jones.” Nicole Perlman became the first woman to write a Marvel movie, last summer’s wildly entertaining “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and she is set to co-write “Captain Marvel” with Meg LeFauve.
There are female characters in Marvel movies, including field operative Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, wringing the most out of a supporting part), S.H.I.E.L.D. executive Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and love interests like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). More women are starting to get in on the action, including Sif (Jaimie Alexander), one of Thor’s fellow combatants, and Gamora, the fearsome fighter played by Zoe Saldana in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But it’s only in Marvel television shows like “Agent Carter,” which stars Hayley Atwell, and the forthcoming “Jessica Jones” that women have been allowed to take center stage in Marvel projects.
Kennedy’s far earlier in the green-lighting process than Feige, but her decision-making so far shows some significant similarities — and differences. Thus far, all four directors who have been announced for new “Star Wars” movies are men: J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards, and Josh Trank. Like Marvel, Kennedy is clearly trying to work with a mix of established directors (Abrams) and more original voices (Johnson and Trank), though only time will tell if she fares better with Johnson and Trank than Feige did with Edgar Wright, the wildly innovative British action director who was recruited to and then booted from Marvel’s “Ant-Man” project.
But when it comes to casting, “Star Wars” already has a different vibe from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” is well stocked with women, including Daisy Ridley; Christie, who established herself as a formidable action actress as Brienne of Tarth on “Game of Thrones”; and Nyong’o, who won an Academy Award for her work in “12 Years A Slave.” The first spinoff “Star Wars” movie, “Rogue One,” stars a woman, too: Felicity Jones, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for her smart, tough turn as Jane Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”
We’re months, and in some cases years, away from knowing how these casting decisions will pan out. In the early going, at least, it’s exciting to see Kennedy’s slate of movies give a new generation of actresses a chance to stretch beyond what audiences already know of them, as with Nyong’o and Jones, or, in the case of Christie, to continue building their credentials as action stars.
George Lucas may have set “Star Wars” “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” but one of the most exciting things about watching the original trilogy for the first time was the way it made Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) an equal without suggesting that she was either an anomaly or a pioneer. Kennedy has an opportunity to set a new standard for how Hollywood does business in a similarly matter-of-fact way. She’s got the reins to a giant franchise. Let’s hope the Force is strong in her, too.
Correction: As some sharp-eyed readers have pointed out, I missed one of the directors Kennedy has announced, and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is co-run by a man and a woman. I’ve fixed the post to reflect that.