Pretty much the hottest directorial job in Hollywood right now is that for “Justice League,” the Warner Bros. movie that will team superheroes Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and more. The film is still likely three years away, but the success of “The Avengers” and the end of Christopher Nolan‘s Batman saga has caused Warners to actively move forward on the project, commissioning a script from “Gangster Squad” writer Will Beall last year. And earlier this week, news leaked out on the director who was their first choice for the project: Ben Affleck.
The actor-turned-director and Best Screenplay Oscar winner has rejuvenated his career in recent years with smart, grown-up thrillers “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” the latter of which proved a sleeper hit for Warners, and hopes are high that his latest, Iran hostage drama “Argo,” will be a big player in the coming awards season. So it’s not a huge surprise that the studio came after Affleck; they offered him both “Man of Steel” and “Gangster Squad,” and the filmmaker is attached to a two-film version of Stephen King‘s apocalyptic “The Stand” for the studio as well.
And it’s not surprising as part of a general trend, either, given the success of Nolan’s Bat-films, franchises all over the shop are aiming high with their directorial ambitions. Gus Van Sant and Sofia Coppola were sought for “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” before Oscar-winner Bill Condon got the gig, while David Cronenberg, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón (who has some franchise form, having helmed the third ‘Harry Potter‘), along with newer-school, but equally acclaimed filmmakers like Tomas Alfresdon, Duncan Jones, Joe Cornish and Cary Fukunaga, were all on wishlists to direct “The Hunger Games” sequel “Catching Fire.”
The signs, at this point, are that Affleck, to his credit, has little interest in the project. We suspect that after this point, the studio will go to Alfonso Cuarón or Guillermo del Toro (who both have big-budget films at the compnay due for release next year), along with ‘Harry Potter’ director David Yates, and maybe “Gangster Squad”‘s Ruben Fleischer. Who knows who’ll end up with the job, but we’d certainly rather it was the latter two, rather than Affleck, Cuarón or del Toro, or even a younger, more promising filmmaker like, say, Rian Johnson or Duncan Jones. In fact, we’re starting to wish that franchises would keep their grubby hands off acclaimed filmmakers. And that kind of goes for the fans too.
It’s of course understandable to wish for a great filmmaker to come on to a property. Everyone, fans in particular, wants a talented visionary director to elevate material that threatens to be dire in lesser hands. “The Dark Knight Rises” and its predecessors are the best examples of this at present. Nolan took a well-worn property and completely reinvented it, putting a personal stamp on the material and coming out with something that made the superhero genre critically respectable, and possibly even an Oscar contender. No one in their right minds would prefer a Joel Schumacher-directed Batman movie to a Christopher Nolan-directed one.
And of course, there’s the one-for-them, one-for-us ‘rule.’ Without taking “Batman Begins,” or something of that caliber, Nolan would have never been able to make long-time dream project (excuse the pun) “Inception,” at least not on the giant scale that it was achieved. Steven Soderbergh got to pursue his more experimental work by making a guaranteed hit in the ‘Ocean’s‘ trilogy every few years, and, like Nolan, did so in a way that ensured they fit in his filmography next to the personal projects (indeed, “Ocean’s Twelve” is one of the more formally playful works on the director’s resume).
But if you love film — truly adore cinema — we simply don’t get the mentality that you’d want your favorite filmmaker to take on a franchise property, at least if it’s not a franchise that they hold particular attachments to (something like Peter Jackson taking on “The Lord of the Rings” is a slightly different case, because of his lifelong passion for the material). Nolan’s Batman films are terrific, but none are as thrilling as “Memento,” “The Prestige” or “Inception.” We’d rather see Steven Soderbergh have a solid hit with “Magic Mike” than make “Ocean’s Fourteen,” and we’d rather see Darren Aronofsky win the cachet to get passion project “Noah” made through “Black Swan” becoming a hit rather than taking on “The Wolverine,” which nearly happened.
And that’s why we feel a little queasy every time fans and bloggers shout from the rooftops that they want Alfonso Cuarón, Duncan Jones or Neill Blomkamp to take on a “Martian Manhunter” movie, or whatever. Short of them having a lifelong passion for it, it feels like depriving us of a self-derived, original project from this kind of filmmaker for the sake of a franchise tentpole that, while a cut above your usual kind of franchise tentpole, is still a franchise tentpole. And promising directors seemed to be nabbed earlier and earlier for this sort of fare these days — hence the arrival of people like Joe Cornish and Cary Fukunaga, who’ve only made a couple of films, onto shortlists, and the way in which Rupert Wyatt and Gareth Edwards ended up with big-budget fare like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Godzilla” at only their second time at bat. What if this situation happened thirty or forty years ago? What if the success of “Alien” led Ridley Scott to go off and make, say, “Superman III” rather than “Blade Runner” (a film that just made the Sight & Sound Top 100 greatest films of all time)? What if two decades ago, Quentin Tarantino was snapped up to reboot, let’s say, “Shaft,” off the back of “Reservoir Dogs?”
We hope it doesn’t sound like we blame the filmmakers, necessarily. There’s a basic reality to the situation that we absolutely appreciate. In a recent interview with “The Bourne Legacy” helmer Tony Gilroy, the writer-director told us “My fantasy was, after [his directorial debut] ‘Michael Clayton,’ my fantasy was I can write for dough on big movies and then every year and a half I can go make a ‘Clayton,’ make those kinds of movies. Who knew that that movie business would disappear? It disappeared instantaneously. By the time we finished “Duplicity,” that [mid-budget] movie business was over. I don’t kid myself at all, I think that movie business is gone and not coming back, I think it’s really gone. It’s like complaining about the weather, it’s a fact. The middle ground of dramatic filmmaking. There will be festival films, there will be a way to live, where a movie like ‘Clayton’ gets made if you get a movie star like Clooney to waive his fee, there will be exceptions for decades. But as a rule the middle-class drama, ambitious drama, it’s on TV… So if you want to work in the big game, as I said try to find something that interests you and interests the audience. This hit that sweet spot.”
Gilroy, like Soderbergh and Nolan and many others, has found a way to make something that allows him to make a franchise film that he is genuinely interested in. But he’s also hit on a depressing reality: sometimes, these franchise pictures are the only game in town. Of the top twenty domestic grossers of the year, only “Brave,” “Ted,” “Magic Mike” and “Safe House” are not based on a pre-existing property, and the first two feel like extensions of the Pixar and Seth MacFarlane brands as it is. If you actually want people to come see your movies — and surely only the most obtuse filmmaker doesn’t want that — than sometimes you don’t have a choice but to take on a franchise film.
And that’s why we’re looking at you, the audience. There are hugely promising, exciting filmmakers out there who, against the odds, are committed to getting original ideas made. Rian Johnson, director of the hugely promising “Looper,” told us at Comic-Con: “Adaptation is not something that’s ever really appealed. If I read a great book or comic book or something, the last thing in my head is ‘Wow, I want to make that into a movie.’ Obviously, some of the greatest films ever made have been adaptations, I’m just talking about my personal opinion. So there’s no dream project. My dream is to come up with another movie, and be able to make it. I’m realizing that that’s the only way I can work. Every single movie that gets made is a miracle. But knock on wood, I’ve been able to get these things made, and it’s not going to last forever. So as long as I’ve got this little window where I’m able to make these things, I’m just gonna keep making original stuff, and see how long I can get away with it.”
It’s a heartening approach, and we can’t urge you enough to support filmmakers like Johnson (or Neill Blomkamp, or Duncan Jones, or Joe Cornish) who’ve resisted overtures from franchises to focus on their own material. Part of that comes from going to see their movies over, say, “Resident Evil 5,” in the hope that they can get to work with bigger canvases and pet projects not by taking a paycheck gig, but like Aronofsky and “Black Swan,” making something on their own terms that also connects with a wide audience. And part of that involves not suggesting, and wishing for their names to appear every time a big franchise property comes up. Because the risk then is that they become someone like Bryan Singer, a filmmaker who made a few taut, terrific low-budget pictures before making a series of big-budget films that felt increasingly anonymous (next year’s “Jack The Giant Killer” looking the least promising of all).
But these superhero movies and franchise tentpoles still need someone to direct them, right? Well, an unlikely hope arrives from Marvel. Jon Favreau (and to a degree, Edgar Wright) aside, the company has so far hired, for the most part, directors who would struggle to get a $5 million movie financed, let alone a $200 million one. The financial failures of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Sleuth” meant that Shane Black and Kenneth Branagh weren’t exactly money in the bank, but were broken out of director’s jail by Marvel (the same could be argued for, say Kimberly Peirce‘s hiring for the “Carrie” remake). Joss Whedon, “Thor: The Dark World” helmer Alan Taylor and the Russo Brothers are all better known for their work on TV than on film. But Marvel had the foresight to see that these filmmakers could all handle big-budget fare, and for those who’ve had films released so far, it’s paid off. And they will, hopefully, go on to have the cachet to get more personal projects made. It’s almost a sort of graduate program for filmmakers, and somewhat different from the idea of taking Duncan Jones or Cary Fukunaga, who are able to get films financed, on a certain budget level at least.
It’s a complex situation, for certain, and there aren’t any easy answers. We don’t begrudge fans for wanting their favorite filmmaker to direct their favorite properties, or directors who have a take on a franchise from taking work that’ll likely mean they never have to worry about money again. But the culture has changed somewhat in the last few years to suggest that directing a franchise movie is the pinnacle of a filmmaker’s career, and again, if you love film, it’s worth resisting that mindset or at least giving it some serious consideration.