Discuss: Do We Really Want Our Most Promising Filmmakers Directing Superhero Movies?

Discuss: Do We Really Want Our Most Promising Filmmakers Directing Superhero Movies?

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.

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Comments

James

It's really not that complicated a question if you aren't an art snob that puts certain genres in the ghetto while elevating others. Remember many of the films we consider classics of cinema today were little more than B pictures which the A films coming out at the same time are forgotten.

The problem not isn't so much with the audience, but on the insistence of Hollywood that every film be a blockbuster now, so that with the few exceptions out there filmmakers are watering down their vision for the widest mass appeal, but that has nothing to do with genre. That's like saying that Kubrick was slumming when he decided to do science fiction films like 2001 and Clockwork Orange instead of heady stuff like Barry Lyndon.

Randolph Scott's Ghost

Don't really care for most of the directors mentioned, but I'd love to see Cronenberg doing something of blockbuster caliber. I'd love to see a real top notch, master filmmaker (not just a modern quasi-indie like the ones brought up) doing one of these movies. Let's not forget that many of the best works of cinema were made from trash source material, going all the way back through film history. And there's always a chance of sneaking a massive genre deconstruction onto the viewing public. That would be fun.

Video Beagle

I'm a bit confused by the article closing, which seems to say "These great promising directors shouldn't do super hero films….unless they're doing them for Marvel."

(Which I would generally agree with, but that has to do with studio structure and executive control issues between WB and Marvel rather than the material)

Dood

If you can make a great movie about men and women in tight costumes for $200 million, then you can make a good movie anytime, anywhere. Our best directors should have a chance at some major exposure and major $$$. They earned it. Look at Star Trek. Because that was successful, we got movies like People Like Us and Super 8. Because of Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Wall-e, we get MI:4 and John Carter. It's apparent that in Hollywood, you earn your projects. Directors don't care about audience perception, they do what they love when the time is right.

BeyondTheHype

Nolan is not a great director…but he does have a great pr machine.

Alan

The Nolan-Batman films are lightning in a bottle examples. WB didn't have a clue what to do with the franchise, so they gave several filmmakers a chance to pitch their takes. Nolan had more freedom to do what he liked with the franchise, plus he had a more interesting hero, rogues gallery and story history to play with. One problem is that other filmmakers aren't given the same level of material or freedom to pursue their goals.

G

Oliver's intentions appear well-meaning, but as presented are confused and misguided. His argument finally unravels when he urges readers to support Looper over the franchise trappings of Resident Evil 5 — a cheap example when, franchise or not, RE5 will likely be another hollow piece of hackwork from Paul W.S. Anderson. Looper's position as an original property is irrelevant, its support should derive from whether or not it's great cinema.

Why decry Bryan Singer's foray into the world of superheroes (X-Men, X2, and Superman Returns) when his return to lower-key, original thrillers amounted to Valkyrie? Why keep Duncan Jones from franchise fare when Source Code feels every bit like a safe studio thriller? And does it really matter what Ben Affleck's competent, no-frills direction brings us?

ralch

1. I semi-agree with the premise of this article in that the tendency to concentrate resources on tentpole productions is worrisome, as it takes away from middle-ground dramas or dramedys, but there is a bit of an exceedingly alarmist vibe to the whole thing. The whole superhero thing won't last forever. Right now we may be in the zenith of its hype, but movie-watching trends do evolve and shift as people grow tired of them. 2. As for promising or moderately established filmmakers, Jeff Nichols, the Duplass brothers, Wes Anderson, Ramin Bahrani, Lee Daniels, Kelly Reichardt, Nicole Holofcener, Sofia Coppola, Joe Wright, John Hillcoat, Richard Linklater and many others are doing their own things, and more and more young filmmakers are coming out of the festival circuits with works that operate between arthouse and genre. All is not lost. Oh, and then there are also the David Finchers, Danny Boyles, P. T. Andersons, etc. Hollywood is not just summer fare. 3. Nolan is not a great director. He is clumsy and derivative in his filmmaking grammar, but gets by on the size of his canvas. I also believe his Batman films are his strongest (have not seen The Prestige, though), with Memento and Inception being basically storytelling stunts way too pleased with their own mechanics. Basically what TXT said… except that I am not as radical an auteurist as he is. I do believe in a good script, which doesn't mean all movies require it nor that there is a uniform way of writing scripts. Bergman was as much a director as a writer, and so was Rohmer. Hitchcock also worked with first-rate scripts, as did many Hollywood directors of the golden era.

Andrew Willis

This headline reads "…Our Most Promising Film Makers", then it has a photo of Ben Affleck. Really? I like The Town, and Gone Baby Gone, and the Argo trailer looks good, but is O'Bannion considered one of the most promissing film makers? Niel Blomkamp, Ducan Jones, Anton Corbijn; these are names I would put miles ahead of Affleck.

Brandon

I don't see this as an issue, and it seems almost petty to make it one. Who would begrudge a great director the chance to make a project he's interested in? Great filmmakers like Nolan have elevated the genre into something beyond the spandex clad fist fighting that it was. For some this is a chance to use a bigger canvas than they might otherwise be capable of getting access to. Without Batman Nolan wouldn't have been able to get funding to make films like The Prestige or Inception. You say you'd rather Arranofsky get to make Noah through the success of Black Swan than with Wolverine, but you forget it took 10 years of false starts before he was able to make Swan, and even then financing almost fell apart at the last minute. I would rather a filmmaker get the chance to facilitate their dream projects sooner rather than risk not being able to make them at all. Memento is one of my favorite films but that alone would not have enabled Nolan to make the types of films he wants to make.

Like it or not, superhero films and franchise films have become the proving grounds and gateways to bigger budgets and better creative freedom. If a superhero flick nets us another Inception down the line I'm more than okay with that.

Apollo9000

Superhero or drama or comedy or bio- no matter the genre, a great film can be made. And they have. I'd love to see Martin Scorsece or PTA direct a Daredevil movie ( if you know the character, you could see why). Yet, if they have no interest or more importantly respect for the source material then better to leave it alone. Some directors dream project might be a certain tentpole film (ie. Joss Whedon). That doesn't stop them from making original works. It's the same machine that "encourages" film makers to take on a tentpole film as a trade off. In Whedon's case, the trade was one dream project for another ( the success of the Avengers provides a better chance for his web series w/ Warren Ellis to take off and maybe a musical that he has in mind to get off the ground). If studios can trust filmmakers whether making blockbusters or an indie film, we'll get great stories. It's not as complex as it seems.

berk

The franchise mentality is the problem. Rather than trying to get directors or actors locked into a multi-film deal that spans almost a decade, the studios that own these superheros should push for more singular, non-continuous films. The one-off concept could be reinvented every with film that can create different interpretations of the characters by individual filmmakers that are not tied to previous versions. This would allow for a Guillermo del Toro horror version one year and a Duncan Jones sci-fi version 2-3 years later with no further commitment. Place the origin stories in the pre-credit scene or credit montage and then jump right in.

Oogle monster

First of all, to anyone who doesn't think Inception is a masterpiece (*cough* below), they are plain out WRONG! I still consider Inception as top tier Nolan (the other two being Memento and TDK). Secondly, I take issue with Affleck being included in this "most promising"/"best" filmmakers discussion (and this is not in reference to this article in particular because I don't think The Playlist lavishes Affleck with overpraise). Look, I really really respect the man and I think GBG and The Town DO show terrific promise, BUT all of a sudden dude is being referred to as the second coming of Nolan? I think he has a long ways to go before joining the ranks of Nolan and company, but I am happy to support and applaud him through his journey. I also think that Magic Mike sucked and there was no storyline, so can someone please explain to me why so many critics were ready to sign Tatum/Soderberg's praises? I'm always rooting for the underdog, but this film was WEAK. Contagion/Haywire >>>> Magic Mike

justin

i think mr. lyttelton was a bit bored this afternoon and was hoping to incite the anger of fan boys and cinephiles to go at it for his amusement.

Christopher Gipson

Yes.

Brody

A lot of people are missing the point. "Who says superhero films aren't as good as anything else?" Anyone who is not an emotionally arrested 14 year old boy in a 40 year old man's body. The real tragedy is that there are almost no 50-million plus dollar movies that couldn't be taken to Comic Con today. Can you imagine taking The Godfather II to Comic Con? Goodfellas? The mid-budget dramatic pictures that are so excellent when done right are being completely eliminated. As Claire Danes put it, "Movies today are either microscopic or have robots in them." That mid-range 30 to 80 million dollar movie is being squeezed out of existence so they can make a 120 to 250 million dollar superhero movie every month. Hollywood's become addicted to "tentpole" pictures but if you don't like sci-fi sequels or fantasy adaptations, it's becoming hard to get excited about movies. And good directors are having a hard time getting anything off the ground that isn't a sequel or adaptation.

Christian

This is the result of an elitist, hipster mentality. Why shouldn't superhero films not be helmed by talented filmmakers? Do you have some kind of problem with your favorite directors becoming too mainstream? And Nolan's Batman films not on par with his other works – give me a break, college boy. Hipster, hipster, hipster.

Bro man dude

"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" – this is the thinking of an elitist asshole. Growing up loving something like Goonies and Fright Night and allowing that to grow into a love and appreciation for all sorts of films, doesn't mean that you adore cinema less than someone who thinks that Fellini or Godard are the tip of the cinematic iceberg.
Here's a better rule of thought, if our best and brightest filmmakers are being duped into directing lame superhero genre fair, then they're not the unimpeachable artists that you thought they were, are they? As your argument stands, the only truly great director who's spent any amount of time helming a superhero series, is Nolan – and he arguably made three of the best crossover films of all time (films that appeal to cinephiles and fat midwestern pigs alike). It's just not anything worth getting bent out of shape over.

Huffy

I don't necessarily disagree with your sentiment Oliver but what's with the worship of Affleck and Rian Johnson? Your acting like these guys are on a Kieslowski in the early 90's-like run. Johnson has made a pair of interesting but very flawed films and Affleck is shaping up to be the next Clint Eastwood: a good craftsman whose talent behind the camera is overrated thanks to an ability to pick winning scripts. Honestly I wouldn't mind if either of these guys went to franchise route.

cory everett

Where this starts to get really interesting is to think that if it weren't for "The Dark Knight" trilogy we wouldn't have "Inception." So maybe if a few of the aforementioned auteurs can ace their Hollywood assignments and make them personal enough, they too could get their dream projects off the ground…

TXT

'Nolan's Batman films are terrific, but none are as thrilling as "Memento," "The Prestige" or "Inception." ' — Firstly, you're absolutely in the minority there, even among Nolan fanboys, so it's a bit obnoxious to phrase it as fact (everyone loves TDK, don't you remember?). Memento, Inception, and The Prestige are high-concept thought experiements with little to no relevance to lived human life. Notwithstanding, they don't even hold up as good cinema — just a mishmash of talky, complex exposition and gimmicky plotting, effects, and mise en scene. The lower key Insomnia and Batman Begins are his best. It's easier to forgive slopping plotting in his smaller scale stuff — when it's Inception-sized, the fuck ups are too glaring to forgive

JD

This is a fairly divisive issue , From a personal standpoint I would certainly prefer the most promising directors of this generation make their own films that are original (or as much as one can be), as the Tarantinos and PTA's have managed in recent years . That said, it would be nice to see some franchises with some depth in a similar vein to Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy rather than just a regular whore like Mike Bay being commisssioned to direct every major franchise but this, in an ideal world come without sacrificing of at least some original productions. I take exception in case of Ben Affleck and that I can be included in the most promising filmmakers bracket, I'm certainly not convinced that he can be considered a great or even very good filmmaker yet, Gone Baby Gone certainly showed promise as a morality tale but failed to coax a convincing performance from any of the leads (coughs Michelle Monaghan and you too Casey Affleck), Again with The Town the storyline was similar to Mann's Heat and overly self-indulgent but in this case captured a kind of gritiness and realism that Heat probably didn't have. There is a pattern emerging with Affleck that he manages solid aspects of a film but fails to deliver a complete one, Argo is the same it still has a Syriana feel (despite what the Playlist keep insisting) without the multilayered storyline and makes some interesting points about the political nature of a hostage situation and I suppose more emotionally driven charcaterizations as well as an excellent role for Bryan Cranston but falls short of its aim to be both character driven and deliver an intellectual politically charged thriller.

hg

what kind of crap is this?

super hero movies are not rom coms or some crap

they are respected characters with ton of depth and humanity and very deep character with strong storylines with years and years of mythos

why should'nt respected film makers make these properties

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