At first, it felt like a fluke: Filmmakers working outside the studio system, telling original stories made on their own terms, lured into the superhero arena where final cut doesn’t exist. In the modern era, it began with Marc Webb, snatched up by Sony to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel after his Sundance breakout “(500) Days of Summer.” Within a couple of years, filmmakers ranging from James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) to Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) to Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”) catapulted beyond personal cinematic pursuits to lend their talents to the comic book craze.
That approach yielded mixed results for the “Star Wars” universe, which reportedly took “Rogue One” away from director Gareth Edwards and fired original “Solo” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, but the phenomenal popularity of “Black Panther” elevated yet another Sundance discovery, 31-year-old Ryan Coogler, to Spielbergian heights. That movie arrived just a few months after “Spider-Man: Homecoming” brought “Cop Car” genre director Jon Watts into the big leagues. There’s more to come: “Avengers: Infinity War” ends by teasing “Captain Marvel,” the blockbuster debut from “Half Nelson” co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
As Marvel combs through agency lists of promising filmmakers and more young filmmakers turn to Marvel gigs, the trend risks calcifying into tradition — or, worse, a rite of passage. It was only a matter of time before the speculation wheel landed on British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, best known for dark comedies like “A Field in England,” “Sightseers,” and “Free Fire” that include fun, fast-paced action and zany twists. Last week, reports circulated that Wheatley had been offered a “big Marvel film,” but the filmmaker shot down the story with a succinct email to IndieWire. “You heard it here first,” he wrote. “It’s totally not true.”
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And just as “Infinity War” saw its first box office numbers, reports circulated about a “Black Widow” spinoff that had Marvel meeting a range of women filmmakers. Among them was Chloé Zhao of “The Rider,” which won a top prize at Cannes and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her an understated look at a South Dakota bronco rider. It doesn’t suggest anything like the ass-kicking spy played by Scarlett Johansson in six Marvel movies.
For now, Zhao fans don’t have to worry about an abrupt change of direction. A representative for the Chinese-American filmmaker told IndieWire that for the time being, Zhao was too busy with another project to commit to the Marvel gig. Other sources close to the meetings said the studio met with a range of women directors with indie backgrounds, including Turkey’s Deniz Gamze Erguven (“Mustang”), but decided “to go back to the drawing board” and reassess the approach. (Marvel declined to comment.)
As Marvel’s ambitions continue to expand, so do reports of rising filmmakers stepping into the arena. The opportunities are out there — but even now, with some success stories on the table, not every talented director should take the paycheck.
Once upon a time, filmmakers who broke out on the festival circuit could take a half step up. Among the more famous examples: After capturing a generation with “Slacker,” Richard Linklater scored a Universal gig directing “Dazed and Confused” in 1993. He made the iconic high school movie for $6.9 million and it flopped theatrically. It wasn’t a huge loss for the studio or Linklater, who got the chance to work within studio boundaries while developing an original idea. In today’s tentpole-driven times, opportunities for middle-class commercial filmmaking are virtually extinct: A filmmaker who makes a compelling debut will be tapped for a blockbuster, or not at all.
For some, Marvel could provide an ideal platform for visionary directors who want to toy with massive resources without risking everything. With the massive world-building that ties each movie into the next, one bad experience can’t tarnish the whole show. Some directors embrace the opportunity: Taika Waititi, who forged a comedic filmmaker persona with “Boy” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” made a seamless transition with “Thor: Ragnarok,” fusing his goofy narrative instincts with the broader commercial agenda.
“At the very beginning, I was thinking, ‘Do I want to ruin my track record?’” Waititi told me last fall. “Then I realized, ‘What have I really built?’ I’ve done four films. Here’s an opportunity to make a movie superhero movie, to play with some cool, big toys, to do something that I never dreamed I could do. I figured I may never get an opportunity like this again.”
However, Waititi’s ebullient, crowd-pleasing style seemed like a natural fit for a filmmaking challenge designed to please mass audiences. Zhao, whose “The Rider” gains traction at the box office as it expands across the country, makes gentle, character-driven stories about hidden corners of the American frontier (among her projects is an Amazon-produced biopic about Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal). She could juggle the mayhem of a Marvel production schedule, but that doesn’t mean she should.
For many writer-directors, the most attractive possibility after making one lauded movie is to make another one just like it. When it comes to studio gigs, “Hereditary” director Ari Aster told me, “I’m not interested. It’s fun to get these offers, but I’ve got so many films I want to make.”
Other filmmakers see the challenge as a threat to the creative momentum they’ve only begun to discover. “It all becomes about how much movement I have,” said Ana Lily Amirpour in an interview with IndieWire shortly after her black-and-white vampire drama “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” came out in 2014. “I can’t be constricted.” Instead of hiring an agent and lining up a commercial gig, she went out to the desert and made cannibal love story “The Bad Batch” off another original script.
“I have control of all parts,” she said at the time. “I’m happy to be in that situation. It’s not about if it’s this much money or that much money … It becomes three to five years of your life. Do I really want to suffer? What’s the point? It’s gotta mean something to me.”