The Marvel Movie Model: Auteurs Need Not Apply

Anghus Houvouras on the Marvel Movie Model….

Edgar-Wright-Ant-ManEdgar Wright quitting Ant-Man over ‘creative differences’ might be the most predictable cinematic event of 2014.  A lot of people saw this coming, and frankly it’s a bit disappointing.  But let’s be real honest here: Marvel doesn’t want auteurs or unique voices helming their films. They’re not looking for great, passionate directors who will fight to see their particular vision brought to life.   They’re looking for line towing, rank and file directors who play by the rules and fall into line with a single snap of the fingers.  Marvel established a principle behind their creative teams that almost falls into the strategies of sabermetrics highlighted in the movie Moneyball: if you can’t afford (or want to pay) big name talent, you go look for those players that can get on base.

That aptly describes the vast majority of the directors brought in to handle Marvel’s intellectual properties…

Jon Favreau

Marvel’s first choice for launching phase one was a director who’s acting pedigree was far more accomplished than his cinematic efforts. Favereau was a conventional choice because his films were mostly innocuous family fare like Elf and Zathura, but he had a lot of credibility for the independent films he wrote and produced like Swingers and Made. Favreau had a cool factor, even if his films didn’t.  Iron Man was a massive success which would feel more earned if Iron Man 2 hadn’t been such an awful affair.   While Favreau is a good director, he’s not carved out much of an identity for himself.  What’s interesting is that he’s the only Marvel movie director who directed the second installment of a franchise.  Whedon will be the second when Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out in 2015.

Louis Leterrier

Unleashed.  Transporter 2.  Clash of the Titans.  These are not the films of a master craftsman.   The Incredible Hulk was an average film by an average (or less than) director.  Working with Edward Norton gave them a taste of what working with extremely passionate artists yields: friction.  And they’re not interested.


Kenneth Branagh

Certainly a talented guy, but hardly the top name in blockbuster direction.  Everyone felt like he was a fine choice to bridge the mystical Asgardian realms with the terrestrial Marvel Universe because SHAKESPEARE!  That was pretty much the logic everyone applied to the choice.  Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing… this was a classically trained thespian who could handle the more theatrical elements of the character.  Branagh is certainly an experienced talent in front of and behind the camera.  The fact that he didn’t return for the sequel speaks volumes about the Marvel Movie model.

Joe Johnston

Everyone was thrilled with the choice of Johnston to direct Captain America: The First Avenger because of the massive geek appreciation for 1990’s Rocketeer.  Immediately you had the feeling you knew what kind of movie you were going to get.  Johnston hadn’t been remotely interesting in some time.  It was difficult to argue his skill set, but Joe Johnston isn’t a name you mention when you’re using the phrase ‘visionary director’.  Not a bad choice, but a fairly obvious one given the source material.  And, like most of the others, he didn’t return for a second outing.

the-avengers-joss-whedon-captain-america-shield-imageJoss Whedon

It’s hard to bag on Whedon, who was universally celebrated by the geek community when he was picked to helm The Avengers.  Whedon is someone with perspective, but was far better known as a writer/producer who had directed a lot of television and the Serenity feature film. Whedon was obviously a good choice for Avengers, but he was thrust into a film with a budget eight times higher than his previous feature.  As a director, he hadn’t yet established himself.  Still, he’s the closest thing they had to an artist with a consistent tone, voice, and identity.  Even if that identity was established in other mediums on a significantly smaller scale.

Alan Taylor/The Russo Brothers

Both Taylor and the Russo Brothers came from a similar pedigree: years of television.  Taylor had directed episodes of nearly every revered TV series of the last two decades including Oz, Homicide, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones.   The Russo Brothers came from a comedy background working on TV shows like Arrested Development and Community.  When they were announced as the creative team behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier, my first thought was a marketing title card that would read: “From the directors who  brought you You, Me, & Dupree“.  Taylor won’t be returning for a third Thor movie. Right now the Russo Brothers are slated to take on Captain America 3.   We’ll see if that holds true.

James Gunn

How can you not like the idea of the guy who brought us Slither and Super delivering Marvel’s riskiest release to date? This is the only choice of all the Marvel directors that I would call inspired because of his low budget roots and commitment to character.  James Gunn makes movies that have a unique perspective.  You can feel his stamp on a movie.

After selecting Gunn and Edgar Wright, I was starting to wonder if Marvel was thinking about bringing in some more inspired choices for their Phase Two and Phase Three films.  That perhaps there was a place in the Marvel universe for some of our favorite behind-the-lens talents.  But the truth is Marvel seems more interested in brand management than crafting a unique cinematic experience with each release.  Wright is a filmmaker with a specific style and every one of his films feels like he’s had his hand on every part of the process: from conception to the final edit.  He’s the kind of unique voice that Marvel seems to have little interest in promoting.  Even Gunn, who I adore, is someone with limited big budget experience and is probably far more malleable when working with a massive multinational corporation.

The truth is, Marvel isn’t looking for filmmakers to play in their toy box.  There’s a twenty year plan mapped out, and they’re looking for people capable of fostering their preordained vision of their cinematic universe.  That means the hopes of a David Cronenberg taking on Doctor Strange, Oliver Stone directing The Punisher, or even Edgar Wright on Ant-Man is something that can’t happen.

They’re not looking for auteurs, they’re looking for directors that can take orders.

Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter.

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