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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  • LeightonJones

    How did you find out the real reasons for Wright leaving?

    • HolyFranchiseBatman!

      All we know is creative differences, which was in the official statement from Wright and Marvel.

      • LeightonJones

        But the thrust of the article is anti-marvel suggesting they aren’t allowing directors to direct. We don’t know details, maybe Wright was at fault….?

  • Dave f

    All of the movies so far have been really entertaining comic book movies. Exactly what they should be. I can understand that there would have to be certain rules for all chosen directors to play by in order to conform to a cohesive universe. Just makes sense. We couldn’t and shouldn’t have movies of such different style, tone and/or experience that it damages the overall universe in my opinion. I don’t mind who helms them as long as they’re good movies that add to the franchise. So far so good.

    • The Walking Cuban

      Agreed, and so did a lot of geeks until yesterday. I’m pretty sure I’ll still like it. There are only a few CBMs I find hard to watch: Green Lantern, daredevil, the ghost riders, punisher war zone, blade 3. This will be better no doubt. But a change of director is a change of direction, in many ways, and there will be fallout

  • Ash Simp

    I wonder if the argument is over a plot point that is absolutely massive in terms of the MCU. If Marvel needed this event to happen but Wright didn’t want it in his film because it messes with his characters. Recently Marvel have been all about shaking things up.

  • Luke Owen

    I really don’t think it was a “creative difference” split. After 8 years of working together, you’d think that Marvel would know what he was looking to do. If anything (and from what some “sources” have said) is that Wright was taking too much time getting the film ready and they feared they wouldn’t make the release date – which has already been pushed back once.

    Marvel is a machine that has a 20-year plan, they can’t let those stones go out of place or it messes up the rest of their releases. So in a way you’re right, but I don’t think they’re just looking for “yes men”.

  • Wolf0PHL

    You missed Shane Black…

    • I did. But he fits into the same model. A directorial novice in the world of big budget filmmaking who lacks a clear and defining vision.

      • Tom

        Lol yeah, the Lethal Weapon films were small budget movies. Wha?? Also, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a truly unique and well directed movie.

        • huge difference between writing them and directing them. i liked Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but Black isn’t a director with a long directorial resume. The thing about Marvel is that they do the same thing all these other franchises do: Hunger Games, Divergent, Harry Potter… they get directors who are solid but they don’t seek out unique voices. unique voices don’t work in the marvel model

          • Mike H

            If you truly want to argue that Iron Man 3 was not a true Shane Black film, right down to the end credit graphics, just because it doesn’t fit your argument, then the argument is lost. Iron Man 3 was almost Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 2, that’s how much Shane Black it was.

          • mjlowe

            Warner Brothers hired Alfonso Cuaron to make a Harry Potter movie, and would have had him back for the next were it not for the tight turnaround that would have required post and pre-production to overlap.

            By and large your argument holds true, but just because Black didn’t have a long resume doesn’t mean Iron Man 3 wasn’t uniquely his, Black does have a long-established signature voice as a writer and that was all over IM3, something the earlier IM movies were sorely missing.

  • Tom

    Thank goodness Marvel’s made the choices they have regarding directors. It’s allowed the MCU saga to remain cohesive and consistent. Anghus here seems to think being a team player is a bad thing.

    Oliver Stone directing Punisher?? Sure, if you want the most drawn out and boring Punisher movie ever lol.

    Bottom line? Marvel Studios will soon be the highest grossing franchise in movie history, so they know what they’re doing. If they were consistently producing dull films, then Anghus here would be right. But they produce GREAT movies, that make hundreds of millions of dollars. Marvel knows what’s best regarding their characters, not some overrated, snooty, “visionary” director. Sounds like Anghus wants another Ang Lee Hulk!

    Keep up the good work with director choices, Marvel. And Anghus; don’t quit your day job!

    • Tom, i get what you’re saying. If you read my last article about the marvel movie method, i basically call it an unstoppable machine who has figured out a successful formula. It’s more about how the auteur not fitting into their model and why Wright was inevitably expunged.

      • hesgotthewrightstuff

        I tend to agree with you remarks on this subject, but I feel like you’re only arguing for arguments’ sake. Their formula has worked thus far and as long as they don’t have any serious pitfalls people will continue to pay to see these movies.

        There is no room for a visionary director because the “vision” has already been conceived long before the director is hired, that’s why they pen the scripts first. I think the creative differences line is crap cut from the veil of Marvel upholding Wright as an accredited director. In this case, which is not the standard Marvel production, Wright has been attached from the beginning. So you mean to tell me that MArvel and Wright couldn’t work out their creative differences in nearly a decade? What a maroon.

        I think the answer is simply this, Wright was TAKING TOO LOOOOONG!! AAoU has been filming for like 2 months with set pics released and new costumes revealed. Wright hasn’t even gotten the production in ATL off the ground. Marvel has a well-oiled machine cranking out millions on millions of dollars and they can’t stand for someone to get in their way, no matter how “artistic” they may potentially be.

  • Vos_L

    “But the truth is Marvel seems more interested in brand management than
    crafting a unique cinematic experience with each release.” Obviously. They have been building a cohesive cinematic universe, not a collection of unique standalone movies. Leaving aside the fact that you have no idea what actually happened here other than bare rumors, I don’t see any problem with their approach. If you want some art-house movie, then there are plenty of those floating around for you. The big name directors have created their share of flops. There’s no guarantee of success there. The reason their movies have been good is because Marvel calls the shots. It’s their property and, for once, we have a studio interested in developing their property with respect for the source material and the characters. Yes, I’m looking at you Fox and Sony. Also, they are making multiple movies and signing people to multi-film deals. They are giving shots to talented people who aren’t necessarily big names because could you imagine if Spielberg directed 3 Avengers movies….how much money do you think he’d be demanding for Avengers 3? It’s called smart business.

  • Laura

    This is honestly sad. If you hire great film directors use their talents for goodness sake stop treating them like students just learning. People act like it being coherent and formulaic is great, its not it basically ruins creativity and imagination and films especially superhero ones shouldn’t do that. Wright is a fantastic director and its a shame we never get to see “his,” version of Ant-Man not “theirs.”

  • Mr Anonymous

    The “Marvel Model” doesn’t bother me. It makes it feel like one coexistant universe. I would prefer a unique voice in a original film. It would be okay if these properties were in different cinematic universes but for them all to fit together you need a strong vision as Kevin Feige and the Marvel team have. They are the real creators of this cinematic universe not the directors.

    • Kbots

      The MCU needs players who understand long term goals, not singular ones. There is a distinct reason why the directors with the most success here have had heavy television backgrounds, they understand the importance of both being a part of a whole idea but also putting their own flavor in. I’ve been excited about this formula for ages, it allows a level of continuity unmatched by no one in film right now. This is something you would normally only see in television, and to be able to see it in film at this level is incredible.