My former professor at the University of Southern California, Drew Casper, divided directors into at least two categories: artists (a.k.a. auteurs), and craftsmen, people who made very watchable films that nonetheless stopped short of actual art. Today’s topic: what sort of directors do we really want directing comic-book movies? Auteurs, craftspersons, or something else?
This question has new relevance today, after a weekend in which DC/Warner Bros. crash-landed its second major superhero movie of 2016 with a Rotten Tomatoes score of under 30%. After Batman v Superman was universally loathed, everyone figured Suicide Squad had to be better. But it isn’t. And DC/WB is known as more auteur-friendly than Marvel/Disney. So what do we need for better films? More art, or less?
Obviously, this isn’t a new topic. It began in earnest 19 years ago, when aint-it-cool-news.com, a brand-new website, helped to destroy one of Hollywood’s two 1997 films that cost more than $100,000,000 to make. Harry Knowles’ site rightly took Batman and Robin to task for “Bat-nipples,” actor mugging, a kids-TV version of expressionism, and director Joel Schumacher cartoon-izing whatever gravitas Tim Burton had established with the franchise. Knowles helped steer Batman and Robin into a box office iceberg, quite unlike 1997’s other nine-figure-budgeted film, Titanic.
One lesson from Titanic’s success – one that much of Hollywood was slow to hear – was that you didn’t really need stars (Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s pre-Titanic cumulative box office – total earned by all of their films – was less than $75 million) if you cast actors who were right for the part and you maintained a generally respectful approach to the material (no Bat-nipples). This lesson was heeded by no one so much as the producers making the franchise-beginning films for The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, X-Men, and Spider-Man. Partly, the studios were making a virtue of necessity: with the special effects budgets rocketing skyward, they couldn’t afford to headline a Hanks or Cruise or Roberts or Clooney or Pitt, nor pay a Spielberg or Zemeckis or Scorsese or other A-list director.
Right, I know Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer, and Sam Raimi are A-list now. Google their pre-2000 box office totals: you could barely afford craft services with those returns. After the turn of the century, the studios looked at so-called “Indiewood” – the fertile Miramax-Sundance-led independent cinema of the 1990s – and made superhero-film offers to its best, brightest, and best-budgeted. Many, like Tarantino, Fincher, Soderbergh, the Coens, Aronofsky, Jonze, Russell, and both major Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas), turned them down. They preferred that their oeuvre carry more of their own signatures, less that of pre-existing corporate properties. Richard Donner and Tim Burton, who were now considered auteurs in retrospect for their work on the first two Superman and Batman films (respectively), wanted no part in coming back to superhero-based material.
Ang Lee made Hulk in 2003, with mixed results. Guillermo Del Toro made Blade II in 2002 and Hellboy in 2004, with more mixed results. Mark Steven Johnson, a director who’d made the anodyne Simon Birch in 1998, brought the same meh-ness to Daredevil in 2003 and Ghost Rider in 2007. Tim Story, coming off two no-budget 1990s films and the pleasant, modest Barbershop of 2002, made the average-ish (RT-score and box office) Fantastic Four films of 2005 and 2007. Singer made Superman Returns in 2006, which was hardly bad, but Warner Bros. was disappointed in its less-than-super box office. Warners may have changed its own standards after having struck gold in 2005 when one of the Indiewood directors, Christopher Nolan, who happened to wear a suit every day on set, merged indie and corporate sensibilities perfectly in Batman Begins. Then Marvel, in its first at-bat as its own studio, hired Indiewooder Jon Favreau, who broke into the business with Swingers (1996), to make Iron Man, and that’s when shit got real.
Eight years later, we’re still living with the results of summer 2008 (thanks Obama!), when Iron Man shocked the industry by surging past $300 million domestic, and two months later The Dark Knight double-shocked the same industry by almost doubling that number. The same summer featured sophomore efforts for both Hellboy and Hulk, the former an auteur-driven sequel by Del Toro, the latter an anti-auteur, formulaic reboot by Transporter and Transporter 2 director Louis Letterier. Each of their box office totals failed to get within $10 million of their budgets; their combined total was less than The Dark Knight made in its first ten days.
2008’s two tales of tech-fetishist billionaire playboys featured ensembles of quality, awards-nominated actors, and heavily engaged contemporary issues. But TDK and IM were as different as New York and Los Angeles. One self-destructed its Orwellian surveillance tech; the other expressed confidence that its fancy new weapons of Good would beat back its old weapons of Evil. One was dark in tone and sensibility (the word “dark” is in the title), not unlike The Matrix, The Crow, or even Fight Club, featuring a crisp editing style (hint: cut every four seconds), clever shot selection, and consistently surprising dialogue and exploration of themes. Iron Man was far more sunlit, misogynist (go back and watch the objectification), light-on-its-feet, humor-driven (though to be clear, The Dark Knight has plenty of jokes not told by the Joker) and most importantly for this discussion, workmanlike. Favreau may wish to be seen as an auteur like Robert Altman (he said as much), but the finished products of Iron Man and Iron Man 2 bear no particular auteurish sensibility. They’re what Casper meant by craft.
Of course, by 2008, social media was also in full swing and Comic Con had become a required stop for anyone and everyone making a comic-book-based film. Then and now, everyone wanted/wants to please the fans, but not everyone can decide exactly how best to do that. Hiring an auteur seems brilliant when the result is The Dark Knight, less brilliant when the box-office turns out like Hellboy II. Hiring a non-auteur seems brilliant when the result is Iron Man, less brilliant when you get a so-so The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. In 2008, Warner Bros. probably thought it well split the difference having hired Zack Snyder for Watchmen; Snyder’s only two features, Dawn of the Dead (2004) and 300 (2006), were recognizably artistic but as testosterone-driven and audience-friendly as a new male puppy. Then Watchmen came out in March 2009 and earned $108 million domestic against its $130 million budget. One thing we know today is that if Snyder keeps making films like Batman v Superman, he may wind up invalidating auteurish superhero films all by himself. But it doesn’t help that he rallied DC/WB to hire David Ayer, who made the terrific End of Watch in 2012, only to entirely mishandle Suicide Squad.
We all love Joss Whedon, but his approach to directing the first two Avengers films (2012, 2015) was more about keeping all the hero plates spinning – granted, that’s no mean feat – than about making artistic statements. Hollywood would no doubt love to hire the next Tim Miller, an award-winning short-maker who turned Deadpool into a sensation this year; but it’s not always easy to figure out who that is. Fingers and bracelets crossed for Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman in 2017. Even if the studios were now willing to cough up the cash, the major, award-winning directors that your friends have heard of, with the exception of Ben Affleck, are currently treating comic-book films like a storm that’s going to blow over. And they may not be wrong. Sure, superheroes have owned the 2010s, but there are reasons to think that comic-based material will grow thin or overworked by the 2020s.
Internet commenters make it sound like the contest is between DC vs. Marvel films, and there’s truth to that, but the real contest is between Nolan-emulating films and more Favreau-esque efforts. Nolan’s films are obviously going to be remembered better in 40 years (The Dark Knight is the only movie – not Star Wars or LOTR or anything else – to be in both imdb and boxofficemojo’s all-time Top 15 lists), but his style is a lot harder to duplicate; Favreau’s is easier. And that’s really the question: assuming there is only one Christopher Nolan, as we look ahead to the 2020s, as we hope to see films that are worth a second or third viewing, what do we want? Nolan-esque, or Favreau-esque? Should Hollywood hire artists or craftspersons?
You’d like to answer that it depends on the material, but that doesn’t always solve the problem. We might sit here all day comparing Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic/imdb scores and box office rankings, but we still won’t know quite how to bake the next cake. Was Ant-Man (2015) better or worse because, after a year of development, it fired the relatively artistic Edgar Wright (Atonement) for the less idiosyncratic Peyton Reed? Ava Duvernay, who is an artist, turned down Black Panther precisely because of the fear of having to make too many artistic compromises to Marvel; Ryan Coogler, having made the excellent Fruitvale Station and Creed, took over instead, and we’ll just have to see. Personally I’d love to see something artistic that isn’t over-dark.
I don’t have an answer here, but as someone who loves artfully made blockbusters, I am fascinated at the ongoing tension. ‘Nuff said.