Film News

Ava DuVernay & Black Panther: Not Every Director Is Right for Marvel’s Producer-Driven Model

Ava DuVernay will not be directing Black Panther, Marvel’s first superhero movie with a black central character.  She told Essence, “I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be. Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do […] In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn’t see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences late.”  To this point, DuVernay has made a small documentary, crafted “two stories of women finding strength while enduring the full spectrum of tormenting emotions (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere)” and “a stirring portrait of a civil rights movement featuring several well-rounded, real world anchors (Selma).”  Her newly created African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement suggests a continued commitment to the types of stories she’s been telling (like maybe something about 30-year-old activist Bree Newsom), although when asked in interviews she hasn’t dismissed the idea of making a comic book movie.  Marvel was just a bad fit for her.  An Ava DuVernay Black Panther movie would probably not be an Ava DuVernay movie; it would be a Marvel movie.

Or at least that’s the Marvel Studios myth: auteur’s need not apply because with Marvel it’s an old school studio system where the producers have the power, not the director. Warner Bros. recently took a shot at this viewpoint by referring to their DC movies as being “filmmaker-driven,” a transparent middle-finger to Kevin Feige and Marvel.  Feige has since fired back and pointed out how much Guardians of the Galaxy feels like a James Gunn movie or the first Avengers movie feels like a Joss Whedon movie. Somewhat bizarrely, those who have seen Ant-Man swear that it feels largely like an Edgar Wright movie even though his unique vision supposedly clashed with Marvel and led to their messy divorce during pre-production.  His replacement, Peyton Reed, apparently did a good Edgwar Wright impression.

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Edgar Wright

When Marvel gets it right, their movies manage to both feel like part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as a natural extension of a specific director’s voice, like how Iron Man 3 continues on from The Avengers but is clearly a Shane Black movie, featuring his trademark touches like the Christmas-time setting, buddy cop adventure of Robert Downey, Jr. and Don Cheadle in the finale and cavalier humor throughout. “Marvel has typically benefited from hiring interesting voices that most studios are overlooking (James Gunn, Anthony and Joe Russo), or that seemed to reach the pinnacle of their mainstream success years ago (Shane Black, Joe Johnston), or that you wouldn’t immediately imagine could be interested in spandex stories (Kenneth Branagh),” argued FSR, “They find someone who is perfect for the tone of each movie. Someone who buys into the Marvel program 100% but can still make room for their own personality.”

Not everyone can buy into the Marvel program 100%.  When relative newbie Jon Watts (The Clown, Cop Car) was hired as the new Spider-Man director after a protracted and exhausting interview process, Variety claimed he got the gig over the competitors mostly because he outlasted them and was more willing to work within the system. The two other finalists, Ted Melfi (St. Vincent) and Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies), “became frustrated with the process and worried this may carry over to the production and pulled themselves out” of contention.

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Patty Jenkins

We’ll have to see how it goes from here for Watts, whose Spider-Man movie will be a co-production between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures.  It was far less complicated for Patty Jenkins (Monster), who got the Thor: The Dark World gig after Natalie Portman campaigned for her.  She soon left, citing “creative differences,” but the inside word is that she was fired. As one talent rep told THR, “[Marvel] know what their brand is, and they stick to it. … The minute you deviate, like Patty Jenkins, they get rid of you.” Her replacement, Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones), did his job but he didn’t necessarily like it, telling Uproxx, “I’ve learned that you don’t make a $170 million movie with someone else’s money and not have to collaborate a lot. The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie. So, that is something I hope never to repeat and don’t wish upon anybody else.”  When Uproxx commented, “I did get the impression you were promoting a movie that you didn’t think was the movie you made,” he merely laughed and joked, “I’m hoping I wasn’t that candid?”

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Maybe Taylor could have used a little more studio interference on, Terminator: Genisys, the generally terrible part-sequel, part-prequel, part-reboot

While promoting Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russo Brothers told BirthMoviesDeath a different story, “Not only was this the easiest shoot we’ve ever had because of the support system but it was also the least amount of political interference and the most creative cooperation we’ve ever had. It was an amazing experience.” As TV directors most famous for Arrested Development and Community, they have a rich experience with molding their direction to someone else’s vision, making them perfect fits for the Marvel system. Hopefully it stays that way for them as they move forward with Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War 1 & 2, unlike Joss Whedon.  He once seemed so perfect for Marvel, but then came off especially grumpy and indelicate in what he had to say about the process of making Avengers: Age of Ultron, casting himself as someone who had gone to war to get the movie he wanted up on the screen.

This all goes back to what we’ve heard for a while now: Marvel’s movies are really made by the producers and perfected in post, an exec telling THR, “The approach is more like animation than live action — ‘We can tweak it.'” The director’s name on each film is what we notice, but the power comes from Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, the Marvel Studios co-president who runs physical production, and Victoria Alonso, the executive vice president of visual effects and post production. “They view the director as executing their vision,” a rival exec told THR. Another exec said Feige is often on set, viewing “the takes as the directors see the takes.”

Iron Man 3 PH: Zade Rosenthal © 2012 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2012 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Victoria Alonso on the Iron Man 3 set
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Kevin Feige on set with Robert Downey, Jr.
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Louis D’Esposito made his directorial debut with the Agent Carter One-Shot

It is probably very telling that in the making-of featurettes on the Iron Man 3 Blu-Ray, Feige, D’Esposito and Alonso are the primary talking heads explaining the production process. Director Shane Black is entirely absent, although he does have a fun DVD commentary with co-writer Drew Pearce.

BirthMoviesDeath recently implied that people like Shane Black and James Gunn had to really fight to keep their voices in Iron Man 3 and Guardians, “Marvel has a post-production process that is rigorous, and I have heard crazy stories about it, like the idea that they made Shane Black strip most of the jokes out of Iron Man 3 and that they went back and forth over how many to have. I’ve heard tales of similar joke-free screenings of Guardians of the Galaxy early in the process.”

Not that there’s anything really wrong with that. Producer-driven film environments have given us classics like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, and the brain trust that molds all of Pixar’s modern classics is legendary.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe demands a TV model in which Kevin Feige is like the showrunner and all the individual directors are there to make single episodes of a large series.  To some, this has translated to all of the movies adhering to the visual style set by cinematographer Matthew Libatique on the first Iron Man.  That ignores the visual flourishes directors have brought, such as Joe Johnston’s throwback style for the first Captain America and Kenneth Brannagh’s bombast and dutch angles in Thor.  Still, Age of Ultron‘s trippy dream sequences were a serious visual departure for the MCU, and Whedon told Empire that no one at Marvel really wanted them in the movie.

Ed_WoodYou have to go into a Marvel movie knowing what to expect. “If you’re a director and 75 percent of the script is good, you have to rely on them to finish and complete the movie,” one observer told THR. It’s like that scene in Ed Wood where Johnny Deep gleefully overlooks an error by declaring, “We’ll fix it in post!” even though he has very little grasp of what that actually means. The difference is that Marvel absolutely knows what it’s doing and usually does “fix it in post,” relying on re-shoots, which were plentiful for Thor: The Dark World, and Victoria Alonso’s post-production expertise.

A Black Panther movie would have been Ava DuVernay executing Marvel’s vision and she would have been under the thumb of Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito and Victoria Alonso. Some people thrive in that atmosphere. Others leave to make Terminator: Genisys.  DuVernay saved everyone needless drama and quit before she’d even been hired.  She’s free to do whatever she wants next, and if whoever Marvel hires to make Black Panther can work in their system it could be a great movie, although the tale of a reluctant prince in a fictional African nation (Wakanda) always makes me think of Coming to America:

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The royalty of the great nation of Zamunda

Sources: Essence, BirthMoviesDeath, THR, FSR

5 comments

  1. After piecing together what different people said, I think Marvel does the following: They pick a director, give him a script and some pointers and then let him run with it. And when he comes back and the result is good, as it was the case with The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel pats them on the back, rehires the director for the next movie and everyone is happy. But if they turn up with something which is somehow problematic, Marvel salvages what they can. It is known that what mostly changed about Thor 2 was the addition of more Loki and less Malekith. Well, Malekith is the worst villain in the MCU (and I don’t think that the additional scenes would have changed that) and the only thing good about this movie ARE the scenes which focus on Loki.

    And to be honest, I mostly can’t disagree with this approach. It allows the director to realize his vision while still ensuring that non of the movies ends up an outright bomb which derails the MCU or a franchise in it. It becomes problematic when the changes are not made based on “quality” but other thoughts – as it happened to Age of Ultron. I am not sure if the uncut version is really as much better as I suspect it to be – it could be more of this awful romance after all – but it is problematic to cut down a movie as complex as this in terms of the number of characters for no other reason than “we need a shorter running time”. (Thus said, Whedon should have known that Marvel will never go for a three hour movie and taken out something out of the script – preferable the romance – from the get go).

    The problem with the approach that for someone creative it is never easy when someone takes what you put together and changes it. But that is something you have to accept if you are working on a movie which is part of something bigger. But if you think that your work is sacrosanct, than Marvel is not the right studio for you.

    One thing for sure, it is simply wrong that the different movies of the MCU are all the same. They have different themes, different styles, and you certainly can see the hand of the director in question in it.

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