Special Features

Depressing Thought: Directing a Marvel Movie Does Little For Your Career

-Who the hell do you think are?

We’re the guys who made two Captain America movies!

-And that’s supposed to matter to us, um, why?

That’s roughly how Joe and Anthony Russo’s proposed partnership with 20th Century Fox fell through. According to Variety, the Russos’ new, currently unnamed production company spent at least three months hammering out a co-financing/distribution deal with Fox. Once the Russos finish the two Avengers movies they’ve been shooting back-to-back they plan on moving right into directing and producing other movies and TV shows, with an eye toward using their new industry clout to turn their company into a talent incubator. Their downtown L.A. production office should be ready and fully staffed by January.


They’ll just have to do so without Fox’s money and guarantee of distribution. That’s because, according to an insider, the Russos sought James Cameron/Steven Spielberg-level money and profit splits from Fox, clearly thinking they had the leverage. After all, their two Marvel movies grossed $1.8 billion worldwide, and their next two will make even more. But what does that even mean in an industry which has long praised Kevin Feige, his post-production wizards and marketing department for Marvel’s success while looking at the directors of each individual film side-eyed and thinking, “I don’t know how much you actually had to do with this.” Drive a hard bargain because you directed a Marvel movie?

Of course, to the hardcore film fans the contributions of the directors are easily identifiable. Iron Man 3 is clearly a Shane Black movie just as The First Avenger is a Joe Johnston movie, Guardians a James Gunn movie, Ragnarok a Taika Waititi movie and so on. It’s the movies that don’t stand out, like Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, where you wonder exactly how many people were sitting with the director in the editing room.

To the outsider, though, they’re all just variations on the familiar, fun Marvel formula.


Either way, only 14 people can officially say they’ve directed a Marvel Studios movie, and that’s still a pretty cool accomplishment. Right? Just think of how many people saw that Marvel movie or, in some cases, movies they made.

The Atlantic begs to differ, arguing these directors aren’t parlaying their temporary success into anything interesting:

Superhero films used to offer directors a gateway into making artistically riskier, less commercially calculated movies. Guillermo del Toro pivoted from Blade II and Hellboy to Pan’s Labyrinth. Christopher Nolan leveraged his Batman movies to pursue more daring efforts like The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. Yes, these filmmakers often direct expensive sequels, as Tim Burton did after the success of 1989’s Batman. But then they all moved on to bolder, weirder things.

Marvel’s directors, for the most part, have not—and when they’ve tried, it hasn’t worked out for them.

For example, Jon Favreau went from Iron Man 2 to Cowboys & Aliens (which bombed) to Chef (which allegorically comments on his experience making Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens) and then back to Disney (The Jungle Book). Joe Johnston’s only post-First Avenger movie went straight to video. Kenneth Branagh followed up Thor with a DOA franchise reboot (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) before finding refuge at Disney (Cinderella) and getting Fox to take a chance on Murder on the Orient Express. His Thor replacement, Alan Taylor, struck out hard after The Dark World with Terminator: Genisys and ended up back where Marvel found on him, i.e., somewhere in Ireland directing Game of Thrones.

Their immediate failure told the rest of the industry that simply hiring the Marvel directors to come make a blockbuster for them doesn’t equal success.


Joss Whedon jumped ship to WB for the promise of directing a Batgirl movie and then got roped into salvaging Justice League, turning him into a cog in the machine. Shane Black’s post-Iron Man 3 movie, The Good Guys, bombed, unjustly I might add, and now he’s returned to old hits, first unsuccessfully trying to reboot The Monster Squad before moving on to rebooting Predator. Doctor Strange‘s Scott Derickson is moving to TV, attached to direct TNT’s Snowpiecer adaptation.

Others, like the Russos, Homecoming’s Jon Watts, Ant-Man’s Peyton Reed and Guardians’ James Gunn, have simply stuck with Marvel and returned for sequels, committing to finishing the stories they started and probably rightfully fearing they’ll never find a better working situation. If Marvel likes what you’re doing and you can get your work done on time then they’ll let you experiment in ways which would get you fired from a Star Wars movie.

Edgar Wright might disagree.

How come none of them, though, seem to be pivoting from this to making their Ed Wood (Burton’s post-Batman Returns film) or The Prestige (Nolan after Batman Begins)?

Because that’s just not how the industry works anymore. Again, The Atlantic: “But this pattern is also indicative of the artistic narrowness demanded by the age of the franchise film in Hollywood. The old-fashioned principle of ‘one for them, one for me’—by which a filmmaker tackles a more commercial project to write the check for their more esoteric follow-up—has largely vanished.”

Or has it? Does Taika Waititi get to make a What We Do in the Shadows sequel without Ragnarok’s success?

Maybe. Maybe not. But he’s said, without hesitating, he’ll make a Ragnarok sequel if asked. And why not? Making a Marvel movie is a dream job (David Fincher wildly disagrees) as long as you have realistic expectations for the kinds of doors it will open for you and can somehow both stay on brand while upending it just enough to seem unique. As the Russos learned, just don’t go asking for Spielberg/Cameron money afterward.

What do you think? Do you reject the entire premise since anyone who gets to direct a Marvel movie is doing something pretty great with their career? Have Favreau, Branagh, and Taylor’s post-Marvel bombs kind of ruined it for those that come after? Are the Russos still doing pretty good for themselves even without Fox giving them Spielberg/Cameron money? Or are you more of the David Fincher “there’s nothing artistically nourishing about making a Marvel movie” mindset? Let me know in the comments.

Sources: Variety, Atlantic


  1. I think that there are few directors which can get people into the theatres on their name alone…there is naturally Nolan, and Spielberg still has a certain drawn, but even Scorsese isn’t a box office guarantee anymore, and I am ready to bet that Cameron is about to fall flat on his face. Hollywood is totally correct to NOT pay for the name, but only for the expertise.

    When it comes to the Russo brothers I am actually not quite sure how much of the success of The Winter Soldier and Civil War is their accomplishment. They have done well, no question, but one shouldn’t forget that the Captain America franchise is the only one in the MCU which has been written by the same writing team from start to finish. It is just hard to tell how much of those movies is the result of the right talents being mixed together by Marvel and how much is based on the Russo brothers. For them it would be better to either stick with Disney a little bit longer, so that they can learn more (I did have a few technical issues with Civil war…nothing which ruined the movie, but I think a better editing and less shaky cam would have made the movie even better), or to do a smaller, low-risk movie project.

    James Gunn is a different matter, partly because he wrote large chunks of GotG himself, and partly because he has a distinctive style. Same with Waititi. But even with them the studios shouldn’t trust on their name being a big box office draw. Just like people come to see Iron Man and not RDJ, they are watching Marvel movies and not the newest Waititi movie. Those two have the potential to become a name drawn, but only for middle-budget comedies, not for big budget blockbuster.

    But honestly, is that really such a bad thing? If they do good for Marvel but feel they need a break, I am sure Disney will finance them a pet project for a good price if they offer a convincing pitch.

    1. ” Those two have the potential to become a name drawn, but only for middle-budget comedies, not for big budget blockbuster.

      But honestly, is that really such a bad thing?”

      Agreed, and it’s only really a bad thing if you’re stuck wishing the film industry would go back to being the way it used to be. It’s not going to. IP and brands and all that diminish the marketable impact of the actual filmmakers. We’re missing out on interesting movies they might have made in-between superhero movies, but, screw it, we’re making up for it with too much good TV to even keep up with.

      1. IP aren’t everything either…remember, Ghost in the Shell flopped, as did Bladerunner, The Mummy and a number of other movies which relied on an IP. I think the main selling point is nowadays quality. For example a studio which keeps producing reliable good movies (all major Disney subsidiaries) have a good shot to get people in theatres, directors who keep delivering quality and variation (Nolan…though I am personally not a fan of his work), actors who have a fanbase and are careful with the projects they pick, those are draws – provided the reviews are good. Honestly, I can’t quite be sad about quality being the main selling point, even if it sometimes results in genuinely good movies falling off the bandwagon (Nice Guys) nevertheless, just because they have bad timing or a not particularly convincing marketing campaign.

        I am actually optimistic that we are currently slowly transitioning into an era of creativity…sometimes hidden under a brand name, but creativity nevertheless.

      2. “I am actually optimistic that we are currently slowly transitioning into an era of creativity…sometimes hidden under a brand name, but creativity nevertheless.”

        This year’s box office seems to back that up, thus the industry’s scapegoat war with RottenTomatoes for daring to actually be honest when a movie sucks.

      3. They will have to learn that they can’t put the genie back into the bottle. Sure, they can delay the press releases, but that will just make the people interested in the movie in question nervous – see Justice League.

        As I said, I am still waiting for the industry to wise up and take a close look at the work of successful authors. Not the Fifty Shades of Grey ones, but those who have a solid body of work and the fanbase to go with it. (And if someone discovers CJ Cherryh while doing it, it would be great…honestly, movie adaptations of her book would be exactly what the audience is looking for).

        But then the studios haven’t even quite gotten yet that the audience is tired of grim and gritty and angsty reflections, but really, really needs some hope and optimism.

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