-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.
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