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Aaronofsky to Wrestle “The Wolverine”: Are Independent Directors the Best Choices for Superhero Cinema?

I’m going to be honest, I like it when relatively obscure film directors are handed the reigns to huge blockbuster properties. It seems that these “cult” film makers tend to bring something fresh from outside the studio system to their work. I might sound more than a bit pretentious, but it reminds me of the way that many of the blockbuster directors of the seventies – including Lucas and Spielberg – originated from outside the studio system before revolutionising it from inside. As a concept, would I rather watch Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins? No choice there. Any film with the name “Jerry Bruckheimer” attached or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man? Again, no choice. So, despite the fact that Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a critical failure and an infuriatingly (but, sadly, not unpredictably) disappointing film, am I alone in getting a little excited about Darren Aaronofsky’s The Wolverine.

Against all odds, I might be feeling pretty Jack(man)ed about this...

Let’s be honest. We don’t need another X-Men film. We have four already, and we’ll have a fifth next year. Aaronofsky’s “The Wolverine” (which is a bold title, anyway), will be the sixth – despite claims he’s distancing it from the rest of the franchise, it’s still the sixth X-Men film in twelve years. I’m not exactly convinced of the necessity for X-Men: First Class, although Matthew Vaughn has at least earned my interest. Still the very premise of giving Darren Aaronofsky, a director not known for embracing the mainstream, the reigns on the second film in a series spun-off from a trilogy seems inherently absurd enough to hold my interest. Knowing the way that Fox works – and their fear of anything different – I wonder if this project is doomed to collapse under the weight of a conflict between a brave and challenging director and a conservative studio system, but I am at the very least interested.

I think that when you compare the work of “outsider” superhero film makers to “insider” blockbuster directors, a clear trend emerges. For example, Bryan Singer – director of The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil – wouldn’t have been the first choice for an X-Men film adaptation, but he pretty much revived the entire subgenre. When Singer departed, the reigns were given to blockbuster director Brett Ratner – with experience on huge hits like Rush Hour – and he gave us the incredibly limp X-Men: Last Stand.

In fairness, perhaps these smaller directors have a bit of an “expiry” date, at which stage they have truly entered and been consumed by the system. Despite being small-scale filmmakers, neither Sam Raimi nor Bryan Singer were able to produce charming or engaging third superhero films. Raimi’s Spider-Man III pretty much led to the recent reboot, and Singer’s third superhero film was the incredibly disappointing Superman Returns. Maybe the thrill of playing with huge budgets had worn off by then, or maybe their way of thinking had been slowly eroded by years inside the studio system – either way, the magic was gone.

Even keeping that in mind, I’ll accept that an independent background doesn’t immediately mark a director for success with these comic book blockbusters. Gavin Hood, the director of the first Wolverine solo movie, came from a lauded international cinema background, having directed the acclaimed Tsotsi. In fairness, I’m not convinced that the failure of the film is entirely down to Hood – the production was dogged with problems, including executive meddling. Rumour has it that, at one point, the producers had a set repainted over a weekend so that Hood could not film follow-up sequences without reshooting bits he had already filmed (though the reshoots would include the notes from the producers, of course).

THIS is a little what I imagine an Aaronofsky Wolverine movie looking like...

Let’s look at the kind of films which were produced by directors who had worked inside the studio system producing big-budget summer releases before trying their hands at this comic book fare. Tim Story was responsible for the truly awful American remake of Taxi before taking the wheel (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the fairly boring Fantastic Four films. while Tim Burton was certainly an outside choice to direct the original Batman (and made a damn decent job of both movies in an era before comic book movies were a sensation), Joel Schumacher came to Batman Forever with a long list of brat pack movies (The Lost Boys, St. Elmo’s Fire and Flatliners) and bigger films like Falling Down or The Client.

I’m not saying that these directors were necessarily producing bad films – in fact, his Batman films are the lowlight of Joel Schumacher’s filmography – just that directors who come to these films with a host of blockbuster success or with a long and generic CV’s aren’t necessarily the best choices to handle these sorts of films.

Nobody could accuse Darren Aaronofsky of being a conventional choice – in fact I dismissed his involvement in the Wolverine sequel as a rumour until he actually started talking about himself. Requiem for a Dream isn’t exactly a mainstream movie and The Fountain may as well be abstract. The Wrestler may have given him name recognition (through his Oscar nominations), but I can’t see The Black Swan being a runaway success (though I am really looking forward to it). None of this screams “give him a mainstream comic book film now!” at me, and that’s why I’m so interested.

Jon Favreau had a string of small but well-loved films behind him (and one mainstream hit in Elf) before he landed Iron Man, but this story seems to remind me more of Nolan. Nolan wasn’t quite as mind-bendingly abstract as Aaronofsky, and – for better or worse – he seems to favour engaging with audiences rather than defiantly challenging them (though I think both directors include elements of both approaches in their work), but I think his track record leading into his first blockbuster reminds me of Aaronofsky. Nolan gave us the fascinatingly complex mind-game thriller Memento and offered something a tad more conventional with the Insomnia remake before being given the keys to the franchise. So maybe we’ve got another Christopher Nolan on our hands here, even though I think comparing directors like that somewhat diminishes their own individual styles.

Indeed, Aaronofsky was originally linked to the Batman reboot. I’m not convinced – on reading the details of his plan – that it would have worked, but it was definitely bold. However, appointing him as director as perhaps the most inessential sequel to the most inessential spin-off ever has managed to arouse a slight hint of interest in the film – perhaps a greater amount of interest than giving (500) Days of Summer director Marc Webb the job of directing the Spider-Man reboot.

Interestingly, applying this logic – the quirkier the choice for director, the better the film – to the range of summer films next year offers some interesting results. Joe Johnston’s work on The Wolfman, Jurassic Park III and The Rocketeer seem to make him a bland choice for Captain America: The First Avenger (and, indeed, his presence is the main reason for my declining interest in the film). Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, is an absolutely insane choice for a superhero blockbuster (an Oscar-nominated director of Shakespearean classics like Henry V and the most fantastic adaptation of Hamlet ever committed to film) , which may go a long way towards explaining my increasing interest in Thor.

However, this theory does give me reason to worry about Green Lantern. Martin Campbell isn’t exactly a small-scale indie film director. He saved Bond, twice – kickstarting the franchise with both GoldenEye and Casino Royale. The man knows how to make a big budget action film. So maybe I need to start worying about the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film (as if the CGI wasn’t reason enough).

I don’t know. Maybe there’s no rhyme or reason to this – maybe it’s random chance as to who makes a good director for these sorts of films – but I can’t help be see a trend amongst the more successful blockbuster directors. However, who knows? Maybe this time next year, with the glut of superhero films, we’ll have something different to say.

5 Responses

  1. I laughed about your comment about Kenneth Branagh! but I’ll be honest, He is one of the reasons I am very excited for Thor. His attention to detail and staying close to the author’s intended storyline is superb. IMO. While superhero genre is not his forte, I am willing to give it a shot. I hope he doesn’t miss the mark, But i don’t think he will. Great post, sir!

  2. interesting – it’s definitly a mixed bag and I think that’s why we see both sides of the spectrum given the opportunity to throw themselves into the medium.

    I wish Aronofsky got one of the other characters stories to tell – like Magneto. That’s seems like a Darren A. film.

  3. I don’t think it’s so much that independent directors make the best fit for superhero films. It’s the directors with VISION that do.

    Tim Story and Brett Ratner didn’t exactly have impressive filmographies before taking on their respective superhero films. Those directors’ movies suck because they have no vision. They’ make “by-committee” films, not ones with any significant personal input.

    On the other hand, Nolan and Aronofsky ARE directors with vision. They’re films are elevated above by-committee execution because they have something personal and meaningful to say with each of them that allows their movies to have more dramatic and cinematic dynamism.

    So, in the end, the best films of any kind come from directors with a vision.

    • Yep, I think you’re right about vision, but I think that coming from outside the studio system works. This is why I’m so fascinated by the recently rumoured possibility of Shane Black directing Iron Man 3. Although he did write Lethal Weapon, his directing work has been the definition of quirky and low-key.

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