Is the great auteur-superhero experiment grinding to a halt?
When Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies became a massive critical and commercial success a few years ago, it turbocharged one of the more unexpected mini-trends in modern filmmaking. Suddenly quirky directors were regularly being handed the reins to big-budget men-in-tights tentpoles, as studios looked to replicate the formula that had the director of "Memento" scoring with splashy movies about a caped crime-fighter.
It was an arrangement that seemed to give everyone what they wanted. Studios gained credibility and the potential for a massive hit, while the auteurs got to play with a bigger budget and on a bigger stage without (they hoped) giving up much artistic freedom. Plus they got to make a greenlighted movie, which in this climate is the biggest selling point of all.
But these experiments have hardly yielded wonder and beauty This week's news that Darren Aronofsky wouldn't direct "Wolverine" is just the latest example; most reports had Aronofsky leaving the project for family reasons, but it nonetheless marked another pairing that didn't work out as planned.
Two years ago, Gavin Hood, the foreign-language Oscar-winner, didn't hit it out of the park with "X Men Origins: Wolverine." "Superman" director Richard Donner was brought onto Hood's set and may have even served as a helmer for part of the film, leaving Hood to defend his relationship with Fox executives in interviews. The movie went on to perform only decently at the box office and underwhelmed a fair number of critics and fans.
The attempt by "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" auteur Michel Gondry to give new life to "The Green Hornet" stumbled too -- the movie was a middling performer with audiences earlier this year and hardly sparked excitement in critics. Gondry also admitted in interviews that writer-star Seth Rogen and he didn't see eye to eye; in fact, during part of the production he was sulking on set while Rogen had him shoot a scene he didn't want to do shoot. Another art-house auteur, Ang Lee, didn't exactly strike gold with his interpretation of "The Hulk."
And the results are not yet in for Shakespeare director Kenneth Branagh's tackling of "Thor," but the marketing materials have not, to this point, suggested a second coming of "The Dark Knight."
In fact, for a trend that Nolan helped cement, he remains arguably the only truly successful recent example of it. (Bryan Singer has of course done well with X-Men, but his pedigree is a little different.)
There are plenty of reasons why it's been such a troubled path. Unlikely marriages are unlikely for a reason, and if their results can be spectacular, their failures can be, too. Studios are hiring more ambitious directors at the same time they are taking ever-fewer risks in all other aspects of their business, and the combination doesn't always mesh. Meanwhile, for directors who are used to controlling every small element of production, a shift to the straitjacketed world of the studio tentpole isn't always easy.
And then there's the possibility that it's simply a bad creative fit: these aren't the kinds of stories and productions that play to these directors' strengths.
With Aronofsky now gone from "Wolverine," the question for Fox will be whether it seeks someone equally ambitious or returns to a more familiar combination. The studio may be tempted for another "Dark Knight"-esque experiment. On its face that might seem welcome for anyone who's a fan of good movies. Yet a more traditional superhero director may in the end prove the wiser choice -- for the sanity of everyone who works on it, and, given past results, for the viewing satisfaction of those of us who decide to see it.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Credit 20th Century Fox