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Is the great auteur-superhero experiment grinding to a halt?

March 18, 2011 | 10:12 am


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



Hero Complex: Wolverine loses Darren Aronofsky

Searching for the next Christopher Nolan

Thor Trailer promises full brunt of Chris Hemsworth's strength, Marvel postproduction budget

Photo: A scene from "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Credit 20th Century Fox

Comments () | Archives (17)

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Please, please, please let the comic book movie period of film history be over now. Please?

Really - Christopher Nolan touched off this trend? What about Sam Raimi and Spiderman? Bryan Singer and X-Men? Ang Lee and Hulk? Guillermo Del Toro and Blade II?

The trend to match indie directors with the comic-book strategy is largely due to Marvel's resurgence - and has been the trend for the decade. Christopher Nolan was a splashy part of that wave, but hardly the first example of it.

How about Bryan Singer? Two good X-Men movies under his belt already

This is extraordinarily lazy commentary by Steve Zeitchik. "Auteur" super hero movies arguably started in 1989 with Tim Burton's Batman movie. As others have pointed out the modern era goes back to at least 2000 with Brian Singer's X-Men movies. Until all superhero movies bomb and the audience is clearly tried of them these movies are going to be with us.

The (earth, city, town, family) is in jeopardy. One (man, woman, creature) discover super powers. Puts on skin tight costume. After overcoming various internal obstacles, vanquishes scary bad guy in climactic battle scene. Rinse. Repeat. Create sequel.

Please kill me now.

What the problem is that these producers, or investors, are trying TOO hard to make money. There mentally is how fast will I make my money back and how much can I make off this project. What happens is that they start micro managing and start telling the pro's how to do there job based on what has worked in the past for that particular producer who has worked on other projects. Don't forget alot, not ALL, producers are Type A personality. They can be control freaks and ego driven.

What needs to happen is that they need to trust there creative team (directors, actors, etc) to do there job. They need to say 'This is going to be hard but I need to trust these people to do the right thing with this project. If I'm going to make some money, I need to let go and back up just a lil.' When these people get too INVOLVED, the cause constriction on the artist and thats a big no no. When you start constricting an artist the product, or in this case the movie, won't be so good.

The market really has been oversaturated with superhero movies. This summer alone we have Thor, Xmen 1st class, Captain America, and the Green Lantern. Economic law teaches us there will be winners and losers, so maybe half these movies will succeed among all the other summer flicks (transformers, pirates 4, hangover 2, etc).

Really though the Superhero movies were sparked with the success of the Superman series in 1978 and then Batman in 1989. Superhero movies were scarce as we know them today in the 90s aside from Mystery Men, a movie perhaps ahead of its time (doing what several 2000s super hero sought to do—undermine the classic superhero genre while still keeping a good story). Then of course Xmen hit, Spiderman, with flickers like Daredevil, Electra, Hulk, Punisher, and the fire went wild from there.

Personally, I still enjoy seeing the classic, "cliche" superhero movies—the conventional stories as opposed to the "Kickass" or "Super" weird ones. While Nolan's Batmans are better overall films, I think the original Batman movie series was much more enjoyable as a superhero film.

But I wonder what's gonna be Hollywood's next crutch. Alien films? Zombie films? Maybe space exploration, star trekky, star warsy films?

As much as I love Nolan's Batman movies he isn't the first filmmaker to enjoy success with a big budget comic book movie. Arguably, you can trace it back to 1978's Superman movie, not to mention Tim Burton's Batman and Sam Raimi's Spider-man.

Naturally, popular taste for such entertainment waxes and wanes (as it has with alien movies, spy movies, westerns and supernatural thrillers). The real question is: What's hot next? Not how do we keep yesterday's taste fresh tomorrow?

Though, if Hollywood really wants to have success with comic book movies they should hire writers from the comic book world who are well-steeped in its history and audience tastes, so that the next comic book movies actually appeal to that audience. Uh duh.

How was Bryan Singer's "pedigree" different from Nolan's when he came aboard to direct the first two X-Men movies. Considering the Usual Suspsects and Apt Pupil vs. Memento and Insomnia, I'd say it's a pretty spot-on comparison.

Richard Donner's 1978 "Superman" did make people believe that a "man could fly." Bryan Singer's X-men movies and Sam Raimi's Spiderman movies as well as Nolan's Dark Knight films revived the genre. Why not get somebody like a Joss Whedon to direct given that he is a writer for comicbooks and his film, "Serenity" had a nice balance of action and emotion?

Don't forget Jon Favreau, previously known for quirky indie comedies before directing Iron Man to mega-success.

I must be the only person who likes the 1991 "Captain America" with Matt Salinger. I also like the two Lou Ferrigno Hercules movies which feature some incredibly beautiful women who aren't upstaged by fast editing and CGI. And that's part of the problem with superhero movies now--the public is tiring of the action-CGI genre. The DVD's of this genre start to look the same, whether it's X-men or Spiderman or Ironman. I haven't bought a new DVD since Quantum of Solace.

My two cents - Wolverine directed by Danny Boyle. The difficulty in creating superhero films is that they're only truly interesting when they're character driven (not action oriented), meaning they must seem somewhat plausible, e.g., Nolan's Batman movies. People like tragic, human stories about their heroes, not nauseating Roger Moore-era James Bond.

The reason Batman has an edge is that he's not "super" - he's a man. He hasn't come from outer space, been bitten by a radioactive spider, etc. Funny, the most ridiculous thing about Batman is his billionaire playboy alter ego aspect. If it's not about "real" people, the makers are stuck with a comic book movie. It seems like The Hulk would be perfect for this, but they cartoonized it too much, missing the point that it's a pure Jekyll/Hyde story.

I'd much rather see a Ben Grimm bio-pic than a "Fantastic Four 3-D Comic Adventure, featuring Jessica Alba Turning Invisible, Coming Soon to a Theater Near You!" and I think other moviegoers would, too.

So give me the title of a superhero movie that flopped. What this guy is saying is Hollyweird wants to win the Lottery every time out with this genre and it's not happening so he's trying to find a reason why. The directors? The scripts? The over saturation? The lack of real men, like the 80's action hero? Why not try to get a grip on reality and understand that not every investment is going to return 500% profit. Is a matter of fact, almost no invest does. Greed, that's all we're looking at here. If the genre wasn't superheros, it would be cowboys, or cops, or whatever. The bottom line is that the greed mongers aren't satisfied with their bottom line, and they're casting about for blame.

Neal, Ori, sorry bout the Green Hornet thingy or whatever. What were ya thinking?! You HAD my script. Oh well...call me.


It might help if you have the properties controlled by people that love
and respect the characters that they are supposedly putting on film.
Too often so idiot who barely knows anything about the characters comes
out with an idiotic re-envisioning that ignores the source completely.

There is a reason why "The Spirit" was made AFTER the creator died, he
would not have stood for the abomination that was made converting a
Tough guy in a mask (think batman without the gadgets) into a cartoon

You don't need to be so over the top all the time.
Have a character that is basically just an exceptional person with a minimal
amount of suspended disbelief that an audience can relate to. Add in a well
written story that actually can be followed where the bad guys have motives
that we can understand too, even if we disagree.

Don't cripple the bad guy with stupidity. Look at the last Superman film.
Lex Luthor has access to off world tech. He wants to be rich. Does he
just patent or exploit the tech and become an instant billionaire? No
uses the tech to mess up the land scape. Lex Luthor is greedy and has a huge
ego, but he is also super smart. Maybe he would still try to kill Superman,
but he certainly would not have done the crazy junk he did. Add to this the
way too young actress playing Lois Lane. Blech. The only thing I liked in that movie was Parker Posey.

So to make it simple for the movie heads busy sniffing cocaine off the butts
of their interns, start with good writing if you want a good movie!

Interesting to seeing that Nolan took Batman and basically redid it. He didn't take on a new super hero that hadn't been a success on the big screen. He actually made it more to the comic book readers liking. These other examples in this article didn't fair the same because they didn't already have the proven record.

Redoing a series can work there are examples such as Oceans 11, Star Trek, and the Bond movies. See a great article here ( http://linkedinhollywood.com/2011/03/21/top-5-film-franchise-reboots/) that looks at how redoing a series can possibly be a positive for the studios.


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