With the DC Cinematic Universe (the DCCU?) taking shape the differences between the two Comic Book Titans’ approaches to putting their characters on the big screen aren’t escaping the notice of critics and bloggers. The trailers for Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman have both arrived and both are playing on the strengths of their directors. David Ayer, director of Suicide Squad, has director credits on Fury and End of Watch as well as a writing credit on Training Day. It’s clear from the trailer that his particular style will be a big part of the film’s identity.
Incidentally, something Marvel and DC have in common is that ‘slowed down, spooky version of a well-known song for dark irony’ might be replacing the inception-style orchestra hit as a trailer trope. In a similar vein the BvS trailer has all the hallmarks of a Snyder film; it’s flashy and brilliantly lit with lots of flair and vibrant colours. Overall DC seem to be going for a much darker tone in their films. The crucial difference is that DC is also pushing the director’s name much more in their advertising, which then brings us to Marvel. Their success is proof of an idea that seems impossible; movies thought up and tightly controlled by studios as opposed to what we think of as “artists” can be good. It’s a matter of effort: Marvel is a studio with a clear vision of how they want their film universe to work and look, it’s all planned out very carefully and its execution does demand some sacrifice of creative freedom from the director. So who should Marvel be hiring? Which Hollywood big-name director fits their culture the best?
The decade spanning 2002 and 2012 featured a set of films, adaptations of previously existing, well remembered source material that have been financially successful yet often critically maligned. The series currently consists of five films with the sixth due to start production this year. Back in 2000 George A Romero was fired as writer and director for the film adaptation of the Resident Evil game series. He studied the games and came up with a Romero film inspired by the source material. Unfortunately Capcom and Sony didn’t like the script he presented them with; Romero has said they wanted something heavier than he had in mind and rejected his idea. Instead they hired the director best known for the screen adaptation of Mortal Kombat and a cult Sci-fi horror film. Paul WS Anderson was taken on as writer and director, made a film that fit with what the producers wanted on a budget of 33mil which eventually grossed 40mil in the States and 102mil worldwide. Critics were lukewarm at best; many criticized the story and the acting but praised the action, Roger Ebert famously hated it. This pattern then repeated for the next two Resident Evil films, though Sony tried out different directors the films always brought in money. When Anderson came back to the director chair for the fourth film Afterlife the film became the most successful in the franchise, grossing nearly 300 million dollars worldwide.
His ability to work within someone else’s framework and deliver a nonetheless visually interesting film is something he has become known for and it isn’t restricted to the RE films. Anderson’s first Hollywood film Mortal Kombat is remembered as being silly, cheesy and in spite of being PG13 very faithful to the source material which is something the producers, unlike Sony in the case of Resident Evil, wanted. It cost 18mil to make and made 10 times that. When Universal decided they wanted to milk the Alien and Predator licences Anderson managed to create a film which was good enough to receive James Cameron’s seal of approval and became the most financially successful Aliens film until Prometheus. To be clear; I’m not arguing that financial gain is the only measure of a film’s quality. The Resident Evil films have plenty wrong with them. The acting isn’t great; the story, while still better than the games, is twisted and makes very little sense; the effects aren’t always great and even in the films Anderson did direct the action isn’t top-tier. Their success almost seems contrary to conventional wisdom though the later films do have the advantage of being in 3D and showing to an international market.
But why should Marvel care about a successful videogame adaptation that has always been seen as, at best, a series of not-so-good junky popcorn films? Junky they may be, but in terms of the producer’s goals they were a huge success. The goals being; make a film that will sell based on recognition of a particular brand and remain entertaining, and pleasing enough to fans that people will come back for sequels. It might be cynical to say but that’s what Marvel do, really. They do it well but it’s the Marvel brand that sells the films. I doubt many people went to see The Avengers because it was a Joss Whedon film. Whedon’s involvement was down to his ability to write funny, balanced group dialogue, something Marvel wanted in Avengers.
The Studio’s relationships with its directors haven’t always been smooth, especially where directors who didn’t fit their plan for the films were concerned. Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have left or turned down projects due to differences in vision, the original director for Thor 2 was fired and the eventual director wasn’t happy with changes made and a post-credits scene being added. It’s hyperbolic and silly to say that Marvel is crushing all artistic vision but they do require a director that will keep within the boundaries of what they want from a film.
The idea of the “work for hire” director, wholly serving the producers ideas doesn’t sound appealing since so much of the film world revolves around directors and respect for their artistic vision. When people like M Night Shayamalan are reduced to making Will Smith vanity projects it’s not hard to see why the concept of a director for hire is looked down on. This has been the case ever since the 1950’s when the French film world, through Les Cahiers du Cinema declared that the director was the true artist in cinema, promoting the idea of directors with distinctive visual styles and approaches to film-making. However it’s a fact that in today’s film world more than ever, a director driven blockbuster can flop hard and films held in the vice-like grip of the suits can be both entertaining and hugely successful.
In my opinion, and it’s by no means a controversial one; director driven films are more of a gamble, artistic freedom can produce peaks and troughs. Mad Max: Fury Road was very much George Miller’s creation and it was so much better for it, in fact in my view it’s been the best film of 2015 so far and one of the best action films of all time. On the other hand Prometheus was the brain-child of Ridley Scott and, while successful due to its pedigree it disappointed fans and critics. To return to Shyamalan, The Last Airbender was very much under his control and while it made its money back due to the brand name and the excessive marketing the savaging it received from critics and audiences means we won’t be seeing a sequel any time soon. This has also been the case with DC films for a while, the company didn’t have a huge amount of oversight or even interest in films starring its characters which on the one hand led to Batman Begins and its sequels and on the other Green Lantern.
Another reason that studio-controlled films made by a journeyman director are looked down on is because too often the studio doesn’t care about what the film is like, as long as the name sells tickets. Paul WS Anderson is certainly the name attached to many bad, cynically made films; Pompeii and The Three Musketeers spring to mind. However, Anderson’s trademark is the efficient and on-budget translation of a studios vision to the screen. That directorial approach is exactly what a studio like Marvel are looking for as they continue to expand their Cinematic Universe according to their precise and carefully controlled plan, sounds like a match made in heaven.
Oh and the fact that Event Horizon is one of my favourite films is completely irrelevant to this article.