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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Death of the Auteur in a Cinematic Universe?

Marvel now (in)famously has a reputation of making sure their films do not have a particular directorial style attached to them ever since Edgar Wright, the director of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, departed Ant-Man and was replaced with Peyton Reed, the director of Bring It On. Further, uber-nerd Joss Wheedon has left the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has been replaced with The Russo Brothers, who’s prior claim to fame was directing episodes of Community and Arrested Development. I am enjoying these later installments of the Avengers franchise, and I thoroughly enjoyed its latest- Captain America: Civil War- but it’s obvious these films lack a distinctive visual style. Despite having directors like Wheedon and Jon Favreau and Shane Black, the films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel like they were made by one person. And that’s precisely how Marvel producer Kevin Feige likes it.

The idea of auteurs and cinematic universes are in the news again thanks to reports that Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One are going in for re-shoots as Disney execs, “screened the film and felt it was tonally off with what a‘classic’ Star Wars movie should feel like”. While reports of why the film is going in for re-shoots have beendisputed, Disney is now starting to get the stigma (whether rightly or wrongly) or being anti-auteur.

This label is odd for Disney as its list of tapped directors for his Star Wars cinematic universe projects included a list of directors that had proven they could make good movies- and that had visual styles. After Disney bought LucasFilms, they tapped J.J. Abrams, Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson, Josh Trank (R.I.P.), and Phil Lord and Chris Miller for their next films. You would certainly put that group light years ahead of Alan Taylor, Peyton Reed, and Joe Johnston- all three of which has directed films in the MCU (can you guess which one?). Disney and LucasFilms seemed to be going in a more advanced route, take what Marvel was doing with its cinematic universe and make it better thanks to the skills of some amazing filmmakers and storytellers. What’s even better, is that the stand alone Star Wars films like Rogue One and Han Solo’s origin story could be anything the studios and filmmakers wanted it to be. I was excited to get a Heist Movie that just so happened to be set in the Star Wars universe. Hell, that’s basically what Ant-Man was for the MCU.

However, if the reports are true that Gareth Edwards, a man with a unique and interesting visual style, needs to alter his film to make it more Star Wars-y, then my excitement level for these Star Wars films will lower to my excitement to that for these Marvel movies- “eh”.

While I understand that studios sole goal is to make money, and they look over at Marvel who seems to be making all of it being bland and inoffensive, then it makes sense why other studios want to copy that model. However, doing so ignores the obvious- that big tent summer blockbusters and films set within a universe can still make money when helmed by an auteur.  The Dark Knight was one of the highest grossing films of all time where it came out, and that film has Christopher Nolan’s fingerprints all over it. Guardians of The Galaxy was one of the highest grossing films of 2014 and that film is most certainly a James Gunn film (whether or not you knew who James Gunn was before 2014). Famously, James Gunn showed a first draft of the Guardians script to Joss Wheedon and Wheedon replied, “I just really want there to be more ‘James Gunn’ in [the]script.” Even the film that started it all, Iron Man, shows Jon Favreau’s pension for storytelling and big budget action.

Ultimately, we shall see what these studios will do in the future. It’s possible Rogue One will look like a Gareth Edwards film while also appeasing whatever problems Disney may or may not have with the current cut of the film. LucasFilms tapped Rian Johnson, a man who directed the greatest episodes of Breaking Bad while also clearly comfortable directing with someone else’s style, to direct Episodes 8 and 9 of Star Wars. Phil Lord and Chris Miller also come from television and also have a knack for elevating the quality of whatever material they touch. I even have hope for Marvel who has (for now) Ryan Coogler directing the Black Panther film. Coogler is a man who is not only proven himself to be a great director, but also managed to make a film with within a franchise (Rocky) while still making his own movie.

I can understand studios’ aversion to pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a franchise only to have it ruined by an auteur. 20th Century Fox would like nothing more than to have its most recent Fantastic Four back from Josh Trank. Warner Brothers is also distancing itself from Zach Snyder’s latest attempt to build the DC Cinematic Universe (despite the fact that Batman v. Superman still made a butt load of money). However, there is a happy medium. For starters, do what LucasFilms and Disney are doing and tap the right auteurs. Abrams, Edwards, Johnson, and Lord and Miller have all proven that they can direct tent pole movies, work within the Hollywood system, and still produce quality movies. If studios are still squeamish, make sure they look at filmmakers like Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson, guys who have films under the belt and were still able to do so with a modest sized budget. One of the problems with Josh Trank and Fantastic Four was that he proved he wasn’t able to direct a film that wasn’t an indie. None of LucasFilm’s and Disney’s other directors have shown that same problem.

It's important to have auteurs in these cinematic universes as these types of films are basically the only films Hollywood is making. If all we are going to get is big budget action and comic book movies (which I am not inherently against), then we need to start having interesting and creative filmmakers behind the camera to keep the medium itself alive. Further, auteurs help change cinema for the better. Ultimately, all the audience wants are good films to see, and auteurs help with that. But the more we start moving away auteurs and start moving towards cookie-cutter directors-for-hire, then the worse the medium of cinema gets and the more the audience suffers.



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