The Perils of Success

On the face of it, it’s good news that Duncan Jones – the director of Moon and Source Code – has been brought on-board to direct the upcoming Warcraft movie. The Warcraft universe is deep and rich, Jones is a talented director who is obviously on his way up, and Blizzard is controlling enough to ensure that any film made from the franchise is of a reasonably high quality. This isn’t going to be a Resident Evil film, and it would be nice to have a truly respectable video game-to-film adaptation.

But it also continues a disappointing trend I’ve seen over the last few years in which young, talented directors are diverted from their original works to take on “safe”, big-budget franchises. Jones is probably the best example, but here are a few others:

  • Josh Trank makes Chronicle, one of the best superhero films in several years. His next film will be a Fantastic Four reboot.
  • Gavin Hood makes the brilliant, provocative film Tsotsi, which wins the Academy Award for best foreign film. He follows it up with the equally-provocative (if somewhat less successful) Rendition. His next two films are X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game.
  • Marc Webb makes the decent-enough 500 Days of Summer. He’s then tapped to take over the rebooted Spider-Man franchise.
  • After the cult hits Slither and Super, James Gunn will be directing a Guardians of the Galaxy film.
  • Nerd-hero Edgar Wright’s next project is an Ant-Man film slated for release in 2015.

Some of these don’t even make sense. What was it about 500 Days that made Marvel think Marc Webb would be a good fit for The Amazing Spider-Man? Likewise, what’s the rationale behind tapping James Mangold (of Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma fame) to direct this summer’s The Wolverine? What about Stranger Than Fiction orThe Kite Runner made studio execs think Marc Forster would be a successful director of action-oriented films like Quantum of Solace or World War Z?

I want to be clear: I’m not accusing these directors of selling out. There’s nothing “wrong” about directing adaptations, sequels, or big-budget films. And the opportunity to bring a huge budget to bear on your artistic vision must be legitimately thrilling.

Rather, I’m sad about the opportunity cost of having these directors at work on these franchises. I’m sad for the films they would otherwise be making, but aren’t. 

Catch-22

At this moment in film history, it has suddenly become fashionable to hire genuinely visionary directors to helm what are essentially genre films. It wasn’t always so: studios used to hire boring-but-competent directors for these sorts of films, and rely on the action and the stars to get audiences to the theater. 

That’s changed, and it’s resulted in some serious talent being brought to bear on major franchises. To pick just one example: Skyfall brought to the table an Academy Award-winning director, several Oscar-winning actors, and the world’s best living cinematographer. And it was awesome!

But this new paradigm comes with costs, and it seems like more and more often, the casualties are the kinds of movies that made those directors famous in the first place. I really loved The Avengers, but there’s something sad about Joss Whedon acknowledging that he won’t be able to get new Dr. Horrible or Firefly projects off the ground because he’s busy with Marvel duties until 2016. (And he’s even a guy who goes to extremes to sneak in passion projects!) 

As someone who believes Hollywood should invest more in original works and less in remakes and sequels, the way these casualties pile up can be depressing. Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness collapsed due to his obligations to The Hobbit – a film he didn’t even end up directing! And to return to the example that inspired this post, Duncan Jones has talked publicly about his plans for Mute, a Blade Runner-esque murder mystery set in a future Berlin. He’s also talked about a possible Ian Fleming bio-pic, focusing on Fleming’s experiences in the British Intelligence service during WWII. Is a Warcraft film really worth postponing (or possibly losing) either of these?

An Embarrassment of Riches

There’s something a bit pretentious (or at least a bit greedy) in this line of thinking: aren’t there enough super-talented directors around to satisfy both my love of big-budget blockbusters and original films?

I suppose I’ll just have to hold out hope that the films I care about will someday come to exist, and enjoy the fruits of these directors’ franchise efforts in the meantime. And it makes me really cherish those directors – like Rian Johnson, Jeff Nichols, or Tomas Alfredson – who seem content to make quirky, original films on their own terms. After all, not everybody has to be an auteur – but it would be nice if somebody were.