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Where Do Our Best Directors Fit in the Modern Blockbuster Movement?

In the current mainstream movie environment, auteurs wanting to scale up—such as ‘Eternals’ director Chloé Zhao—have little recourse but to find ways to fit into this world, however constrictive

Getty Images/Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration

There’s something askew in Thor, the 2011 film that introduced Marvel Comics’ long-running Norse god/superhero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, much of the film itself is askew, in the literal sense of the word. Attempting to capture the kinetic energy of comic book panels, director Kenneth Branagh makes frequent use of Dutch angles, cocking the camera to create lopsided compositions. Speaking recently to The New York Times, Branagh said the choice “seemed natural but created a miniature furor,” leading Marvel to investigate whether it could straighten out the shots in post-production. “I was thrilled they couldn’t,” Branagh continued, “that kept a personal stamp on it. You try and do that in all the films.”

Thor’s angularity is among its most distinctive features, prominent enough to inspire at least one jokey supercut. But as stylistic touches go, it’s not that radical a choice. There’s much more askew, in the figurative sense, in Eternals. The latest entry in the MCU—which now stretches to 26 films and counting, not to mentions its TV series and other offshoots—is directed by Chloé Zhao, who won acclaim with meditative indie dramas like The Rider and Nomadland, the latter winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress prizes at the most recent Academy Awards. Eternals features plenty of familiar MCU business: superpowered beings locked in conflict as the end of the world looms. It’s also filled with many of Zhao’s visual signatures, including lingering shots of sweeping plains and landscapes that always seem on the verge of swallowing up the film’s characters. It plays like an attempt by Marvel to allow one of its directors an unusual amount of leeway, an artistic experiment that grants an atypical degree of autonomy (relative to a big-budget blockbuster) to one of the best directors working today.

It also doesn’t work. Eternals is a feathered fish of a movie. Though recognizable as a Zhao film, the resemblance doesn’t go much deeper than the surface. The gorgeousness and fondness for shots of gloaming in past Zhao films have carried over, but the naturalism and understated drama have not. In their place is an aggressive display of computer-generated imagery and an unsatisfying game of dramatic tug-of-war between some of the MCU’s dullest characters. Beyond some novel settings—the Canary Islands provide a more vibrant backdrop for superpowered battles than, say, the airport parking lot of Captain America: Civil War—little sets the action scenes apart from other MCU movies. Tweeting out his review of Eternals, Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang summed it up as “probably one of the more interesting movies Marvel will ever make, and hopefully the least interesting movie Chloé Zhao will ever make.”

Whatever its lasting reputation, it’s currently one of Marvel’s least-loved films, the recipient of a lukewarm critical reception while also earning the lowest CinemaScore rating in MCU history. It’s the sort of response likely to make what was already an unusual MCU effort, one in which the studio loosened the reins a bit, a true exception. For now, even with the solid box office numbers, it’s unmistakably an outlier. Ten years after Branagh’s Thor experience, skewed angles have been an anomaly for a studio that now takes its cues from tech world rollouts, complete with press conferences announcing upgrades, expansions, and new products. Where directors fit in isn’t always clear and sometimes feels like an afterthought.

Marvel has set the standard for the current blockbuster moment, one not particularly receptive to original ideas and instead defined by gargantuan projects tied to pre-existing entities. It’s one in which the term “intellectual property” has graduated from legalese to become part of the common parlance of film discussions. And, much of the time, it works. There’s a reason audiences keep returning to the MCU. Marvel has a terrific track record of making entertaining movies, a sentiment that can be applied to the creators involved in Star Wars, the Fast & Furious, and various other tentpoles, however much your mileage might vary with each individual entry.

But the trouble with the current mainstream movie environment is that directors wanting to scale up have little recourse but to find ways to fit into this world, however constrictive. In some respects, that’s just business as usual for the film industry. The bigger the project, the bigger the risks. The bigger the risks the more a studio needs to exert control. Since the early days of moviemaking, some directors have found ways to expand their vision as their films grew bigger, and making them became trickier. David Lean made Brief Encounter and Great Expectations then moved on to blockbuster epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Joseph Mankiewicz, on the other hand, felt crushed by the machinery needed to make Cleopatra. The game, at heart, remains the same.

The rules, however, have gotten stricter. With midbudget movies all but extinct, the options for directors wanting to make films that reach beyond the confines of arthouse have never been so limited: superheroes, video game adaptations, live-action remakes of animated films, sequels, prequels, sidequels, reboots, reworkings of TV shows, and not much more. Colors keep disappearing from the palette. Some filmmakers have adapted, finding a sweet spot between bringing a property—even the language has gotten colder—to the big screen while finding room for artistic expression. Others direct like professionals born to thrive in the current era. Others have hit snags as they try to go big. It’s a pattern set by three of the earliest 21st century superhero films, films made years before Branagh first ventured to Asgard, that helped establish the three classes of franchise film directors: the Singer, the Raimi, and the Lee.

Released in the summer of 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men carved out a space for a new sort of superhero movie, one in which a combination of modern effects, memorable characters, and snappy storytelling could create the cinematic equivalent of a first-rate comic book. A craftsman of tremendous skill but with no distinctive visual style or thematic concerns, Singer made a film that delivered the superhero goods, as did its even better sequel, X2: X-Men United. (The diminishing returns came later, as did accounts of shady, abusive behavior.)

The following summer brought the release of Spider-Man, an adaptation of Marvel’s signature superhero that paid heartfelt homage to the source material while remaining unmistakably the work of director Sam Raimi, who’d built a career out of mixing colorful characters, dynamic filmmaking, and intricately constructed set pieces. There are compromises baked into the Sony-produced film, like a cameo from Sony recording artist Macy Gray, but Spider-Man plays like the work of a director with a unique sensibility that’s also malleable enough to squeeze into the franchise world. Where Singer’s X-Men plays like a polished but anonymous work-for-hire film, Spider-Man is a film only a Raimi could have directed, a continuation of the pulp heroics of Darkman and the technical adventurousness of the Evil Dead films but also with concern for the weight of guilt, power, and responsibility seen in more recent films like A Simple Plan and The Gift.

Hulk, released in 2003, is just as unmistakably the work of its director, Ang Lee, but without the malleability. It’s a fascinating film made easy to champion by its artistic virtues, ones that are very much in line with Lee’s previous work, from the family drama at the center of its plot to the innovative action scenes that feel like extensions of Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s a neat arthouse-inspired riff on an iconic character but a pretty awkward superhero movie, particularly in an action climax that opts for borderline abstract imagery over conventional thrills.

When Marvel launched the MCU with Iron Man in 2008, it was able to draw on these lessons. The result is a system that favors Singers (professional guns for hire), sometimes finds room for Raimis (auteurs taking on projects that feel like natural extensions of their bodies of work), and ultimately proves inhospitable to Lees (directors whose sensibilities overwhelm the needs of the franchise, if sometimes in artistically compelling ways). The Thor series has, thus far, had one of each sort of director: Branagh is a Lee. Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor is a Singer. Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, is a Raimi. Joe and Anthony Russo, steady-handed action directors with a great feel for superheroic characters, are the consummate Singers. Ryan Coogler, who used Black Panther to explore some of the issues of race and inequality at the heart of his earlier work and expanded on the fluid approach to action found in Creed (apart from some formulaic, CGI-heavy battle sequences), is a Raimi. Edgar Wright, who was originally slated to direct Ant-Man and, perhaps predictably, backed out of the project due to creative differences, is a Lee. He would later reflect: “I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.”

This is a system set up to make the job easiest on the Singers. Approached by Marvel about directing Black Widow, Lucrecia Martel described a meeting in which she was told “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that.” The rest, it seems, is a matter of finding ways to fill in the blanks, though it’s sometimes hard to see what made some MCU directors notable in the first place in the ways those blanks get filled. You can see a connection, for instance, between the fuzzy immigration metaphor of Captain Marvel and the issues explored in Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s work from a decade earlier, Sugar, but you have to squint.

It’s a boom time for Singers and sometimes the IP-above-all system works far better than expected for those able to play within it. Earlier this year, Craig Gillespie’s Cruella brought a surprising amount of style and sensibility to a seemingly unnecessary project: a live-action origin story for 101 Dalmatians villain Cruella de Vil, driven more by Emma Stone’s nuanced performance as a winning, morally flexible heroine than a need to answer questions that never seemed all that pressing. It’s a brisk, clever, heartfelt film set in a richly realized fantasy version of punk-era London. It’s also, in the end, the story of a woman who goes on to become a would-be dog murderer. Cruella might have been better without its ties to the original Cruella and the obligation to serve a preexisting story. But it also never would have gotten made.

It’s not a bad time for the Raimis, either. Looking beyond the superhero world, but not beyond the world of IP-driven work, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune—a science-fiction landmark long deemed unadaptable, one that had previously gotten the better of David Lynch—is terrific. After Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, it’s his latest entry in a string of smart, visually striking, character-driven sci-fi films. It smartly reshapes what’s come before in the director’s own image.

But what of the Lees? The answer might lie in what Zhao does next. She’s currently working on a futuristic version of Dracula said to mix science fiction and Western elements. She’s also hinted she might reunite with the MCU’s Kevin Feige for a Star Wars movie. Neither of these suggests Zhao wants to return to the independent film world anytime soon, and as long as the space between indies and blockbusters remains desolate, there’s little choice for directors in that position but to work with IP.

Maybe, despite this unsatisfying first effort, Zhao and others like her will find ways to make it their own, to create franchise entries as filled with quirk, passion, and personality as any of their other films. Or maybe they’ll find you can only tilt the camera so far before the straight lines prevail.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.