Thursday, April 15, 2010

Marvelous Moviemakers: Rethinking the Authorship of the Avengers Agenda

In a previous post, I suggested that Marvel Studios had been partially "playing it safe" in assembling directorial talent for its ambitious crossover agenda. While it's true the studio has hired some auteurs in the shape of Kenneth Branagh (Thor) and Edgar Wright (Ant-Man, if it ever gets made), I argued that the filmmakers at the helm of the other three major Avengers films (Iron Man's Jon Favreau, The Incredible Hulk's Louis Leterrier, and Captain America's Joe Johnston) had yet to prove themselves true artists with a consistent vision across their canon of work. That is not to downplay their talents as craftsmen. Indeed, each is perfectly capable of putting together a quality film. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that I may have misjudged certain filmmakers, and also overlooked the fact that the auteur is not always necessarily the director. Indeed, a screenwriter, actor, or even producer can also claim the signature of a film. That said, as more and more details have emerged about Marvel's upcoming slate, I have come to recognize the artistry that we can expect, or at least hope for, with each individual film.

The Avengers (2012)

First, I'll address the recent news that Joss Whedon (pictured right) is in final negotiations to direct The Avengers, the culminating point in Marvel's master plan. A revered pioneer of geekdom (mostly in the realm of television), Whedon is known for his instantly recognizable dialogue style and ability to juggle ensembles of lovable characters. He should have no problem handling the already-charming likes of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Samuel L. Jackson. Some are concerned that Whedon's involvement might not guarantee commercial success because his only film to date, the impressive(-to-me) Serenity, failed to hit with either critics or moviegoers. The fact remains, however, that the star-studded Avengers will have had five surefire blockbuster hits advertising its main characters by the time it is released. A director's name rarely has much to do with box office success. Nobody knew who the director of New Moon was, nor did they care that his only prior movie was the disappointing Golden Compass. At least Whedon has a rabid cult following. Ultimately, the name brand is probably enough that director of The Avengers doesn't matter. It just so happens that this director is extremely talented.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In addition, it looks as if Whedon will get to polish the scripts for both The Avengers AND Captain America. So while Joe Johnston may or may not offer a visionary take of his own, Whedon could ensure an auteur's stamp on the film after all. Before Whedon's involvement, Captain America was continually shaping up to be the "safe" movie that I suspected it might be. The choice of Chris Evans in the lead role - an undoubtedly great actor, but one who will have starred in five comic book adaptations, including another Marvel property, before Captain America - seemed a bit too obvious. As did the casting of Hugo Weaving, who has made a name for himself playing maniacal villains. Such choices sometimes have the tendency to be predictable to the point of boring, but hopefully the writing will be strong enough to play to the actors' strengths in a refreshing way.

Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010)

The true auteur of the Iron Man series is Robert Downey Jr. (pictured left), who gives the films their heart and soul. It is his improvisation on set that brings the character to life and creates a comic tone unique for the superhero genre. Jon Favreau seems to encourage this improvisational approach, which is extremely risky for a big-budget action film of this kind. Such courageousness must be admired, and with a can't-lose star like Downey Jr. guiding the rest of the cast, it will be hard to mess up the upcoming Iron Man 2. Unless, of course, Tony Stark is given less screen time due to a possible overload of characters and plot lines, which some are worried might be the case. But as long as Favreau puts as much care into bringing the new characters to life as he did with Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in the first film, Iron Man 2 just might be invincible.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Like Downey Jr., Edward Norton is an actor-auteur, although Norton's contributions to The Incredible Hulk are slightly more tangible, as he performed a page-one rewrite of Zak Penn's screenplay, making several changes in dialogue and adding pivotal scenes of character development. The actor also worked with Louis Leterrier "in every phase of production, including the editing." Leterrier even described his role to Entertainment Weekly as more of a mediator between Norton and the studio than a director guiding the creative trajectory of the film. If included in the Avengers film, I wonder how much control Norton (and Downey Jr., for that matter) would have as an actor-auteur.

In conclusion, I rescind my claim that Marvel is playing it safe, as it seems there are able auteurs behind each of their films, be they directors, writers, or actors. The mere fact that they are attempting a massive cinematic crossover of such magnitude is in fact quite the opposite of playing it safe. Marvel is attempting a feat as courageous as the heroes they are trying to bring to the screen. What matters in the end, however, is whether or not the films are good, and the impressive talents they have assembled certainly increase the chances of these movies being good, or at least interesting.
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