Hollywood’s changing approach to blockbuster movie directors

News Simon Brew
26 Apr 2011 - 14:17
Kenneth Branagh

Is Hollywood learning its lesson? As Kenneth Branagh steers Thor to critical success, could movie studios finally be realising that bold directorial choices might just lead to better blockbuster movies?

I was interested to read last week the graph that plotted the average Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score for the top ten grossing movies each year since the 1950s. It was the work of the fine folks over at Very Small Array, and a couple of things stuck out.

Firstly, I never appreciated that the mighty Crocodile Dundee only had a Rotten Tomatoes aggregate critic score of 12%. I demand a recount for that right now. But secondly, and inevitably, the graph noted that the overall quality trend was downwards.

That’s no surprise, perhaps, and the increasing dependence on franchises and sequels doesn’t suggest an upward turn anytime soon. But I do think that Hollywood may have stumbled on a trend these past few years, and I’m keen to see it continue. And it’s a simple one, too: give a big movie to an interesting director to make, and trust them with it. It’s a radical plan, but there are signs that it might just be working.

Granted, we and many others have been banging this drum ever since Christopher Nolan first ventured to Gotham City. But he still remains pretty much the exception to the rule. We’re in a world, after all, when someone decides that the logical choice to direct a Terminator sequel is McG, and where unambitious choices have hurt the likes of The Incredible Hulk, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Fantastic Four, and many more you could no doubt mention yourselves.

It’s not that those films that were spat out at the end turned out to be particularly bad in all cases. It’s just I couldn’t help but feel that they’d been robbed of a chance of being great almost from day one, by nature of who was chosen to direct them.

Perhaps worse than that, ambitious choices, when they do get the job, aren’t always given the space they need to make the films they want. I’m intrigued to see just how much of a stamp Matthew Vaughn has been able to put on X-Men: First Class, because this is a franchise that’s thus far eaten up both Gavin Hood and, to a lesser degree, Darren Aronofsky.

In Vaughn’s favour is the fact that the film has been put together in just over a year, not leaving much space for a good, old-fashioned studio battle. I sincerely hope he comes out of the other side of the process with the film he wanted to make in tact. Early signs are that he has.

A New Hope?

Yet, if your overall feeling towards blockbuster movies is one of disenchantment, then there is cause for hope. Whoever, for instance, handed the keys of the Bourne movies over to Paul Greengrass was rewarded with box office gold and massive critical acclaim. JJ Abrams had arguably already proven his blockbuster mettle with Mission: Impossible III, so perhaps he wasn’t quite the same level of gamble for Star Trek, but watching the final cut of the latter, it felt very much like an Abrams piece of work, rather than suffering massive studio interference.

And then look too at the increasing boldness Marvel Studios is making in its choice of directors. As an independent outfit, Marvel has released three films to date (the majority of its films have been co-productions). For its two Iron Man movies, it took a gamble on Jon Favreau, and won its bet. Notwithstanding the problems with the second film, the first Iron Man film was a strong blockbuster, and a massive hit.

Less interestingly, it picked Louis Letterier for The Incredible Hulk, a choice few would have championed. The absence of The Incredible Hulk 2 probably tells you all you need to know about how that went down (that said, I though Ang Lee’s Hulk was as bold as they come, but it’s a film that I and only a few others seem to really, really like).


However, this summer, Marvel has taken two big risks. Its first was its choice of Kenneth Branagh to helm Thor, and I was massively impressed by what he did with the film. Branagh’s direction isn’t just about the Shakespearian feel that he brings to some of the father-son moments in the movie. It’s also the fluidity of his camera. Throughout many of his films, Branagh has been reluctant to ground his camera (Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), and it’s in the midst of the Marvel Universe that he’s found the perfect material for his approach.

And Marvel saw that. More than that, it saw it, took a chance, and let Branagh make his film. Those four star reviews (including our own) are no accident.

The appointment of Joe Johnston for Captain America intrigues me, and you'd hardly call him an obvious option. Johnston was coming off the back of the horrible time he had making The Wolfman, which he’s since basically all but admitted he made for the money. But dig into his back catalogue? Honey I Shrunk The Kids was ingenious. The Rocketeer (we've more on that fine movie here)? There’s plenty to like there. And even Jurassic Park III, under tight studio stewardship, had its moments. With no disrespect to the directors concerned, I’d far rather see what Johnston can do with Captain America than McG or Brett Ratner.

Marvel’s next two films once Thor and Captain America are out? The Avengers and Iron Man 3. Its choice of directors for each? Joss Whedon and Shane Black. Beat that.

Forward Thinking

I can’t help but think that Marvel has the right idea (and Paramount, too: Brad Bird for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a genius choice). Because the problem with more and more franchises competing with each other is that films are going to have to fight harder to get noticed. And the most logical way to stand out from the crowd is, surely, to be better. Part of that process? Hire a strong director, and let them direct.

The Bond franchise nearly gets this right, but in spite of bringing in left-field choices such as Marc Forster, Lee Tamahori and Michael Apted over the years, I always felt that the second half of those films was under the stewardship of the stunt team, rather than the movie’s director. And that doesn’t work. It was a half-hearted commitment on the part of the producers.

Because what the likes of Christopher Nolan and Kenneth Branagh have shown is that if you take a bold choice for a blockbuster movie, and back them properly, then your chances of something other than a three star movie that blends into the crowd are heightened. It’s not foolproof, certainly, but given the current state of the blockbuster cinema market, it’s certainly got to be worth a go. The great irony is that there's too much money involved not to.

The downside, of course, is that we potentially lose interesting directors to more mainstream projects (the savvy way to play this is to alternate between big and small movies, again harking back to the Nolan approach). But still, if it was announced tomorrow that Kenneth Branagh would be back for Thor 2, that I’d be happy to pre-order my ticket there and then. I suspect I would not be alone...

Thor is out in the UK today

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