16 directors redefining the 21st century blockbuster

Saluting the directors who continue to put in that little bit extra when it comes to modern blockbuster cinema...

Of the opinion that they don’t make ‘em like they used to? In fact, popcorn movies have never been in ruder health, and of course that’s down to the visionaries behind the camera fusing story, visual effects and character in one neat package. Here’s a round-up of the current generation of film directors making the big screen experience special once again.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller

These wonderfully geeky overlords first made a name for themselves with Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, but it was 21 Jump Street that properly got everyone’s attention, the movie that single-handedly transformed Channing Tatum from being (unfairly) bracketed as a beefcake lunkhead into a versatile and brilliant star. The 22 Jump Street sequel was also terrific but their crowning glory remains The LEGO Movie, a sly combination of eye-popping visuals and bite-the-hand-that-feeds satire that redefined the potential of franchise-based animation; both the sequel and the LEGO Batman spin-off are coming in the next 18 months. Lord and Miller will next be bringing their visual pizzazz and wicked humour to the Han Solo spin-off movie starring Alden Ehrenreich.

Joe and Anthony Russo

It’s hard to imagine that the directors of relatively unassuming 2002 George Clooney oddity Welcome To Collinwood would become two of Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster titans. However, it’s the Russo’s unerring knack for melding character development with thunderously exciting action in Captain America movies The Winter Soldier and this year’s Civil War that has deservedly garnered them a reputation as a mighty popcorn duo. They’ve been put in charge of the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, arriving in 2018 and 2019, a cast-iron sign of Marvel’s confidence in their capabilities. Investing their blockbuster movies with real pathos, heart and wit (as well as introducing us to Tom Holland’s terrific new Spider-Man in Civil War), the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in very good hands.

JJ Abrams

Mentored by Steven Spielberg, Abrams has distilled the latter’s knack for wondrous and thrilling entertainment, his movies deliberately pitched at a somewhat nostalgic angle that hearkens back to the 1980s golden age of family entertainment. This was most keenly felt in the terrific alien invasion movie Super 8, in which a group of 1970s amateur teen filmmakers must combat an alien scourge in their local town, but Abrams’ skill with populist entertainment has also resonated throughout his influential TV series Lost, Mission: Impossible III and his two rebooted Star Trek movies. The latter films (yes, even Into Darkness) brought a sense of fun back to the ailing franchise – but even more staggering was Abrams’ resurrection of Star Wars with last year’s The Force Awakens. Wide-eyed, funny and rip-roaring, it was the movie we’d all been waiting for since 1983’s Return Of The Jedi. The doors have now opened for a whole new universe of Star Wars entertainment – and we must credit Abrams for leading us through it.

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Jennifer Lee

Co-directing a hit movie is one thing; co-directing a hit movie that results in a bona fide, global phenomenon is usually a sign of a very promising filmmaker indeed. Lee’s work on Disney sensation Frozen deserves to be remembered for more than inflicting the ear-worming Let It Go on parents worldwide; in its own way it was a triumphant re-balancing of the scales with its assertive female duo and a refreshing emphasis on sisterhood as opposed to sugary romance. Lee was also credited as a story developer on this year’s utterly wonderful Zootropolis; the movie’s delightful concept of a city populated entirely by animals clearly owes as much to Lee’s input as anything else, and with its central Judy Hopps character it also shares the female focus of her earlier hit. Lee’s involvement in two of the biggest Disney blockbusters of recent years makes her a Hollywood commodity, and we can’t wait for Frozen 2.

Jon Favreau

When Favreau seamlessly brings together action and dazzling special effects, as in the first (and best) Iron Man movie and this year’s genuinely wondrous The Jungle Book, it becomes clear that he’s currently one of the best in Hollywood at delivering robustly entertaining popcorn spectacle that honours the intelligence of the audience. An underrated storyteller, he’s also great with character as Christmas staple Elf, the aforementioned Iron Man and the more down-to-Earth Chef demonstrate, showing he’s got more on his mind than empty-headed explosions. Of course, he’s made the odd clanger like Cowboys And Aliens but credit where it’s due: it’s thanks to Favreau that the Marvel Cinematic Universe got up and running in the first place, the recent Captain America: Civil War a direct continuation of what he started way back in 2008.

Zack Snyder

Like him or loathe his work, there’s no denying that Zack Snyder has established a singular visual aesthetic that’s proved enormously influential in Hollywood circles; it isn’t for nothing that Warner Bros elected him the guardian of the DC movie universe with Batman V Superman and next year’s Justice League. Snyder’s saturated, complex visual style as seen in the likes of 300 and Watchmen may not win everyone over but for many, it perfectly embodies the pulp feel of comic book action and the characters contained within. And for all his undeniably over-cranked excesses, you have to admire (if sometimes only grudgingly) the way Snyder has been able to establish a unique approach within a genre that doesn’t usually allow for such risks.

David Yates

Quite possibly the hardest-working director in Hollywood, Yates has not one but two blockbuster movies out in 2016, a sure sign of how Tinseltown has taken him to heart following the world-conquering success of his four Harry Potter movies. Having gathered acclaim for bringing the boy wizard’s saga to a rousing and emotional close, this July Yates brings us The Legend Of Tarzan in which Alexander Skarsgard takes on the mantle of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic hero, and, following in November, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. The latter sees Yates stepping back into Rowling territory, its story of magi zoologist Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) 1920s New York adventures promising to extend the Potter universe in dazzling ways.

Matt Reeves

When found-footage monster movie Cloverfield roared onto screens in 2008, we were right to expect great things from its director Reeves. Although the movie gathered more attention for being produced by JJ Abrams, it was Reeves’ steady blend of character interplay and relentlessly escalating tension that had everyone on tenterhooks; his impressive facility with the creature effects was also noted. All of these welcome facets have bloomed in Reeves’ later movies, most notably in the fantastic Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes that performed the tricky feat of improving on its predecessor Rise in every way: more emotional resonance, more seamless motion-capture effects and more intelligent allusions to the wider Apes saga. Reeves is back for the next instalment, War Of The Planet Of The Apes, and if his past successes are anything to go by we can expect something truly incredible.

James Gunn

It’s always fascinating when a director leaps from one genre to another. Gunn is a filmmaker who was schooled in splattery late 80s/early 90s grunge horror, having written infamous low-budget Troma vehicle Tromeo And Juliet; he also directed memorably icky 2006 creature feature Slither. That he therefore steered the decidedly more mainstream, family-friendly Guardians Of The Galaxy to the top ranks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a delightful surprise, eliciting a riotous sense of fun and an effortlessly cool soundtrack from a premise that could have been forgettable, generic junk. It’s almost certainly Gunn’s quirky, spiky background as a filmmaker that gives Guardians its distinctive flavour, and he’s now become one of Marvel’s signature custodians, giving out tongue-in-cheek advice to Thor: Ragnarok director Taiki Waititi on Twitter. But will Guardians 2 hit the same popcorn highs? Watch this space…

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Gareth Edwards

One of the greatest directorial success stories of recent years, Edwards seized headlines with his 2010 indie Monsters, made for absolute peanuts and featuring quite staggering special effects rendered on his own computer. It was clear from the off that Edwards had a distinctive knack for inventive storytelling and eye-wowing visuals within the realm of the monster movie, so his appointment to the legendary Godzilla franchise was welcomed. Although that movie disappointed somewhat with its murky narrative and bland characters, few could argue with its colossal sense of scale, which bodes well for the next iconic franchise Edwards has been tasked with: Star Wars. Can Edwards make the Rogue One Death Star as imposing and awe-inspiring as the mighty Gojira?

Colin Trevorrow

Another graduate of the indie-turned-blockbuster school, Trevorrow made the leap from the acclaimed Safety Not Guaranteed, an offbeat story about possible time-travel, to dino-chomping epic Jurassic World. Of course, the latter was never going to challenge Steven Spielberg’s peerless 1993 classic and indeed it didn’t, resembling an incoherent though enjoyable video game on more than one occasion. Even so, there was more than enough popcorn spectacle on display to make us hopeful for Trevorrow’s next directorial outings: The Book Of Henry, now in post-production, and Star Wars Episode IX, due for release in 2019. Fingers crossed they will allow for more of a directorial stamp than Jurassic World did.

Patty Jenkins

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs when a female director spearheading a movie within the DC Universe can be described as revolutionary. Nevertheless, regardless of gender politics we ought to be celebrating Jenkins’ status as the filmmaker who’s been put in charge of the solo Wonder Woman movie, a project that will hopefully feature the character development and nuance Jenkins displayed in her blistering 2003 drama Monster. That movie won Charlize Theron an Oscar for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a clear indicator of Jenkins’ facility with actors that surely bodes well for her collaboration with Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot. Interestingly given her role within the DC universe, Jenkins was at one stage considered by rival Marvel for Thor: The Dark World, but left the project.

Joss Whedon

Truth be told, Whedon has been a force for good in Hollywood circles since the mid-1990s, having delivered (uncredited) re-writes for the likes of Speed and Waterworld; he also honed the story for Pixar’s groundbreaking Toy Story. Even so, it was unclear whether his confidence with talky ensemble pieces, as evidenced by his celebrated TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, would translate well into blockbuster territory. Boy was our faith rewarded when 2012’s Avengers Assemble turned out to be one of the greatest comic book movies of all time, a witty and uproarious popcorn extravaganza that expertly balanced all our favourite Marvel characters. 2015’s Age Of Ultron was a bit of a comedown but there’s no denying that Whedon has paved the way for the increasingly character-stuffed Marvel movies coming down the pipe.

Matthew Vaughn

A director who has alternated between satirising blockbuster conventions and embracing them, Vaughn has developed a signature dark sense of humour, a dynamic visual style and an ability to get stars acting outside their comfort zone. That his idiosyncrasies have resulted in box office success also makes him one of the industry’s most noted popcorn auteurs. 2010’s independently financed Kick-Ass is one of the great masterworks of the self-reflexive comic book movie, whereas the more conventionally entertaining X-Men: First Class in 2011 rejuvenated the flagging franchise to fabulous effect, introducing us to the powerhouse pairing of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto. Meanwhile, Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of 2015’s surprise hits, allowing Colin Firth to unleash his inner James Bond whilst giving us a versatile new star in the form of Taron Egerton (whose Eddie the Eagle biopic Vaughn produced). Next up: Kingsman sequel, The Golden Circle.