Quentin Tarantino does not want to direct superhero movies. That was the immediate buzz, at least among geek media, when The Los Angeles Times’ profile of the maverick filmmaker dropped late Friday, with the director confirming to no one’s particular surprise that he has little interest in making a movie based on either Marvel or DC comic book characters.
“You have to be a hired hand to do those things,” Tarantino told the newspaper, “I’m not a hired hand. I’m not looking for a job.” The immediate internet backlash to that was quick and predictable, but it should be noted there was nothing malicious in the comment. Since the superhero movie genre ascended to becoming the most popular of the last decade, Marvel Studios has perfected the model of looking for young and hungry filmmakers with relatively limited experience in either the indie world or television, and tapping them to realize a vision that already comes with a house style.
There are exceptions, of course, although almost none of them at Marvel Studios. But this top-down, corporate approach not appealing to the ‘90s darling of arthouse cinema, and one of the few directors who can still get a studio like Sony to shell out $100 million on a completely original three-hour period piece drama, a la Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), is hardly a surprise. Still, it should be noted in the ‘90s, Tarantino considered making a Luke Cage movie, and according to the L.A. Times he still keeps his Los Angeles home strewn with racks of comic books alongside his many film prints, discs, vinyl, and even VHS videos.
Perhaps what’s more interesting in the profile is the insight Tarantino offers of what filmmakers are saying amongst themselves and away from most microphones. For Tarantino has been at the center of the “auteur scene” of Hollywood for at least a quarter-century and in that time he suggests there are a lot of filmmakers who are anxious to see superhero movies go the way of musicals in the late 1960s.
According to The Times, Tarantino recalled the moment where the mega-musical crashed and burned (specifically in 1969, the year of OUATIH) and that a younger generation of film school auteurs rejoiced. Today’s filmmakers “can’t wait for the day they can say that about superhero movies,” Tarantino said. “The analogy works because it’s a similar chokehold.” The director went on to add, “The writing’s not quite on the wall yet the way it was in 1969 when it was, ‘Oh my God, we just put a bunch of money into things that nobody gives a damn about anymore.’”
The analogy of comparing superhero movies of the 2010s and 2020s to musicals of the 1960s is not an unsound one. While many, including fellow auteur Steven Spielberg, have noted the similarity between Westerns and superhero movies with their mythologized images of a hero in a white hat/cape often making right with might, the musical might be a better comparison. That genre, literally the very first with the advent of sound in cinema, was at its most popular in the post-World War II boom years of the 1950s, and back when the Arthur Freed unit at MGM dominated the genre. You could call it the Marvel Studios of its day.
But whereas the Western just faded due to mind-numbing oversaturation on film and television, the musical was more acutely a Hollywood product given the production value and budget needed to make a traditional popular musical—which is to say it would’ve been harder for Sergio Leone and other Italian directors to put their own internationally renowned spin on the genre with a few desperados, cameras, and a Spanish desert (Jacques Demy’s more intimate French musicals are a different beast).
So in the 1960s, studios attempted to maintain audience interest by investing increasingly in mega-musicals with three-hour running times, intermissions, and either enormous sets or on location photography. While that worked beautifully for My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), the latter of which became the highest grossing movie ever at the time of its release, by the end of the decade youth generations raised on what their parents enjoyed (musicals and Westerns) began rejecting those genres en masse. And the amount of money studios spent on movies like Camelot (1967), Doctor Doolittle (1967), Hello, Dolly! (1969), and Paint Your Wagon (1969) proved to be a disaster for Hollywood. Doctor Dolittle alone nearly sank 20th Century Fox about 60 years before Disney finished the job, and Paint Your Wagon could be viewed as the death knell for both musicals and Westerns in Hollywood… and certainly of Clint Eastwood’s singing career!
All of which is to say the most popular genre of the beginning of the decade proved to be the most nightmarish for studio accountants by the end of it, and helped hasten the end of the final days of the classic studio system. In the wreckage, a new generation of filmmakers, the “New Hollywood” of Scorsese and Coppola, Spielberg and De Palma, and Lucas and Friedkin, found it a lot easier to make the type of movies they wanted to make, and which Hollywood would’ve never greenlit 10 years earlier.
According to Tarantino, a whole new generation of filmmakers—and perhaps several of them—are hoping that superhero movies go the same way, and with their implosion will come a new opportunity for original ideas and voices to dominate what’s left of the studio system.
Again, I suspect this isn’t said with entire maliciousness. After all, Tarantino is a filmmaker who benefitted greatly from the collapse of the studio system. The ‘70s aesthetic, although often in the grindhouse and counterculture arena, is clearly among Tarantino’s biggest influences. But at the same time, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a love letter to the last days of the older system, and the type of “hired hands” who were happy to do bit parts on Western television shows. And, indeed, Tarantino’s previously cited the musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) as among his favorite movies.
But the director does raise an interesting question: Could superhero movies be in danger of collapsing the way musicals did? It seems less likely right now. For starters, studios are so entrenched in larger media conglomerates that it’s hard to imagine one or even several high-profile flops collapsing a studio, at least the kind that bask on factory farm-style superhero movies. Additionally, if one were to follow the analogy through, I suspect we’re closer to the late 1950s or early ‘60s than the end of that latter decade. As with My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, superhero movies still appear to be on a high following the success of movies like Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) in the last few years. And the proverbial Arthur Freed unit (the MCU) is still going strong.
With that said, it’s remarkable how in only five years, musicals went from being on top of the world to being deader than Jacob Marley. And, according to Tarantino, a lot filmmakers are finding hope in that prospect while looking at the superhero-saturated landscape of today.