It can be one of the toughest directorial assignments in the world: how, as a director, do you take on a franchise that’s been strongly the domain of another helmer? We pity, for instance, whoever takes on the Batman franchise from Christopher Nolan.
Here then are some directors who did indeed take the helm on someone’s else’s franchise…
How’s this for a poisoned chalice? Under the stewardship of writer/director James Cameron, the first Terminator movie became a science fiction classic that launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger into the world at large. The second? That’s regarded as one hell of a sequel, again showcasing Cameron’s astonishing eye for action and special effects. But when Cameron decided he didn’t want to do Terminator 3, whoever took the reigns was always onto a bit of a loser from the start.
However, and appreciating that I might need to put my tin hat on here, I thought Jonathan Mostow did a good job with Terminator 3.
Oh sure, the film had an army of problems, most of them to do with the screenplay, and the over-insistence on trying to shoehorn Arnie into as much of the film as possible. But the direction? It’s very much in the spirit of the first two films. The big action sequences are in the eye of the camera rather than put together on a computer, the handling of special effects is well done, and Mostow does as well as anyone could have really hoped. The only disappointment there is that he failed to build on it, helming the tepid Bruce Willis sci-fi vehicle Surrogates instead.
Mostow didn’t hang around to direct Terminator: Salvation, the job of which went to McG. His work there was competent, again with some solid action moments. But ultimately, it all felt a bit mechanical. No pun intended.
Mostow though did as good as you could reasonably have expected, given the script and star power he was working with. He’s no Cameron, certainly. But as his earlier back catalogue attests, he’s an underrated Hollywood helmer nonetheless.
Here’s another poisoned chalice, too. Bryan Singer is one of the major reasons why we’ve got so many comic book movies around at the moment. His first X-Men movie introduced lots of characters, and broke them into the mainstream. The second is one of the best comic book sequels you’re ever going to see, finally blending outstanding action sequences (which had been mooted as a weakness of Singer’s) with an ensemble cast that worked a treat together.
Singer, however, passed on the third X-Men movie, choosing to go off and have a crack at the Superman franchise instead. And some wag at Fox thought that the best man to call would be Mr Brett Ratner.
Ratner is a director, of course, who attracts strong opinions. It’s hard to pin him down to a particular visual style, and instead, his movies have resulted in the accusation that he’s more a hack for hire than creative genius. You’d have to say there’s some truth to that, too.
Still, he can turn out a competent blockbuster, and that’s ultimately what we got with X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s not terrible, it’s just much less ambitious and interesting than the two films that preceded it. It’s quite simply ordinary. And that’s the big disappointment.
Ratner wasn’t on the shortlist to direct X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood took on that job, and didn’t come out of it too well) when that came around, and his time with the X-Men franchise is over.
Bryan Singer’s, however, is about to begin again. He was the original choice to direct next summer’s X-Men: First Class, but a scheduling clash with his current project, Jack The Giant Killer, has meant that he’s now more likely to direct an X-Men 4 at some point in the future. We look forward to that.
Tim Burton has never been a director who comes across as particularly interested in sequels, resisting for some time the idea of making the long-mooted Beetlejuice follow-up. With Batman Returns, the consensus is that he took the job to tackle a Batman movie with the creative freedom he didn’t really get with the original. Thus, while 1989’s Batman has many Burton touches, it’s Batman Returns that’s very much his film.
Once he’d got that out of his system, though, it was always going to be a tough sell to get him back for Batman 3. And so it turned out. Burton eventually passed, causing Michael Keaton to bail out too. This, in turn, cost Rene Russo a part in the film as his love interest, a role that was recast when Batman suddenly became younger, thanks to the casting of Val Kilmer (Nicole Kidman got the lead female role instead).
Unlike Christopher Nolan’s takeover of the Batman franchise, though, Schumacher was inheriting a series in rude health. Granted, Batman Returns‘ takings were solidly down on those for the original film, but Schumacher’s Batman Forever had to maintain the three-year gap between movies that Warner Bros wanted.
Schumacher still managed to do a reboot of sorts, though, and the rest is history. Personally, I found his Batman Forever to be just as dull and horrible as Batman And Robin, which followed just two years later, and while Burton’s movies weren’t without flaws, there’s a chasm of difference between what the two directors put on the screen.
Still, Batman Forever at least hit big for Warner Bros, and Schumacher’s card was golden for a period in the 90s, before Batman And Robin started a collection of stinkers that he only arrested with Tigerland.
Burton, meanwhile, never quite reached the same commercial heights either for a long time (with this year’s Alice In Wonderland his most successful movie to date, edging out Charlie And The Chocolate Factory), although he did follow Batman Returns up with his best film to date, 1994’s Ed Wood.
Christopher Nolan, with his 2005 reboot Batman Begins, had the luxury of an eight-year gap between Batman movies, and few felt that he was taking the franchise off Joel Schumacher’s hands by the time he was appointed (Schumacher was long gone from Gotham, after all).
The ultimate poisoned chalice, however, could well be whoever has to tackle the Batman movie after next, by which time Mr Nolan is almost certain to have left the franchise behind…
The groundwork of the Harry Potter movies had been set up by Chris Columbus, who signed up to direct them after Steven Spielberg eventually turned the job down. Columbus himself freely admits to problems with the first Harry Potter movie, with the special effects, in particular, having a rough and ready feel to them in places. And yet, he still managed to deliver the first sequel, Chamber Of Secrets, just twelve months later.
However, such was the intensity of the production process that, in spite of being incumbent director, he rejected the chance to helm Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban. He argued that he’d poured years of his life without much of a break into getting the two films out of the door, and instead took a producer role on Azkaban. And the series hasn’t looked back since.
For while Columbus put the building blocks of the world of Hogwarts on the big screen, and managed to introduce all of the key characters and generate a pair of massive hits in the process, it wasn’t until Alfonso Cuaron came along that that world suddenly got interesting.
He applied a very different style to Harry Potter 3, one that lifted the franchise enormously, and while he turned down doing another Potter movie (it wasn’t Warner Bros’ intention to change director for each feature, after all, but it did ultimately get through four different directors in four consecutive films), he demonstrated the benefits of allowing a different director in to apply their style.
Many cite Prisoner Of Azkaban as the best Potter movie, and it’s certainly the most visually striking (the realisation of the dementors is quite brilliant). But credit too to David Yates, the man who will have directed the last four films, who – particularly in Order Of The Phoenix – did an impressive job too.
As for Columbus, he bizarrely tackled Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief recently, a film that felt like a straight Harry Potter-knock off. And while that did reasonable business, it didn’t make enough to turn it into the kind of ongoing family franchise that both he and 20th Century Fox probably wanted.
In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s take on Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park blasted out of the blocks to become one of the best blockbusters of the decade. Utterly destroying Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero, which arrived two weeks after it in the US, it grossed over $300m (back when that was nowhere near as commonplace as it is now), and earned a trio of Oscars. Plus, as a special effects breakthrough, it was up there with Terminator 2.
Spielberg returned for the sequel, the first of a trio of films that he made back-to-back in just over a year (Amistad and Saving Private Ryan being the others). And truthfully, watching The Lost World, there’s a sense that his mind may be on other things. There’s a handful of excellent sequences, most prominently Julianne Moore on some slowly cracking glass, but nothing really to match the original. It felt like Spielberg going through the motions, rather than breaking new ground.
It came as little surprise, therefore, that come the 2001 release Jurassic Park III, Spielberg’s name was under a producer credit.
Instead, Joe Johnston took the helm. Johnston’s career to this point has shown an admirable ability to wrangle solid stories in special effects driven films, most notably with the underappreciated Honey I Shrunk The Kids. He also steered Jumanji to become an international hit.
His handling of the Jurassic Park franchise was commendable, too. He stuck to the basics of what Spielberg had managed, in setting up a series of dino-centric set pieces, but he also threw out much of the baggage. The plot is simple, there are no big educational speeches, and the job here is to entertain the audience for an hour and a half, and to hope they don’t notice the horribly truncated ending (the real ending was cut for budgetary reasons, and would have seen an army vs dinosaur shoot out).
Johnston did a good job with Jurassic Park III, a perfectly enjoyable sequel in its own right. And, as such, a decade after he shot it, he’s still mentioned as the helmer for the continually-rumoured Jurassic Park IV. It’s a choice it’d be hard to grumble too much about.
The Alien franchise is a bit different to every other film on this list. There have been six different feature films to include the xenomorphs, and six different directors (seven if you count both Brothers Strausse, who helmed the risible AvP 2) have tackled the films.
However, the first Alien movie was nonetheless utterly the work of Ridley Scott, a film he’d fought for and became intrinsically associated with. And while there was some chatter of him doing the sequel himself, he eventually passed on the opportunity. Thus, someone had the job of directing the sequel to one of the most iconic science fiction movies of all time.
20th Century Fox chose wisely. Red hot off the back of the Terminator franchise, James Cameron signed up to write and direct the sequel, and did the logical thing with it. If the first film was about one alien, then the second needed to feature lots of them. As the tagline said, “This time it’s war”. Damn right too.
And, out of all the directors we’ve discussed here, it’s hard to argue that any of them had a more respectful passing of a franchise than the transition from Ridley Scott to James Cameron. Cameron understood the world of the original film and worked skilfully within it, creating a group of characters whose names you can still remember nearly twenty-five years later (can you say that about Alien 3?), and – in the extended edition – taking around an hour to show you a proper, full-on alien for the first time. It’s gut-wrenchingly tense, and yet also a landmark in action cinema.
Cameron couldn’t be tempted back for Alien 3, focusing his energies instead on Terminator 2 (which, ironically, shared a not dissimilar ending to the third Alien film), and instead David Fincher got to make his feature debut with the film. It’d be interesting to see what Fincher would do with the material if he were making the film now, given that it’s well-reported that studio interference chopped away any chance of Fincher really getting his own way with the film. An extended cut of Alien 3 arrived in the Quadrilogy DVD boxset a few years back, but that wasn’t directly put together by Fincher himself, even if it did feel more substantive than the cinematic cut we ultimately got.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet came along next and had similar studio problems with Alien Resurrection, while the AvP franchise then hired in Paul W S Anderson, with sadly predictable results.
Yet, it’s that handover between Alien and Aliens that remains the template that any director taking on what’s effectively someone else’s franchise should learn from. It’s simply never been matched.
It’s hard to fully associate the Bourne franchise with Doug Liman, the director of the first film, as he did a solid job with The Bourne Identity, but not much that left an indelible mark on it. Instead, it was Paul Greengrass who stamped his style all over the next two movies, leaving the world intrigued as to just who will fill his shoes with Bourne 4. Martin Campbell, perhaps?
Star Wars is clearly George Lucas’ baby, but for one film at least, he handed the megaphone over to someone else. Irvin Kershner stepped up for The Empire Strikes Back, and the series peaked in the process. Return Of The Jedi was directed by Richard Marquand, but as we noted in this article here, the hand of Lucas was much closer to the cameras on that one, it seems…
And In The Future…
The first three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies all had Gore Verbinski at the helm, but it’s Chicagohelmer Rob Marshall who’s taking over for Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Ivan Reitman isn’t, it’s been reported, Sony’s ideal choice for the third Ghostbusters movie (although he’s still attached at the moment), and there’s still a solid chance that The Hobbit movies won’t be helmed by Peter Jackson, no matter how hard Warner Bros and MGM tries to persuade him otherwise.