I talk a lot about the art of filmmaking. Or I suppose I give critiques of movies the way I learned to do with art pieces during my art training years ago, looking at the positive and the negative and trying to be fair and honest in my assessments. Which for me means I am treating films as an art form, which I think is fair since film is an artistic medium.
However, filmmaking is also a business, and when we talk about the decisionmaking process behind the movies, quite often it’s the business that informs it. For instance, when we look at the recent announcement that Ron Howard is replacing Phil Lord and Chris Miller in the director’s chair for Lucasfilm’s latest Star Wars Anthology film, the currently untitled Han Solo project, it raises questions about the artistic integrity of the film, even as we understand that this was a business decision. Scuttlebutt is that Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had a difficult relationship with Lord & Miller.
Lord & Miller are, after all, known primarily as comedic directors. But likewise we have been told that the Anthology films are meant to be different from the Saga films, to really let directors explore new kinds of Star Wars stories. Let us also remember that Kennedy and her team at Lucasfilm hired Lord & Miller to direct this movie. Nobody foisted the directors on them, they didn’t inherit the duo, this was a hiring decision they made, knowing who these guys were. Now, last year’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” directed by Gareth Edwards, wound up getting heavily re-shot by someone not named Gareth Edwards. The film was restructured in the 11th hour, apparently to make it more like the saga films, and now Kathy Kennedy has fired Lord & Miller from the Han Solo picture.
Kennedy has a responsibility to protect the legacy of the Star Wars brand, but my read is that she’s somewhat conflicted between wanting to explore what a Star Wars film can be, and making sure that she protects the model of what a Star Wars film already is. The result is almost guaranteed to be another safe and familiar, if entertaining, film. I have not seen a single film that Lord & Miller have made, but these are the guys who cast Alden Ehrenreich to play young Han Solo, and Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, and damn if I didn’t want to see the movie they were making, good or bad. Now nobody ever will. That feels a little tragic.
On the other hand, there’s also a rumor going around that Lord & Miller, who previously met with Warners and DC about directing “The Flash” before stepping away to do the Han Solo picture, met again with the DC films people during a recent hiatus from filming their Star Wars project, suggesting a possible return to DC. For a DC comics guy like me, that’s an interesting prospect. The mostly unfounded stigma against the DCEU is finally lifting, with the success of Wonder Woman, and a good Flash movie, free of all the soap-opera garbage of the CW show, would be a welcome addition to the lineup.
Shakeups like this are still more common than I’d like to think. Look at how many of the Marvel films have lost directors, for example. Before she directed Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins was up for Thor 2: The Dark World, but departed the project because Marvel Studios had certain requirements that a Thor sequel needed to meet and Jenkins wasn’t going to be able to tell the story she wanted to tell. Before Ryan Coogler came onboard for Black Panther, Ava Duvernay was attached to that project. Peyton Reed replaced Edgar Wright on Ant-Man. Joss Whedon quit Marvel after Avengers: Age of Ultron because hitting a checklist isn’t as fun as telling a story. I think this has a lot to do with the reason Marvel mostly hires TV directors these days to do their movies. It’s about having workman directors who are cheap, controllable, and who can’t afford to let ego get the better of them. It’s like the time George Lucas hired Richard Marquand to direct Return of the Jedi. In the end none of the Marvel movies are bad, but none of them are great, either. They are entertaining and provide a reasonable ROI, and as long as that is true they are going to keep making them the same exact way. Same with the new Star Wars movies. If there’s money in it, Kathy Kennedy will keep pushing for more of the same.
DC has had their share of directorial shakeups too, of course. Patty Jenkins actually replaced Michelle MacLaren on Wonder Woman, and The Flash has had numerous directors attached at various points. Franchises are tricky, they’re not solely about a director’s artistic vision, they are also about building a brand and making money, and studios work hard to find directors they like, who they feel have a vision that suits their needs. In other words, the art takes a backseat to the business. As expensive as these movies are to make, that can’t be a surprise to anyone.
We can reach back even further, to the Salkinds ditching Dick Donner for Superman II, or Warners booting Tim Burton off Batman Forever. What sets the modern age apart is guys like Kevin Feige and Geoff Johns, whose job it is to balance between the studio’s need for bankability, and the legacy of their respective brands. But Geoff Johns, the DC guy, is a fairly recent addition to the staff at DC Films, and what I think a lot of the fans forget, is that while DC Films is pretty new, Warners has been in the business of making DC films for a long time, and while most of those films are not in DCEU continuity, there’s another kind of continuity at work: it is, after all, the same studio that has been making DC films since 1978. The reality is, that’s a continuity of business decisions for them.
Essentially, every DC film from Superman: The Movie to Green Lantern, informs the genesis of the DCEU. Take Batman ’89 for example. It was a fight for Michael Uslan to get a serious Batman movie made at Warners at that time, and landing Burton to direct was crucial to making that happen. Warners loaded the film with big-name talent to try and trade on star power, a tactic the entire 90’s Batman franchise would repeat to increasingly comical effect. That’s a practice that Dick Donner and the Salkinds employed with Superman; although Christopher Reeve wasn’t a big name, that film had Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, and Ned Beatty.
Batman was a huge success, and Warners greenlit a sequel and re-signed Burton and most of his cast. Since dark, serious Batman had worked out for them, they let Burton do what he wanted, and the result was Batman Returns, a film that even a lot of people in my generation don’t like. It didn’t do as well ast the box office, and Burton was booted for Batman Forever. Michael Keaton walked away soon afterward, and we wound up with Joel Schumacher and Val Kilmer.
Batman Forever was fun, and tried to strike a balance between camp and the drama inherent to the character. It was also extremely toyetic, stuffed full of colorful characters with lots of costume changes so that action figures could be sold. The result is a movie that was fun in the summer of 1995, but is often cringeworthy in revisits, and squarely of its time. However, it was a huge success, bigger even than Batman ’89, and that prompted Warners to rehire everybody for its sequel. Val Kilmer dropped out, though, having other commitments, and was replaced by George Clooney. Batman & Robin took all the worst aspects of Batman Forever – the cheesy jokes, the camp, the over-saturated color palette, the gratuitous redesigns and alternate costumes in order to sell toys. The hiring of big name actors had devolved into getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to portray a tragic villain.
It’s worth noting that all of this happened at a time when the internet was just arriving as the seat of all fandom, and Batman & Robin became the first casualty of internet fan rage. It was totally deserved, the movie was awful, and the internet pounced on it like sharks on chum. Warners retired Batman for some eight years. DC Superheroes mostly retreated to television, the realm of animated series and CW melodramas. But Warners, and every other studio, began using the internet as an access point to the fandom, hoping in this way to keep a finger on the pulse.
In the interim, Warners looked at bringing Superman back to cinemas, and hired Tim Burton to do it. That’s a strange pairing, and one that resulted in Nicholas Cage being hired to play Superman. Thank God that never came to pass, but it’s one of the stranger chapters in this history. Brett Ratner and JJ Abrams took a pass at making Superman. The studio also considered doing Batman: Year One, and even began developing a Justice League movie to be directed by Mad Max’s George Miller.
When Batman returned in 2005, or, more specifically, Began, Christopher Nolan made it easy for audiences to believe a man could dress up like a bat and punch bad guys. Nolan cited Superman: The Movie as one of his references, saying Donner’s approach to using big names in key supporting roles was a strategy he appreciated, and that thinking gave us Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul/Henri Ducard, and Ken Watanabe as Ubu/Decoy Ra’s. Nolan also wasted no opportunity to take moments that were some of the greatest failures of the Burton-Schumacher films, and invert them.
Note, for instance, that in Batman Forever, Riddler and Two-Face ambush Alfred and beat him over the head with a cane before blowing up the Batcave and trashing Wayne Manor; in Batman Begins, when Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows set fire to Wayne Manor, it is Alfred, armed with a golf club, who beats a goon over the head and makes his way through the burning mansion to save Bruce. As a second example, just to prove that I’m not making this up; at the end of Batman ’89, Batman tethers Joker by the ankle to an apotropaic figure using his grapnel, which ultimately results in Joker’s death. In the Dark Knight, Batman tosses Joker out of an incomplete skyscraper, then uses his grapnel to catch him by the ankle and leave him for the police. The DK trilogy is full of these little mulligans.
In 2006, following the success of Batman Begins, Warners heisted Bryan Singer away from Fox’s X-Men franchise (where he was replaced by Brett Ratner) and gave him the keys to Superman. Superman Returns, while a decent Superman movie, was a love letter to the Salkind-era Christopher Reeve movies. It told a story that amounted to a remake of Superman and Superman II, pitting the Man of Steel against Lex Luthor yet again. Fans complained that the film was boring and there was nobody for Superman to throw a punch at. The film underperformed at the box office.
In 2008, “The Dark Knight” crushed it at the box office, and Marvel launched the MCU the same year. By 2009 Warners killed Bryan Singer’s sequel to Superman Returns, and began developing Man of Steel. Then 2011 gave us Green Lantern, which looks for all the world like DC’s attempt to replicate the Marvel Formula. It didn’t replicate it successfully, though, and the result, though entertaining, was a total misfire. The following year saw Nolan’s third and final Dark Knight film, and then Man of Steel in 2013, produced by Christopher Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas, along with Debra Snyder, Zack’s wife. It was a clear reaction against the failure of Green Lantern and Superman Returns. It was also the film that finally launched the DCEU: a Superman movie made in the style of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. They even did the thing where they cast a mostly unknown actor in the lead role and surrounded him with veterans like Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishburne. Yet, audiences were divided. Finally Superman had somebody to punch, and Henry Cavill was perfectly cast, but the film was misunderstood by many. Where Returns had been accused of not having enough action, Man of Steel was castigated for having too much. Where people reacted against Returns being too much of a Donner retread, Man of Steel was reproached for not having the tone of the Salkind films.
I have to believe that at this point, Warners was feeling like nothing they could do would make a Superman movie successful, which is probably why the sequel to Man of Steel was a Batman movie. Audiences seem to like Batman better, if you’re looking at the numbers. The tone of both MoS and BvS, that so many people reacted negatively towards, I would say was a simple decision for a studio that had just had success with the Dark Knight Trilogy, and failure with Superman Returns and Green Lantern. They just followed the money. BvS underperformed too, but it did much better than MoS.
At this point, David Ayers’ Suicide Squad was reshot to emphasize more humor, and was turned into what amounts to a feature-length music video. And then there’s Wonder Woman. As I wrote in my review last week, Wonder Woman definitely feels like a reaction to the general audience reception to MoS and BvS, and while I think Wonder Woman is a good movie, I also think the balancing act that it has to do is awkward and lets it down a little bit at the end, though not enough to ruin the film. Warners and DC, though, have spoken openly about trying to create an environment where directors are free to work and to put their stamp on their films. When they let Michelle MacLaren go, it was because her vision wasn’t the one they wanted, but once they brought Patty Jenkins onboard, they knew they were all on the same page and they mostly stayed out of her way. That’s probably what puts Wonder Woman above the average Marvel film for me. I hope that approach continues. I’d rather have movies, whether hugely successful like Wonder Woman or underperformers like MoS or the BvS Ultimate Edition, that are good, well-made films the directors stand beside and are proud of, than have a gaggle of garbled messes like Suicide Squad cluttering up the theaters.
In the end, this is why I end up writing so much about movies, and why I have a long history of arguing with people on the internet: I know the studios are listening, and if I like a movie I’m not going to keep it to myself. Arguing with a random stranger probably won’t change that stranger’s mind, of course, but for people reading the comments section, seeing a reasoned argument about why BvS is great, for instance, may be the incentive for some who had avoided it, to check it out. And maybe some of those folks will enjoy it. So when I debate, when I argue, when I converse… it isn’t necessarily for your benefit, or for mine, but for other people. For studios and directors I think have done a good job. For people who might like the movie but haven’t seen it yet due to something their friends said. The internet has given us all a certain amount of power. Let’s use it responsibly.