LOS ANGELES —
When Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies became a massive critical and commercial success a few years ago, it touched off one of the more unexpected mini-trends in modern filmmaking. Suddenly quirky directors were being handed the reins to big-budget men-in-tights tentpoles, as studios looked to replicate the formula that had the director of “Memento” scoring with splashy movies about a caped crime-fighter.
It was an arrangement that seemed to give everyone what they wanted. Studios gained credibility and the potential for a massive hit, while the auteurs got to play with a bigger budget and on a bigger stage without (they hoped) giving up much artistic freedom. Plus they got to make a greenlighted movie, which in this climate may be the biggest selling point of all.
But these experiments have hardly yielded magnificence and wondrousness. This week’s news that Darren Aronofsky wouldn’t direct “Wolverine” is the latest example; most reports had Aronofsky leaving the project for family reasons, but it nonetheless marked another pairing that didn’t work out as planned.
Two years ago, Gavin Hood, the foreign-language Oscar-winner, didn’t hit it out of the park with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” “Superman” director Richard Donner was brought onto Hood’s set and may have even served as a helmer for part of the film, leaving Hood to defend his relationship with Fox executives in promotional interviews. The movie went on to perform only decently at the box office and underwhelmed a fair number of critics and fans.
The attempt by “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” auteur Michel Gondry to give new life to “The Green Hornet” stumbled, too — the movie was a middling performer with audiences earlier this year and hardly sparked excitement in critics. Gondry also admitted in interviews that writer-star Seth Rogen and he didn’t see eye to eye; in fact, during part of the production he was sulking on set while Rogen had him shoot a scene he didn’t want to shoot.
And the results are not yet in for Shakespeare director Kenneth Branagh’s tackling of “Thor,” but the marketing materials have not, to this point, suggested a second coming of “The Dark Knight.”
In fact, for a trend that Nolan touched off, he remains arguably the only truly successful example of it.
There are plenty of reasons why it’s been such a troubled path. Unlikely marriages are unlikely for a reason, and if their results can be spectacular, their failures can be, too. Studios are hiring more ambitious directors at the same time they are taking ever-fewer risks in all other aspects of their business, and the combination doesn’t always mesh. Meanwhile, for directors who are used to controlling every small element of production, working in the straitjacketed world of the studio tentpole may not be something they take easily too.
And then there’s the possibility that it’s simply a bad creative fit: these are not the kinds of stories and productions that play to these directors’ strengths, and vice versa.
With Aronofsky now gone from “Wolverine,” the interesting question for Fox will be whether it seeks someone equally ambitious or if it returns to a more familiar combination. The studio may be tempted for another “Dark Knight”-esque experiment. But a talented but traditional superhero director may be the wiser choice, for the sanity of everyone who works on it, and, given some of the past results, for the satisfaction of those of us who go see it.