Friday, 6 January 2012

Auteurship and the Super-Hero Film

Over Christmas I discovered an interview with David Fincher where he talked about how he would have approached the Spider-Man reboot. Fincher's name was thrown around as a possibility for this film as well as the 2002 film. In the interview, Fincher says:

My impression what Spider-Man could be is very different from what Sam [Raimi] did or what Sam wanted to do. I think the reason he directed that movie was because he wanted to do the Marvel comic superhero. I was never interested in the genesis story. I couldn't get past a guy getting bit by a red and blue spider. It was just a problem… It was not something that I felt I could do straight-faced. I wanted to start with Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin, and I wanted to kill Gwen Stacy.

The title sequence of the movie that I was going to do was going to be a ten minute -- basically a music video, an opera, which was going to be the one shot that took you through the entire Peter Parker [backstory]. Bit by a radioactive spider, the death of Uncle Ben, the loss of Mary Jane, and [then the movie] was going to begin with Peter meeting Gwen Stacy. It was a very different thing, it wasn't the teenager story. It was much more of the guy who's settled into being a freak.

Fincher's vision for a Spider-Man film sounds incredibly intriguing, particularly since it zips through the origin story in an economic and unique way. After reading this interview I started to think about the role the director plays in regards to the Super-hero genre. While Batman and Spider-Man are certainly the stars of their own films, I feel that audiences and critics do focus on the director behind the film. Moreover, praise or blame of the film is sometimes laid at the feet of these directors.

When we think of 1989's Batman, we probably think of Jack Nicholson as the Joker or Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman but we also think of the film's director, Tim Burton. While this film isn't as Burtonesque as Batman Returns, Batman, with it's expressionistic visual style and gothic tone, fits in to Burton's rather nicely. From my knowledge, it was Burton's decision to have the Joker, back when he was just Jack Napier, to be the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents. This is one the biggest departures a superhero film has taken from its source material, one that doesn't please many fans of Batman. Personally, I think it's a interesting decision but one that's not that well thought out. Batman tells the Joker that he killed his parents near the end of the film but it never becomes an essential part of the film's climax.   

Before returning to direct Batman Returns, Burton reportedly was uninterested in returning to the character of Batman. bu Warner Bros. supposely convnced him to direct when they told him that instead of directing a Batman film, he could direct a Tim Burton film. Batman Returns is very much a Tim Burton film playing up the german expressionism influence from the first, and havng bizarre characters making up the supporting cast.

Burton's films have often dealt with what it means to be an outsider, something that Burton relates to:

If you've ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider, it never quite leaves you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays within you.

The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is the quintiessential Burton outsider like Edward Scissorhands- Burton's Penguin is deformed and left in a sewer by his parents. He's a very freakish looking character. This is definitely not the more distinguished Penguin we know from the comics.

But while Burton imposes a personal visual style and mood on the film, as well as creating a Penguin more in line with his feeling a being an  outsiders, is Batman Returns a really personal film for Burton? Or is the personal aspect of the film or to do with Burton's visual style and sense of mood. Does it penetrate beyond the surface to make a personal statement about outsiders in society and in comic books? I'm not quite sure.

I think the same kind of questions can be asked of other directors' visions in regards to super-hero films. Sam Raimi directed the Spider-Man trilogy and is known for being a Spider-Man fan. While his love of the character definitely shows in the spirit of the films and they're also very humane films, beyond this, what is personal to Raimi in these films? What issues in the film are truly important to him?

Now, I'm not out to bash Burton or Raimi. I like the Spider-Man trilogy, particularly the first two, and I like Burton's Batman films, yes even the bizarro Batman Returns. I just feel that in the directors' visions somehow aren't complete.

I think this incompleteness of vision, among super-hero films can best be applied to Ang Lee's 2003 film Hulk. Hulk is a film that I like but I think it has the problem of being stuck between 2 worlds in regards to its style. On one hand, it's trying to ground the Hulk character in a psychological drama, exploring Bruce Banner's Jekyll/Hyde personality and his twisted relationship with his father. On the other hand, it embraces certain comic book elements- it has Hulk dogs, Nick Nolte as Bruce Banner's father turns in to an electroid monster- and Lee's use of split screens, which suggest comic book panels. I think Lee couldn't quite blend them in way where everything clicked. The film should have completely committed to it's psychological elements. Lee was probably attracted to what the script was doing with exploring the psychological aspects of Bruce Banner/the Hulk. If Lee was able to have more creative control, I think he could have had more influence on the script and made it less of blockbuster-style film. Unfortunately, a film like Hulk still has to have those blockbuster element to it. While these elements are compatiable with deeper themes and issues, in this case, it lead to a compromised vision. 

An example of a director being noted as directing the best of films of a series is Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men films.  Singer is an openly gay man and the X-Men films can be read as allegories for homophobia in modern society, as well as other forms of discrimination. The X-Men are essentially outsiders and I think Singer, being a gay man, knew what it was like to be an outsider and brought that personal knowledge to the films.

On a side note, Matt Vaughn, who directed the latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class, brought his love of the Bond series to the film, making Michael Fassbender's Erik Lensherr/Magneto in to mutant version of James Bond.

Coming back to Batman, let's look at the Christopher Nolan Batman saga. Nolan has received much praise from critics and Batman fans for his two Batman films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Nolan is arguably seen as the auteur of this series. Nolan (and his creative team) have done a fine job of balancing this comtemporary and stripped down and stylistically realistic take on Batman while still crafting something which feels quintiessentially Batman . Nolan's vision for the series, as I said, is a stylistic rather than literal realism. Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister go for a photorealistic look for Gotham rather than Burton' expressionistic look or Joel Schumacher's neon Gotham.

The Dark Knight dealt with issues of heroism, terrorism, morality, sacrifice, all that junk. These themes certainly fascinate Nolan but they don't give me the sense of Nolan as a person, which could also be said of his other films. The Dark Knight  almost seems too large to be truly personal. That may be the difficulty in having a personal vision in a super-hero film. The large scale can overshadow a director's personal vision.

Coming back to the new Spider-Man, I hope Marc Webb, who helped give (500) Days of Summer  it's aching poignancy, will bring a human touch to The Amazing Spider-Man.  What I really want is this film to take the Spider-Man character in a bold new direction. I think Webb has it in him to go there. If not...there's always David Fincher.

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