Has Marvel turned off the directors' spotlight?
Right now, if you were to do a Google search for "the best directors of all time," you may notice a couple of things. The first being that, with the exception of Spike Lee and Kathryn Bigelow, the top search results are all older (or deceased) white men.
The title of director is arguably one of the most prestigious in all of film, as evidenced by the fact that names like Kubrick, Spielberg and Tarantino are typically more prominent on a movie’s poster than the actors in the film.
Looking specifically at Tarantino’s cult classic Kill Bill, the poster reads, “The fourth film by Quentin Tarantino: Kill Bill Vol 1. Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino”. There's a picture of Uma Thurman on the poster, but there's no mention of her name anywhere – or any other actors in the film, for that matter.
The top billing of directors over actors is one of those things that has always been unique to film. It would be like if Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr were featured ahead of Kevin Durant or Steph Curry in the ads for the NBA Finals.
This is by no mean an attempt to discredit anything directors do - without them, movies wouldn't exist. Rather, it's rare to see someone who works in the background placed so prominently in the foreground.
Specific actors and directors team up in Hollywood so often that they often become a double threat. For instance, from 1973 to 1982, Martin Scorsese directed six films and only one of them - Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore - did not star Robert De Niro.
Duos like this are sort of a double-edged sword. One could argue that without De Niro, these movies simply wouldn't carry the same weight, but on the other hand, it’s not as though the New York native was a hot commodity before he starred in Scorsese’s Mean Streets.
Both arguments are valid, and a movie can’t truly be great if the main cast delivers bad performances. Perhaps this is the reason directors so frequently circle back to the actors they are comfortable working with.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is a good film as it is, but it could have been great if not for Keanu Reeves’ less-than-stellar performance as Jonathan Harker. It is easier for an actor to overcome a bad director and still stand out than for the opposite to occur.
A classic example of this was Faye Dunaway in the 1981 movie Mommie Dearest -- a film that has been debated in the same category as The Room -- but an outstanding performance from Dunaway still has people enthralled after all these years.
Over time, the prominence of directors has decreased, as fewer and fewer are becoming household names. One reason for this could be the rise of CGI and summer blockbusters. To the average viewer, the directors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are about as important as the Stan Lee cameos.
These directors -- such as Jon Favreau and Josh Whedon -- are good at what they do, but since the studios have more control over the films - which themselves are pretty formulaic - there isn’t a lot of room for creativity. Few of these directors would be considered A-List, which allows Marvel to save money that they can spend on actors, who are harder to replace. All three Thor movies have had different directors, Kenneth Branagh and Taika Waititi.
Since Marvel has switched to this new standard of "actors first", other studios have followed suit. Studios are willing to take risks on lesser known directors, like Universal hiring Colin Trevorrow for Jurassic World. At the time he was hired, he 38-year-old had only made one feature film, Safety Not Guaranteed, a 2012 film with a $750,000 budget. In stark contrast, Universal gave him a $150 million budget.
With studios placing a heavy emphasis on movie stars and franchises, filmmakers have started slipping back to simply being behind the scenes personnel. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Christopher Nolan is a big name and rightfully so, having released largely nothing but hits since his second feature film Memento in 2000, putting him somewhere in the middle of the old and new guard of directors.
One young filmmaker who may get to Nolan's level is Damian Chazelle, who in recent years directed back-to-back Best Picture nominees, Whiplash and La La Land, the latter of which won an Academy Award for Best Director in 2017. Chazelle is on the climb, but he has yet to become a household name.
The argument could also be made for Jordan Peele to be put in this category after his debut film Get Out shocked the world, earning Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. The 39-year-old has proven himself as a director and his follow-up film, entitled Us, is set for release in March 2019. However, since Peele was an actor first, it's hard to know how much of his fame and attention can be attributed to his previous time in the spotlight.
The landscape of Hollywood moviemaking has undoubtedly changed. Directors are becoming less important to moviegoers than they used to be. Everyone will always have their favourites, but it may be a while before a director again reaches the level of fame once attained by those of the past.