Ava DuVernay & Marvel: The pros and cons of a potential match
Prove yourself adept at intimacy, emotion and quiet tension, and the door to bombast blasts open.
Filmmakers who earn their bona fides on acclaimed dramas are often coveted by studios who hope they’ll bring heart and intellect to what are essentially cartoon characters: superheroes, secret agents, monsters and other assorted mayhem.
Christopher Nolan went from Memento and Insomnia to Batman Begins. American Beauty Oscar-winner Sam Mendes is now on his second 007 film. A lifetime of Shakespeare led Kenneth Branagh to the olde-world grandiloquence of 2011’s Thor. Even The Wrestler and Requiem For a Dream filmmaker Darren Aronofsky had fans psyched for his take on The Wolverine (before bowing out at the last second).
Now comes word that director Ava DuVernay, who made her breakthrough with the 2012 Sundance drama Middle of Nowhere and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination with her Civil Rights drama Selma, is being considered by Marvel studios to direct one of its upcoming superhero movies.
Sources close to the projects confirm to EW that DuVernay is one of several filmmakers being considered for Black Panther (out July 6, 2018) or Captain Marvel (coming Nov. 2, 2018).
The Wrap first reported that DuVernay was being “courted” by the comic-book powerhouse, but fans have been discussing the possibility of DuVernay directing a Marvel film for months. The director herself even mulled the possibility in an interview with EW. (“Is it a huge goal that I’m thinking about and striving for? No. But if there was the right story, absolutely. I think it’s important that our heroes reflect more than one kind of person,” she said.)
So while we wait to find out whether DuVernay actually will direct Black Panther or Captain Marvel, the question is: should she? There are various advantages and disadvantages to attaching yourself to a superhero franchise. Here’s a rundown of the risks and rewards for an esteemed filmmaker in her position:
The obvious: Directing a superhero film can turn a filmmaker into a household name. DuVernay is well-known and deeply respected in the business, and she has some high-profile admirers, but she’s only made three feature films (her debut was 2010’s little-seen I Will Follow), and is still building a reputation with moviegoers. A big studio movie is also a healthy payday that opens the doors to bigger projects and can clear the way to getting personal passion projects more resources and bigger stars. There are multiple career boons to managing one of these films successfully.
Signing on to an expensive studio tentpole also means signing away significant control. Marvel is known for having a strong hand in the shaping of its movies, which doesn’t always sit well with filmmakers who are used to independence and the artistic liberty that comes with lower-budget projects. Monster director Patty Jenkins clashed with Marvel executives in the run-up to Thor: The Dark World and ended up leaving the film and being replaced by Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor. Even Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon, part of the Marvel Studios braintrust, had difficulties bringing his vision to the screen on Age of Ultron. The cautionary tale is Edgar Wright, who developed Ant-Man for eight years with the studio but quit just months before it began shooting over disagreements about the story. For all its rewards, making a superhero film also requires immense compromise.
These compromises aren’t that different from directing an episode of a television show. You can bring your own flourish to the material, but only if you work within the tone and style already determined by the producers. (This is why Joe and Anthony Russo, best known for their work in episodic television like Arrested Development and Community, fared so well with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and became Marvel favorites, currently directing Captain America: Civil War and signed on to make the two Avengers: Infinity War films.) Not only did DuVernay do a stint on ABC’s Scandal, she also directed the pilot for the new CBS show For Justice and is working on another show with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN. She knows how to blend her skills with a pre-established motif. That’s a skillset that would serve her well with Marvel, although a feature film has a much bigger time committment and scale.
She hasn’t made an action movie. Middle of Nowhere showed DuVernay could tell a heavy, romantic drama with its story of a nurse trying to remain faithful to her imprisoned husband, while still trying to live her own life. Selma demonstrated she was adept at historical drama, chronicling Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the effort to secure support for the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in the face of violent opposition and virulent racism. There were gut-wrenching scenes of brutality in Selma, but DuVernay is untested with chases, fights, and battles. (To be fair, she was also untested before making her three previous movies, and each one revealed new abilities.)
Whether she signs on to Black Panther or Captain Marvel, she would bring essential perspective to both. Most fans agree it’s vital to have a black filmmaker tell the story of the first black superhero and equally important to have a woman’s point-of-view behind Marvel’s first female headliner. DuVernay covers both bases, and her experiences and insights would bring a connection that would deepen either character. For those who love these heroes, Marvel hiring her would be a sign of respect for the characters. The fact that DuVernay would be the first woman and person of color to direct a Marvel Studios film also have meaning as the film industry strives to diversify its storytelling.
Some fans of DuVernay’s may rather see her expend her efforts bringing her own projects to the screen, rather than tackling an installment in a lighthearted action movie. With her previous films, DuVernay has delved into heavy subject matter, those types of tales are also endangered species within a business that prefers to bet big on pre-existing properties at the expense of originality. (Her fourth film is a love story-murder mystery set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina.) Attaching herself to a Marvel film could detour a burgeoning talent from her own path … although, as mentioned at the top, it could also circle her back and provide leverage to tell even more ambitious stories in the future.
She has recent experience with her own action figure.
Whatever the case, DuVernay will be the one deciding her own fate. But the question stands: In this game of “choose your own adventure” which page do you hope she will turn?