Fifty years ago, the famed American film critic Andrew Sarris wrote an essay that would serve as a foundation for movie reviewers, and lovers alike, for generations to come entitled, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Though the concept had originated in France with critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut, it had mostly been disabused in the country of its origin by the time Sarris’ essay was published. So for most U.S. cineastes this was the first time they heard the phrase auteur theory and how it might very well apply to the directors whom they already worshipped at their local movie theater: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, to name but a few. Essentially, auteur theory means that a great film’s director is also it’s main authorial voice — that there can be films without auteurs and not every director is one, but that the best movies will almost always be driven by the auteurs — rather than “scenarists,” who merely set the stage upon which the actions transpire. Auteur theory doesn’t ignore writers, editors, actors, or any of the myriad crew necessary to make a movie, it simply means that the director’s vision is funneled through those apparatuses in the final outcome.
In his essay, Sarris notes that the theory necessitates a long view rather than a focus on a singular film, as not every film may have all three attributes necessary to crown a director an auteur. Those attributes are described as three distinct measurements that can be used to judge if a filmmaker has arrived at being an auteur in the course of their career: 1) technical competence, the knowing and understanding of how best to use movie making tools; 2) personal style, the personal touches and details that serve as a director’s signature; and 3) interior meaning, the tension between the director’s personality and the material they are working with. It is with this third point that I think is most interesting in terms of today’s superherologged cinema. Superheroes, like their trope-defining progenitor (comic books), tend to be relegated to the trash can of artistic endeavors. Sure, movies based on comics and their sensibilities get a lot more money thrown their way than they did when the adaptations were left to Roger Corman, but they’re always graded on a curve. “It’s good for a comic book film.” And, yet, when a technically proficient stylist with something to say gets behind the camera, superhero movies can be the best thing playing at the cinema.
Most, if not all, working directors have enough technical competence to teach an entry level class at any University that wants to offer a film class, though it seems ever impossible to actually teach artistic flourish other than canted angles and the Vertigo shot. But it’s the meaning — the depth, breadth, and scope — of a film that seems to elude even the most technically competent directors. Since superheroes are mostly meant to generate millions more dollars than they cost, an event that happens frequently enough that Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider each have sequels, studios aren’t necessarily in a rush to make anything resembling art in their commercial enterprises. And, yet, when they do get hired to helm “comic book” movies, auteur filmmakers tend to make their money back, and please both critics and audience. Obviously, there are exceptions: Ang Lee’s Hulk, and Sky High was made by the same guy who helped craft Rob Schneider’s career pièce de résistance, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. However, below I’ve attempted to categorize the burgeoning genre’s best directors, all of whom I’ve discovered are quite clearly auteurs who arrived at their visions well before they made the leap from passion projects to big budget action fare. As such, they’ve also made the best superhero movies, based on an existing property or not, so far.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy
Due to the timeliness and near universal affection for his Batman movies, Nolan is by far the easiest director to point to for evidence of the superhero auteur theory’s veracity. There’s no denying that his take on Batman is unique in movies and in comics, and one need only point to the trilogy’s collective box office take and its average 82% on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, with very little daylight between critics and audiences. Somehow he took a billionaire sociopath who fights his arrested development by dressing up in a Halloween costume to scare mob guys and purse snatchers into something that could very well work in the real world, or at least not look too silly, with only a minimal suspension of disbelief. If there’s any working director that successfully marries art and commerce, it’s Christopher Nolan. He’s influenced an entire industry to follow his lead, and his name as producer automatically lends all of the credibility to Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.
Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns
Obviously, we can’t talk about superheroes and auteurs and Batman without talking about Tim Burton when he was good. Neither of his two Batman movies were as critically praised as Nolan’s three, but they both made around the same amount of money as Batman Begins, which suggests that audiences adored them. Regardless, they were without question two of the best superhero flicks at the time and they were as much Burton’s interpretation on the decades-old character as Nolan’s. Arguably, his updated take on German expressionism and the Gothic translation of Gotham (as brought to life by Anton Furst) influenced the comic books, and especially the animated series, more than Nolan’s probably ever will. It’s worth pointing out that Joel Schumacher tried to maintain Burton’s overall look and feel of Batman and Gotham but misjudged the level of acceptable camp, failing the character and audiences immensely. Clearly, not just anyone can do Burton’s style.
Richard Donner’s Superman , Superman II, and Superman Returns
While we’re on the topic of earlier cinematic superheroes, it would be criminal not to discuss Donner’s and Christopher Reeve’s Superman. The director only received official credit for the first film, but one look at Richard Lester’s Superman III ought to be enough to recognize that Donner’s creative stamp is all over the second one, too, regardless of his Director’s Cut that was released on DVD. His and Reeve’s sensibilities for Clark Kent became so enmeshed in pop culture that “Lois & Clark,” “Smallville,” and Superman Returns ostensibly copied every aspect of his style to various degrees of success. (Brandon Routh wouldn’t even have a career without Superman and Superman II.) That later movie isn’t regarded nearly as highly and it’s likely because Bryan Singer was too beholden to Donner for his reborquel, rather than doing his own thing, which audiences had grown to appreciate.
Bryan Singer’s X-Men, X2: X-Men United, and X-Men: First Class
After directing such big studio movies as the X-Men series, Valkyrie, and the forthcoming Jack the Giant Killer and being in the producer’s chair for as many TV shows as movies, it’s fairly difficult to remember that Singer was once best known for indie movies like the trippy crime drama, The Usual Suspects, and the trippy Nazi revenge thriller, Apt Pupil. But in retrospect both of those seem like perfect predecessors to criminalized outcasts with a bizarrely a specific connection to Nazis and the Holocaust. The X-films are basically his trippy take on sci-fi and action. I don’t know if it’s because Matthew Vaughn, First Class helmer, hasn’t really developed an obvious style or not with Stardust and Kick-Ass, but it’s probably not a coincidence that it felt as much like a Bryan Singer movie as Singer’s Superman felt like a Richard Donner one. Since he’s also producing the sequel, Days of Future Past, expect this trend to continue.
Sam Raimi’s Dark Man, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and Spider-Man 3
One thing that’s always been particularly striking about Sam Raimi’s take on the young-nerd-bitten-by-radioactive-spider is that it’s one of the truest adaptations to its comic book origins, funneled through the director’s live-action “Looney Tunes” sensibilities. Yes, he altered some of the basic facts — Mary Jane on the bridge instead of Gwen Stacy, organic webshooters, whatever — but watching his Spider-Man movies (at least the first two) is akin to reading some of the best Spider-Man comics. But Raimi is never not being Raimi. Whether that means cameos by Bruce Campbell or a scene involving Doc Ock’s sentient robot tentacles straight out of the Evil Dead series, his style blended with the sarcastically sincere wall-crawler to critical and audience heights superhero movies hadn’t yet seen at that point. The third movie may be the weakest, but even when Raimi isn’t trying he still ends up with better garbage than either Brett Ratner or Mark Steven “Daredevil/Ghost Rider” Johnson.
Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger
Johnston isn’t normally a celebrated director, having worked predominantly in children’s fantasy fare that tries not to treat kid like their idiots, but he is most definitely an auteur. His second movie ever was The Rocketeer and his most recent release is Captain America, both of which take place in the 1930s and 1940s era of nostalgic American Exceptionalism set amidst the turmoil (burgeoning or otherwise) of World War II. In between he also worked on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” Hidalgo, and October Sky — all movies that take place within 10 years on either side of those two aforementioned decades and feature bright, idealistic, classical American hero types. While his movies may not make the most money, they are roundly praised and tend to feel timeless, in spite of (or because of?) their reliance on period details. Before taking on Cap, the only other director that would have been suitable for a superhero fighting Nazis ‘round the world was Steven Spielberg, which is pretty good company to be in. And yet, Johnston was still the absolute best choice.
Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy II
Like giving Johnston the patriotic escapades of Captain America, handing over the reins of a demonic hunter of the paranormal and supernatural over to Guillermo del Toro just makes perfect sense. Before taking on Hellboy, del Toro had already tackled ghosts, vampires, and Lovecraftian-type evil, so naturally he (and Ron Perlman) could bring Mike Mignola’s darkly comic character to cinematic life. In fact, del Toro’s creatures are perhaps even weirder and more disturbing than anything Mignola ever came up with. It is telling, however, that the movies and the comic books upon which they are based are wildly different entertainment experiences. The comics are much closer to Indiana Jones-style adventuring and “X-Files”-esque mystery solving than they are to superhero beat ‘em ups, though that is precisely what makes the movies so much damn fun. Hellboy punches his way through problems all the time in the comics, but it would be hard to classify him as a standard superhero. In contrast, the movies make slight adjustments that make the character more of a wise-cracking anti-hero straight out of the Wolverine, or Deadpool, mold.
James Gunn’s The Specials and Super
We’ve mentioned our palpable excitement for James Gunn’s first major studio production, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, particularly if he gets a certain character actor to play one of the lead
rodents roles. The reason this is excitement holds true is because, like Joss Whedon before him, Gunn has proven himself capable of handling this type of inherently bizarre material (see his Troma work), and making the stories work practically (logic and effects) and emotionally, with hardly any legitimate budgets. He may have only written the super-indie The Specials, but his style and sense of humor are all over that movie you would be forgiven if you thought he directed it, too. Even if you don’t think Super is as blissfully amazing as Slither, it’s impossible to argue that Gunn didn’t make exactly the movie he wanted — a movie nobody else but him could make. What he can envision with some real money is going to be out of this world, if you’ll pardon the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad pun. It’s the same reason why the coinciding Ant-Man flick from Edgar Wright is also highly anticipated. We all know an auteur’s movies when we see one, and they are immediately more interesting than those from directors-for-hire.
If you’re wondering where Joss Whedon and Jon Favreau are on this list, it’s understandable. Whedon’s ability to juggle large casts, his goofy/dry wit, and strength in making strong female characters absolutely made The Avengers the enjoyable experience that it is, and Favreau’s history with self-absorbed drunkards made him well-suited for Tony Stark in Iron Man and Iron Man 2. But, like Kenneth Branagh’s somewhat lesser Thor, they are Marvel movies first and their directors’ films second. Which means there could be a worthwhile examination into how Marvel’s rediscovered studio system of production plays into making superhero films that are every bit as good as the loner auteur’s. But that may have to wait until Gunn and Wright finish their projects, because it will be interesting to see if their unique styles are kept intact, or if the movies fit into the same visual universe as the rest of Marvel’s products. Either way, as long as we can avoid too many future Green Lanterns, superheroes can finally be taken seriously.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He doesn’t think superheroes need to be taken too seriously, however; we are still talking about men and women who dress in tights in order to punch crime in the face.