Why Superheroes Need Auteurs
If you ask any film student who the greatest directors of all time are, nearly everyone will list Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was infamous for the level of control he would exert on his films. He once said, “One man writes a novel. One man writes a symphony. It is essential that one man make a film.” Of course, films are collaborative efforts, but Kubrick believed that they should be one person’s vision.
Is this what a great film requires? If it is, then why do so few superhero films fit this criterion? More people know the name of a studio behind a superhero film, rather than the name of the person who directed it. A great film needs a great director. Which is why superhero films need to become products of directors rather than studios. The history of superheroes in movies, the auteur theory, and the fate of the Western genre are essential pieces to understanding why we need directors in control of their movies. This change is necessary for superhero movies to rise above mere popcorn entertainment.
Superheroes and the Academy
Superhero films have existed since the 70s. In that time, they have enjoyed immense popularity. They have also risen and fallen and risen again in public reception and critical acclaim. Look at the Batman films after the 1980’s. The first two were critical and commercial successes. Soon after, however, we reached the critical and commercial bomb that was Batman & Robin. A film so bad that Batman and film was a dead relationship for several years until its revival at the hands of director Christopher Nolan. This led to one of the highest grossest and most critically acclaimed superhero films of all time, The Dark Knight. This film had a performance so great that it won the superhero genre’s first Academy Award. Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker posthumously took home the award for Best Supporting Actor. Despite this acclaim, The Dark Knight was not nominated for the Best Picture category at that year’s Oscars. This caused enough uproar that the Oscars eventually expanded the Best Picture nominations to include more than five films. Despite this expansion, superhero movies would not receive a [Best Picture] nomination until 2018.
That film was Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. The first superhero film to ever be nominated for Best Picture. Of course, the Academy Awards are not an objective measure of what makes a film good. Film criticism is an inherently subjective medium. I say that so that there is no misunderstanding about the objectivity of this paper. I do believe these are the two best comic book movies. These two films rise above the genre to become something greater. These two films have something else in common. This commonality is what gives them the mark of art. The presence of the director is something they both share. This presence is clear with how The Dark Knight deals with law and order and how Black Panther deals with race relations. That’s an easy explanation of how these films are expressions of their directors, but that is not the whole picture of why they are great. A grasp of the auteur theory is needed to understand why these films were made by artists.
This idea of director as artist is not new. It comes from the film movement known as the French New Wave. Several of the New Wave directors started as critics. They founded the influential film journal, Cahiers Du Cinema. The auteur theory was never formally put to paper, but as director Andre Bazin said, “It was a theory that had evolved from a body of criticism and from a multitude of film reviews which had been written by the contributors to Cahiers du Cinema.” (Staples, 2007). The name of this body of criticism was eventually coined as the auteur theory by American film critic Andrew Sarris. Auteur means author in French. The theory revolves around the idea that certain directors are auteurs. These auteurs make films that are inherently expressions of themselves. An auteur treats the camera like a writer treats a pen. These auteur directors often make films that are better than non-auteurs. Francois Truffaut, the French director who wrote the first article that would later develop into the auteur theory wrote, “The directors are, and wish to be, responsible for the scenarios and dialogues that they illustrate.” To understand why superhero films need auteur directors, you must understand what a director can bring to a film. Fortunately, many well-known directors fall into the category of auteur. Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick are some of the most famous examples. An auteur can elevate a film above what is written in the script. E.T. and Jurassic Park are heartfelt adventure movies that would be lesser films if not for Spielberg’s understanding of exactly what he wants. It is also through these directors that we can see the lasting power of their works. Will superhero films have the same level of impact and influence? It’s difficult to have a clear view about these things while we are living in these moments. All we can do is try to understand why some directors are considered auteurs.
It’s important to understand that auteur theory is, according to Sarris, composed of three premises. The first of these is the cinematic skill of the director. As Sarris said in his article Notes on the Auteur Theory, “Now, by the auteur theory, if a director has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, he is automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors. A great director has to be at least a good director.” (pg. 562, 1962)
The second of these premises is that the personality of the director must be expressed in their movies. This comes down to style. The idea of a director’s style can be thought of similarly to the idea of style in the fashion world. A director might want a colorful and vibrant film, or they might prefer a more realistic and desaturated film. However, style extends past the color scheme of the movie. The camera is another tool for the director to express themselves. For example, Spielberg is known for a technique lovingly called the “Spielberg Face.” This iconic shot is a zoom-in on a character as they look at something off-camera. It’s a stylistic choice that Spielberg has utilized in several of his films.
In theory, a person should be able to identify an auteur’s films, just by looking at what is on the screen. The last of these premises is the most important. This premise is defined as the interior meaning of the director’s works. This can be simplified as the themes of their films. Artists and writers are known for portraying the same themes across their work. The same can be said for auteur directors. One of Alfred Hitchcock’s recurrent themes is the overbearing and fierce mother in his character's lives. Psycho is the most well-known example of this theme. The movies of Hitchcock could almost be used to create a psychological profile on the man, much in the say way a Freudian psychologist would analyze dreams. Though, even the speed of a conversation can reflect the director’s psyche according to this third premise. These three premises can be thought of as three concentric circles. All three must exist for a director to be considered an auteur. We can point to two examples of directors who seem to have made superhero films that fit these criteria, but is that enough? Arguments can be made for several more auteurs in the genre, but when compared to another similar genre, there are still far too few. This comparative genre is known as the Western.
Comparisons to Westerns
Superhero films are often compared to the Western genre. Westerns once enjoyed a level of sheer popularity comparable to superhero movies. That time is long past. Westerns have found their home more in smaller independent films rather than big-budget summer films. Will superhero films follow this same trajectory? It’s impossible to tell. However, as Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.”
There are several voices within the film critic community that argue that superhero films have not reached the same level of quality that Westerns achieved. Scott Bukatman argues that, “The superhero film provides neither the psychological weight of the adult western nor the ineffable lightness of the classical Hollywood musical.” (pg. 119, 2007). The comparison between Superhero and Western films often comes with the caveat that Westerns were not recognized as artistically significant until several years after the genre’s popularity. Film critic, Nick Pinkerton argues against that sentiment by saying, “If the superhero movie is the new Western, then it seems only fair to ask: where are the Peckinpahs, Leones, Boettichers, Manns, and Fords? (2015). It is interesting to note that these auteur directors were not making their films during the Golden Age of Westerns but rather the Silver Age. Film critic Eliza Franklin in 1952 said about these films, “They have brought the Western a new popularity-which might more properly be called a revival of the old popularity.” (pg. 111). This same pattern of revival can be seen in the superhero films of today. Similar to the Western, what started as kids’ films has evolved to be entertainment for people of all ages. Often appealing more to adults than children as well. A film like The Dark Knight deals with anxieties over loss of privacy and Bush-era politics in the post-9/11 world, a topic that is definitely not aimed at kids. Despite this, we can safely say that no directors have emerged as auteurs of the genre on the same level as the Western auteurs. The history of the Western rhymes with the comic book genre, but there are key differences.
The Western’s critical acclaim did not come during the height of its popularity. Rather it came later with several of the works being recognized as being works of “quality.” Meaning that they are films worth preserving and worth talking about today. Many of these works were not typical Westerns either. Rather they were deconstructions of Westerns. A deconstructive work aims to tear apart the conventions of a genre. This tearing challenges the viewer to reconstruct their views on themes commonly associated with the genre. John Ford’s The Searchers has John Wayne’s character shoot men in the back rather than fighting them in a duel at high noon. His actions make the viewer question if the cowboy is the hero. The viewer must come to grips with what they define as heroic. You can draw a clear line from the white-hatted protagonists of Westerns to the comic book heroes of today. One of the few examples of a deconstructionist superhero film is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Batman, the hero of the story, routinely tortures criminals and often ignores the police and legal system of Gotham city.
This makes you question if his methods still make him a hero. Unfortunately, The Dark Knight is the exception rather than the norm. As critic Richard Newby said, “And now, looking at the films that followed The Dark Knight, the DC universe, the recalibrated X-Men franchise, and most notably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Dark Knight is a far cry from cinematic superheroics before or after.” (2018). Christopher Nolan has become a household name. Have any other superhero directors achieved that same level of recognition? Therein, we find another important distinction between the genres. These Westerns were created by recognized auteurs. Their movies are undoubtedly their own. Can the same be said for many of the superhero films that enjoy success today?
Studio versus Director
In our modern filmscape, studios often prevent strong directors from making these films their own. These studios utilize younger directors with less experience in making big-budget action films. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Ryan Coogler was one such director who had only directed smaller budget films before Black Panther. The issue comes when these directors are not developed enough in the second and third circles of the auteur theory. They do not have a distinct style and/or no personal interior meaning in their films. These films feel more like products of the studios rather than products of the directors. Another issue that arises is when the studios try to force the directors to make films that fit their guidelines. Marvel Studios has a long history of fighting with directors for control of their movies. This includes directors like John Favreau, Patty Jenkins, Joss Whedon, and Edgar Wright. Wright’s fights with Marvel Studios eventually led to his removal from the film Ant-man. Wright said about their falling out, “I wanted to make a Marvel movie, but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.” (Hughes, 2017). Now, to give the studio credit, they seem to have given far more creative freedom to their directors in recent years. There have been no documented complaints from directors like Coogler or indie darling Taika Waititi. Waititi directed the third of the Thor movies, Thor: Ragnarök. His direction has taken a critically and commercially lukewarm franchise (at least in comparison to other Marvel films) and made it into a total success in both categories. He clearly shows the strength of studios relenting control of their movies to directors with more of an auteur’s flair.
Waititi even said at the Toronto International Film Festival, “I think that the way they bring people in, who have got unique voices and unique visions is what makes Marvel successful. “(2019). Though, many in the industry would still argue that a pure auteur superhero film has not been made.
Despite the growth of the superhero genre’s critical acclaim and growing auteurship, there are still several notable actors and directors who are not fans of movies about people in tights. Ethan Hawke said in an interview with The Film Stage:
Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, “This is a great movie” and I was like, “Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.
Hawke has been nominated for four Academy Awards. Two for acting and two for writing. He is clearly a film veteran. He plainly states the issue with these films. Superhero movies are good, but they can be better. Hawke seems to dislike the genre because of its non-realistic tropes. However, his next statement brings up the Swedish auteur director Ingmar Bergman. One of Bergman’s most famous films is The Seventh Seal, a film about a former crusader who literally plays chess with death. So, it doesn’t seem like he’s opposed to the fantastical elements of the genre, rather he wants more than those tropes. The crusader in the Seventh Seal questions his own faith. He struggles to believe in a god who would be silent in the face of the indiscriminate evil of death. This reflects Bergman’s own childhood trauma from his religious father. The fantastical elements are used to mirror Bergman’s own struggles with faith. Hawke seems to be saying that the same cannot be said for people in tights right now. These fights do not mirror the director’s own struggles, thus they become superficial. Hawke wants the director to place themselves in their films.
Even a director who made a film about a former superhero actor dislikes the genre. Alejandro González Iñárritu won the 2014 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for his film, Birdman. A film about a washed-up actor trying to reinvent himself as a serious theater actor. Michael Keaton plays this man whose claim to fame came from playing the superhero Birdman. Keaton himself is known for playing Batman in the original 1980 films. In a way, the film deconstructs the ideology behind superhero movies. It questions our ideas of what being a superhero means. Iñárritu says about the genre, “They have been poison -- this cultural genocide -- because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.” (2014). He uses strong words, but Iñárritu is undeniably a director in control of his movies. Anyone would be hard pressed to ignore Iñárritu’s strength in the three circles of the auteur theory. Iñárritu argues for the same thing as Hawke. An abandonment of superficial action in favor for more emotional depth. The superhero genre typically explores themes of good vs. evil and man vs. man, but these are far too simplistic. None of us have ever had to save the world by fighting a superpowered alien, so how can that be a human experience? Filmmakers must be allowed to insert themselves into their films and make the fighting about more than saving the world. In many ways, Iñárritu made a film about superheroes, but it is not a superhero film. It aligns more with the genre of magical realism. The great magical realist author Salman Rushdie once said, “People tend to focus on the "magic" more than the "realism." But, like all fiction, fantasy arrives at truth via the road of untruth.” (2010). This is what superhero films need to understand to become worthy of being compared to Bresson and Bergman films. These should not be stories about superpowers and explosions, but stories about what it means to be human. Fantastical elements do not remove the humanity of a work. I fear that the genre will never become more than what Hawke and Iñárritu think about it. Time and time again, it has been proven that great films need great directors. Directors who create films that are expressions of themselves. Superheroes need auteurs if they ever want to want to achieve that same level of greatness.
Change can come in many ways. New passionate filmmakers can completely change a film landscape. Filmmakers with their own opinions on how things should be done, like the directors of the French New Wave. The genre needs auteurs who have control of their art. True auteurs infuse passion and care into their works. This infusion leads to films that are still remembered today. You only have to look at the work of the Western auteurs to see this truth. The quality of their work is clearly reflected in the final product. There are several comic book writers that are known for their distinctive styles and voices. That distinctiveness is the exact thing I want to see injected into the superhero genre in film. Audiences must demand more auteurs in the superhero genre. Superhero films can be seen as a way to turn off your brain for two hours, but great art should challenge you. Audiences must move away from this mentality if they want the superhero genre to become more than what it is now. It may be the only thing that can make the genre about more than profit margins and going well with popcorn.
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