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Arts & Entertainment

Directing a comic book blockbuster is Hollywood's dream gig — unless you've made one already

Iron Man 3's Robert Downey, Jr. Directors of of these big-budget blockbusters are now complaining that they had to compromise their artistic vision.
Iron Man 3's Robert Downey, Jr. Directors of of these big-budget blockbusters are now complaining that they had to compromise their artistic vision.
Courtesy Marvel

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The most sought-after directing gig in today's Hollywood is the Marvel comic book movie, and it's easy to see why. The sleeper hit of the year is "Deadpool." The biggest summer blockbuster: "Captain America: Civil War." Even a poorly received Marvel movie like "X-Men: Apocalypse" is an all-but-guaranteed hit.

So everybody wants one. Everybody, that is, except directors who've already had one. Many of them describe making a Marvel as a kind of Faustian deal with the Devil, with creative control bartered away for some obvious perks: increased bankability and an increased bank account.

Take Shane Black. He co-wrote and directed "Iron Man 3" — a 2013 smash. But while promoting his new film "The Nice Guys," Black has thrown shade at Marvel, saying they forced changes on him to increase tie-in toy sales.

Then there's Joss Whedon, the cult fantasist behind "Firefly," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the oh-so-meta "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." On the Dr. Horrible DVD — and on a live "This American Life" stage show — Whedon himself sang a number about how franchise filmmaking is the enemy of creativity.

Whedon sings!

Whedon's had exactly two hits as a director: Marvel's "The Avengers" and "The Avengers: Age of Ultron." But he's a veteran. When Whedon dissed "Ultron" with surprising bitterness on its opening weekend, he was renouncing his citizenship in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Almost a decade on, Sam Raimi has never stopped complaining about the rushed production of "Spider-Man 3" and how it ravaged his career.

And no list of Marvel casualties would be complete without Josh Trank, the hot young director who committed professional suicide by Twitter feed last summer. Crushed by negative reviews, Trank posted about how his early cut of the disastrous "Fantastic Four" reboot was far better than the studio version.

Even Jon Favreau, who arguably created the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first "Iron Man" movie, has shown mixed emotions. After directing "Iron Man 2," Favreau returned to his indie roots to make "Chef," a thinly veiled parable about going small to regain lost creative integrity.

It's a Hollywood cliche that the creative types war against the "suits." But kvetching after the fact about how the insanely expensive franchise blockbuster you were hired to supervise didn't fulfill your directorial vision isn't artistic pushback — it's passive aggression.

The Marvel films move toys, set box-office records and spawn sequels by being familiar. A part of the business model is to hire gifted directors to enliven the formula just enough to differentiate one movie from the next. It's a director's stylistic signature — not his or her vision — that Marvel traffics in.

Small wonder if for some directors, a Marvel film feels less like a universe and more like a plantation. But in the Faust story, if you tell it right, the Devil isn't the one you blame.