The commonly held wisdom is that when a filmmaker works for Marvel, they are ultimately cogs in a machine, skilled craftsmen who must submerge their personal quirks and personality to service the greater whole of the company’s slate of films. While there is certainly a degree of truth and wisdom to the argument, this perception of being a Marvel director often loses sight of what the particular needs of a given film are and what a director must bring to the table, and specifically how a given film fits and advances the overall “Marvel narrative.”
With that in mind, join us as we look back at the nine directors who have worked for Marvel Studios thus far and assess just what their jobs were, the degree to which they succeeded, and where they have fallen down.
Films: Iron Man and Iron Man 2
His Task: With the first Iron Man, Jon Favreau had to do nothing less than establish the framework of the entire Marvel Universe, help launch a studio, and deliver a good film. With Iron Man 2, Favreau had an even more difficult task: not screw up what had already been established.
Where He Succeeded: There is something of a perception that Jon Favreau isn’t much of a filmmaker, at least within some corners of the film fan community. This view sees Favreau as little more than a careful craftsman who didn’t bring much in the way of a distinctive voice to his Iron Man films, and that in many regards, others could have stepped in and done just as good a job as him, if not better.
While there is perhaps a slight element of truth to this, this argument overlooks just how enormous a job Favreau had to with the first Iron Man film. Had Iron Man tanked, the entire structure of Marvel Studios and the films they produced could look completely different than they do today. Hell, there might not even be a Marvel Studios without Favreau nailing the first Iron Man. And from a narrative perspective, Favreau also had to establish a solid enough framework for every single director who came after him to work within. So yes, Favreau may not have made as distinctly a personal film with Marvel Studios as others have done afterwards, but that was never what the job of directing Iron Man was about.
More than anything else, what Favreau brought to the table was a focus on character rather than spectacle. To this end, Favreau’s biggest contribution to Marvel Studios and everything which followed was his impeccable sense of casting. The casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark was the kind of masterstroke of the right actor at the right time which hadn’t been seen since Christopher Reeve as Superman in 1978, and the actor’s identification with the role within the public consciousness is such that Marvel has gone to great lengths to keep him in the role, something which they will likely continue to do for the foreseeable future. This cast is down entirely to Favreau, who went to bat for Downey when the actor was close to unemployable as far as any major studio was concerned.
Where He Fell Down: I’ve gone to bat for Iron Man 2 repeatedly over the years, and I don’t plan to change my tune now (yes, I am mixing my metaphors—what of it?). The bulk of the film’s so called problems rest less with what is actually onscreen and more with the perception of what is going on due to audience expectations and awareness as to where the Marvel films were going at the time.
However, if Favreau has a weakness as a director, it’s that there is seemingly a limit to his imagination and skill set when it comes to staging spectacle. Both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 suffer from anticlimactic third acts, with each film coming down to men in robotic suits pounding the crap out of each other. Not helping either film is Favreau’s inability to find a way to make the villains of each respective film as compelling as the titular hero. Sure, he casts magnificent actors in these parts, but be honest: do you really remember much of Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke’s work in either film?
Will He Work for Marvel Again? Doubtful. Looking at it from Marvel’s perspective, they simply don’t need Favreau at this point, and none of the films which are currently without directors — Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Inhumans and Spider-Man — really feel like a match with Favreau as a filmmaker. Meanwhile, Favreau at the moment seems like a filmmaker without direction; after Cowboys and Aliens under-performed at the box office and tanked critically, Favreau returned to (relative) indie filmmaking with Chef, a film which met with solid box office and critical acclaim. Instead of building off of this success, however, Favreau has taken on another big budget film in the form of Disney’s live action remake of The Jungle Book. Whatever his career plans are, it doesn’t look as if Marvel is in them, besides continuing to appear as Happy Hogan as the need arises.
Film: The Incredible Hulk
His Task: Marvel had to know that following up Iron Man would be no easy task, but perhaps they didn’t know just how tall an order that was until the film opened. Compared to Iron Man, the ambitions for The Incredible Hulk were comparatively slight: bring the Hulk into the relatively inchoate Marvel Cinematic Universe by emphasizing action and character over style and Freudian psychodrama. (For the record, I love Ang Lee’s Hulk.) In retrospect, perhaps they should have aimed a bit higher.
Where He Succeeded: The Incredible Hulk is widely regarded as an early misfire for Marvel Studios, and right so: it’s easily the weakest film they’ve produced to date, and a big step back from the initial success of Iron Man. Marvel was right to go back to that well before introducing new characters in solo films with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger—hell, they might even have needed to financially. That said, Hulk is far from a total fiasco, and that’s largely due to the film’s solid first half. With several solid action set pieces—including a great chase scene through the favelas of Brazil and a nice Hulk/military confrontation filmed steps away from my campus at the University of Toronto—and some okay comedic relief—”You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry?”—the film clips along for a while.
Presumably Leterrier was hired for his action chops, as demonstrated on films like The Transporter and Unleashed (hey, remember that movie where Jet Li is Bob Hoskins’ dog?). The CGI slugfest that closes the film has some cool moments, though nothing that comes close to the scene-stealing Hulk of The Avengers.
Where He Fell Down: Leterrier doesn’t seem like a man with a vision. Certainly not a strong enough vision to stand up against Edward Norton, who is notoriously difficult to work with and rewrote much of the film’s screenplay. Say what you will about Lee’s Hulk, but it’s a unique film: Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk amounts to little more than an extended riff on the Bill Bixby TV series version of the character with updated action and special effects. And speaking of the actors, they’re all a bit out to sea here. Iron Man was able to coast by largely on the charisma of Robert Downey Jr., but The Incredible Hulk doesn’t have that luxury: Norton, Liv Tyler, and William Hurt all deliver sub-par performances, and the nature of the title character and his abominable antagonist is such that the actors’ energy are nowhere to be found in the moments that the film would benefit from them the most. While some of the Hulk’s dialogue is cool—though Ol’ Greenskin’s “Leave me alone” in the opening chase lands harder than his climactic “Hulk smash!”—The Abomination’s voice and delivery are simply atrocious.
Watching this film again makes Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk seem like even more of a miracle.
Will He Work For Marvel Again? Absolutely not, and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually Marvel even stops including this film in the MCU collecting box sets. Aside from Downey Jr.’s brief cameo at the end—before the closing credits!—this film has no impact whatsoever on the larger narrative and doesn’t measure up to the rest of the Studios’ output. Marvel has continued to take chances on lesser known filmmakers, but they’ve more or less stopped knocking on directors known primarily for action like Leterrier, preferring instead for actor’s directors.
His Task: Jon Favreau may have set the framework for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Kenneth Branagh was the first to have to truly expand it by bringing gods, magic, and the notion of a larger cosmos into the picture. If he didn’t nail this one, there was a very good chance of breaking what Marvel built up to that point.
Where He Succeeded: As risky a choice as Branagh may have seemed at the outset, his selection as director ended up being a masterstroke by Marvel’s executives. With his background in stage drama and a well known love of Shakespeare, Branagh managed to take one of Marvel’s most outlandish characters and sell it to audiences by focusing in on the family melodrama of the source material. This approach allowed Branagh to seamlessly weave strands of science fiction, fairy tales, and high drama together into an appropriately bombastic whole while allowing the film to still feel a part of the larger Marvel narrative. One can only imagine that director Scott Derrickson is taking detailed notes as he prepares to similarly add mystic elements to the Marvel Universe in Doctor Strange.
More importantly, Branagh brought to Thor a firm control over the tone of film, guiding his mostly classically trained cast to turn in heightened, theatrical performances while still grounding the film in a recognizable emotional reality.
Where He Fell Down: In truth, there is very little about Thor which doesn’t work. Sure, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye could have been better integrated into the film, but this seems more of an issue of Branagh working a studio mandated element into the film as best he could. Likewise, the sacrifice Thor makes at the end of the film is rendered somewhat moot by the way it is worked around in Avengers, but again, this issue seems to be one of a lack of foresight on the part of the company as a whole, rather than Branagh making an erroneous choice.
Will He Work For Marvel Again? Maybe. During his recent press tour for his live action remake of Cinderella, Branagh stated he was open to returning to the Thor series, which bodes well for possibly working with the studio again in the future. Still, with Cinderella proving to be a hit, it is not as if he really needs to return to Marvel from a career standpoint. Indeed, it is Marvel who is perhaps more in need of Branagh after the more muted reaction to Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World. Perhaps Marvel can persuade him to return for Thor: Ragnarok?
Film: Captain America: The First Avenger
His Task: While Branagh was responsible for expanding the MCU into the cosmos, Joe Johnston had to extend it backwards in time to the 1940s, which is almost as alien to us as Asgard. Before The First Avenger, Captain America seemed like an almost impossibly tough sell to the world: American patriotism is largely insufferable to the rest of the world, and its propagandistic embodiment seemed like a relic of an irrelevant and morally retrograde past. Johnston’s job was, at heart, to make Captain America an appealing character.
Where He Succeeded: Wouldn’t you know it, he did just that. In Chris Evans, Johnston found the perfect combination of brawn and plucky determination, with a surer moral compass than his nationalistic namesake. We knew from The Rocketeer that Johnston had the goods when it comes to golden-hued, Nazi-punchin’ nostalgia, and he replicates that success in The First Avenger. It’s a thoroughly conventional film, but the WWII-era makes it just alien enough to feel novel compared to other superhero origin stories. (I’ll take Captain America over Spider-Man any day of the week.) Indeed, Johnston is able to make convention work for him, as seen in some of the best montage sequences this side of the Rocky series, not to mention the brilliant pastiches of newsreels and USO shows.
The visual design of the film also deserves special praise: the special effects that rendered the bulky Chris Evans as a believably scrawny weakling remain spectacular four years later, and the practical costume design was so good they brought it back for the climax of The Winter Soldier.
Where He Fell Down: Minute for minute, Captain America: The First Avenger is arguably still the best film Marvel Studios has made. I get why he didn’t return for the sequel, however: if anything doesn’t work here, it’s the epilogue that takes place in the present day. While perhaps a necessary narrative beat to hit prior to The Avengers, a better film might have left Steve Rogers buried in ice and left the thawing for Joss Whedon to deal with.
Will He Work For Marvel Again? Let’s hope so. Agent Carter would have likely been a much better show with Johnston at the helm: so much so that I’m not that interested, frankly, in anything from this era of the MCU that doesn’t bear the credit “Directed by Joe Johnston.”
Films: The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron
His Task: With four independent franchises under its belt, Marvel Studios finally had to pay off what it had been teasing since the final moments of Iron Man introduced Nick Fury and the “Avengers Initiative”: an unprecedented team-up crossover film that would give birth to the mega-franchise. Whedon was tasked with paying off and doing justice to all of the film’s individual characters’ journeys as introduced in the previous films, while also introducing new characters, and balancing them. And make it fun. And action-packed. And if it could be less than five hours long, that’d be good too. With Age of Ultron, Whedon was asked to do it all again.
Where He Succeeded: Criticize The Avengers all you want for its lumpy first act, but once all of the central players are together in the same room, this thing cooks. Whedon’s strength, as evidenced by the strong TV ensembles of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, is character dynamics. And with a cast that has movie star charisma to spare, Whedon was given his biggest and most exciting canvas to exercise that strength. When the most memorable moments of your superhero film aren’t the big action moments, but rather than brief comic punch (pun intended) that comes afterward, you’re doing something special.
With Age of Ultron, Whedon manages to keep the focus on the character dynamics despite (or perhaps because of) the expanded cast of the film. While the film never quite achieves the same heights of fun as the first film, it’s s an all-around smoother effort structurally, and a masterclass in juggling a whole whack of different components.
Where He Fell Down: Okay, so maybe he doesn’t juggle the cast perfectly in the first Avengers. Whedon’s screenplay—he insisted on a page one rewrite of the Zak Penn draft that Marvel handed him—introduces Hawkeye seemingly only to sacrifice him to Loki at the earliest opportunity. Even that is, in a way, a canny writing move, though: in a reversal of the classic comic book trope of sacrificing women to motivate a man, Hawkeye’s possession functions as Black Widow’s primary motivation throughout the film. And hey, Whedon makes it up to Hawkeye fans and actor Jeremy Renner by putting the character front and centre in Ultron.
If Whedon’s character-first approach does have a slight drawback though, it is in his tendency to underwrite and explore certain plot elements. This tendency is certainly apparent in Age of Ultron, with a great deal of the film’s plot getting by on the briefest of explanations. After seeing the film, I am still not exactly sure just quite how Ultron comes to life, or what the Scarlet Witch’s powers are. Final judgement will be withheld until the supposedly-in-the-works extended cut of Ultron hits later this year.
Will He Work For Marvel Again? Based on his comments regarding how making Age of Ultron nearly killed him, I’m guessing Whedon’s going to take ‘er easy for a while after making two mega-blockbusters in a row. I wouldn’t hold my breath for him to come back, certainly no sooner than Phase 4.
Film: Iron Man 3
His Task: Black had to prove that the solo Avenger films could still be just as exciting and worthwhile following Marvel’s single biggest critical and commercial hit. Also, he had to find a way to make a 1960s racist caricature a compelling contemporary villain. Oh, and above all, keep Downey happy.
Where He Succeeded: It really did seem that there was nowhere to go but down following the success of The Avengers, but Shane Black shocked pretty much everyone by not only making a real character-focused follow up to the events of Whedon’s film, but by also accomplishing what was supposedly impossible: he made a personal film within the context of a pre-existing mega franchise. From start to finish, Iron Man 3 is unmistakably a Shane Black film, with its meta commentary and humour, quip filled dialogue, buddy comedy, Christmas setting, and complete lack of sentimentality. Downey has never been finer in the role of Tony Stark, the reinvention of the Mandarin is a nothing short of brilliant, and the climactic battle which ends the film is still the most inventive action sequence yet featured in a Marvel film.
Where He Fell Down: Honestly, he didn’t fall down anywhere. Sure, the look of Guy Pearce’s character at the start of the film is a little odd, but that is nothing more than a minor nitpick. Iron Man 3 (or Iron Man Three, as the end titles correct us) is pretty much the mostly tightly scripted and directed film to come out of Marvel yet. Best of all, Black manages to pay off on the character development of the three preceding films and give Stark a real sense of closure without falling into the traps of most third films in superhero trilogies. What other filmmaker can claim that?
Will He Work For Marvel Again? God, I wish so. However, with no fourth Iron Man film in development and a million projects set up all over Hollywood, I don’t get the feeling that Black is really looking to work with Marvel again anytime soon. A shame.
Film: Thor: The Dark World
His Task: As the director of second follow-up to The Avengers, and the second standalone Thor film, Alan Taylor was tasked with making Asgard as interesting as an Earth populated by the Avengers. Presumably hired—more or less at the last minute, after the firing of original director Patty Jenkins—because of his work on Game of Thrones, Taylor’s primary job was to make Asgard feel lived in and epic.
Where He Succeeded: I don’t really have any complains when it comes to the action, which is witty and fun—particularly the opening sequence and the climactic battle in London. Giving Loki a central role—for much of the film, anyway—is also a smart move that continues the sibling dynamics that worked so well in Thor and The Avengers. The comedy is well integrated and plentiful, though I’d credit the actors’ charisma for that.
Where He Fell Down: Coming on the heels of Iron Man 3, though, The Dark World can’t help but feel like a let-down. While the events of The Avengers certainly play a role here, it doesn’t seem as personal as Black’s film, and the central villain plot—a very loose adaptation of Walt Simonson’s introduction of Malekith in The Mighty Thor—is not particularly interesting, representing another in a long string of sub-par villains for these films. It’s hard to consider The Dark World as anything other than a minor entry in the MCU, even with the film’s MacGuffin being an Infinity Gem.
Will He Work for Marvel Again? Doubtful. Reportedly, Taylor wasn’t thrilled with his experience working under Marvel, and the film’s increased box office compared to the original Thor can largely be attributed to the Avengers bump. With Branagh’s return to the director’s chair unlikely, expect a third director to tackle Ragnarok.
Anthony and Joe Russo
Film: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Their Task: While The Avengers may have been the first Captain America story on film to be set in contemporary times, Anthony and Joe Russo had the job of really establishing Steve Rogers’ place in the modern era. If that wasn’t a big enough task, they also had to execute a story designed to uproot the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe as audiences had known it thus far. Oh, and from a more personal standpoint, the directing siblings had to prove themselves to audiences, given that their last film was the 2006 comedy bomb You, Me and Dupree.
Where They Succeeded: Where didn’t they succeed? The Winter Soldier is one tightly crafted film, successfully bringing Steve Rogers up to date without falling into the trap of making him naive or an arrogant, holier-than-thou hero who works more as a symbol than as a character. Sure, supporters of The Winter Soldier have overstated the degree to which the film captures the paranoia and tone of the political thrillers of the 1970s, but that does not take away from just how much confidence the Russos show as directors.
Where They Fell Down: Well, okay, there are a few minor flaws in the film. The titular Winter Soldier barely factors into the film, and the climactic action set-piece is perhaps a bit too busy and grandiose for its own good. But when you tally those minor quibbles up against the long, long list of what the siblings get right, they are hardly worth getting worked up about.
Will They Work for Marvel Again? They already are. In addition to directing the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, the duo have also just secured the job of directing the most important pieces of the Marvel film slate going forward: Avengers: Infinity War Part I and Avengers: Infinity War Part II. Given the skill with which the pair handled the fairly large cast of characters in The Winter Soldier, one cannot blame Marvel for locking these two up as soon as they could for the next half-decade.
Film: Guardians of the Galaxy
His Task: James Gunn may have had the tallest order given to a Marvel director since Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man: basically introduce an entirely new Marvel Universe, in space, with a set of characters that nobody has ever heard of, that’s still connected to the Earth-bound story. He also had to give some proper screen time—before the end credits start rolling!—to Thanos, the expected Big Bad of MCU’s Phase 3.
Where He Succeeded: First of all, that fact that he succeeded at all is a feat to be commended. Did anybody have Gunn pegged for the guy that would direct the first successful space-set comic book movie? Super is great and all, but Slither is tremendously overrated, and the rest of his CV isn’t exactly sterling. But okay, credit where it’s due: the guy nailed it with Guardians. From the casting, to the witty screenplay (including at least one bodily fluid/abstract art joke that somehow made it to the final cut), to the soundtrack, to the fact that this movie is bursting with colour… I could go on. Above all, the movie is fun. It ends with a dance-off, and then a lesson about the power of friendship… and then more dancing. C’mon.
Where He Fell Down: Did he though? When the biggest complaint is that some characters are underused—Nebula, for instance—you know you’ve built an interesting sandbox. Many have accused—pun intended—the movie of having a weak central villain in Ronan the Accuser, but Lee Pace gives a solid performance in the role and it’s well designed aesthetically, at the very least. Thanos’ role is perhaps a bit odd in Guardians: he’s pulling the strings, but he seems too dependent on middle-men like Ronan for a fella with godlike powers. I personally think the cold open of young Peter Quill in the hospital could have been better executed.
Will He Work for Marvel Again? Like the Russos, Marvel has already put Gunn to work on Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Don’t be surprised if they hold on to him for as long as possible.