The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is Killing Auteur Theory. Good.
Marvel Studios is the most powerful creative entity in contemporary Hollywood (if not all of filmmaking worldwide), and it will likely remain as such until this December when its power is either equaled or surpassed by the revivified Star Wars. It’s the kind of success story that can’t help but draw envy from rivals and befuddlement from those outside looking in, and for Marvel both of those reactions have coalesced around a shared single theme: Auteurism – or, rather, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s lack thereof.
The old-guard film press, increasingly open about its annoyance at dweeby details like Infinity Stones and Cosmic Cubes dominating the between-blockbuster conversations year after year (just wait until staying relevant requires that they remember what The Crimson Bands of Cytorrak are/do), have developed a voracious appetite for stories of friction between Marvel executives and Marvel filmmakers; seemingly licking their chops at the prospect of Marvel repelling quixotic creatives like Edgar Wright or Joss Whedon (or Ava DuVernay, who probably got more press attention and notoriety for not directing Black Panther than she’s gotten for anything she’s actually made up to this point.) Meanwhile, the studio’s chief (only?) rival in the genre, Warner Bros, proudly tags its own soon-launching superhero universe as “filmmaker-driven” – the implication being that filmmakers aren’t the ones “driving” things at The Competition.
This narrative is, of course, rooted in at least one essential truth: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, quite openly, “producer-driven;” and the problem with that is that “producer driven” is a phrase which, among self-serious cinephiles, might as well be synonymous with empty, soulless, assembly-line mediocrity. So says the self-serious cinephile national religion of Auteur Theory, which has dominated both the Academic discussion of great filmmaking and the critical discussion of filmmaking period for the better part of the last 60 years or so.
If you’ve learned about the hierarchal structure of filmmaking from any other source than the people actually hands-on making films in this era, this is likely the mythology you were asked to absorb: The Director is an artist, the hero and in some respects a god. The Producer is a mere manager of money whose goodness or villainy hinges on whether they choose to abet the whims of The Director. The Studio is the villain eternal, a “soulless” entity that exists only to deprive The Director of their perfect, singular vision – while The Producer can attain a modicum of heroism only by standing up for that vision against other, more powerful Producers within The Studio.
This is utter hogwash; a vulgarization of the original Auteur Theory of film-reading pushed by the vanguards at Cahiers du Cinema starting in the early 1950s. Godard and Truffaut may have thought highly of themselves and their colleagues, but even they (probably) weren’t looking to confer pop-godhood on anyone who planted their derriere in a director’s seat. They were talking about genuine visionaries - Hitchcock, Ray, Renoir, Hawks, Kurosawa – directors whose unmistakable, omnipresent signature put to lie the notion that films couldn’t be discussed in the same manner as other great works of art because they lacked a singular creator.
This was a hugely important idea in the development of cinematic appreciation: in elevating the director of a film to equal creative-ownership footing as the painter of a painting or sculptor of a statue, the Cahiers crew and their subsequent generations of acolytes elevated the discussion of all films to new heights of detail and depth. Without the widespread adoption of their Auteur Theory by film scholars both official and otherwise, we likely wouldn’t have had the New Hollywood moment of the '70s, the rise of the mega-director (hello, Mr. Spielberg) in the '80s, the reappraisal of hardworking/undervalued genre greats in the '90s/'00s, none of that. It is without question of the most vital sea-changes in terms of how a medium sees itself.
But the present-day version of it is a lie.
More importantly, it’s a lie that’s outlived its usefulness. Extending the presumption of auteurism’s sanctity to every film and filmmaker (even when “we” knew better) was a key part of the dismantling of the old studio system and the rapid rise of new blood in that relatively brief moment in the '70s when the inmates were (sort of) running the asylum. But it’s festered too long now, and it’s no longer doing the medium enough favors to justify looking the other way. The cigar-chomping boogeyman of the old time Studio Mogul is long extinct, with even notorious figures like Harvey Weinstein looking like pussycats compared to their “Golden Age” predecessors. There’s no demon waiting to be unleashed should Film Twitter cease their solemn incantations and concede that, sometimes, The Producer should be the one driving – yes, even when The Director is also a slick self-promoter who also wrote the screenplay, personally curated the soundtrack and has several Moleskins worth of sketches to hand the production designers on day one.
That’s probably the biggest sin of keeping the myth of Auteur Theory alive too long: we’ve developed a cinephile culture that dramatically overvalues “visionaries” whose recurring, immediately-recognizable visual and thematic fixations effectively drown-out the discussion of what are at their core spotty, unwieldly filmographies at best (looking at you, Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez) Meanwhile, “mere” craftsmen (think Joe Johnston, John McTiernan, Anton Fuqua or even pre-“rediscovery” Kathryn Bigelow) who consistently turn out overall superior work are denied a seat at the Cool Kids table because… well, they don’t re-use the same character-actors, color palettes and costume-design fetishes and don’t get into public shouting matches over studio notes - how can their films be worth talking about?
Yes, there are legit great filmmakers who actually “live up” to the auteur-worship ideal, but guess what? Quentin Tarantino doesn’t need fawning film-school essays to tell the world he’s a one of a kind genius – his movies do that. And yes, sometimes letting a filmmaker of “singular vision” rework (for relevant example) a comic-book adaptation into a reflection of their own obsessions works out and you get a Guillermo del Toro Hellboy; but more often than not you get Pitof’s Catwoman (take it from me, you do not want Pitof’s Catwoman.)
If this is the paradigm that the success of the “producer-driven” MCU threatens to knock down, I say let it fall – it’s about damn time. It may not be right for every project, but Kevin Feige and company running Marvel’s machinery in the Old Hollywood “Here’s the movie we want to make, find the director who can deliver it” fashion (you know, the way a whole slew of the greatest and most-memorable films of all time were made) has been working like gangbusters for the better part of a decade now. And if we can indeed thank a “filmmaker-driven” approach for a gloomy, neck-breaking Superman, Bro’seiden and (for some reason) Jared Leto, I feel pretty comfortable leaving my chips on whatever you call the approach that says “Hey, how about we ask that weirdo from SUPER to make our Space Raccoon movie!?”