What Marvel Has To Change if They Hire Ava DuVernay

By  · Published on May 13th, 2015

Call it the Wright-Jenkins Problem. It’s the state of tension between Marvel and a director with a strong vision. Obviously it’s not something unique to the superhero studio (directors have been leaving projects over “creative differences” since cameras were invented), but this particular problem is inherent in the way that Marvel has done business since launching Iron Man.

Contrary to the current narrative, the issue of clashing directorial minds doesn’t stem from Marvel wanting or calling up work-for-hire filmmakers. They’ve never seemed interested in yeoman, and if they were, they’d never see this problem at all. They’d corral their directors into a singular vision, call it a day, and their projects would suffer. The price for hiring potent directors is the occasional irreconcilable difference (like Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins).

At the same time, Marvel has typically benefited from hiring interesting voices that most studios are overlooking (James Gunn, Anthony and Joe Russo), or that seemed to reach the pinnacle of their mainstream success years ago (Shane Black, Joe Johnston), or that you wouldn’t immediately imagine could be interested in spandex stories (Kenneth Branagh). They find someone who is perfect for the tone of each movie. Someone who buys into the Marvel program 100% but can still make room for their own personality.

The Wrap claims that Marvel is now interested in hiring Ava DuVernay – a bit of news that feels equally unbelievable and plausible, which is Marvel’s hiring wheelhouse.

If they are, in fact, bringing her on for a future MCU film, they’ll have to change at least two things about the way they make movies.

First, they’ll need to get out of their own way and hers in order to allow DuVernay to craft something that can simultaneously stand inside the universe and stand out as its own entity. If you hire Joss Whedon for his dialogue and sense of humor, you hire DuVernay for craftsmanship, nuance and a depth of drama. The closest MCU director to DuVernay on the prestige meter is Branagh, and his sensibilities are often bathed in Shakespearean bombast. DuVernay has crafted a stirring portrait of a civil rights movement featuring several well-rounded, real world anchors as well as two stories of women finding strength while enduring the full spectrum of tormenting emotions. Simply put, she’s the realest director Marvel has hired yet.

She’s also a rising star in a way that most other Marvel directors haven’t been. The studio deserves credit for pulling filmmakers from interesting corners, but DuVernay is a force after Selma who – as a former publicist – has positioned herself well in the industry and public spotlight. That sense of leverage is very real, and it may unfortunately lead to another instance of the Wright-Jenkins Problem. If Marvel hires DuVernay, the studio should only do so if they plan to be in the Ava DuVernay business.

Second, Marvel will have to accept a different set of visuals regardless of whether DuVernay is making Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Inhumans or whatever. Not only will the characters and settings demand it (to a lesser extent with Captain Marvel), DuVernay has already proven in a short time that her visual acumen is fantastic. It would be absurd to hire her only to hand her the Marvel Standardized Photography Notebook and lose out on her skills. Plus, DuVernay has now worked with Bradford Young twice (Selma, Middle of Nowhere), and it would be excellent to see Young shoot a Marvel film. The guy is a workhorse destined for Oscar nominations, and Marvel would benefit greatly from a talent shaking up the playbook that was (gorgeously at the time) set in stone by Matthew Libatique in Iron Man. For what it’s worth, talented figures like Ben Davis and Seamus McGarvey have crafted massive canvases for the Avengers to punchasize foes upon, but their work has seemed confined by a set of established visuals that Marvel loves repeating.

That’s at least partially why the dream sequences in Avengers: Age of Ultron felt so refreshing and out-of-place before we popped right back into the same battles we’ve seen before. Those fight scenes – and the sheer number of them – are also a major culprit for limiting the experimentation that can be done (not to mention the big budget nature of the projects). With DuVernay (and, fingers crossed, Young) behind the camera, hopefully a new look would be possible in the expanding universe.

DuVernay is coming off of renewed success for her African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, and Hollywood is facing renewed scrutiny for lagging woefully behind in representation for minority and women storytellers. Still, there’s a little voice that suggests a Marvel movie isn’t the kind of project DuVernay has shown interest in since the start of her career.

There are a few good reasons to dismiss that voice altogether. First, plenty of filmmakers who’ve gone on to blockbuster success started in the low budget trenches (which naturally limited the scope and scale of the stories they could tell). Filmmakers often have varied interests beyond the dramas they explore early on. Second, DuVernay has already opened the door to directing a superhero movie when she answered the question of directing a superhero movie with a well-worn filmmaker nugget of wisdom:

The right one, yeah. I mean, is it a huge goal that I’m thinking about and striving for? No. But if there was the right story, absolutely. I think it’s important that our heroes reflect more than one kind of person. That’s why Wonder Woman is exciting, and that’s why some of the other characters out there is exciting.

Third, and I’m not currently residing inside DuVernay’s head or anything so take this with a grain of salt, a black woman directing a Marvel movie would create powerful optics for the next generations of aspiring filmmakers. It’s an extrinsic value that you can easily imagine DuVernay weighing in the balance while considering taking on something like this.

It’s also entirely possible that Marvel hiring DuVernay could come to pass. She’s a powerhouse, Marvel is a powerhouse, and they could make something tremendous together. For that to happen – at least in the best way possible – Marvel needs to be prepared to change.

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