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Comic books have taken over the movies. Must they take our indie auteurs, too?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/7/2021 Ann Hornaday
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This weekend, Cate Shortland becomes the first woman to receive sole directing credit on a Marvel movie: “Black Widow,” starring Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh.

But she made her actual debut 16 years ago, when “Somersault,” a quietly assured sexual coming-of-age story, premiered at Cannes. Johansson, an executive producer of “Black Widow,” handpicked Shortland after she saw 2012’s “Lore,” about a young woman saving her family during World War II. As an auteur heretofore best known among critics and a cadre of dedicated fans, Shortland joins a long line of indie filmmakers who have sprung from festivals to franchises — a group that includes Ryan Coogler (from “Fruitvale Station” to “Black Panther”), Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “Thor: Ragnarok”) and Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”).

Ryan Coogler, director of the art-house favorite “Fruitvale Station” and the blockbuster "Black Panther.” © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post Ryan Coogler, director of the art-house favorite “Fruitvale Station” and the blockbuster "Black Panther.”

Call it the Sundance-to-spandex pipeline. No sooner do critics and art house dwellers discover an edgy new voice, it seems, than it is immediately co-opted by the great flattening force of Big Comic Book. Are the discerning viewers who were the first to talk up Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s groundbreaking TV series “Fleabag” now obligated to feign excitement about her upcoming Indiana Jones project? Was it really necessary for Emerald Fennell — who worked with Waller-Bridge on the cult series “Killing Eve” and made a smashing feature directing debut last year with “Promising Young Woman” — to go straight to DC Comics without even passing Go? She’s writing “Zatanna,” about a sorceress with — what else? — amazing magical powers.

“Like, why wouldn’t you want to write something like that when you can write huge, massive, crazy sequences and fights?” Fennell said in an interview this week with Empire magazine’s Ella Kemp. “To have complete freedom to really let your imagination run wild is such a joy.”

There’s nothing new about Hollywood scooping up quirky young artists to reinvigorate their legacy properties. What a weird and wonderful thing it was to behold Tim Burton — best known for such gothic eccentricities as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Beetlejuice” — turn his hand to “Batman” in 1989. Bryan Singer had made an astonishing debut at Sundance in 1993 with the taut low-budget thriller “Public Access,” then made “The Usual Suspects” and “Apt Pupil” before signing on for “X-Men” in 2000.

Christopher Nolan followed a similar path from “Memento” and “Insomnia” to “Batman Begins,” putting his distinctive stamp on the iconic DC franchise that reset the bar for comic book movies. Where once a studio might have handed off their “Superman” movie to a reliable craftsman like Richard Donner — who died Monday at 91 — professionalism and competence were no longer enough.

“When you get people with unique points of view, regardless of the size of film they’ve done in the past, and empower them and surround them with the great artists and technicians that can bring spectacle, that can bring the visuals a Marvel movie requires, they can take you to places you’ve never gone before,” Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige told Variety in April.

Filmgoers need only recall Coogler’s magnificent version of Wakanda in “Black Panther” or the distinctively playful sensibility Waititi managed injected into “Thor: Ragnarok” to understand Feige’s logic. As Chloé Zhao — who directed the Oscar-winning “Nomadland” and whose next movie is Marvel’s “Eternals” — noted in a conversation with Barry Jenkins earlier this year, “it’s all world-building.” That’s true whether she is working with nonprofessional actors in realist settings in the American West or within the entirely imaginative realm of a cosmic humanoid race. (Having directed the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” Jenkins is preparing for his own foray into brand-building with the upcoming sequel to Disney’s “The Lion King.”)

[‘Black Panther’ is a revelation, but also a reminder of what we’ve been missing] From left, Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman and Danai Gurira in “Black Panther.” © Marvel/Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock From left, Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman and Danai Gurira in “Black Panther.”

Still, the strategy hasn’t always paid off: “Captain Marvel,” which was directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (best known for launching Ryan Gosling’s career with the 2006 indie drama “Half Nelson”), ultimately felt like a one big deliverable that contained only trace elements of the team’s signature restrained humanism. The Argentine director Lucrecia Martel declined to be included on Marvel’s short list of directors for “Black Widow,” she told India’s English-language newspaper the Daily Pioneer, because they only wanted her for character beats. “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that,” she recalled the studio telling her, presumably referring to Feige’s “great artists and technicians” tasked with bringing the spectacle.

That tussle — between plucky individual vision and all-powerful house style — is palpable in “Black Widow,” wherein Shortland’s hand is most present in the film’s real world-adjacent scenes: when Natasha and Yelena (Johansson and Pugh) are engaging in sisterly sparring matches, for example, or processing a dysfunctional past with their parents. Funny, human-scale and observant, these sequences are punctuated with clockwork regularity by the fights, chases, fireballs and physics-defying stunts that are required of the genre, and that are usually handled by second-unit directors. (On “Black Widow,” that was Darrin Prescott, best known for his work on such nonstop action pictures as “Baby Driver” and the “John Wick” movies.)

a person wearing a costume: Johansson, who’s made her own Sundance-to-spandex leap, in “Black Widow.” © Marvel Studios Johansson, who’s made her own Sundance-to-spandex leap, in “Black Widow.”

As gratifying as it is to see popcorn entertainment skillfully executed, and to see artists like Shortland and Zhao given wider canvases to play on — not to mention the financial wherewithal to pursue viable careers — it’s hard not to feel that something’s being lost in the trade-off.

Once, promising young filmmakers could leverage Hollywood largesse by pursuing the one-for-them, one-for-me model: Steven Soderbergh could make a terrific little thriller like “The Limey,” or idiosyncratic experiments like “Bubble” or “Che,” while making commercial hits like the “Ocean’s Eleven” series. But all too often now, the one-for-me is embedded within the one-for-them, in the form of emotionally grounded storytelling in between pre-visualized action sequences, CGI “whammies” and contractually specified fan service.

(Coogler, for one, seems intent on disproving that rule. Along with documentary maker Peter Nicks, composer Ludwig Goransson and director Shaka King, he recently formed a production company called Proximity; among the team’s upcoming projects is a feature film about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, with King directing.)

Martin Scorsese courted controversy a couple of years ago when he dismissed comic-book movies as closer to theme parks than to authentic cinema. What he failed to take into account was that, to filmmakers who have come of age over the past two decades, comic-book movies define cinema. It was Zhao who pursued Marvel to make “Eternals,” having grown up in China imbibing Japanese manga comics and, later, immersing herself in the Marvel cinematic universe (lovingly known as the MCU). Even as bold and singular a filmmaker as Spike Lee has admitted that he wouldn’t reject an offer from Marvel. “If the right opportunity comes across, I’m not campaigning for it, but I will give it consideration,” he told Entertainment Weekly in February.

[This year, the Oscars underscore an existential question: What do movies mean?]

It’s admittedly tantalizing to contemplate a Spike Lee Joint set in the MCU. But it’s also sobering to consider Lee’s creative trajectory had he been tempted by the franchise behemoth earlier in his career. What movies wouldn’t he have made? “School Daze” and “Jungle Fever”? Or “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X”? And could he have made any of them without the others?

The terrain for emerging filmmakers is dramatically different than it was for Soderbergh and Lee when they started. There are far fewer boutique studios that can sustain independent filmmakers over the long haul. Whereas Sundance wunderkinds used to make a beeline for Miramax, now they’re just as likely to go straight to streaming, where they stand a chance of connecting with audiences who still appreciate films that are human-scale, character-driven and emotionally nuanced.

Or, if they want their work to be seen on the big screen, they might go straight into super­heroes. And it’s hard to knock them for making that leap so readily, when the result is virtually guaranteed to be a film built for fans.

Precisely which fans, of course, is the billion-dollar question.

(Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled is “Zatanna” as “Zantanna.” This version has been corrected.)

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