Josh Trank and Fox’s Fantastic Four disputes ruined what actually, at one point, promised to be a good movie. Is it time to redefine what it means to be the director of a superhero movie?
Anyone who ever takes a film studies class will know that the following is — or has been — true about the movie industry: film is a director’s medium.
This is often contrasted to television, which has traditionally been the writers’ place to shine.
But what about the increasingly popular cinematic universes that are blurring the lines between serialized and one-punch storytelling?
We’ll take a look at the conventions of film and TV directing in order to examine what seems to be an increasingly common problem in the superhero movie industry: the lack of clarity about just how much control a director should have over a cinematic universe “episode.”
A short history of Hollywood cinema: The director is king
From Alfred Hitchcock and Ridley Scott to Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, there is no question that the director is at the top of the traditional Hollywood totem pole. The director is the one with the initial vision. They might write the script, or commission a screenwriter to commit their idea to the page, but everything is done because they want it, how they want it, and when they want it.
If the director doesn’t write the script themselves, they’ll oversee the writing process very carefully. They’ll demand rewrites and tweaks, they’ll listen to ideas but never agree to anything that compromises their vision. They’ll be in charge of every aspect of pre-production, production and post-production.
Of course, as Hollywood has become more commercial and studio-driven, directors aren’t always the ones who come to movie studios with a big idea. Certainly, the big names still do — someone like Woody Allen or Wes Anderson would never commit to a project they couldn’t completely make their own — but with the influx of adaptations and reboots, more often than not directors are commissioned for existing projects.
Still, there is an expectation that once a director agrees to commit the next two to five years of their lives to a movie, it becomes theirs.
There’s a reason we use words like “helm” and “take the reins” when reporting that a director has signed on for a new project. Whenever a new Harry Potter or Twilight director was named, for example, it signaled a major shift in tone for that movie series. Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter was jarringly different from Alfonso Cuarón’s. Perhaps some fans might argue that this tonal dissonance wasn’t a good thing, but that’s how the medium works (or worked). The director is king.
But is this an increasingly rare phenomenon in our modern, dense, cutthroat media landscape, which is blurring the lines between the movie and TV industries?
The showrunner as the ‘director’ of a TV series
While directors rule on the movie set, they are hardly ever mentioned when we talk about television. In general, when we talk about television, we talk about the showrunner.
The TV showrunner is, in many ways, the equivalent of a movie director. As showrunner tends to equal executive producer, they usually oversee everything from budgeting and casting to set design and editing. They’re not involved to the extent a movie director might be, simply because of the nature of the beast: Composing a one-and-a-half hour movie is a lot different than controlling every minute detail of a 20-hour long storytelling extravaganza (unless you have eight years like Peter Jackson).
The power balance between showrunner and TV network is just as fluid and confusing as that between director and movie studio. Depending on the showrunner’s pedigree and how much freedom the network is willing to give them, the non-creative producers will offer notes and request changes as they see fit. When high-concept series fail, it is often because a network hires a showrunner to helm a series, then tries to take over the creative vision. This is, as we’ll see, not that different from what sometimes happens in the superhero movie genre.
But when a TV show works, it’s usually because a showrunner has a strong vision, and because the network trusts them with complete creative control of their series. That means carefully crafting storylines and character arcs with a team of writers who know the show and its characters inside and out, and who are tasked with ensuring that all-important week-to-week consistency. For better or worse, it is the showrunner who is either praised or blamed for the show as a whole.
For television series, directors are usually commissioned (the way screenwriters might be for movies), and their freedoms are severely limited. The director hasn’t been sitting in the writers’ room for eight hours debating whether a character should say “I need” or “I want,” and they simply don’t have the power to change lines or motivation on a whim. Depending on the director’s overall involvement with the show, they might have more room to play, but their work must always conform to the show’s overall conventions.
The writers are the ones who stick around, at least for a season. The showrunner and their team are the ones with the power to tell the story they want to tell, the way they want to tell it.
All of this leads us to the relatively new concept of a serialized cinematic universe, which seems to demand a combination of the movie director and TV showrunner models.