Since Iron Man's release in 2008, and Tony Stark's epilogue appearance in The Incredible Hulk later that summer, fans have been looking forward with increasing anticipation to Marvel's unprecedented plan to create cross-film continuity in an entire cinematic universe of superheroes. The culmination of this plan will be the release of The Avengers in the summer of 2012, whose way will be prepared and built by Iron Man 2 this May, Thor the following May, and The First Avenger: Captain America two months later. And the pieces are finally coming together.
The primary actors are largely in place: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark; Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury; Edward Norton as The Hulk; Chris Evans as Captain America; and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Similarly, the directors are set: Jon Favreau for both Iron Man films; Louis Leterrier for Hulk; Kenneth Branagh for Thor; and Joe Johnston for Captain America. The latter two are both currently in production, and The Avengers script is being written as we speak by Zak Penn.
One question remains: Who will direct The Avengers?
The long and the short of it is, we don't know. And we won't know for a while. But as I was reflecting on this historic attempt on the part of Marvel, I realized that I didn't know who I was, or should be, hoping for, much less who might actually be offered, and who might actually accept, the director's chair for such a money-driven, future-orienting, fanboy-quivering, pressure-filled, precedent-setting, ego-managing cinematic project.
Then I thought, Why not try to sort it out myself?
So that's what I've done below. Without any more need for introduction, I've separated the possibilities into various categories of quality and likelihood, and while I'm sure I've misplaced or misjudged here and there, I feel it's pretty comprehensive. Either way, dive in, and let me know what you think.
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The Masters of Action
James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg
Basically, if any of these guys are willing and available, Marvel should throw everything and the kitchen sink at them, no strings attached. Of course, it is enormously unlikely any of them would even consider it -- but you never know! Jackson is up to his neck with Hobbit and Tintin, Nolan is Mr. Batman for Warner Bros, and Cameron is creating entire new worlds, so they are all surely occupied. But though Spielberg can do whatever he wants, couldn't he want to assemble The Avengers? And while Raimi is Mr. Spider-Man, why couldn't he shift Marvel heroes with a proven pedigree and huge success at the box office?
But realistically, none of these is happening.
Action Tier 1: Pull the Trigger
J.J. Abrams, Luc Besson, Alfonso Cuaron, Kathryn Bigelow, Guillermo del Toro, Jon Favreau, Paul Greengrass, George Miller, Guy Ritchie, Zach Snyder, Wachowski Brothers, Edgar Wright
It seems both a best case scenario and most profitable for Marvel that they pull from this pool, or from the up-and-coming group below. How possible are any of them? Del Toro is out immediately, doing The Hobbit with Peter Jackson. Greengrass and Bigelow seem interested in more serious material than The Avengers, but again, you never know. Snyder, Ritchie, and the Wachowskis come with major baggage, but they can also get the job done. Besson and Miller are older candidates, but how incredible would their versions be?
The remaining realistically cool choices: Abrams, Cuaron, Favreau, Wright. Cuaron's involvement with Harry Potter and Children of Men reveals his ability to balance action, create worlds, deal with fantasy, and manage ensembles. Wright is somewhat of a "proven" up-and-comer, but it would be a steal to get him. Favreau has been the prohibitive favorite from the beginning, and was apparently offered it, but seems uninterested. If Marvel can convince him, he's the winning ticket.
That leaves Abrams. In short, I think what Abrams did with M:i:III and Star Trek demonstrates his perfect suitability for an Avengers film. It seems unlikely to happen if only because Abrams has the Star Trek sequel and a thousand other things on the docket -- not to mention his own production company -- but considering the combination of humor, action, gravitas, and popcorn accessibility that he offers, if I were Marvel, I would be gunning for Abrams as a replacement for Favreau.
Action Tier 2: When On, Fantastic
Martin Campbell, Joe Carnahan, Roger Donaldson, Louis Leterrier, Doug Liman, James Mangold, James McTeigue, Pierre Morel, Phillip Noyce, Alex Proyas, Robert Rodriguez, Tony Scott, Bryan Singer, Matthew Vaughn, Gore Verbinski
If Tier 1 is the best case scenario, Tier 2 is the most likely. None of these would be mistakes -- and some could turn out swimmingly -- but all are either hot/cold or damaged goods.
Some are out from the start, for either being too old (Noyce), up and down (Proyas), temperamental (Rodriguez), or stylistic (Scott).
Singer and Verbinski bring too much baggage to the table, with X-Men/Superman and Pirates alike looming too large, with all their positives and negatives, to be workable for fans or for Marvel.
Campbell, Carnahan, Donaldson, and Mangold all have clear drawbacks. Campbell can certainly deliver, but he's most likely taken by his current commitments on The Green Lantern. Carnahan and Donaldson are intriguing, but tonally probably too distant from Iron Man/Hulk territory. And Mangold, for my personal taste, would be an excellent pick, though I expect I am in the minority on that one.
The remaining five would be qualified successes, but would also be entirely determined by the final product, with gigantic pressures crowding them on every side. Liman has a good resume, but his films never seem to be more than the sum of their parts. McTeigue is one for two, but that "one" in V for Vendetta was strong critically and popularly. Leterrier clearly wants the gig, but it is yet to be seen whether he can handle more than "a really fun, really forgettable time at the movies." Morel hit big with Taken, but he's the most unproven here. As for Vaughn?
Give it to him. It's that simple. He has to be the most realistic candidate with the highest level of talent and fan cache, as well as an impending subversive foray into the superhero genre with Kick-Ass. By all means, Marvel should grab someone from a higher tier, or take a gamble on an up-and-comer; but if it comes down to money, popularity, talent, realistic possibility, and fan approval, Vaughn is the choice, hands down.
Action Tier 3: Under No Circumstances
Paul W.S. Anderson, Michael Bay, Peter Berg, D.J. Caruso, Jan de Bont, Anthony Fuqua, Francis Lawrence, Joe Johnston, McG, Jonathan Mostow, Andrew Niccol, Brett Ratner, Joel Schumacher, Stephen Sommers, David Twohy, Len Wiseman, Ed Zwick
To repeat: Under no circumstances should Marvel give The Avengers to any of these men. The game would be over before it starts.
(And it is beside the point that Johnston is already called up for Captain America: not only should he only concentrate on one film at a time, but that choice is a big risk. Maybe he'll bring it home, but you simply cannot lay the entire future of Marvel films at the feet of one man, and a man, no less, whose filmography contains not one great entry. Moving on.)
Action Tier 4: Once Great, Prime Elapsed
Richard Donner, John McTiernan, Wolfgang Petersen, John Woo
There was a time when these men would have been prime candidates; now, not so much.
Fine Director, Odd Fit
Brad Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Aranofsky, Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh, Tim Burton, John Carpenter, Coen Brothers, David Cronenberg, Cameron Crowe, Brian de Palma, Jonathan Demme, Andrew Dominik, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, William Friedkin, Stephen Gaghan, Mel Gibson, Terry Gilliam, Tony Gilroy, James Gray, David Gordon Green, Paul Haggis, Curtis Hanson, John Hillcoat, Oliver Hirschbiegel, Ron Howard, Spike Jonze, Ang Lee, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin MacDonald, David Mamet, Michael Mann, Rob Marshall, Fernando Meirelles, Sam Mendes, Park Chan-Wook, Jason Reitman, John Romero, David O. Russell, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Jim Sheridan, Kevin Smith, M. Night Shyamalan, John Singleton, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Verhoeven, Peter Weir, Joe Wright, Robert Zemeckis, Zhang Yimou
Plenty of tentpole movies, genre flicks, and comic book adaptations have been helmed by surprising candidates (see: Jackson, Peter, The Lord of the Rings; Raimi, Sam, Spider-Man; Lee, Ang, Hulk), so I wanted to list, albeit not comprehensively, some brainstorming possibilities that the bigwigs may have thrown around just for fun.
Let's get the weirdos and masters off the list first. Though the thought of an Avengers film being directed by any of these guys is remarkable in itself, I think we can say with some confidence that the following will not be asked: both Andersons, Burton, Carpenter, Coens, Cronenberg, Crowe, Demme, Eastwood, Friedkin, Gilliam, Hanson, both Lees, Linklater, Mamet, Mann, Park, Reitman, Romero, Russell, Scorsese, Scott, Sheridan, Smith, Shyamalan, Singleton, Soderbergh, Stone, Tarantino, Weir, Zhang.
Interesting but highly unlikely options: Dominik, Hillcoat, Hirschbiegel, Meirelles, Mendes, Verhoeven.
Unlikely choices we should hope against: Branagh, Gaghan, Gilroy, Haggis, Howard, Marshall, Wright, Zemeckis.
Intriguing names not totally out of the realm of possibility: Aranofsky, Boyle, de Palma, Fincher, Gibson, Gray, Green, Jonze, MacDonald.
Concerning this final category, Aranofsky is included simply due to his past interest in Batman, and for his unparalleled visual style. MacDonald's interests are elsewhere, but what if? Gibson is somewhat of a pariah, but his eye and skill for directing action belong to the "Masters" category. Gray is the very definition of an "artsy" director, but his high profile in independent circles, skill with A-list actors, and successful action sequences in We Own the Night make him a thought-provoking possibility.
Jonze would be an idiosyncratic choice, but I could see it happening; the same goes for Green, who has critical chops and now two films' worth of experience directing action. As for Boyle, de Palma, and Fincher, all are more "serious" directors with robust reputations, but at least Boyle seems like he could be approached with a straight face.
The overall point, however, is that there is a minute likelihood that any one of these directors will be offered The Avengers, much less actually end up behind the camera.
Unproven, But Intriguing Potential
Brad Bird, Shane Black, Neill Blomkamp, Frank Darabont, Ruben Fleischer, Michel Gondry, Rian Johnson, Duncan Jones, James Mangold, Neil Marshall, George Nolfi, Billy Ray, Joss Whedon, David Yates
This is obviously the most wide-open and question-filled group. From the first glance, it is clear that Johnson, Jones, Marshall, Nolfi, and Ray represent a gamble based not on skill, but tone. Horror, quirky indie, space sci-fi, political thriller -- these are not what come to mind when one thinks of The Avengers. But you never know.
Gondry and Whedon are similar representations of tonal distance, and to choose either would be to commit to a certain kind of film, which could be a blessing or a curse. A Whedon-directed Avengers would be hilarious and fantastic in myriad ways, but understandably not what the higher-ups are looking for.
I include Darabont not as an unproven director, but as an unproven action director who would otherwise be a particularly inspired choice (even if it weren't to result in a good movie!).
Yates is a fascinating idea, however unlikely due to his duties finishing up the Harry Potter series, because the nuance, character work, epic visuals, and humor he has already shown in another adapted universe offer a window into what his Avengers might look like.
This leaves four equally unproven directors: Bird, Black, Blomkamp, and Fleischer. I haven't seen Zombieland, so I can't comment on Fleischer. Blomkamp would be a fantastic choice, and Black would be a risk, especially with the action sequences, but could potentially follow Favreau's path.
As for Bird? However inexperienced with live action, he ranks with Abrams, Favreau, Cuaron, Wright, and Vaughn as a top tier possibility. Disney gave John Carter of Mars to Andrew Stanton, and Paramount is considering Bird for the next Mission: Impossible -- why not give him The Avengers instead? He basically already made it in The Incredibles, has an unbelievably impeccable record, deftly combines humor with action, does great characters, and knows a good story when he sees one (or, better, writes it). Overall, he is the ideal risky candidate.
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So where does that leave us? I have no doubt I've missed a few, both the obvious and the creative, and I certainly didn't know what to do with comedy directors shifting to action (like Favreau with Iron Man). But let's conclude with a short list of contenders to hope for, ignoring the "Masters" and "Odd Fit" categories, excluding those directors we know for certain aren't available (del Toro, Campbell, Yates), and leaving out wholesale question marks (Fleischer, Black, Nolfi). Here we go!
Who should Marvel spend time and money going after, who should fans realistically and expectantly hope for, who should and might say yes to the gig, as director of The Avengers?
1. Jon Favreau
2. J.J. Abrams
3. Alfonso Cuaron
4. Edgar Wright
5. Matthew Vaughn
6. Brad Bird
7. Neill Blomkamp
8. Kathryn Bigelow
9. Zach Snyder
10. Luc Besson
11. Wachowski brothers
12. Paul Greengrass
13. George Miller
14. Guy Ritchie
15. James Mangold
16. Louis Leterrier
17. James McTeigue
18. Doug Liman
19. Joe Carnahan
20. Roger Donaldson
There you have it. Undoubtedly I've misordered, skipped over, forgotten, and otherwise made egregious errors. I look forward to being corrected. As it stands, it was a blast to play at producer, it will be exciting to await an actual answer, and I have no doubt the finished product will be a wild ride -- so long as the driver is on the list above!