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The Debate About Artistic Freedom Within Superhero Films Rages On

Is it possible for filmmakers to create superhero films through their own perspective? When done properly, of course! Although that still seems to cause anger. At times, there is a war going on between not only studios and directors but fans and directors. When it comes to adapting these comic books to movies, everyone seems to have a hand in the pot but when is it time for the filmmakers to gain control?

As a filmmaker and “fanboy”, I’m torn between who to prioritize when it comes to judging these projects. Siding with artist seems like the natural thing for me. On the other hand, it’s hard to just ignore the wants from die-hard fans.

Let me start things off by defining a “singular vision” to any of those who don’t know.

Actress Carla Gugino said it best in this quote:

“I’m intrigued by films that have a singular vision behind them. A lot of studio movies have ten writers by the time they’re done. You have a movie testing 200 times, making adjustments according to various people’s opinions. It’s difficult to have an undistilled vision.”

Basically, the idea of a singular vision in film is the unfiltered view of a filmmaker with little to no interference from studios, fans, and/or critics.

Superhero Films

How does the concept of a singular vision play into the world of superhero films?

The comic book genre started getting movies with a singular vision in 1989 when Tim Burton released ‘Batman‘. If you look at the genre before that, it was films like Richard Donner’s ‘Superman‘ or ‘Batman: The Movie‘ from 1966. As entertaining as they were, those films basically copied and pasted the heroes from print to screen. All of that changed once Burton decided to tell a Batman story through his eyes. The character of Batman was always dark but Burton brought the recognizable character to his own unique brand of dark. It became even clearer that Burton wasn’t compromising his vision for anyone with his even darker take on the characters in ‘Batman Returns‘.

Actually, that’s a privilege Batman films have had above any other franchise or hero. No other superhero films have been able to adapt from director to director quite like this. Even when The Dark Knight took a campy turn in Joel Schumacher’s films or the infamous “gritty” reboot from Christopher Nolan, these are always unique to the creator.

The same can’t be the same for others. For example, look at the Spider-Man franchise. Two very different filmmakers took their turns at the character but in the case of Sam Raimi, his voice never shined through. And who knows if Marc Webb even had a vision with his seemingly studio-mandated movies. That’s actually a problem for most characters under the Marvel umbrella. Artistic freedom takes a backseat in order to ensure a hit.

“So it’s important to me that that be true to who I was in this moment. And if there’s too much compromise, it really wasn’t going to be an Ava DuVernay film.”
-Director Ava DuVernay on why she left Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’

That quote from Ava DuVernay rings true for what a lot of filmmakers have said about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins had similar things to say when they left a MCU project. Even beloved director Joss Whedon left the brand after creative difference following ‘Avengers: Age Of Ultron‘.

How does one brand lose so many artist? It’s because the fear of a singular vision.

Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been about building towards one massive movie, head honcho Kevin Feige has micro-managed all the films leading up. That’s why there’s a nice chunk of their films that are very forgettable and barely serviceable. Some feelings towards the MCU’s lack of auteurs has changed since The Russo Bros. and James Gunn came in but anything without their name still feels hollow.

Superhero Films

And then out of left field is Fox’s X-Men universe. 2000’s ‘X-Men‘ and ‘X2‘ from 2003 both provide a mixture of unique takes on the characters and keeping certain established elements. Director Bryan Singer even notably had to fight Fox for the films. When the studio lost Singer, that the vision of this franchise got muddled. With the upcoming release of ‘Logan‘ though, a stronger argument for singular visions can be made for this franchise.

James Mangold took the Wolverine character that was built by Singer’s film adaptions and told his own story with the character. ‘Logan‘ did what previous Wolverine movies and most spin-offs can’t do; it turned out to be amazing. It may sound like an oxymoron but having a singular vision is far more approachable. When artist stop worrying bout massive universe building and caving into fan demands, better work can be created. Last year’s ‘Deadpool‘ proved that and so will ‘Logan‘.

“The biggest thing would be respecting these stories like we respect Shakespeare and let directors do what they will,”
-James Mangold on singular visions in superhero films

I make the case of artist being allowed to tell whatever story they want but sometimes it blows up in their face. Case in point, Zack Snyder’s ‘Man Of Steel‘ and ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice‘. It seems like two superhero films have never divided fans quite like these. Especially last year’s ‘Batman v Superman‘, which I’ve called a “misunderstood masterpiece“.

Maybe Snyder should’ve known after his polarizing adaption of ‘Watchmen‘ but any little change he made to anything DC related was met with an angry mob. Seeing the reaction to this film is what sparked this whole debate for me.

When is it okay to change a character to fit your artistic narrative and when is it “bashing source material”? There’s a strong divide that an go away if people (studios and fans) allow more directors to have more free reign. Just because it’s not what you remember when you were going doesn’t mean it’s bad. Don’t support senseless changes but give room to see characters be challenged so they can become who we know them to be.

“I feel like [Superman fans] were taking it personally that I was trying to grow up their character.”
-Zack Snyder on fan reactions to ‘Batman v Superman’

So after talking myself for and against both sides to this argument, I do think think artists should create superhero films however they want.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed the comic movies that have taken different routes. There’s an elite few that truly cross genre lines and become more than just films about superheroes. If you look at any of the recent standout pieces (‘The Dark Knight‘, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy‘,’Logan‘), those are all films driven by artist. Each movie transcends comic book boundaries and becomes iconic films people remember! Instead of blunders that feel like a robot created them for money, superhero films would benefit from a singular vision.