Mourning the Ava DuVernay Black Panther That Never Would’ve Been Made

By  · Published on July 6th, 2015

Ava DuVernay was never going to direct Black Panther. Even if she’d accepted the job, even if they’d gone into pre-production, even if they were a week out from cameras rolling, she was never going to direct Black Panther. Yet when rumors circulated that Marvel wanted her for the job, I allowed myself the delusion of thinking about what her version of the character might look like.

Naturally, that version will never exist because the only version that can be allowed to exist ‐ regardless of who gets the directing job ‐ is Marvel’s. Now that DuVernay has made plain that she won’t be making the movie, Marvel can find a new yeoman filmmaker on the rise (or on the other side of the down slope) who either sees perfectly eye to eye with what they want or is willing to go along with it for the paycheck and exposure.

Kim Masters and Borys Kit made this point beautifully back when Edgar Wright left Ant-Man after Marvel handed him a rewritten script he had nothing to do with. It’s not so much that Marvel is making movies, as much as they’re making $150m big-screen television episodes where Kevin Feige is the showrunner and the directing talent is treated like they would be in TV Land: capable conduits for a singular vision (that’s not theirs).

The funny thing about creative differences is that it’s only one person that walks away. Marvel waved goodbye to Wright, they fired Patty Jenkins from Thor 2, they gave Joss Whedon hell on Age of Ultron even after he helped them bust the box office with Avengers, Jon Favreau didn’t want to do Iron Man 3 because there was no clear vision, Alan Taylor echoed the sentiment that Marvel is “making it up as they go,” Edward Norton stopped playing The Hulk because he couldn’t get control over the character, and even directors like Kenneth Branagh who have expressed public willingness to return to the Marvel fold clashed with the studio during production.

What’s interesting is how open these actors and directors have been in criticizing Marvel after their time there. The consensus seems to be that Marvel works with too-tight budgets, too-tight turnaround on productions, and goes into a shooting schedule with incomplete scripts because of it. Elements that are typically found in a recipe for disaster.

Thus, it’s impressive how long Marvel has been able to juggle bowling balls on the tightrope, but this operational apparatus also makes sense considering the general disjointed nature of their films. As entertaining as they may be, there is almost always a clunkiness to them. Beyond the structural issues, Marvel treats directors and actors as disposable commodities. They’ve proven several times that the talent is replaceable. Who wouldn’t want to vent their frustration after the check clears?

This situation has forced Marvel’s hand more than once, necessitating that they go with safer directors, find new actors, or turn characters into one-off lines joking about their secret/safe whereabouts. In sharing the DuVernay news, Neil made the stakes for Marvel clear:

For Marvel, [a singular vision] is also undoubtedly part of the problem when you’re making a highly connected, ever-sprawling cinematic universe. But it comes at a cost. You run the risk, as a studio that considers itself an innovator, of losing out on originality of vision and unique voices behind the camera.

In more than one way, Marvel (and Disney) have to be careful that fans don’t tire of the relatively homogeneous flavor that they’re selling. Feige has to be a bottomless pit of vision. They’ll have to innovate, which means sometimes moving away from the very thing that has made them wildly popular. At some point ‐ maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this decade ‐ the superhero trend is going to wane, and Marvel will find itself in a fire sale.

Which leads us back to the impossibility of a DuVernay/Marvel collaboration. So far, there has been nothing disposable about her talent. Her directing Black Panther was always a pipe dream conjured by fans who are aching to see something even slightly different with that frantic flashing Marvel logo at the top. Even if she and Marvel had been in lock step on the design of the character and how he fit into the greater MCU, it only would have taken one building block change for the Jenga tower to collapse. When Feige changes his mind about a movie coming out in 6 years that your movie tangentially sets up, you either roll with it or find the door handle.

DuVernay even recognized this factor in her statement:

In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn’t see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences later.

As if that were an inevitability.

When you hire Edgar Wright, you get an Edgar Wright movie. When you hire Kenneth Branagh, and his work lines up with your needs, you get Space Shakespeare. Undoubtedly when you hire Ava DuVernay, it’s to make an Ava DuVernay film.

Thus, the day dream of what her Black Panther movie ‐ a movie that had no chance of ever existing ‐ would have been like is all we get. Maybe more thoughtful, maybe more nuanced, maybe more invested in a well-rounded (albeit fictional) African nation, maybe touching on politics in a dangerous way, maybe simply different. Maybe it would have been a moody disappointment for fans expecting more Marvelous fare. Maybe it would have been weighed down by dramatics. Maybe. But we’ll never know what it could have been other than to place a cape and cowl on Selma’s intensity and righteousness and immediacy and sorrow. The formula for MCU movies has almost always been 80–90% Marvel, 10–20% flavor from the director they pick.

DuVernay, like Wright, was never going to fit into that formula.

Let’s not really mourn it for long. Its demise (or whatever you call the death of a thing that never existed) is not particularly a bad thing. It keeps DuVernay out of a sphere that treats directors like hired hands instead of creative managers, and it’s not like Marvel is hurting for options on a film slated for three years from now.

Let’s all pretend not to be surprised when their pick is an anonymous camera hound who made a series of sensual Lexus commercials.

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