Welcome to the Era of the Fanboy Filmmaker

By  · Published on November 10th, 2015

In April of 1989, The New York Times ran a multi-page profile of a young director about to make his first tentpole production in Hollywood. In the interview, Tim Burton – the young director tasked with adapting Batman for a generation raised more on Frank Miller than Adam West – discussed his previous films and the media that influenced his career. It’s a very wide-ranging interview, with Burton touching on his lonely childhood and his undying love of Vincent Price films. In fact, the only thing that Burton doesn’t discuss in terms of his adolescence is Batman himself. The article does make a link between Burton and the Batman franchise, but only in the second hand. At one point, producer Jon Peters is quoted as saying that Burton “had a passion for ‘Batman’ and a desire to do something completely different with it.”

Of course, Burton wasn’t the first to tackle a beloved property without viewing it as the culmination of a life’s work. A decade earlier, director Richard Donner described the process of making Superman to the Los Angeles Times as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” placing Superman in the abstract – not the personal – as an important character in American history. “The British have their Shakespeare. We have our Superman. So it’s got to be good.” Donner discussed the most recognizable comic book character of all time without any mention of childhood comic book collections or serials. He may have – and, indeed, in most interviews, does – feel strongly about the character that they created for the screen, but there is no need for him to frame it as a personal relationship.

Skip ahead a few decades, though, and the conversation has changed. Gone is the suggestion that Tim Burton could bend the Batman universe to fit with his own personal aesthetic; now we view fandom as a prerequisite to the role of franchise architect. Nowhere is this more noticeable than with the Star Wars franchise. Today Wired magazine released an interview with Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams discussing his vision for the franchise and his own experiences with George Lucas’s films. By its second paragraph, the Wired interview tells us (in no uncertain terms) that the director “loves those movies as much as you or any of your laser-brained friends.” The entire interview is peppered with references to Abrams’s fandom; from the interviewer referring to Abrams as a Star Wars “superfan” to Abrams admitting that he himself would devour all Star Wars marketing material if the situation were reversed.

And Abrams isn’t the only one. This week we’ve seen another director discuss his blockbuster adaptation in terms of his own adolescent love for the license. Warcraft director Duncan Jones – known to be an avid player of Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft — was asked point blank in an earlier interview if directing Warcraft represented a dream come true. “I actually used to play Lost Vikings, which was a game Blizzard made even before that,” said Jones. “I’ve been playing for a long time.” Even with the first trailer receiving mixed reviews, most fans are content to put their faith in Jones, who has both the filmmaking pedigree and (they assume) the passion for the project necessary to get the job done.

None of which is to suggest that the respect shown by J.J. Abrams and Duncan Jones for the franchises they inherited is anything but genuine. Filmmakers don’t become filmmakers in a vacuum; writers and directors must fall in love with visual storytelling at some point in their childhoods, otherwise they would all write novels instead. Besides, if someone came along and offered me an ungodly amount of money to direct a blockbuster Silent Hill reboot – perhaps in some darkest timeline where studios dig so deep for unknown artists that they hire people who have never actually shot anything on camera – it would be impossible for interviewers to shut me up about my love of the source material. I’d tell anyone who would listen that these games were very influential to my love of horror movies, and that I am, indeed, a “superfan.”

But whereas that kind of appreciation for the material used to be a nice little bonus for audiences, something for a smart interviewer to tease out in a longer conversation, studios now treat the fanboy director as another tool in their marketing kit. Companies used to adapt comic books and television shows and be relatively confident that audiences would follow that property to the movie theater. Now it is possible to go one step further and pitch the filmmaker as being an extension of the audience itself. Duncan Jones isn’t just a talented director looking to break the trend of mediocre video game adaptations; he has become the avatar for fans of Warcraft around the world, the closest that many of them will ever come to directing the movie version of a game that they love. In other words, a film made for fans of the series, but also one made by them. This ensures that the movie will, at worst, exist as a private conversation between the filmmakers and the thousands (millions) of fans who are rooting for the adaptation to succeed.

I can’t really blame them for this approach, either. It wasn’t that long ago that Joss Whedon was being praised for bringing his knowledge and appreciation of the Marvel Universe to the cross-over Avengers film; meanwhile, our same J.J. Abrams was being blasted by fans for admitting that he had no real interest in the Star Trek series. While we continue to treat auteurism as an underlying force – flawed or no – behind the creative process, studios have known almost since the very beginning that it can also be a useful buffer between audiences and producers. Was Star Trek Into Darkness bad? Well, what did you expect from a filmmaker who admitted that the original series was “too philosophical” for him? This never would have happened with someone who truly appreciated the property the way that, say, J.J. Abrams appreciates Star Wars.

There are times where I feel like my interest would be better served by someone who had no prior allegiance to the property. I’d gladly accept a filmmaker who is willing to make the types of tough decisions that make for a better movie, if not a better faithful adaptation, if I knew that they had the talent for the job. Burton and Donner made timeless films that are still used as a touchpoint for comic book movies, but they also butted heads with the studios over bizarre casting decisions and focused on parts of the source material that most fans would have left on the cutting room floor. If properties like Star Wars and Marvel are to survive their saturation of the market, then they need to have the opportunity to surprise us and engage us. How can we ever be surprised by the film that we ourselves would have made?

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)