Auteurship and the Tentpole Movie

Iron Man 3

I was somewhere across the Atlantic, headed back from attending my sister’s wedding, when I finally got around to watching Iron Man 3. But that’s life when you’ve got little kids. Limited time and babysitting favors to call in mean you’ve got to be much more choosey about which films are worth the trip to the cinema for.

Refreshingly, I wasn’t spoiled ahead of time, and actually I wasn’t even expecting any twist. To be honest, that’s probably because I’ve always been more of a DC fan than Marvel, and although the original Iron Man movie was a blast, I’d heard grumblings about the sequel which ultimately led to me never checking it out. Add in the fact I really wasn’t impressed with The Avengers, and well, here I was watching one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer on a 3×5 inch screen on a seat back.

Iron Man 3 interested me almost purely because of the involvement of Shane Black. I think Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is one of the greatest screenplays ever written, and having heard Black speak several times at Austin Film Festival, it’s hard not to admire the guy.

So naturally, I was grinning almost from the start when it was immediately obvious that this wasn’t your typical studio-sanitized tentpole, this was a Shane Black film. The DNA was obvious. Tony Stark’s opening voiceover sounded a lot like Harry Lockheart’s. The Christmas setting is a favorite of Black’s. And something about the involvement of a little kid harkened back to the great stuff of 80s action movies (Shane, of course, got his big break writing the Lethal Weapon movies).

What I didn’t realize at the time (I just thought it was a bloody brilliant bit of writing) was the certain liabilities had been taken with one prominent character, who is revealed during the course of the film, to be not at all what he seemed. There was apparently some minor kerfuffle among online fans who couldn’t believe Marvel had allowed Black free reign to do what he had done. I’m not naive, I’m sure there was much scrutinizing of everything that went on (an episode of Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A Podcast confirms as much), but regardless, Black was allowed to make the film his own and put his own stamp of authorship on it.

It got me thinking, how many other big budget Hollywood movies have a similar degree of auteurship about them? Actually, more than you’d probably expect. In fact, the more I think about it, the more director-driven blockbusters I could list. What are the Mission Impossible movies if not auteur films – isn’t that the sole point of that franchise? And who would dare argue that the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies are first and foremost Peter Jackson films? And isn’t there a reason why Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is nearly always prefaced with his name whenever it is mentioned?

Perhaps the issue here is not, then, that auteurism is not alive and well in the world of the multiplex tentpole movie, but rather that there are only a handful of filmmakers who have both the cojones, the ability, and – perhaps most critically of all – the permission to produce a crowd-pleasing blockbuster while still maintaining their own unique vision without or despite any studio interference. While any movie Tarantino churns out is more or less guaranteed to be a runaway success in terms of box office receipts, it’s not like he’s been allowed to take on a James Bond movie (more’s the pity!)

Black and Nolan, however, have been permitted to take on a known entity and given some degree of free reign to make the films they want to make, with their own unique voices clear and evident. This kind of auteurship in tentpole cinema is frankly just not that common despite the big names operating within that arena. But when it does appear – and the result is this good – everyone wins.


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