On 03/17/2011, news hit that Darren Aronofsky, genius director and the man responsible for Black Swan (which we kinda liked over here), had jumped ship as the director of the sequel to 2009 fiasco and failed X-Men spin-off, Wolverine. Citing travel woes and a reticence toward being yanked away from his family for filming, Aronofsky parted ways with Fox and has left their film without a helmsman. In retrospect, the announcement resembles a double-edged sword; on the one hand, Aronofsky leaving surely means nothing but bad news for the sequel, which is troubled inherently based on its ancestry and Fox’s blind and untempered hatred of genre movies. On the other hand, his departure also means he’s not tied down to a year-and-change-long production and therefore free to make the kind of movies he’s earned so much praise for making in the first place.
So who wins in this exchange between auteur and studio? Frankly, I consider the trade-off to be in Aronofsky’s favor, and therefore also in the favor of cineastes and movie geeks, for a number of reasons. That’s not to say I don’t understand the appeal behind having a talent like Aronofsky’s in charge of a name-brand genre flick; everybody remembers what happened when Christopher Nolan seized the reigns of the Batman franchise, started anew, and eventually set the world on fire with The Dark Knight. But expecting the same sort of magic out of a new Wolverine movie feels like folly, since lightning so rarely strikes twice in such endeavors and we’ve also been given no reason to assume Aronofsky has it in him to deliver the same crowd-pleasing, demographic-pleasing sort of blockbuster (after all, genius that he is, we’ve only seen him direct small personal pictures rather than large-scale ones).
That said, I’m more inclined to think that Aronofsky does have a great, fun, rewarding summer popcorn movie in him, and that Fox would have invariably done their thing and kept that movie from landing in theaters. If we must bring Dark Knight into a discussion on the merits of Aronofsky helming a superhero movie (and, let’s face it, we must), then it bears mentioning that Nolan got to work with Warner Brothers, far less nefarious and nowhere near the viscous font of evil that is Fox in terms of pure talent-suppressing malice. I don’t care what Fox wanted Aronofsky to direct– the Wolverine sequel could have the potential to be the best comic book movie of all time, and it would still be worth it to keep him away from it just to keep career barbarian Tom Rothman from ever having any say over anything Aronofsky creates.
Am I exaggerating? Do the research yourself if need be but the record will always show, at all times and forevermore, Rothman’s propensity for torturing potentially good movies into malformed and horrific shadows of what they could have been. So, basically, when one professes their disappointment in Aronofsky’s exodus from the project, they’re saying that they wouldn’t mind seeing one of the best filmmakers in the world get yanked around and bullied by Fox and, most of all, Rothman. I admit the possibility that Aronofsky could somehow fight back successfully against any intervention on the studio’s behalf and keep his vision pristine and intact, unspoiled by the boorish machinations of greedy executives, but it’s a very slight possibility indeed. (In fact, Cinema Blend also reported a rumor the same day the story broke which seems to agree with this particular premise.) The more likely scenario is that a very gifted director would be put in a position wherein his creative control would be ignored and trampled, and we’d get an inferior movie than the one he wanted to make and that we deserved.
Filmmakers like Aronofsky need to be granted full ownership and mastery over their work; this is something I firmly believe. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of Aronofsky doing a superhero movie, but nobody should be clamoring to see a film in which the influence of another was exerted upon the production at the cost of the director’s vision– which is precisely what would happen under Fox’s roof. Pardon my bluntness, but any suggestion to the opposite effect is naive.
But maybe that’s not a problem. Maybe directing a payday movie is enough; after all, a blockbuster like The Wolverine could end up bankrolling any number of Aronofsky’s future projects and give him the resources and clout needed to easily produce his movies. And if you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. Look, Wolverine didn’t exactly flop, but it didn’t profit domestically, either, weighing in at $179 million for a $150 million price tag. Box office logic dictates that movies need to return double their budget to truly be profitable; Wolverine barely made a profit equal to one fifth of its production budget. It’s not a bomb by any stretch of the means, but it fell to international markets to recoup losses (it raked in nearly $200 million outside of the US). Arguably, that’s not a bad thing, but the simple truth is that if a film can’t hack it at home it’s going to be considered a failure by the media and by the American public; by extension, so too will studios consider it a failure, since the American audience is the audience they’re producing and distributing the movie for in the first place.
Granted we’re talking about a movie that hasn’t gotten made, and The Wolverine could be a huge moneymaker at home and overseas. Given that the X-Men franchise has done less money with the last two installments, I find that unlikely. More importantly, though, is the straight-up fact that Black Swan was a more profitable film than Wolverine the First. Don’t believe it? At the end of the day, Wolverine made close to two and a half times its production budget back with foreign grosses considered. Respectable. But Black Swan made eight times its budget back just looking at domestic totals, and added another cool $180 million dollars overseas. Wolverine might have $90 million dollars over Black Swan when comparing box office totals, but Black Swan is easily the more profitable movie (not taking into consideration ancillaries, where Wolverine may well pull ahead; no one is buying Nina Sayers action figures or Black Swan: The Game, after all).
So what exactly is Aronofsky envying, here? I’m not going to deny that he’s had issues getting his films financed, but with a critical darling under his belt that also saw an enormous return on investment for studios, the idea that he’s in need of a payday tentpole picture seems patently false. Would such a film benefit his career overall? Most likely. But that film shouldn’t be The Wolverine. Put him in the director’s chair on a blockbuster with more clear earning potential, backed by a studio that won’t mangle his film, and I’m all for it. But until he finds a genre property wherein he can strike a fine balance between creating a crowd-pleasing studio picture and keeping his artistry and integrity intact, Aronofsky’s talents are better employed elsewhere.