When future film historians look back on our current movie landscape, it’s likely that more than a few will refer to it as “The Age of the Superhero.” Just as the Western dominated the popular cinema of the mid-20th century and the 1980s saw the rise of the action blockbuster, it is undeniable that tales of men of tomorrow and sentinels of liberty have defined the last decade worth of pop culture.
Though comic book stories may currently occupy the prime position in the zeitgeist, a certain recent release has proven that there isn’t a single successful formula to adapting a comic book into a feature film. Director James Gunn’s quirky, almost-universally beloved Guardians of the Galaxy ended up the big winner of this summer’s box office, and we at Screen Rant couldn’t be happier. Guardians‘ financial victory demonstrates that a strong, singular directorial voice can be just as effective at drawing an audience as any big-name property.
Gunn’s unique vision has us imagining what might have been – specifically, what it would have looked like if other strong, individualistic directors had been able to try their hands at comic book-derived projects. How would some of most famous and respected directors of all time go about adapting funny-books? Just as Guardians of the Galaxy mines a potent vein of nostalgia, we at Screen Rant have been inspired by the superhero-space opera to look to film’s past and wonder what could have been – or rather, what couldn’t have, but would have been incredibly awesome.
Join Screen Rant as we dare to dream of 8 legendary auteurs we wish could direct comic book adaptations. Their time may have passed, but the influence of these cinematic greats echoes so loudly that we still yearn for them to rise up and press their stamp on The Age of the Superhero.
1. Orson Welles’ The Question
As a word of advice, never try to compare your life to that of Orson Welles – you’ll only come away feeling incredibly inadequate. After all, he was only 25 years old when he wrote, directed, and starred in what many consider to be the greatest movie ever made. Citizen Kane mashed together almost every film trick of its era (not to mention inventing more than a few of its own) to create what was, at the time, a startlingly new cinematic experience.
In the decades the followed, Welles never quite captured the spark that made that first film so special. Nonetheless, he showed an able hand at flashy filmmaking, putting out classics such as The Trial, Touch of Evil, and the devilishly clever documentary F is for Fake.
Apparently a fan of comic books in his youth, Welles often displayed a pulp sensibility that would have played well with the faceless super-detective known as The Question. A no-nonsense sleuth more in the vein of The Shadow than Batman, the original incarnation of The Question pursued criminal conspiracies using an elaborate disguise and an indomitable will.
The fast-paced, brainy, often twist-laden adventures of The Question could have made for a crackerjack bit of fantastical noir in Welles’ hands. For all the criticism the man drew during his late career (some of it thoroughly deserved), he never quite lost the adept hand he first showed in his twenties. Under his direction, The Question could have made for quite the superhero thriller.
2. Sam Peckinpah’s Preacher
When Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was released in 1969, it decisively finished the job started by almost ten years’ worth of revisionist Westerns. The acerbic director drew heavy criticism for the film’s unvarnished violence and nihilism – all elements Peckinpah would return to again and again over a too-short career. Before he died of complications from his various addictions in 1984, Peckinpah created some of the darkest and most savage movies ever made.
Though he never touched any of the more fantastical genres, the cult-classic Vertigo comic book Preacher would have been right up Peckinpah’s bloodstained alley. The tale of a Texas holy man who bonds with a cosmic entity and goes on a quest to bring an unruly God to justice probably would have tickled Peckinpah’s fancy. After all, the comic series is absolutely stuffed with blood-soaked violence, grotesque characters, constant vulgarity, and gleeful blasphemy.
Despite all this, Preacher would have also appealed to Peckinpah’s fascination with upright people standing in the face of an indecent world. For all its reputation as an over-the-top gross-out comic, Preacher remains a favorite because it actually has a huge heart beneath all that filth. Indeed, its main protagonist Jesse Custer maintains a sense of two-fisted frontier morality – one derived from watching old Western movies as a child, no less.
Sam Peckinpah could have taken the world and characters of Preacher and spun something caustically compelling from them. In our heads, the resultant project would have been something like the road-movie-from-hell Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia crossed with the manic intensity of Straw Dogs. Of course, he couldn’t have encompassed the entire tale in one go – but that’s why we can imagine sequels.
3. Luis Buñuel’s Doctor Strange
Spanish director/provocateur Luis Buñuel burst onto the film scene when he teamed up with Salvador Dali to create one of the most infamous short films of all time, Un Chien Andalou. As one of the pioneers of the Surrealist movement, Buñuel deployed a strong eye for composition, a bone-dry sense of humor, and barely suppressed outrage at society’s hypocrisies in a lengthy career of absurdist cinema.
Buñuel had a knack for making the mundane weird and the weird outright unsettling. Even some of the more straightforward movies in his oeuvre contain elements designed to get under the viewer’s skin (see the hobos’ banquet in Viridiana or the mysterious box in Belle du Jour).
What else could Buñuel direct, then, but Doctor Strange?
In their original incarnation under the pen of Steve Ditko (who also, coincidentally, created The Question), the adventures of Doctor Stephen Strange were not just weird, they were outright aggressively surreal. Featuring bizarre journeys into the realms beyond mortal ken, these tales resonated with a generation making its home in postmodern psychedelia.
Though Buñuel rarely engaged with the kind of kaleidoscopic style that marked early Doctor Strange comics, his seemingly effortless control of the weird would have made for an entirely different sort of superhero movie. It might not have been a crowd-pleaser, but it certainly would have made an indelible impression.
4. Ingmar Bergman’s The Sandman
Whenever anyone brings up the perceived inaccessibility and dreariness of European art films, Ingmar Bergman is often held out as the main avatar of the stereotype. Fortunately, that perception doesn’t hold much water. Known primarily as a director of exceedingly grim dramas, it’s easy to forget that Bergman often wove a spritely sense of humor and whimsy into his work.
For instance, Bergman’s most famous movie, The Seventh Seal, actually moves at a quick clip and has a wry comedic undercurrent. Alongside its visions of plague and death, the movie celebrates life in small and curious moments.
In his heyday, Bergman would have been nearly the perfect choice to helm an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic book opus The Sandman. After all, much of his work already had an ethereal quality to it – Persona plays out like the most uncomfortable erotic dream ever, and Hour of the Wolf has all the trappings of an inscrutable nightmare.
Heck, one could even argue that there are already shades of the Death portrayed in The Seventh Seal swirling about the creative DNA of the King of Dreams. This would follow, given that The Sandman debuted more than three decades after that film’s release.
As such, we would have loved to see Bergman bring all his keen insight into dream logic and sense of adventure to the story of Morpheus, the living incarnation of all dreams, and his godlike extended family The Endless. Even an adaptation of some of the lower-key, less Morpheus-centric stories in The Sandman’s run (we nominate “A Doll’s House”) would have worked in Bergman’s favor.
NEXT PAGE: Swamp Thing, Jonah Hex, and Black Panther
5. 1980s-era David Cronenberg’s Swamp Thing
Once upon a time, David Cronenberg was the unquestioned maestro of a very particular brand of scary movie: body horror. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Cronenberg created some of film’s most indelible images of biology run amok in The Brood, Scanners, The Fly, and Videodrome. These movies tapped directly into audiences’ fears that one day their own flesh would betray them.
It’s probably no coincidence that writer Alan Moore gave the DC Comics property Saga of Swamp Thing a body horror-themed makeover during Cronenberg’s most fertile period. Moore transformed the titular bog monster into a constantly evolving, increasingly alien avatar of the Earth’s biosphere – one who seemingly went through a new physical transformation every issue.
As such, it would have been fascinating indeed to see Cronenberg take up the reins of the film franchise launched by Wes Craven and drive it in the much more unsettling direction Moore had taken the character. His uniquely disgusting take on Swamp Thing’s abilities would have been a sight to behold.
Unlike most of the other directors on this list, David Cronenberg is very much alive and still making movies. However, the director has long since moved on to less overtly grotesque projects – though projects such as A History of Violence (itself adapted from a graphic novel) and Eastern Promises show that he hasn’t lost the knack for making an audience queasy. While Cronenberg could still conceivably turn his eye toward Swamp Thing, we aren’t holding our breath.
6. 1970s-era Francis Ford Coppola’s Black Widow
Make no bones about it: For a brief period in the ‘70s, Francis Ford Coppola seemed to tower over the cinema like a bearded titan. During that time, Coppola was responsible for some of the greatest movies ever created. The Godfather alone secured his spot in the pantheon of great directors.
Alas, that shining moment wasn’t to last. After a series of costly bombs and financial setbacks in the ’80s, Coppola soon found himself doing work-for-hire on increasingly dire projects such as Jack and Supernova. Like David Cronenberg, Coppola is still very much alive and kicking. However, he also hasn’t released a widely distributed film in well over a decade – and one has to look back even further to find a project not thoroughly drubbed by critics.
Thus, it’s much more fun to imagine the man taking on a comic book project in his creative prime – during the years when memories of The Godfather didn’t exist alongside those of The Godfather, Part III. As one of the progenitors of ‘70s conspiracy movies, we think Coppola would have taken the recently bandied Black Widow movie and turned it into a hair-raising thriller.
Combining the gritty action of Apocalypse Now with the relentless paranoia of The Conversation, Coppola’s theoretical Black Widow movie could have evoked the best of the spy and superhero genres. We’ve already seen a glimpse of that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but in our imaginary movie, the master of ‘70s cinema would have added a layer of detailed grit not yet seen in a modern Marvel movie. It’s such a compelling vision that now we’re hoping even more strongly for Coppola to make a comeback.
7. Sergio Leone’s Jonah Hex
Though Westerns were already changing direction by the time of its release, Sergio Leone’s A Fist Full of Dollars helped them on their way with all the gentleness of a fist to the jaw. Leone’s (admittedly plagiarized) first masterpiece kicked off the “Spaghetti Western” subgenre and sounded the closing bell on the old-school cowboy movie.
Leone himself would go on to top his previous work over and over again, arguably culminating in Once Upon a Time in the West – a film as beautiful as it is brutal. After that triumph, Leone started to shy away from Westerns, instead aiming for prestige appeal with his final, flawed crime drama Once Upon a Time in America.
Jonah Hex was undeniably born from the ground originally tilled by Leone. Created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, Hex was intended to emulate the sort of morally ambiguous antiheroes popularized by revisionist Westerns. Though far from villainous, the scarred bounty hunter was more Clint Eastwood than Gary Cooper.
Had Sergio Leone brought the skill and ambition of his late career to the kind of character that put him on the map, there’s no doubt that it would have been extraordinary. Though exaggerated, Hex was exactly the kind of character Leone excelled at portraying. And if the resultant movie included the stranger elements of Hex’s adventures (including alien worms, voodoo zombies, and time travel), it might have been something truly weird and wonderful.
8. Akira Kurosawa’s Black Panther
Without Akira Kurosawa, modern cinema would be unrecognizable. After all, the source that Sergio Leone so baldly stole A Fist Full of Dollars from was Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – and that’s only one small element of the Japanese director’s far-reaching influence. Almost every modern action, adventure, or drama film contains some echo of the innovations that Kurosawa introduced over a career that spanned close to half a century.
From crime tales to social drama and Shakespeare adaptations, Kurosawa excelled at nearly every project he touched. Indeed, he even tackled the outright fantastical in the critically divisive (and in this writer’s opinion, underrated) Dreams, spinning vignettes involving snow demons, cannibalistic mutants, and the mournful dead. Wouldn’t it be something else to see the old master work his magic on something more superheroic?
As a somewhat non-intuitive pick, we think Kurosawa could have taken the oft-discussed Black Panther and knocked it out of the park. The director had a knack for creating visions of aristocracy that were stately, but also hinted at the dark undercurrents of power – something that would come in handy for the portrayal of a king who must fight to protect his hidden realm.
Imagine a Wakanda shown with the sort of lush cinematography as Kagemusha, its royal court introduced with all the pomp and grandeur of Ran. Beyond mere lavish set-dressing, a Kurosawa-helmed Black Panther film could draw upon the director’s skillful action-adventure projects – especially the slick pace of The Hidden Fortress and the rock-solid choreography of Seven Samurai. It’s too bad that such a project can never exist, because we’re already excited for it.
By many accounts, the age of the auteur is over. The blockbuster killed it, and now directors with strong personal visions can’t work within the mainstream studio system.
This sentiment is echoed in one of the most consistent complaints leveled against the ever-successful Marvel film franchise – that on a stylistic level, all of these superhero movies feel essentially the same. However – as we mentioned in the opening of this article – Guardians of the Galaxy proves that an avowed weirdo like James Gunn can still sometimes get big, unbridled movies made.
Though the men on this list will never make a superhero movie, there are still dozens of fascinating filmmakers out there who can take up the reins in their unique ways. Here’s to hoping that, as the comic book subgenre expands and evolves, that the best contemporary directorial voices get their shot in the spotlight.
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