Thursday, 25 November 2010

Aronofsky, Fox, ‘The Wolverine’: Commercial Disaster, or Genre Magnum Opus?

Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream was one of my 10 greatest movies of the Noughties: a parable on the horrors of addiction that should be mandatory viewing for every kid in Europe and America. Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and The Wrestler are two of my worst films of the Noughties: self-indulgent exercises in interminable pretention that impressed no one but the snooty in society.

Darren Aronofsky's new film is Black Swan, which looks insane but still as portentous as his last two movies. The film premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival and received mixed reviews, though most critics agree that the usually dull and stiff Natalie Portman, who stars in the lead role, is almost guaranteed a Best Actress Oscar nomination next year. Fox Searchlight seems heartened by Black Swan; convinced that the film will be more than just a cult favourite. Perhaps that's why Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos ― joint co-chairmen-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, and once voted by the now defunct Premiere magazine as the two most powerful people in Hollywood ― have signed Aronofsky to a new two-year overall deal under which his production company, Protozoa Pictures, will develop and produce films for both Twentieth Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures. If that wasn't enough, Aronofsky will helm the next instalment of Fox's blockbuster X-Men spinoff, THE WOLVERINE.

Aronofsky is not necessarily the most obvious choice to direct such a lucrative superhero movie. Aronofsky's films are somewhat arthouse and play more leftfield as the stories he tackles are arguably challenging and confrontational. The Fountain was an expensive experiment that at one time had Brad Pitt attached to star, though he seemed to switch on to the fact that there was little substance to the story and negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to star in Troy in exchange for dropping out of Aronofsky's film. Warner's agreed to restart production on The Fountain with Hugh Jackman replacing Brad Pitt as long as the $70 million budget was shaved to $35 million and production was moved from Australia to a sound stage in Montreal. The Fountain flopped: badly. A couple of years later Aronofsky came back with a project called The Wrestler that was to star Nicholas Cage in the lead role, but Cage left, though this time not so much because of lack of faith in the story but because Aronofsky really wanted former boxer Mickey Rourke to play the lead role. The Wrestler was made on a budget of $6 million and grossed $44.5 million: a success, but still a pretty average movie that failed to win Rourke the expected Best Actor Oscar at last year's ceremony.

Why then does Fox want Aronofsky to direct their special-effects charged Wolverine movie? When David Poland of Movie City News interviewed Aronofsky last week he said that it was a "gutsy" move for Tom Rothman to hire Aronofsky to direct The Wolverine. Aronofsky responded, saying: "[Tom Rothman] doesn't even know how 'gutsy' it is," and burst out laughing. Poland was keen to press on how Aronofsky's lack of commercial pandering may stand in opposition to what is expected from an established superhero franchise. Aronofsky said: "Every single film I've done so far, I've been the only person in the room who wants to make the movie, and I'm kind of excited about doing a film where actually everyone wants to make it. Just to see what the experience is like and see if I can do what I do in that world." The director confidently declared to Poland: "I think I'm being hired because of who I am. I'm not being hired to turn into someone. I'm being hired to do what I do." He added: "I don't know exactly if [Rothman] knows what he bought [because] we're definitely going to make something great. But it will be very different and that's what I do." Aronofsky concluded the interview by saying The Wolverine will be a standalone feature and will not interchange secondary characters or plotlines from previous movies featuring the clawed superhero.

It's good for a director to be balls-out and stand their ground regarding the vision they've got for the movie they're about to make. Confidence is one thing but Aronofsky seems to forget that Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos had similar intentions for last year's X-Men Origins: Wolverine by hiring Gavin Hood, the Academy Award winning director of South African film Tsotsi and helmer of New Line Cinema's Iraq war drama Rendition, to direct the superhero spinoff. Tastemakers were impressed by Fox's praiseworthy selection of Gavin Hood, but ultimately the director delivered a film that was less interested in action and more focused on character. Hood and Fox argued over the film's direction, especially in the depiction of Wolverine as an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, with the executives arguing that audiences would not be interested in such heavy themes. The studio had two replacement directors lined up before agreeing to fly Richard Donner, director of Superman and Lethal Weapon, to Australia to shepherd the production away from Hood's existential mood piece. If anything, this goes to show that although Fox are feeling like groundbreakers for having hired Aronofsky to helm The Wolverine, his unconventional vision may be far from the digestible and marketable superhero film they're really wanting.

Some have argued against this, most notably American writer Brad Brevet of Rope of Silicone who responded to my criticisms by saying, "I understand your point, but I would never compare Gavin Hood and Aronofsky in this case, primarily due to their differing film backgrounds. Of course, if [Fox] doesn't like it they can always mess with it in the end, but I have a feeling they think they are going the Christopher Nolan/Batman Begins route here and going to go with it..."

Brevet has a point but a part of me thinks he may be leaning more towards wishful thinking as there are many commercial properties that attach auteur filmmakers only to discover they haven't delivered a saleable movie that meets audience expectations. In 2005, Warner's hired Spike Jonze to film Where the Wild Things Are which failed to meet multiple release dates as the studio was agonising over the film's non-kid friendly treatment and engaged in a series of tweaks and reshoots. The finished film was a masterpiece, but with a budget in excess of $100 million, Where the Wild Things Are couldn't even break even.

Aronofsky seems to have wanted to break into commercial features for some years now having previously been attached to Warner's reinvention of Batman before Christopher Nolan took over and was earlier signed to MGM's superfluous remake of Robocop that was recently cancelled by the studio because of ongoing internal business predicaments.

It's hard not to be cynical about The Wolverine but by stepping back and looking at the bigger picture it seems reasonable to be suspicious of Aronofsky, Rothman and Gianopulos' proclamations. To be fair, I don't hold Aronofsky's storytelling skills too high but he did direct one of my all time favourite junkie movies. There is hope that Aronofsky's edgy direction, and his regular creative collaborators in cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell, may create a superhero movie of distinct authorship: then again, Fox should still keep Richard Donner's number on speed dial just in case.

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