Does Steven Spielberg Need a DC Movie?

Steven Spielberg and Blackhawk image Split-Getty-H 2018
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic; Courtesy of DC Comics
The filmmaker who once said superhero films will go "the way of the Western" is now in business with one of the genre's titans.

"There will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western" is how iconic filmmaker Steven Spielberg reacted to the onslaught of comic-book movies just two and a half years ago. Spielberg wasn't exactly suggesting that he was above working in the genre at the time, but his comments sounded like those made by someone who saw a fad riding a high wave that would eventually collapse. Though it may still collapse or fade away, for now, Spielberg has chosen to ride the wave as well. Warner Bros. Pictures announced yesterday that he was working with writer David Koepp on the DC adaptation Blackhawk, ideally to direct the script. It's a mildly surprising turn of events, and either encouraging or discouraging depending on your level of enthusiasm about superhero cinema.

It should be noted at the outset that Steven Spielberg, like a number of other big-name filmmakers, has a longtime habit of announcing projects that either don't come to fruition or take a long time to come true. Blackhawk joins the fifth Indiana Jones film and a possible remake of West Side Story as titles he's actively developing to direct, and we're only a couple of years removed from Spielberg suggesting he would direct Robocalypse and also work on a second Tintin movie with Peter Jackson. Blackhawk is in the Spielberg pipeline, but that doesn't mean it'll happen anytime soon, especially since the DC property isn't one of the publisher's most immediately recognizable titles. If any other director were attached, this story would likely have had no impact.

But, of course, Steven Spielberg is the pinnacle of Hollywood filmmaking, not just any other director. Though the last few years have been marked more by Spielberg working in a historical vein, with such best picture nominees as The Post, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, his first blockbuster hit was a thriller about a killer shark based on a wildly popular novel. Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park are genre mashups, and even the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan indulged in Spielberg's immense talent at building suspense and crafting intense action sequences. His films did not directly inspire superhero films, but Spielberg's genre bona fides were vastly well established a long time before March's Ready Player One. But for almost as long of a period, there have been few filmmakers as established as Spielberg who would deign to work within superhero-style franchise movies.

Only a few years ago, many superhero films were defined less by a distinctive directorial vision behind the camera than that of a major corporation. Marvel famously parted ways with cult filmmaker Edgar Wright on Ant-Man, only a couple years after doing the same with Patty Jenkins on Thor: The Dark World. DC working with Christopher Nolan on the Batman trilogy was more of an exception than the rule. There's still something of a divide between studios trying to placate comic-book fans by not getting too adventurous and studios trying to engage more auteur-minded filmmakers. But the studio that greenlit Ryan Coogler's Black Panther feels a bit more evolved than the one that chose to part ways with Edgar Wright. And DC wisely paid more to get Jenkins on board for Wonder Woman 2, knowing how critical she was to the first film's success.

Seeing Spielberg join forces, even initially, with DC for a new comic-book film is roughly as surprising as ... well, Spike Lee potentially making a superhero movie or Quentin Tarantino maybe making a Star Trek movie. In other cases, when Marvel or DC has separated itself from a filmmaker, it's been surprising but always a confirmation that the studio has the upper hand. With titans like Spielberg, Lee and Tarantino, it seems more likely that if the films don't come to fruition, it will be because they weren't satisfied by the studio, not the other way around. It may be, for some cinephiles, mildly dispiriting to see some of the biggest names in directing working on superhero movies or other franchise fare; the possible flip side is that such distinctive filmmakers might elevate the material where journeyman directors would simply do what the studio expects of them.

DC is, generally speaking, aiming very high as of late, also moving forward with a Harley Quinn movie directed by Cathy Yan the same day as the Spielberg news. (And don't forget that Joker movie potentially starring Joaquin Phoenix, concurrent with anything where Jared Leto reprises his role as the bad guy.) But it doesn't get more ambitious than roping in the most famous filmmaker in the history of the medium. Spielberg's take on the superhero genre will no doubt be worth watching, presuming it ever happens. What is clear: If his earlier comments prove to be correct, then the superhero movie has a few more years before it goes the way of the Western. Spielberg just proved that superhero movies still have a lot of life in them.