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The success of Marvel Studios has allowed it to operate by its own rules, so perhaps it’s not surprising that its top executives neither knew nor cared that dropping Patty Jenkins as director of its Thor sequel would shock Hollywood. But perhaps the studio didn’t count on shocking Natalie Portman, who is said to be deeply upset by the decision.
While the parties spun the Dec. 6 parting as an amicable split over creative differences, sources say Jenkins was fired without warning from a job that would have made her the first woman to direct a superhero tentpole. The news was out before anyone had told Portman, who had strongly urged Marvel to hire the director of 2003’s Monster (a film that won Charlize Theron her Oscar). According to sources, Portman had begun to question whether she wanted to continue acting at all right now — possibly for several years — because she wants to spend time with her baby boy, who was born in June. Portman was said to be re-engaged in Thor 2 because of Jenkins’ involvement and especially proud that she would have played a role in opening the door for a woman to direct such a film. The Oscar winner is contractually obligated to stay with the project and Marvel is now said to be working overtime to smooth over the situation by including her in discussions about whom to hire as a replacement.
Meanwhile, insiders are telling widely divergent stories about why Marvel dropped Jenkins. A source with firsthand knowledge of the production says Marvel became concerned that Jenkins was not moving decisively enough and feared the film might miss its November 2013 release date. Exactly how Jenkins should have acted more decisively is unclear since no script was in place. Marvel had commissioned one from Don Payne before Jenkins came onto the project in October, but the studio now wants a rewrite.
Still, the source says the company felt she showed “a lack of overall clarity in her choices,” which led to concern that the process would be “difficult.”
But an insider in Jenkins’ camp says the lack of clarity might be on Marvel’s part. This person says Jenkins was so explicit about her vision for the film that she didn’t expect to be hired in the first place. The source speculates that Marvel executives might have been won over initially by Portman’s enthusiasm for Jenkins but then, “when they started to interview writers for the rewrite . . . may have decided they really weren’t comfortable.”
Marvel had certain things they needed to achieve, says another source. There were constraints on what she could do creatively.
These sources say Jenkins respects Marvel’s imperatives and still wants to work with the company. She also doesn’t want this to be seen as gender-related, though that might be inevitable. A recent Annenberg study showed women directed only 3.6 percent of the top-grossing movies of 2009.
The directors Marvel is now considering to replace Jenkins — Game of Thrones vets Daniel Minahan and Alan Taylor — are both men.
Sexual politics aside, Marvel has a reputation for calling its own shots. This is the company that offered Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke a less-than-princely $250,000 for Iron Man 2 (that was negotiated up to something north of $400,000). The Disney-based studio has said in the past that it doesn’t mean to be disrespectful, just budget-conscious. But with certain exceptions — say, Robert Downey Jr. for the Iron Man series — the company is happy to lowball talent.
But as long as Marvel movies pull in those big global audiences (like $448.5 million for Thor), it has no reason to change course. “There’s a real arrogance,” says a film agent. “But in this environment where everybody’s struggling to stay employed, their behavior is amplified.” And agents can’t combat that. “We don’t have leverage,” he says. “The movies are the stars.”
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