Trilogies: Changing Directors

Swap or Stick?

Shuffling directors mid-trilogy is a risky business, especially when said trilogy is a continuation of a closely connected narrative, being released roughly annually. The latest Star Wars films, for instance.

It's common knowledge at this point that JJ Abrams directed the first film in the new trilogy, The Force Awakens, with Rian Johnson directing the sequel, The Last Jedi, only for Abrams to take the helm again to close the show in the third and final film.

This led to quite a lot of inconsistencies in the second movie, not only with character and plot but with the tone and style established in the previous film. It seemed like Johnson was more concerned with making his own stand-alone film, rather than making a coherent sequel to The Force Awakens.

Say what you will about The Last Jedi, we now have JJ Abrams coming back in to finish the trilogy off his way—Most likely by wriggling around everything Johnson laid down in The Last Jedi. Now, this may be a tad premature, but it's safe to say that this game of directorial ping-pong has only hurt this trilogy. The Last Jedi would probably have been better if Abrams had made it, or if Johnson did the film before, at least then we would have consistency.

So the question I can't help but ask is: How important is it that the same director is kept on for all three films?

Keeping The Same Director

Arguments for: Peter Jackson's 'The Lord of the Rings,' Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight'

Most of us have re-watched these landmark trilogies to death at this point. I could write scores of articles on why these films are brilliant, both independently and as complete trilogies, but that would be pretty redundant. What interests me is how they maintained their tone and constancy throughout, and how it attributed to their success as over-arching stories.

The Lord of the Rings' narrative and the subsequent sequence of events is pretty much back to back, whereas The Dark Knight trilogy spans Bruce Wayne's entire career as Batman. Despite this, one thing these films have in common is the sense of connection. Characters develop based on what we see and know. Nothing they do seems odd or confusing in their behaviour, wrenching us from the story with our questions of why and how. This sense of continuation gives us a quantifiable journey, which we ourselves have witnessed. You bring a new person in, one who wants to put their own spin on things, and you get inconsistencies.

This is equally true for tone and style. More or less everything was handmade in The Lord of the Rings, to a maddeningly precise degree. The film only relied on CGI where it absolutely had to in the early films. By the time the third picture was in production (Return of the King) CGI had improved, and there was a substantial amount more in the movie. But Jackson didn’t go too mad (Don't worry, he saved that for The Hobbit), and kept intact the feel that caused us to fall in love with Middle Earth in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Bringing in a new director means a new perspective, a new style, which isn’t always a bad thing. But when you captivate everyone with the specific style you worked so hard to create in the initial movie, bringing in someone who has designs to change all that can lead to some bitterly disappointed fans.

Arguments Against: The Wachowski brother's 'The Matrix,' Sami Rami's 'Spider-Man'

Sometimes, the first film is just so damn good that living up to it is just too tall of an order. Other times, a franchise can just lose its way, maybe because the sensibilities and tastes of the director evolve as the new films are produced.

What I'm more bothered about though, is when someone makes a film that's such a success that the director literally goes mental. When you smash the box office or produce an instant classic, the sky is the limit for the sequels. Power is so delightfully corrupting and is almost never used with great responsibility. Just look at Sami Rami's Spider-Man films.

They had to have known how this would be received.

The first film was a breath of fresh air. 2002's Spider-Man was the first superhero film that succeeded as a superhero film before there was even a genre. It didn’t need to be dark, or edgy, or reach for laughs with every other line of dialogue. It was just Peter Parker, Spiderman-ing about New York, living at home well into his late twenties, getting yelled at by his boss, all while trying to dodge goblins—I'm my opinion, perhaps the most relatable superhero flick to date.

The first Matrix film is probably one of the best films I've ever seen. The sequel had its moments too, but unfortunately, this series started with a bang, and then just sort of tapered off until it finished with a whimper. The last film, in an attempt to be fresh and stand apart from the previous ones, mixed up the formula. The majority of the movie's key moments and scenes were set outside of the matrix, that titular thing that you’re watching the film for, where people can do super kung-fu and fly. Instead, you're treated to the horrible, drab, grey, real world, which the first movie makes a vehement point of saying is dog shit.

The Last Jedi did the same. I don’t care who you are, you were watching that film for the same reason we all suffered through the prequels: Laser swords that can cut through anything. Without them, Star Wars is nothing and you know it. In The Last Jedi, a lightsaber never touches another lightsaber throughout the story. Rian Johnson deprived us of that wonderful "Kshhhhhhggggr" noise that we spent our childhoods perfecting while braying each other's fingers with mop sticks.

There are certainly arguments for changing directors too. The Blade franchise, for instance, champions both sides. The first one is a timeless classic (and also the real first black superhero blockbuster success, sorry Black Panther), the second one saw the franchise passed over to Guillermo Del Toro, who built upon the characters and setting of the first film with his own wonderfully weird style, while still staying true to the source material and characters.

Then in Blade: Trinity, we got Dracula in chaps.

I get that he was wearing them ironically at first, from when he raided the hot topic place, but why is he still wearing them to fight blade?

The key appears to be equal parts vision and consistency. The best trilogies seem to be envisaged as such from the start, rather than making them one film at a time based on their reception. The films need to stay true to this initial vision, and not be tempted to stray too far from what made us want more films in the first place. I'm not saying just make the same movie over and over, but the whole point of a trilogy is we want a continuation of what came before. Unless you're Michael Bay, of course, in which case: ROBOTS ROBOTS ROBOTS SLO-MO TAKE MY MONEY.

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Trilogies: Changing Directors