From Trank to Spielberg: Why do some sci-fi directors fail, while others succeed?

There has been endless speculation in the past week or so about what went wrong with the new Fantastic Four movie, and much of it has centered around director Josh Trank -- either his inability to step up and make a large-scale film, his ineffectiveness in dealing with a major studio breathing down his neck, or both.

But Trank is not the first filmmaker to make the leap from small to big movies and fall short, nor has every attempt to take that step ended in disaster and disarray. Some directors, it seems, are able to handle the responsibility and pressure of going from making a $10 million movie to a $150 million one, while others simply fold, leaving the wreckage of the project behind for the studio and producers to somehow cobble together.

Each case is different, and there's no single answer for what makes some directors rise to the occasion and others flame out. Here's a look at 14 cases -- 6 of whom nailed it, 5 of whom imploded, and 3 whose destiny has yet to be decided -- and why each went the way it did. 

The Hits

Steven Spielberg/Jaws (1975)

While we're looking at mostly younger, more modern directors, the case of Steven Spielberg is perhaps the granddaddy of them all. Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg had just one feature (the relatively small The Sugarland Express) and a lot of TV work (including the excellent Duel) under his belt when he was given the assignment to adapt Jaws. The production was fraught with problems from the beginning, including constant rewrites, weather and water issues and massive technical difficulties with its mechanical sharks. With its budget and schedule both ballooning to twice their original size, Spielberg thought Jaws would end his film career just as it was starting. Yet somehow he rallied -- whether it was his innate talent, his ability to surround himself with top craftspeople, or both, he managed to make a masterpiece.

Christopher Nolan/Batman Begins (2005)

Nolan had a little more experience than some of the other directors here: He had three features under his belt, two indies (Following and Memento) and a modest studio picture (Insomnia) but had attempted nothing like a superhero film before. Yet Nolan is one of the most focused, precise and detail-oriented filmmakers of his generation, and he was clearly born to make big movies: Batman Begins turned out to be one of the best origin stories ever told, and many fans still consider it the best Batman movie to date. It's not without its flaws, and neither is its director -- it took him a few more movies to master action scenes, for example -- but Batman Begins was one of the most confident upward moves to date.

James McTeigue/V for Vendetta (2006)

When the director for this Wachowskis-produced adaptation of Alan Moore's eerie dystopian graphic novel was announced, the name was met with a collective "Who?" James McTeigue was 39 years old when he made his feature film directing debut on V for Vendetta, but he had two things going for him: a large backlog of experience as an assistant director on projects like the Matrix trilogy and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and the backing and support of his mentors, the Wachowskis. He ended up with a gripping first feature that remains underrated, although his career since then (Ninja Assassin, The Raven) has not been a blazing one.

Anthony and Joe Russo/Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has often been described as one gigantic TV series, with directors coming and going as they create various episodes and move on, but there was still a moment of stunned silence when the studio announced these Cleveland-born brothers as the directors of one of the studio's most anticipated sequels. While their previous films were a couple of unremarkable comedies, the brothers had honed their collaborative style by doing a ton of TV -- including Community and Arrested Development -- that gave them the right temperament to work for Marvel. The result was one of the best comic-book movies ever, not to mention a high-water mark for Marvel itself, and the Russos were rewarded with not just next year's Captain America: Civil War, but the upcoming mega-blockbusters Avengers: Infinity War Part I and II.

Gareth Edwards/Godzilla (2014)

Edwards came out of nowhere in 2010 with Monsters, an alien invasion film that he wrote, directed, shot, edited and did the visual effects for himself. Before that, he had crafted special effects for a number of UK shows and participated in a contest in which he had to make a film from start to finish in two days. His knowledge and abilities in many of the key areas of effects-oriented filmmaking from making Monsters were probably the best preparation he could have for helming a massive production like Godzilla. While the film's narrative was not terrific (it was the product of several screenwriters), the tone, visuals and effects were top-notch. Now Edwards, a huge Star Wars fan, is directing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story -- and I'm confident he'll do a fine job.

Colin Trevorrow/Jurassic World (2015)

The 38-year-old Trevorrow's first feature film, Safety Not Guaranteed, was made for under one million dollars. His second, Jurassic World, cost at least $150 million to make. How did he make that leap? Jurassic Park godfather Steven Spielberg saw something he liked in Trevorrow and his tiny feature debut -- perhaps an echo of his own younger self? -- and entrusted the massive franchise to him. While the script for Jurassic World is pretty terrible, there's no question that the filmmaking is quite capable. Trevorrow seems to have an instinctive understanding for large-scale movies and when you have someone like Spielberg in your corner, it might be easier to get the thing made. Trevorrow's next assignment? Star Wars Episode IX

The Misses

Jimmy Hayward/Jonah Hex (2010)

Based loosely on the DC comic book character, Jonah Hex is the only live action film directed by Hayward, who also directed two animated features (Horton Hears a Who and Free Birds) and has worked as an animator on many others. But making the transition from animation to live action was not an easy one for the director -- in fact, Jonah Hex is one of the worst comic book adaptations ever committed to the screen, a movie that is just about unwatchable and incoherent. With perhaps no one, including the director and studio, really having a firm grasp on the source material, Hex was a troubled production from the start and played out like something cobbled together from whatever footage they got in the can. Hayward has never returned to live action since. 

Andrew Stanton/John Carter (2012)

As one of the top creative minds at Pixar, Stanton co-directed A Bug's Life, directed the terrific Finding Nemo and the brilliant WALL-E, and co-wrote all three Toy Story films. But while Stanton did not have the same disastrous experience as Jimmy Hayward (see above) in moving from animation to live action, John Carter was a polarizing film that did not capture the tone of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original stories, turning instead into a leaden slog featuring an utterly charmless leading man in Taylor Kitsch. How much of that was Stanton's fault? As director and co-writer (and someone who lobbied hard to make the movie), he has to shoulder plenty of blame as his ambitions exceeded his grasp. Unsurprisingly -- especially after John Carter flopped badly -- Stanton has returned to a safe bet: Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo.

Carl Rinsch/47 Ronin (2013)

47 Ronin is considered one of the biggest financial bombs of recent Hollywood history, with the movie reportedly losing $152 million for its studio, Universal Pictures. The first mistake was making a film that was loaded with supernatural and fantasy monsters and had almost nothing to do with the original Japanese story of revenge. But the second mistake was hiring Rinsch, a British commercial director with absolutely zero feature film experience of any kind. The movie is dull and uninvolving, its lack of vision and focus perhaps the combination of Rinsch's inexperience and the studio's interference by committee. Rinsch has never returned to filmmaking.

Marc Webb/The Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2 (2012/2014)

When Sam Raimi abandoned Spider-Man 4, Sony Pictures decided to reboot the whole franchise with a new cast and tell Spidey's origin story all over again, hiring hip young music video director Marc Webb on the strength of his romantic comedy debut, (500) Days of Summer. It was hoped that Webb could bring a youthful energy to the franchise, and he proved to be a capable tentpole director who also brought a glow to the scenes between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). But Webb was sabotaged by the producers and studio's insistence in using Spider-Man to try and create an entire "universe" of films -- a decision that sunk both The Amazing Spider-Man and the even worse The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But Webb seems to have emerged with his dignity intact, and we'll be curious to see what he does next.

Josh Trank/Fantastic Four (2015)

The Trank situation has already been covered extensively, but the full story may never be known until he or someone intimately associated with the movie speaks candidly on the record. Yet the picture that has emerged is one of a not-untalented filmmaker who nevertheless, with just one small previous film to his credit (Chronicle), was unable to cope with the challenges of creating a summer blockbuster. Studio interference, a rushed production and his own volatile personality seem to have combined to finish Trank off, and the results are an all-around disappointing film and a career setback from which he may never recover.

The Jury's Still Out:

Duncan Jones/Warcraft (2016)

Jones made his feature film debut in 2009 with the personal, idiosyncratic and quite excellent Moon, one of the first of a new (and still ongoing) wave of independent sci-fi films. On the basis of that, he landed the job of director on Source Code (2011), which was entertaining if slightly less distinctive than Moon. Both films were thoughtful and character-driven, which makes his immersion into the world of Warcraft -- the huge upcoming adaptation of the video game franchise -- kind of troubling. The footage we've seen from Warcraft is almost all digital in nature -- almost full-blown animation -- and largely obscure to anyone not familiar with the games. We'll see if Jones can break the curse of video game movies and make something good.

Rian Johnson/Star Wars Episode VIII (2017)

Johnson's involvement in Star Wars inspires us with a lot of confidence: his third feature, 2012's Looper, was one of the best sci-fi films in years -- smart, tense, exciting and moving. His first two indie features and his work on Breaking Bad have also shown him to be one of the most interesting and capable directors out there, and he also has a deep love of genre and an abiding humanity in his work. It's no surprise that he is the only filmmaker since George Lucas to both write and direct a Star Wars movie (he's also involved in the writing of Episode IX) and we can't wait to see what he does with the saga.

Jon Watts/Untitled Spider-Man Movie (2017)

Watts has made two features: the bizarre 2014 horror film Clown and the newly released crime thriller Cop Car. I haven't seen Clown but Cop Car is a B-movie blast, a taut exercise in suspense that blends dark humor and elements of coming-of-age movies. It's a satisfying film that also looks a lot bigger than it is, indicating that Watts has a sharp cinematic eye. Will he successfully navigate what is sure to be a huge new reboot of Spider-Man and the creative control of the Marvel Studios brain trust? Watch this space...

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