Since the superhero boom of the 2000s, a number of incredible directors have helmed movies based on Marvel superheroes. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, acclaimed filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Ang Lee dabbled in the world of Marvel superheroes. The MCU has managed to get revered directors like Ryan Coogler, James Gunn, Chloé Zhao, and Taika Waititi to craft superhero movies.
Yet what about the filmmakers who almost directed Marvel superhero movies? Jon Watts, who directed the three MCU Spider-Man films, left Fantastic Four after being announced in 2020. This is not an uncommon occurrence in big-budget moviemaking, as directors are attached to projects and leave due to scheduling conflicts, creative differences, or just wanting to pursue other avenues. But it does seem to happen frequently with Marvel, meaning that there are many potential “what if?” films that might have been (maybe a season of What If…? should be devoted to them).
Update September 3, 2023: This article has been updated with even more directors who came close to directing movies based on Marvel Comics.
While there have been plenty of development-stage talks, like Sony wanting Spike Lee to direct Nightwatch or Guillermo Del Toro having a pitch for Doctor Strange, those were just early discussions that never amounted to anything more. Yet there were plenty of directors who actually signed on to helm Marvel movies and then dropped out. Take a look at Marvel movies that might have been.
James Cameron – X-Men and Spider-Man
The legendary James Cameron is one of the most successful and celebrated directors still working, and any project he is attached to draws attention. Before the MCU, and long before Marvel superheroes were considered a profitable film commodity, Cameron saw the potential in the characters. Cameron first began developing an X-Men film in 1989 with Carolco Pictures, but it fell apart when Stan Lee got Cameron interested in Spider-Man.
Cameron wrote a 57-page treatment for Spider-Man that told Peter Parker’s origin, featured Sandman and Electro as the main villains, and contained a climactic battle on top of the World Trade Center with Peter Parker revealing his identity to Mary Jane at the end. The project stalled due to rights issues, and Cameron moved on to direct True Lies. While many of his ideas, like a sex scene between Peter and Mary Jane were cut out other elements from his script did end up in the 2002 Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, most notably the organic web shooters.
Oliver Stone – Elektra
Elektra premiered in Daredevil #168 in January 1981 and was created by Frank Miller. The character became a fan favorite and starred in her own miniseries titled Elektra: Assasin from 1986 to 1987. New Line Cinema gained the film rights to the character and was looking to adapt the storyline for a feature film. Frank Miller did a draft of the script before Jim McBride and L. M. Kit Carson (who both penned the script for the remake of Breathless) were hired for another draft. This attracted the attention of filmmaker Oliver Stone.
Stone is famous for his controversial, politically charged films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers, and JFK. He might not seem like the traditional pick for a superhero project, but Elektra was pitched more as a violent ninja movie where she needed to assassinate a Presidential candidate before he got his hands on nuclear codes for the ninja clan The Hand. That sounds like a very promising film, but sadly, the film never got off the ground, and the rights eventually went to 20th Century Fox, who put Elektra in 2003’s Daredevil and then her own spin-off film in 2005, which was panned by critics. Jennifer Garner will reprise her role in Deadpool 3, but many wonder how different the character’s legacy would be had Stone gotten to make his movie.
Matthew Vaughn – X-Men: The Last Stand
Matthew Vaughn did end up directing a Marvel movie with 2011’s X-Men: First Class, but it was not his first go around with the merry mutants. After directing both X-Men and X2: X-Men United, Bryan Singer left the franchise to direct Superman: Returns for Warner Bros. 20th Century Fox set a May 2006 release date for X-Men: The Last Stand before they even had a director, and in 2005 hired Matthew Vaughn hot off his debut film Snatch. Vaughn developed X-Men: The Last Stand for three months and cast Kelsey Grammer as Beast, Dania Ramirez as Callisto, and Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut before eventually departing the project in June 2005.
At the time, Vaughn said that it was due to family issues, but the director would later reveal he left because he did not think he had enough time to properly develop the film in the short amount of time that Fox had given him (he would have a similar short window when making X-Men: First Class). Vaughn was replaced by Brett Ratner, with filming beginning two months later. X-Men: The Last Stand was seen as a major step down in the franchise and many have wondered how the franchise might have changed had Vaughn directed the third X-Men movie.
David Slade & Joe Carnahan – Daredevil
Following 2003’s Daredevil and 2005’s Elektra, 20th Century Fox was sitting on the film rights to the character of Daredevil. They had until October 10, 2012, to get a film in development, or the rights would revert back to Marvel Studios. While a reboot was originally in development with director David Slade (30 Days of Night, Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Slade had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. 20th Century Fox was scrambling to find a replacement in August 2012.
The studio met with Joe Carnahan, famous for action films like Smokin Aces and The A-Team. Carnahan pitched a 70’s style crime thriller, but Fox was not interested and passed on the project. While Marvel Studios originally offered 20th Century Fox an extension on the film rights in exchange for Silver Surfer and Galactus, Fox decided to let go of Daredevil and keep the two cosmic heroes for their planned Fantastic Four reboot. The MCU eventually rebooted Daredevil in 2015 as a Netflix series starring Charlie Cox. Cox reprised his role in Spider-Man: No Way Home, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, and will next be seen in Echo and his own Disney+ series titled Daredevil: Born Again. The 70’s style crime thriller superhero movie would later be done by Matt Reeves in 2022’s The Batman.
Patty Jenkins – Thor: The Dark World
Before launching the cinematic incarnation of Wonder Woman for the DCEU in 2017, she almost worked for Marvel Studios. In October 2011, Jenkins signed on to direct Thor: The Dark World but would later drop out just two months later in December 2011. Jenkins cited creative differences between her and Marvel Studios, as she wanted to make more of a romantic film focusing on the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster. Jenkins did not think she could make a good movie out of the script Marvel had given her and knew if the film was a disappointment, it would all be blamed on her.
Shortly afterward, Jenkins was replaced by Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor. Thor: The Dark World is now often cited as the weakest entry in the MCU, and Jenkins would later go on to direct the successful Wonder Woman film. One wonders how different both the MCU and DCEU might have been had Jenkins stayed on to direct Thor: The Dark World.
Darren Aronofsky – The Wolverine
Following the critical disappointment of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, both Hugh Jackman and 20th Century Fox wanted to court a critically acclaimed director to helm a new Wolverine movie to put the franchise back on track. In 2010, the studio hired acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who was well known for his critically acclaimed film Requiem for a Dream and had worked with Jackman on The Fountain. Aronofsky had previously attempted to direct Batman: Year One at Warner Bros. before the studio pivoted to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Jackman even offered him the gig directing X-Men: The Last Stand, so it appeared Aronofsky had a deep desire to direct a superhero movie.
Aronofsky later dropped out of the film in March 2011 due to a combination of not wanting to be away from his family for a year and the then-recent 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami causing massive damage to Japan, which is where The Wolverine was intended to film. Three months later, James Mangold signed on to direct The Wolverine and would later go on to helm the next Wolverine movie Logan in 2017.
Gina Prince-Bythewood – Silver & Black
Sony attempted to create its own cinematic universe of characters based on various Spider-Man villains and supporting characters. Projects like Venom and Morbius made it to the big screen, but one idea early on that never got off the ground was Silver & Black. The film was pitched as a team-up film between the characters Black Cat and Felicia Hardy and began development in 2014, shortly after the lackluster box office performance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In 2017, it was announced that Gina Prince-Bythewood was set to direct the film.
The film was set for release on February 8, 2019, with filming set to begin in March 2018. However just a month before the production, and with nobody cast, the film was delayed due to Prince-Bythewood being unhappy with the script. The film was removed from Sony’s schedule, and Prince-Bythewood later moved on to direct the pilot for the Freeform Marvel series Cloak and Dagger and then The Old Guard. Silver & Black has been shelved indifferently in favor of films like Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web.
Rupert Wyatt, Doug Liman, and Gore Verbinski – Gambit
Gambit is one of the most high-profile superhero movies to never happen. Yet it managed to land three major directors over the course of its long development. A solo film based on the popular X-Men character Gambit, the film was a passion project for star Channing Tatum who would play the main character and was signed on as producer. In June 2015, Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) signed on to direct but dropped out in September 2015.
A few months later in November 2015, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) was signed on to direct Gambit but then later dropped out in August 2016 to work on Justice League Dark at Warner Bros. The film would not have a director for a year until October 2017, when Gore Verbinski (the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) signed on but then departed in January 2018 due to scheduling issues. By this point, the Gambit film was dead, as 20th Century Fox was about to be acquired by Disney, and all X-Men projects were scrapped in favor of bringing the characters into the MCU. Anyone of these directors bringing Gambit to life would have been worth seeing, and audiences never got to see anything of it.
Gary Ross – Venom
After Spider-Man 3, Sony wanted to give the fan-favorite character Venom his spin-off film. How they planned to do that after Venom clearly died in Spider-Man 3 is unclear, but they did bring on a big name to both pen the script and direct the movie: Gary Ross. At the time, Gary Ross was famous for Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, two films that starred Spider-Man actor Tobey Maguire. Ross was brought in to punch the script for Spider-Man 4 and then was brought over to Venom.
Yet the plans for Venom changed when Sony decided to reboot the Spider-Man film franchise. The Amazing Spider-Man would kickstart a new Spider-Man franchise, and in 2013, a new version of Venom was announced with Alex Kurtzman set to direct. That was scrapped following the failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and a Venom movie finally arrived in 2018 from director Reuben Flesher, which was disconnected from the continuity of all Spider-Man movies.
Nick Cassavetes – Iron Man
Iron Man kicked off the MCU, and it was so close to not happening. In 2004, director Nick Cassavetes, hot off the film The Notebook, was attached to direct Iron Man for New Line Cinema. The film was projecting a 2006 release date and would have seen Tony Stark fight his father, Howard Stark, who was the main villain and would have worn the War Machine suit.
Luckily for everyone, the project fell through, and the rights eventually reverted back to Marvel, where it became the first film in the MCU. Notably, in 2006, the original release window for Cassavates’ Iron Man film was when it was announced that Jon Favreau would direct the movie. Favreau himself had originally approached Marvel Studios about directing Captain America before deciding he would rather do Iron Man. The rest is history.
Bassim Tariq – Blade
Bassam Tariq is one of the most recent directors to drop out of a Marvel film. Tariqu was an acclaimed Pakistanian filmmaker known for his Sundance-funded documentary These Birds Walk and his 2020 film Mogul Mowgli. Tariqu signed on to direct the MCU version of Blade in September 2021. Yet, one year later, in September 2022, he dropped out of the project due to creative differences.
Blade has been a project Marvel Studios has had a difficult time getting off the ground. The film was announced in July 2019 and has had multiple release dates, with its most recent one currently set for February 14, 2025, with Yann Demange (White Boy Rick) now set to direct the film. Filming on the project has been delayed and will resume as soon as the WGA and SAG-AFTRA Strikes compete.
Edgar Wright – Ant-Man
May 23, 2014, is a date that Marvel would likely want to be remembered as the opening day of X-Men: Days of Future Past, but for so many, it designates the sad day that Edgar Wright announced he’d no longer direct Ant-Man. The news was shocking as Wright had been teasing Ant-Man for almost a decade and had been a regular fixture at Comic-Cons, even showcasing the first test footage for the character in 2013. Wright had been developing an Ant-Man film since before the MCU was even thought of, pitching the idea back in 2003. When Marvel Studios announced they were developing their own films, they brought Edgar Wright on to direct Ant-Man with the plan for the character to be an early Phase 1 film.
Wright would later be busy with other projects like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The World’s End, but Marvel Studios did not pressure him, as they were more focused on launching their various Avengers heroes and Guardians of the Galaxy. Ant-Man was finally set to join the MCU in 2015, and the years of waiting would be worth it as Wright was finally about to deliver a very different type of superhero movie. Casting was underway, and filming was about to begin, but behind-the-scenes conflicts arose between Wright and Marvel Studios’ creative committee, who ordered a rewrite of the script without Wright’s knowledge. Wright left, saying that he wanted to make a Marvel movie, but it didn’t seem like the studio wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.
Peyton Reed later stepped in to take over the film and has since stayed on the series, directing 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp and 2023’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Meanwhile, Wright went on to direct 2017’s Baby Driver and 2021’s Last Night in Soho. While the Ant-Man films certainly are enjoyable, every fan has likely asked themselves what the movie could have been had Edgar Wright directed it, and would his creative energy have influenced later MCU films? While the breakup certainly was a messy one, Wright revealed that he and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige have since buried the hatchet, yet it appears Wright has still not seen Ant-Man.