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The Best Non-Superhero Movies From MCU Directors

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is comprised of some of the biggest and most profitable movies ever made. To put it in perspective, three of the "Avengers" movies alone rank amongst the top 10 highest grossing films of all time (via Box Office Mojo). With the MCU being such a massive cultural phenomenon, Marvel films tend to dominate the conversation around certain directors. But many directors of MCU movies have made great films that don't land within the superhero genre.

The MCU has displayed a penchant for tapping directors early on in their careers. The common career trajectory finds a director making a successful indie film, then jumping right into a Marvel film with a greatly expanded scope and budget. The president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, told The Direct that the reason for choosing indie directors for their tentpole films is to "empower them" and to "get people with unique points of view." However other sites, such as CBR, speculate that the use of indie filmmakers rather than more seasoned directors is because the former are easier to control. Directors like Edgar Wright and Lucrecia Martel were attached to direct MCU films until they declined over creative differences.

Whether they were a seasoned pro or an up-and-comer, the following directors all made excellent films outside of the MCU.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

"Thor: Ragnarok" marked a drastic stylistic shift from the previous "Thor" films, likely attributable to New Zealand director Taika Waititi taking the helm. Before joining the MCU, Waititi had directed a handful of popular indie comedies, such as "Eagle vs. Shark," the coming of age film "Boy," and the vampire mockumentary "What We Do in the Shadows." Waititi returned to direct three episodes of the "What We Do in the Shadows" TV series, one of two spin-off series based on the film, the other being "Wellington Paranormal."

In 2020, Taika Waititi became an Oscar winner for the screenplay of his World War II comedy-drama, "Jojo Rabbit." But his previous non-MCU film remains his most highly rated: "Hunt for the Wilderpeople." This quirky comedy follows a juvenile delinquent and his foster uncle on a dangerous trek through the New Zealand bush with the authorities hot on their trail. Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill give great comedic performances as the foster parents, while Julian Dennison became an instant star via his role as young Ricky Baker. There are also fun supporting turns from "Flight of the Conchords" alum Rhys Darby and from Waititi himself as the minister. 

Waititi is returning to the MCU with the upcoming sequel "Thor: Love and Thunder."

Cop Car

Jon Watts directed both "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and "Spider-Man: Far From Home," and is in the director's chair once again for the upcoming sequel, "Spider-Man: No Way Home." Before helming the MCU's "Spider-Man" series, Jon Watts had made just two feature films. After his 2014 horror film "Clown" failed to greatly impress critics or general audiences, Watts fared better with his second film, "Cop Car."

The story follows two bored kids who take a police car on a joy ride while the corrupt local sheriff will do anything to get it back. The young actors in the lead roles do a fine job, but it is Kevin Bacon as the villainous lawman who steals the show. Character actor Shea Whigham has a great supporting role as well as an earlier victim of the sheriff. The film fizzles out a bit towards the end, but still has plenty of tension and intrigue throughout. "Cop Car" is a tight and compact thriller that impresses within its limited scope.


"Eternals" is the latest Marvel film to hit theaters, and its director has a filmmaking pedigree as prestigious as you can get. Chloé Zhao seems like a particularly strange choice to helm a blockbuster superhero film when looking at her past work, which is decidedly slow, quiet, and contemplative, often weaving elements of documentary reality into their stories. Her debut feature film, "Songs My Brother Taught Me," put Zhao on the map as an auteur filmmaker to watch. She followed that up with "The Rider," which broke through to a larger audience than her first film and earned Zhao a number of awards, including the prestigious C.I.C.A.E. award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Her third film, "Nomadland," made the biggest splash of all her pre-MCU movies. Continuing Zhao's style of blending fiction and non-fiction, "Nomadland" is adapted from a non-fiction book titled "Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century." The film follows Fern, a woman in her 60s who attempts to adapt to a nomad lifestyle after losing her livelihood in the Great Recession. Though Frances McDormand in the lead role and David Strathairn in a supporting part are professional actors, the rest of the cast is largely filled out by non-actors. Many of the characters in "Nomadland" are real people behaving naturally as they would in a documentary. The film was nominated for six Oscars and won in the Directing, Lead Actress, and Best Picture categories. At one point, Chloé Zhao planned to make "Eternals" before completing "Nomadland," but the COVID pandemic prompted a change of plans (via The Direct).

Short Term 12

Director Destin Daniel Cretton joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe recently when he helmed "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." Cretton's previous film, "Just Mercy," was an impressive and powerful piece of work centering around civil rights law, but it's his earlier film "Short Term 12" that remains his highest-rated non-superhero movie to date. The film tracks the day-to-day happenings at a foster care facility that focuses on troubled and at-risk youths.

Cretton first made "Short Term 12" as a 21-minute short film and his grad-school thesis project. It went on to win the Short Film Grand Jury Price at the Sundance Film Festival (via The Film Independent). The success of the short enabled Cretton to make the feature-length version with an expanded cast that included the likes of then-future Oscar winner and Marvel superhero Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, eventual Oscar winner and Bond villain Rami Malek, and LaKeith Stanfield, who was also in the original version of the story. "Short Term 12" is a touching drama that is both devastating and heartwarming, and helped set Cretton on the path toward "Shang-Chi."

Fruitvale Station

"Black Panther" was directed by Ryan Coogler, who is also returning to direct "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." Before joining the MCU, Ryan Coogler had helmed two films, the latter of which was the Oscar-nominated "Rocky" semi-sequel "Creed." But it is Coogler's first film, "Fruitvale Station," that remains his most acclaimed and most impactful.

"Fruitvale Station" tells the true story of the last day of Oscar Grant III's life before he was shot and killed by an Oakland transit police officer. Like all of Coogler's films thus far, "Fruitvale Station" stars Michael B. Jordan, who turns in one of his finest performances in the lead role. Octavia Spencer also stands out as Oscar's mother. Spencer even helped the production overcome some funding issues, telling IndieWire, "I basically made some calls to some friends, pitched in some of my own money and helped get past the hurdle." The film is thematically rich, and its realistic portrayal of police brutality is harrowing to watch. "Fruitvale Station" is excellently assembled and carries an important message.

The Nice Guys

Shane Black made a name for himself as one of the most in-demand screenwriters of the '80s and '90s with films like "Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boy Scout." The latter film made Black the highest-paid screenwriter for an individual script at the time and is largely credited with kicking off the spec-script gold rush of the 1990s (via Den of Geek). Black eventually tried his hand at directing in the mid 2000s with the hilarious, noir-flavored black comedy "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. Several years later, Black reunited with Downey on the MCU sequel "Iron Man 3."

But it's Black's 2016 action comedy "The Nice Guys" that stands as his highest-rated film to date, though it wasn't a major financial success according to Box Office Mojo. "The Nice Guys" follows in the tradition of earlier Shane Black movies as a buddy comedy with action and film-noir overtones. The movie can even be viewed as something of a spiritual sequel to Black's own "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang." Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are both hilarious as a bumbling pair of at-odds private investigators in the 1970s — and like many Black films, it's set around the Christmas holidays.

Half Nelson

"Captain Marvel" was another instance of Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust tapping directors from the world of indie filmmaking. This time around, rather than picking an individual director, they chose a filmmaking duo. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have collaborated with each other on film projects for several years. The two met on a student film set while studying at NYU and have been working together ever since. The duo often shares writing and directing duties, while other times, Fleck handles the directing and Boden manages the producing. 

The pair's films "Sugar," "Mississippi Grind," and "It's Kind of a Funny Story" were all warmly received, but it was their debut feature film that garnered the highest praise. "Half Nelson" tells the story of an inner-city schoolteacher with a serious drug addiction who makes a formative relationship with one of his students. Ryan Gosling earned his first Oscar nomination for his performance in the lead role. "Half Nelson" is an effective drama with strong performances from the entire cast and a commendable commitment to realism.


James Gunn is the man behind the MCU's popular "Guardians of the Galaxy" films. Gunn directed the first two installments of the series and is currently shooting the third volume after being temporarily fired from the franchise over a scandal involving old tweets of his resurfacing. As reported in Deadline, Gunn was reinstated after apologizing for the tweets and after a vocal outcry from the film's cast made it clear that they all wanted him to return.

Gunn has experience with superhero projects outside of the MCU as well. He recently directed the reboot of "The Suicide Squad" and wrote the upcoming "Peacemaker" TV series for DC. He also wrote and directed the superhero black comedy "Super" and produced the dark origin story "Brightburn." But outside of the superhero niche, Gunn's best film is undoubtedly "Slither." Pulling from his roots with the Troma company, "Slither" is a sci-fi horror comedy of hilariously gross proportions. Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and Michael Rooker all get great mileage out of this unique alien invasion tale.

The Jungle Book

The film that kicked off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008 was "Iron Man" and the man in the director's chair for this first outing was Jon Favreau, who would return for "Iron Man 2" two years later. Though he hasn't directed any other Marvel movies in the years since, he hasn't left the MCU altogether, frequently acting in Marvel movies as Stark Industries mainstay Happy Hogan.

Favreau has directed a handful of beloved films over the years that don't fall under the superhero umbrella, such as "Chef" and the Will Ferrell Christmas comedy "Elf." However, Favreau's best-reviewed non-MCU film to date is the 2016 reimagining of "The Jungle Book." The film blends live-action footage with cutting-edge CGI animation and uses a star-studded voice cast that includes Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson and Christopher Walken. Favreau followed up "The Jungle Book" with another live-action and CGI hybrid remake of a Disney animated classic, "The Lion King." A sequel to "The Jungle Book" has reportedly been in production since 2016, but the current status of the film is unknown.


Scott Derrickson entered the MCU when he directed "Doctor Strange." He started work on the sequel, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," but was replaced early in production by Sam Raimi. Before taking on "Doctor Strange," much of Scott Derrickson's career was spent working in the horror genre, with the exception of an ill-fated 2008 remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

"Deliver Us From Evil" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" were both decently received horror films from Derrickson, but the horror entry of his that seemed to impress the largest group of critics was "Sinister." Though not ground-breaking, "Sinister" is an effective piece of mainstream horror featuring a strong lead performance from Ethan Hawke. The Super-8 murder tapes are the clear highlight of the film and offer good found footage-style scares. A sequel, "Sinister II," was released in 2015, but Derrickson did not return to direct.


French filmmaker Louis Leterrier was the man behind 2008's "The Incredible Hulk." This movie exists as somewhat of an anomaly in the MCU in that it introduced Edward Norton as the Hulk, only for him to never reprise the role. Instead, the Hulk character has been played by Mark Ruffalo in all subsequent Marvel films. "The Incredible Hulk" was only the second film released in the massive superhero franchise, marking it as a time when the MCU was still finding its footing.

Leterrier has directed a number of other films, some well-received, and others less so. Best known for his action filmmaking chops, Leterrier launched the successful "Transporter" series and directed the first two installments starring Jason Statham. More popular with critics, however, was his collaboration with world-class martial artist Jet Li. "Unleashed" is about Danny the Dog, as played by Jet Li, who serves as an animalistic fighter for a UK gang boss. With a script written by Luc Besson of "Leon: The Professional" and "The Fifth Element" fame, "Unleashed" boasts great fight scenes, above-average character writing, and strong performances from Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Kerry Condon, and Bob Hoskins.

October Sky

The introduction to one of the MCU's main players was 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," with veteran filmmaker Joe Johnston in the director's chair. Johnston's directorial career began back in 1989 with "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," and he would continue to direct family-friendly films throughout his career, with occasional exceptions such as "The Wolfman." His 1995 film "Jumanji" became a favorite for many young viewers, but it was his next effort, "October Sky," that became and remained his highest-rated motion picture.

"October Sky" tells the true story of Homer Hickam, a small-town boy with dreams of rocketry and space travel. The film was based on the memoir of the real Homer Hickam, titled "Rocket Boys" and published just one year before the release of the film. Jake Gyllenhaal, Laura Dern, and Chris Cooper all give good performances in this PG-rated drama. "October Sky" proved to be a breakout role for a young Jake Gyllenhaal, who would go on to star in "Donnie Darko" as his next film.

Evil Dead II

Though he hasn't officially entered the MCU yet, Sam Raimi will be doing so in the near future. Raimi is directing the upcoming sequel "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." The film is currently undergoing reshoots this month and next, according to star Benedict Cumberbatch. Even though this "Doctor Strange" sequel will be Raimi's first official film in the MCU, it won't be the first time that he's worked with a beloved Marvel IP: Raimi previously directed the Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" trilogy.

Sam Raimi started out his career in the world of low-budget, independent horror movies. "The Evil Dead" made huge waves throughout the indie filmmaking community when it released in 1981. Raimi's sequel, "Evil Dead II," built upon the foundation provided by the first film and upped the gore while injecting a strong dose of comedy. The opening act of "Evil Dead II" essentially serves as a remake of the first film before continuing the story in the fashion of a more traditional sequel. The "Evil Dead" movies made a star out of actor Bruce Campbell and put Raimi on the map as a talented and unique filmmaker to watch.

Little Woods

Another filmmaker who hasn't quite joined the MCU yet but will be doing so soon is Nia DaCosta. Following up the success of her "Candyman" remake/reboot from earlier this year, DaCosta is in the director's chair for "The Marvels," a direct sequel to "Captain Marvel." Though her take on "Candyman" fared rather well with critics and audiences alike, her other feature film, "Little Woods," received an even warmer critical response, even if audiences were less receptive to it.

Boasting a 95% "fresh" critic score but only a 55% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, "Little Woods" has proven to be a bit divisive. DaCosta wrote and directed the movie, while Tessa Thompson and Lily James fill out the two lead roles. The film is a crime thriller with a Western edge and follows a pair of sisters who find themselves at odds with the law. DaCosta's upcoming MCU film is currently filming and expected to arrive in theaters on February 17, 2023.