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Darren Aronofsky ankles ‘The Wolverine’

Fox superhero pic was to begin lensing in Japan this summer

After ankling “The Wolverine,” Darren Aronofsky may be the hottest available director in town.

Though Aronofsky still appears to be developing sci-fier “Machine Man” for Mandalay, the “Black Swan” helmer has no projects on the immediate horizon, his reps tell Variety.

Though lensing on “Wolverine” had been targeted to begin this spring in Japan, Aronofsky said in a statement released by 20th Century Fox Thursday that he didn’t want to be out of the country for more than a year.

“I was not comfortable being away from my family for that length of time,” he said. “I am sad that I won’t be able to see the project through, as it is a terrific script and I was very much looking forward to working with my friend, Hugh Jackman, again.”

Aronofsky and Rachel Weisz, who have a 4-year-old son together, parted ways sometime last year after dating for nearly a decade. As “The Wolverine” was reported to have a strong Samurai element, much of the shoot was originally supposed to take place in Japan, which will need months if not years to recover from last week’s massive earthquake, tsunami and yet-unfolding nuclear crisis. Fox was in the process of assessing its options with the location.

The announcement late last year that Aronofsky would helm “Wolverine” raised eyebrows from the start. Fresh of the critical buzz for “The Wrestler” and weeks before “Black Swan” bowed, a mainstream mutant superhero pic seemed like an odd fit for the iconoclastic director.

His departure leaves Fox scrambling to find a director for a tentpole project. One candidate is David Slade, who lost the “Wolverine” gig to Aronofsky but just landed “Daredevil,” also at Fox, as Variety.com reported Tuesday.

“While we are, of course, disappointed that Darren can’t do ‘The Wolverine,’ we also understand and respect his reasons,” Fox said in the statement. “Having done both ‘The Wrestler’ and ‘Black Swan’ with Darren, we know he is an extraordinary talent and we look forward to working with him on other projects in the future. Hugh Jackman and Fox both remain fully committed to making ‘The Wolverine.'”

In 2005, another director left a high-profile Fox comicbook film when Matthew Vaughn ankled “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Brett Ratner eventually came in and the pic earned more than $450 million globally. Vaughn is now at work on “X-Men: First Class.”

When Aronofsky committed to “Wolverine,” there’s no way he could’ve predicted the massive critical and box office success of the Oscar nommed “Black Swan,” the studio’s highest-grossing domestic release of 2010. Fox Searchlight pic cost about $13 million and earned more than $250 million worldwide. Now the helmer is in the unusual position of coming off an strong award-season run with no immediate next move.

“Wolverine” isn’t the only project Aronofsky has exited of late; he’d been attached to MGM’s remake of “Robocop” in 2008, which the studio then scrapped amid its deteriorating financial state. (It has since been revived with helmer José Padilha.) Aronofsky had also at one point been lined up to direct “The Fighter,” which he dropped out of to take on “Robocop.”

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