Financially speaking, Marvel hasn’t made many mistakes in its relatively new but seemingly all-powerful movie goliath. They shouldn’t assume that means they’ve been doing everything right.
As we near the release of Ant-Man, whose road to being the 12th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe was strewn with discarded auteurs, and that director Ava Duvernay will pass on the upcoming superhero starter Black Panther, it’s time to give the comic book movie titans some humble advice. Something is rotten in the kingdom of Marvel, and it’s their invariable tendency not to let auteur filmmakers do what they do best.
Director Edgar Wright had worked on Ant-Man for more than a decade before he announced his exit from the production last year. His joint statement with Marvel seemed amiable enough until you read between the lines. The Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director said he and the studio parted ways “due to differences in their vision of the film.” The talent saw things one way, the people putting up the money saw it another, and the wallet won. But considering that decade-plus development period, it seems Marvel got cold feet once cameras were about to roll, and Wright’s singular vision was about to finally be printed on celluloid.
Wright is nothing if not distinct in his filmmaking, and the suspicious exit gave many fans the idea that Marvel didn’t want an Ant-Man, they wanted their Ant-Man. Thus, the ideal auteur genius with the geek genre cred was out, and eventually Peyton Reed, the guy who directed the cheerleading movie Bring It On, was in.
A similar thing with Marvel went down with DuVernay, the ridiculously talented filmmaker behind Oscar-season darling Selma, who was slated to direct the first-ever African American-centric superhero movie Black Panther before issuing a statement to Essence over the July 4th weekend saying she had passed on the gig.
DuVernay remained gracious. “I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be,” she told the magazine, which sounds very, very familiar. “Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do,” she added, before laying it all out: “In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn’t see eye to eye.”
Another seemingly ideal auteur who disagreed with the studio over her own ideas for the property was gone. A trend was emerging, but something isn’t a trend until it happens three times, right? Right. The studio not only kicked Marvel n00bs to the curb, they also tossed out the guy who racked up nearly $3 billion in box office grosses for them too.
As far as anyone can tell, Joss Whedon did not have a good time directing the super-sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron. After the release of the film, he told Slate, “This was the hardest work I’ve ever done, and at some point, when it’s that hard, you just feel like you’ve lost.” In the same interview he even spoke of the first movie as such, “When I watch it, I just see ‘flaw, flaw, flaw, compromise, laziness, mistake.’” But the kicker: “With so much at stake, there’s gonna be friction. It’s the Marvel way to sort of question everything.” The echoes there are hard to miss.
Therein lies the problem. Forget for a moment the fact that Marvel movies are almost universally lucrative and take into consideration their aesthetic. Their homogeneous and interconnected storylines may make bucketloads of cash, but each one is usually an undeniably meh two hours of explosions and CGI that lack an individual identity. If they keep up the consistent tedium that serves the overall MCU instead of injecting some directorial vision, they risk devolving into high-budget junk food.
Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan can produce iconic superhero movies, Marvel can let A-list auteurs do their thing and get out of the way. Their streak won’t last forever, and when that happens Marvel will learn it may not have been the best move to chase away people with ideas.