Something is rotten in the state of Marvel. Of course, the box office receipts wouldn’t tell you that; I’m talking about something different. What I’m getting at is intangible, something you’d have to think about just a little harder to understand, though it’s not that difficult. Call it a mix between bad word-of-mouth and a PR disaster because Marvel is certainly guilty of both, and it all basically boils down to Ant-Man.
When director Edgar Wright passed on his and co-writer Joe Cornish’s big screen adaptation of [Ant-Man](movie:9048)—a project the pair had been working on for more than a decade—a few weeks ago, a lot of goodwill levied towards the once-immortal folks at Marvel went out the window. Giving Marvel the benefit of the doubt now seemed like a stretch. The unspecific split was divisive because Wright’s Ant-Man would have been the first time the moneymaking Marvel Cinematic Universe formula would have been shaken up. The main reason people were going to see Ant-Man was because of Wright’s clout and his directorial chops, not because of some huge established Ant-Man fanbase. With Wright at the helm, Ant-Man was poised to bridge the gap between limiting nerd-tastic fanboy fare and the legit sci-fi/comedy he’s known for. And now—considering two more directors on the shortlist to replace Wright (Adam McKay and Rawson Thurber) have passed on the project—who knows what will happen.
See Also - Ant-Man, Phase 3 and the CRISIS at Marvel!
Again, despite what the box office grosses tell you, Marvel’s billion dollar franchises have made up in money what they lack in significant individual artistic vision (Yes, I’m even counting The Avengers which, when you really think about it, was boilerplate in the aesthetics department). The Marvel mantra so far seemed to vehemently adhere to an overriding sense of coherence between films, thus the rather grandiose phrasing and excessive planning of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” It’s a strategy that has both galvanized and divided fans and moviegoers alike, and yet it is a strategy that has proven so influential that Marvel’s main competition (DC) has gone with a similar ultra-compatible route with their comic book tentpole movies for the foreseeable future (See: the hilariously titled [Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice](movie:711870) whenever it’s released in 2016). But what going too far into that strategy has given us is a series of expensive and popular spectacles that nevertheless have a tired and bland aesthetic prone to retreading the same flavorless beats. As a little experiment, please try to imagine your favorite scenes from Thor or The Incredible Hulk. Seriously, you couldn’t really come up with a good one, could you?
At its best, Marvel could be a kind of blockbuster-sized United Artists circa the late ‘60s and ‘70s in that the studio itself—represented by the now-tyrannical Kevin Feige—could collaborate with auteurs or directors with a certain unique brand like Wright to achieve the dialectical ends of billion dollar grosses with actual artistic achievement. With Wright now gone from Ant-Man, Marvel seems to have solidified the fact that they don’t value that sort of cooperation. It can’t be as difficult as it seems, mostly because Marvel probably just isn’t trying, and it’s frustrating. They unfortunately do not ascribe to the auteurist theory of cinema. Instead it’s their way or the highway, as Wright found out.
This focus on the grand scheme of things without changing much with each installment is ironic when you consider the comics all of these characters come from are very much tied to the specific writers and the artists that bring those particular storylines to life (some of whom actually write the movies themselves). Obviously, making movies out of them is a tad more expensive—give or take hundreds of millions of dollars—but there’s no real reason there shouldn’t be similar authorial trademarks when they’re put on the big screen.
Now that they’ve firmly established the recognizable characters of The Avengers and are moving into Phase Three of the Cinematic Universe, Marvel needs to move on from playing it safe with such plain vanilla projects whose style and cinematic identities are next-to-zero and try to embrace the creative above all. The most immediate litmus test will be James Gunn’s [Guardians of the Galaxy](movie:424073) and if that bombs then it’s probably goodbye forever to taking these sorts of risks, but let’s get back to Wright. Giving auteurs like him the resources and space to breathe exponential life into these back catalogue characters is a mutually beneficial situation. It isn’t giving lesser directors like the recently announced helmer of [Doctor Strange](movie:559685), Scott Derrickson, the job under the guise of giving them their big shot when all it is is a way for Marvel to keep the productions under their watchful eye. No, instead giving such autonomy to established directorial names like Wright breeds strength both financially—in that Marvel’s characters will deliver real Summer blockbuster spectacle for 10+ bucks a pop at your local cinema—and critically—in that us critics get to faun over the relative cinematic qualities these bright minds have brought to the property—making the risk completely worth it.
Marvel’s problem in a nutshell is that they value their Universe more than they value the story despite what they want you to believe, which has made them rich beyond their wildest dreams but also produced an indistinguishably bland string of movies with no end in sight. Maybe the money is the factor. Maybe they saw that Wright couldn’t deliver more than a $60 million hit with Scott Pilgrim and they got cold feet. But at this point the bad press about backstage squabbles now coming to light—including Kenneth Branagh’s trouble on Thor and Jon Favreau* on the first two Iron Man movies—will force Marvel to possibly reshape the way their Universe is panning out. If not, we’re in for more stories of wasted talent and what could have been.
*Favreau’s recent directorial effort, [Chef](movie:714350), about a workaholic chef forced by his bosses to serve uninspiring food instead of passionate and creative new cuisine, is seen by some as a veiled—if not kind of goofy—indictment of Marvel’s authoritarian ways.