Same as it ever was: Another day, another director passing on Ant-Man.
Rawson Thurber (Dodgeball, We're the Millers) has now joined an increasingly prestigious list of helmers to turn down the most high-profile directorial vacancy in Hollywood - in a trend that is beginning to look increasingly like the construction of a who's who list of comedic directing talent. For Marvel Studios, what began as an Ant-Man sized controversy over the departure of Edgar Wright as director has begun to look like a far more substantial crisis than anyone was expecting.
The question is: What the frost giant is happening with Marvel - and what does it mean for the future? Let's take a closer look:
Edgar Wright: Geek Martyr
Flashback to May 23, and social media goes wild - or, at least, more specifically Edgar Wright-focused in its wildness. As news of his departure from Ant-Man spreads, the consensus is that not only is it a very bad thing, but that it is Marvel's fault.
See Also - Ant-Man, Phase 3 and the CRISIS at Marvel!
Soon, major members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's creative team start joining the debate. Guardians of the Galaxy's James Gunn released a thoughtful, balanced comparison of the situation to two equally loved friends getting divorced.
Joss Whedon did this:
Offering solace to his former comrade in the only way he knew how - through meta referencing to Wright's 'Cornetto' trilogy.
At this point though, the impression was that Marvel Studios had a new director already lined up, so gestures of solidarity from their leading creative lights were, while entertaining, not obviously signposting problems ahead.
Marvel Studios: No Date For the Prom
Flash-forward back to today.
Anchorman's Adam McKay, Dodgeball's Rawson Thurber, Zombieland's Ruben Fleischer and even Guardians of the Galaxy's James Gunn himself have all reportedly turned down the Ant-Man job. Rumors of the Russo Brothers crossing over from the Captain America-themed side of the Marvel Universe have come to nothing. The only director to have put their hat very much in the ring? B-Movie legend (and Sharktopus producer) Roger Corman, who very much wasn't asked.
And even he originally said no, even if it was with tongue as firmly in cheek as possible:
So the question then is this: what's up with Marvel, and why are they starting to look like an awkward teenager, running around asking anyone who'll pause to look them in the eye if they'll go to the prom?
The suspicion is that they're currently being seen as a bad bet by most directors - with a history of jettisoning directors when their creative vision doesn't match up to that of Kevin Feige and the studio (take a bow, Thor 2's Patty Jenkins) and they aren't willing to compromise it.
If, as seems likely, something along those lines has happened with Ant-Man - and seeing as Edgar Wright had been working on the project since at least as far back as 2008, that's a pretty reasonable assumption - then it's hardly a surprise that it's seen by many as a poisoned chalice. Added to that, production is due to begin any day now - with Marvel sticking to their July 17, 2015 release slot - meaning there'd be no time for pre-production for an incoming helmer.
Has it really come to the point where Marvel - arguably the most successful movie-making outfit operating today - can't find someone willing to direct on of their tentpole pictures? If so, what can they do about it?
The Ant-Man Problem: Can Marvel Fix it?
Picture a world in which Marvel hadn't just lost Edgar Wright.
They've just made a ridiculous amount of Captain America-shaped money at the box office, and their riskier August proposition, Guardians of the Galaxy, is picking up serious buzz. Next year is set to see the launch of a new, potentially Iron Man-replacing franchise starring fan-favorite Paul Rudd, and directed by the fan-favorite director of Shaun of the Dead. There's also a little something called Avengers: Age of Ultron hitting our screens - but no-one's really heard too much about that one, so who knows how well it'll play at the box office?
In this reality, Marvel are living a charmed existence, without significant criticism, and with their box office 'failures' still consistently turning a tidy profit.
Back in our own reality, much of that is still true.
What does it mean, then, that so many successful, up-and-coming directors, the sort who would normally see a film like Ant-Man as their big break, are turning the picture down?
Is it possible that there is something under the surface at Marvel - something hidden from the fans by confidentiality agreements and careful media-management? Is it possible that they are, as has been long rumored, an inherently 'anti-director' workplace?
The constant turnover of creative talent - it's rare for a director to take the lead on two Marvel movies, irrespective of success - seems to suggest that there is some truth to this. It's also, however, possible to argue that this traditional Hollywood studio system-based production method - one in which Kevin Feige is the driving force behind the Marvel Universe, not the individual directors - is what has made the MCU so successful, and so beloved.
Would individual Marvel movies have been better had directors been given greater freedom, in the way Joss Whedon seems to have been? Perhaps. Would the overall MCU have been weaker, and more dis-jointed, for it? It's entirely possible.
Ant-Man, though, poses a fundamental problem for the studio. If they start to be seen as the evil empire of movie-dom, then all of the hard work of the past decade could be for nothing. Without the good will of the fans, then a franchise isn't worth anywhere near as much - both culturally and in box office potential.
The Two Solutions
Marvel, then, have two ways out.
1. They re-hire Edgar Wright, let him make the movie he originally envisioned, and either use it's failure as a justification for doing things their way, or its success as a distraction from the furor.
2. They hire whoever is willing to direct Ant-Man (coercing the Russo Brothers or James Gunn if they have to), and hope that the film does well. Neighbors' Nicholas Stoller and What If's Michael Dowse are currently being heavily linked.
The Marvel Universe is approaching Star Wars levels of 'being loved by almost everyone', which buys them time. They tend to make fantastic movies, which also buys them, for this writer at least, the benefit of the doubt. So the next move is very much theirs to make, and they have the scope and the space to stumble for the first time.
In five years time, though, we might just look back on this controversy the same way we look back at Jar Jar Binks: As a turning point, and as the beginning of the end of something wonderful.
Put it this way: Here's hoping Marvel don't find themselves in urgent need of J.J. Abrams come 2025.
[Ant-Man](movie:9048) is still set for release July 17, 2015.