[28 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
And it all seemed to be going so well…
It’s safe to say that no other brand has had as much unprecedented success as Marvel. Even with movies outside its strict purview, the comic book label has watched everything from X-Men to Spider-Man, and the various Avengers both gathered and solo, become the benchmark for the entire superhero genre. Sure, Christopher Nolan may have turned DC’s Batman into a legitimate dramatic character, but when it comes to what Hollywood really cares about—the bottom line—Marvel is the moneymaker to its competition’s more complex fortunes.
It’s also been praised for its creative choices. It was Marvel who first brought in name actors and directors to fill roles usually left to journeymen or unknowns. They took the chance on Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branaugh behind the lens. Yes, some of those choices worked out, and others didn’t, but Marvel wasn’t content to simply let one voice—Nolan, Zack Snyder—control their characters, no matter the success rate of those other options. They were always looking beyond, trying to match money with the comic book geek mentality.
That’s why it was a reason to celebrate when Edgar Wright was given the chance to bring Ant-Man to the big screen. Part of Marvel’s Phase 3 development strategy, the indie icon, famed for such fabulous films as The Three Flavours Coronetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) as well as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, he was seen as an outside the box choice, an auteur whose works made fanboys weep but with very limited box office appeal or cache. Considering the complexities of bringing the character to life, and Wright’s dedication to the project (he began working on its back in 2006), it appeared Marvel had made a bold move.
Then the Daredevil/Drew Goddard decision was announced, and again, Messageboard Nation went into overdrive. Long a communal critic of what Ben Affleck and Mark Steven Johnson did with the property back in 2003, they saw nothing but good things in the Joss Whedon underling who turned The Cabin in the Woods into a welcome meta-horror masterpiece. Sure, this was going to be a series on Netflix, but there was a commitment to excellence on all sides and a desire to undo some of the bad PR presented by the previous incarnation. Indeed, one of Marvel’s best decisions over the last few years has been to see where mistakes have been made and, at least, from the outside looking in, make amends as a means of convincing the fanbase of their desire for excellence.
And then Friday, May 23rd hit. On that day, right before a long holiday weekend, the studio dropped a double sided bombshell on fans and cinephiles alike. First, the studio announced that Wright was leaving Ant-Man over “creative differences” while confirming that next year’s release date is still 100% valid. No one was named as a replacement, though speculation started almost immediately. But even before Attack the Block‘s Joe Cornish could be carted out there as a possible substitute, Marvel made another earth-shattering announcement. Goddard was gone as well, exiting Daredevil to focus on other things while the creator of Starz’s Spartacus, Steven S. DeKnight was stepping into his shoes.
Within the span of a couple of hours, an Alderaan level sense of destruction spread across social media. Fans of both Marvel and Wright went ape-shit. Joss Whedon tweeted a picture of him holding a Coronetto treat went viral, a sign of defiant solidarity from a man currently making another movie for the brand (The Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron). Twitter took Marvel to task, upping the attacks once the Goddard announcement went live. Before long, second guessing and conjecture replaced anger, with everyone trying to figure out why this happened. Naturally, Marvel was cast as the villain and everyone else on the side of right.
By Saturday evening, things had gotten a bit less foggy. Websites with confident inside sources reported that Wright walked over some extensive notes given to him right before Ant-Man was ready to start shooting. Apparently, no matter what he has done in the last eight years to earn the company’s trust, a script rewrite and failed attempt at creative compromise lead to the Englishman taking a hike. The Goddard news required a bit less supposition and a bit more logic. Like DC, the non-Disney aspects of Marvel are out to make multiple movies of the various franchises in the works. This meant that a Sinister Six film (inspired by the Spider-Man villains) was getting pushed to the fore faster than expected. This was Goddard’s Cabin follow-up, and rumors claim that Sony said “enough with the Daredevil stuff” and demanded he commit or leave. Naturally, he stayed, saying bye-bye to Matt Murdock.
With the superhero genre reaching critical (and commercial) mass, it seem sensible that the comic book conglomerate would circle their wagons and prepare for some fallout. Even now, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is showing how shaky the whole concept has become (if you read some of the reporting from this weekend, X-Men: Days of Future Past is suffering the same fate). With a two billion dollar baby sitting out there, everyone at Marvel must believe that they have the answer to keeping the artistic ATM alive and well. Wright was clearly not part of that business plan, while Goddard’s talents needed to be concentrated on where they can bring in the most bucks (read: the international box office), not some limited access streaming service. Yes, it’s the same old song and dance about money and making more of it. But there is more to Marvel’s decision, and it’s this aspect that’s the most disturbing.
With these choices, Marvel has made it clear that, with the release of August’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the days of taking creative risks are numbered. Indeed, when giving James Gunn (a gifted filmmaker who got his start with Troma after all) the franchise, they wanted a fresh and inventive voice for this otherwise difficult to define collection of misfits. That early reports indicate the Slither director delivered can be seen as vindication. But perhaps Marvel sees something in what we will all be witnessing in a few months that says “restrict” such outsider visions, and get back to what worked before. After all, Shane Black wasn’t some sort of maverick when he made Iron Man 3 (another billion dollar bonanza) and Alan Taylor and Anthony and Joe Russo proved they could take established stars—Thor and Captain America, respectively—and mesh mainstream ideas with commercial goals.
Wright, on the other hand, was a limited draw at best, with a character of equally questionable impact. The most money any of his movies made was $80 million and that was for his action movie cop buddy spoof Hot Fuzz. His only studio effort, Scott Pilgrim, is considered a bomb and he definitely follows his own particular muse. But Marvel must have known this, since they have been working with him for nearly a decade. And what director wouldn’t walk after spending so much time on something only to have outside ideas thrown at them at the last minute? Considering the schedule, there were bigger differences than creative ones. Marvel may have messed up a fairly pristine perception with their actions this past week. Whether they were the right decisions remains to be seen.