Why Marvel Studios is (Kind Of) Right About Ant-Man
As I sit down to write an editorial about why a potentially evil corporate monstrosity has a valid argument in the fight against creator rights I find myself sick to my stomach. This is what the world of cinematic art and commerce has come to: a complete reversal of the longstanding critical analysis paradigm that says filmmakers are always right when they stand up for their creative vision and studios are always wrong when they prioritize the bottom line. But the bottom line in this case isn’t entirely about money. It’s mostly about money, maybe even 99% about money if we’re being honest, but there’s more to the story than just “Edgar Wright is right” and “Marvel Studios is wrong.” There’s also us, the fans, who literally begged for this to happen and who now have to accept a certain amount of responsibility for robbing the world of an Edgar Wright Ant-Man movie and giving Marvel Studios the moral authority to let it go for what they can realistically call “the greater good.”
An important part of storytelling is deciding where the story begins. Perhaps it began this week, when the pressures of meeting Marvel Studios’ demands for a homogenized superhero franchise drove Edgar Wright to leave the director’s chair of Ant-Man, a movie scheduled for release barely a year from now, on July 17, 2015. Or perhaps it began eight years ago, when Edgar Wright agreed to make Ant-Man in the first place, the time when Marvel Studios first announced its very existence and then proceeded to slow-walk Wright’s motion picture for nearly a decade, giving him time to make three features in the interim and develop even moreso as an artist as he waited for the green light.
But the story probably began many years earlier, nobody knows "exactly" how many, when the first comic book superhero enthusiast publicly declared that they wanted superhero movies to connect to one another, and then when – moments later – a like-minded individual enthusiastically agreed. A cascade began at that moment, largely ignored by movie studios around the world, in which superhero fans found themselves openly begging Hollywood to take Marvel’s and DC’s leads, and let multiple superheroes exist within the same continuity. “Let Superman and Batman team up,” we requested in unison. “Would you settle for a brief mention of Metropolis in Batman Forever,” Warner Bros. replied? “No,” we said, but we let it go because we had no control whatsoever over their decisions. Superhero movies were being made for general audiences, and general audiences – the studios believed – didn’t care about what serious geeks like us thought.
But as superhero movies evolved at the turn of the century into one of the dominant genres in the entertainment industry, holding studios aloft with massive merchandising profits and, with gradually fewer and fewer exceptions, making tons of money at the box office, the landscape changed. The idea of a cohesive superhero universe was suddenly an economically viable idea, and with Marvel Studios now owning the rights to most of their popular heroes, they announced a plan to let them coexist on screen. Fans cheered when Nick Fury mentioned The Avengers at the end of 2008’s Iron Man, and they turned out en masse for 2012’s The Avengers, the culmination of their longstanding mutual dream, and a film that was – by most people’s estimations – very, very fun.
And what did it take to give us exactly what we wanted? Enormous corporate oversight. It took studio executives – the very kind we like to demonize whenever something goes wrong – doing their jobs to a positive end for a change. It took a corporation willing to say “no” to ideas that would make one movie too different from the others, and enforcing ideas that would have the opposite effect. It took, to use one of the vilest worlds in the entertainment industry, “meddling,” and at an institutionalized level at that.
These movies based on the adventures of Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor have been homogenized because that’s exactly what we wanted, and that’s exactly what we’ve been praising (to various degrees) every time they’ve come out. We have been outwardly thankful for Marvel Studios’ efforts and outwardly resentful of Warner Bros. for not following suit with their own superhero universe, since they own the complete library of DC comics. And it’s hypocritical of us to say that prioritizing Ant-Man’s place in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over a single director’s creative vision is the wrong thing to do, since we’ve been giving them billions of dollars to do that very thing, and since every year we still find ourselves asking for more.
None of us know for a fact if Ant-Man is going to be any good, or if it would be better with Edgar Wright in the director’s chair. (It probably would, but we don't know that.) What we do know is that Edgar Wright is a rare talent, a highly distinctive and meaningful voice for a new generation whose films have uniquely transformed seemingly superficial pop culture concerns into profound examinations of the way we live and interpret the events in our lives. Shaun of the Dead, one of the best movies of the 2000s, used the tropes of the zombie genre to illustrate the growth from arrested adolescence into maturity. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, one of the best films of the 2010s, used the tropes of video games (amongst other pop phenomena) to illustrate personal and interpersonal growth as a series of literal battles for self-worth against our own histories and the ways others judge us based upon their own personal baggage.
But Marvel Studios doesn’t work like that. They don’t make complex motion pictures full of rich allegories; they make broad, universally relatable fables in which fun characters with superpowers overcome all odds. Sometimes the screenplays are clever, usually the movies are damned entertaining, but the closest they have ever come to “daring” – besides the purely structural conceit of allowing superheroes to team up in the first place – was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when Captain America turned against America’s corrupt politicians. And even then they hedged their bets by saying the government itself wasn’t responsible for the many evils it had been inflicting: it was secret super-Nazis all along.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a team effort. Marvel Studios hires talented craftspeople and forces them to conform. Kenneth Branagh can make better films than Thor, but the theatricality he nearly perfected after years of Shakespeare adaptations lent his Marvel movie an air of grandeur that might otherwise have been missing. Joss Whedon can render life-changing melodrama from the story of a vampire slayer who wishes she could be a normal teenager, but at Marvel the best he can do is find a satisfying way to pull off a multi-movie crossover that was fundamentally about – let’s be honest – whether a multi-movie crossover could even work in the first place. The Avengers was about strong individual personalities with little in common who were forced to work together, even at the sacrifice of their egos.
Marvel Studios works very much the same way. They operate more like the executive producer of a television series than they do as a proper movie studio. The directors who come aboard even the best TV series, be it “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” have to sacrifice some of their individual ideas to make sure every episode feels like it is of a piece with all the episodes that came before it, and all the episodes that will come afterwards. A Marvel Studios movie has the same concerns, and any director working for a company with such a far-reaching and cohesive mission statement must be willing to make sacrifices. These movies are not theirs, they are Marvel’s, and as a result these filmmakers cannot expect to be treated as auteurs, they have to expect to be treated as work-for-hire artisans, and do their best to let their distinctive creative voices shine through the thick veil of interconnective tissue that Marvel Studios has spread over every film in their ambitious but micromanaged franchise.
Is Edgar Wright wise to leave? Probably. A bona fide blockbuster under his belt might have benefitted him down the line from a business perspective, but as a genuine artist the amount of time he’d have to spend making a motion picture that he most likely wouldn’t have been happy with could have proved frustrating and detrimental. Frankly, after spending eight years in development hell on Ant-Man and seeing the direction that Marvel Studios had been taking over that period of time, we should all be surprised that he hadn’t jumped ship much, much earlier.
Is Marvel Studios wise to let him go? Probably. They hired a director to make a film within the framework of a financially and critically successful franchise, and if that director wasn’t going to be happy to fulfill those duties, they would probably be wise to find another one. The only thing that is unique to this situation is the fact that Edgar Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish developed this screenplay themselves, and that the perception (accurate or otherwise) amongst fans and pundits is that Ant-Man himself is a minor concern to Marvel Studios; an ancillary character whose cinematic adventures only intrigued their fans because Edgar Wright was attached to direct in the first place. But the film has been cast, the release date announced, and the chain of events is probably too far gone to cancel the film now even if that were the case.
Photo Credit: Joss Whedon
Fans, critics and even fellow filmmakers have been quick to show their support for Edgar Wright’s decision to protect his artistic integrity at the expense of a potentially lucrative franchise picture, leading many to wonder if Marvel Studios has become the enemy of artists everywhere: a soulless moneymaking machine that devalues the input of their filmmakers in favor of that old bottom line. But the bottom line is about a little bit more than money: the bottom line is also about the mission statement of a studio that gave us exactly what we asked for and is now being taken to task for taking the steps that are arguably necessary to keep on doing just that.
Now it is entirely possible that Marvel Studios has gone too far down this path, and that these steps they are taking are unnecessarily involved and to the active detriment of their finished product, be it the Ant-Man movie or any other film currently under their control. Without seeing them in their native environment, as few of us can, none of us are able to discern whether they are merely doing what they think is right to keep the fans happy or going outright mad with power.
But if we are going to argue the principle of the thing – as we normally do when any studio tries to meddle with a director’s creative vision – we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that the situation is unusual, and somewhat separate from notorious examples of studio meddling like chopping an hour out of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons or adding an unnecessary voice-over to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or tacking a happy ending onto both of those films. Marvel Studios is indeed taking someone’s creativity and transforming it into something more conformist, but that conformity is, once again, very specifically what audiences are asking for. When you clapped at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you gave Marvel Studios the right to tell Edgar Wright what to do. You supported their overarching vision and asked them to continue down that very same path, and that’s what happened here.
Edgar Wright has our support as one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation who has every right to make a film the way he wants to. Marvel Studios, much as it pains us to admit it based on decades of film criticism principles that demand we say the opposite, also has our support to for adhering to a corporate mentality that, for once, is giving us fans everything we asked for… for better or worse. We had no way of knowing that we were asking Marvel to deny a great artist the right to make the movie he wanted, but that’s exactly what we did and now we have to accept the consequences… and our own culpability.