Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man isn’t the apocalyptic portent it’s made out to be.
I’ve been waiting for the backlash hammer to fall on Marvel Studios for a while now. It’s a cliché to point out that popular culture cheerfully puts people and organizations onto pedestals only to even more cheerfully shove them off, and nobody among Hollywood’s newer (as in distinctly 21st Century) power-players have been more adept at scrambling up said pedestal than Marvel. The studio has created an unprecedented box-office winning streak that deftly appeals to the pleasure centers of both critics and entertainment journos (“Robert Downey Jr?? Shane Black??? WE LOVE THOSE GUYS!!!”) and comic book fans (“Continuity!” “Colorful Silver Age costumes!”) alike.
Now, as if on schedule, it feels like it might be time for the honeymoon to end. The Marvel Cinematic Universe suffered its first high-profile creative breakup one week ago with the sudden departure of Edgar Wright as director of Ant-Man; news that was met with universal disappointment by fans and the sharpening of knives by much of the critic press, sensing that the time was nigh for traffic-generating “The Marvel Age has arrived!” headlines to self-replace with equally traffic-generating “The Marvel Age is in trouble!” headlines.
Especially eager to pounce was film-criticism’s Old Guard, for whom a chance to kick the vanguard of the superhero-saturated present state of blockbusters is also a chance to assert themselves against the new generation of “geek” journalists whose more organic familiarity with the genre has increased the speed with which they’ve overtaken the business: “See what you did, you meddling kids!? You and your affection for all that continuity and canon nonsense is crushing the auteur artistry right out of the medium!!”
To be sure, it’s bad news all around that A. Edgar Wright won’t get to make a blockbuster whose likely success (at this point, you can stick the Marvel Studios logo or the words “Avengers tie-in” on to almost anything and probably turn a profit) would’ve given him much-deserved box-office clout and B. that the Marvel cycle won’t include the fruits of Wright’s unique sensibilities. But beyond that… what’s actually going on here?
Apple and a new era of marketing
We live in an age where corporations, particularly in the entertainment/amusement industries, have learned how to package themselves as self-affirmation icons; a practice which I’d argue might be the true ultimate evidence that Steve Jobs was an actual genius. One can quibble over his actual technological prowess, but there’s no denying that his 90s revival of Apple as the voice of New Age techno-cool has massively reshaped the face of marketing and maybe of capitalism itself. To buy an Apple product was made to feel like buying membership in a “movement” defined by warm yet sleek aesthetic futurism, soft yet soaring music, and glib platitudes about progress and creativity. Apple’s aesthetic was rapidly absorbed by a booming tech industry that pitched itself as a whimsical Neverland of number-crunching Peter Pans changing the world from cheery glass-walled offices and comfy, non-threatening beanbag chairs.
In Hollywood, Pixar (another Jobs investment, at first) was the earliest early-adopter of this new manner of corporate image: Not merely purveyors of expertly-crafted, dewey-eyed appeals to nostalgia, whimsy and Americana, they were themselves a gang of earnest stargazers who gently sculpted their films in meetings where “story came first” between office-wide Nerf battles. One by one, these facades fell (Foxconn, Google’s simmering class-war in San Francisco) or changed (Cars) but managed to do so without actually damaging the bottom line. “Hm. So buying an iPod doesn’t actually make me a better, freer, more open person. Oh, well – on the plus side, I have an iPod!” You can see the same basic cycle being deliberate re-upped today – yes, The Lego Movie was a genuine delight… it’s also still a 90 minute commercial for Lego, and even its warm n’ fuzzy appeal to reaffirming the value of creative play alternately reaffirms part of the brand’s key marketing points: That these toys are actually good for your kids.
Marvel followed the first parts of this model like a treasure map. The “eager upstart” beginning (a titan in the world of comics but just another newbie venture to Big Bad Hollywood), the seeming devotion to their own fandom (“continuity porn” is above all else about rewarding fans’ natural tendency to obsess), the appearance of risk-taking (Robert Downey Jr. as a superhero, Joss Whedon directing Avengers), etc. Like Pixar before them, they even took it a step further by partnering with Disney – the world-dominating corporation that invented looking like the jolly childlike Good Guy while stomping, burning and pillaging like a gold-hording dragon behind the scenes. Sure, you heard the odd story of this or that disgruntled director or underpaid actor, but it’s hard for that to register opposite fandom cheering (“OMG THE INFINITY GAUNTLET!!??”) or grudging accolades from the press (even journos who hate the genre had to concede that The Winter Soldier was aces).
No, the only thing that can knock corporate image built on that model for a loop (and its fans back to “Oh, right – it’s a business” reality) is a semblance of betraying the carefully-cultivated image itself. That’s what happened to Pixar when they (briefly) set aside sentimental geek-ephemera like superheroes, action figures and monsters to make a movie about NASCAR with Larry The Cable Guy. And now it’s happened to Marvel, because doing what movie studios do quite routinely suddenly becomes a big deal when you’re doing it to filmmakers whose very presence buoyed your “one of us” street-cred with the geek set. After all, what’s alleged to have gone down with Wright – irreconcilable differences over creative direction of the film and/or executive meddling in the process – is exactly what went down with Patty Jenkins’ booting as the original director of Thor: The Dark World. The difference in reaction is simply because Patty Jenkins isn’t one of fandom’s favored Precious Snowflakes while Edgar wright most definitely is.
But it’s also inexorably tied to an entertainment journalism that still reflexively worships at the altar of “Auteur Theory,” and that’s where this starts to get more complicated.
Breaking down Auteur Theory
Coined in the mid-50s by the revolutionary film writers for Cahiers du Cinema, “Auteur Theory” is a school of film analysis that presumes the director as the primary author of a given film. Today, it’s the baseline from which almost all film study springs, but at the time it was a radical concept: Before Cahiers, films – especially big Hollywood films – were thought of as collaborative efforts, and if anybody was the author it was the producer who organized the various talents together and kept the ship running (these were, of course, the days where a producer was not necessarily expected to also be an executive and/or investor).
The Cahiers rebels, looking for a way to elevate film discussion into the lofty art/artist realms of painting and literature, focused on stylistically-distinct voices like Alfred Hitchcock or Jean Renoir to make their point. It worked, and it was the main force behind the embrace of the superstar-director ideal in the 1970s and the emergence of independent directors as their own marketable commodity in the 80s and 90s. But it also had less positive overall effects, like the elevation of stylistically recognizable directors with (at best) shaky storytelling sensibilities to positions of early esteem (see: Burton, Tim); the relegation of talented directors who don’t necessarily traffic in a recurring “signature” to the sidelines of film history; and an overlooking of the simple fact that producer-driven projects aren’t all empty profit-driven ventures.
But much of film criticism, particularly that which aspires to the academic or at least the anti-commercial, still regards Auteur Theory as holy writ; and thus even the idea of Marvel Studios’ “Universe” experiment exists as something of an affront to them. Sure, almost no director working at the studio has “final cut” – the stipulation that they and only they will decide every single aspect of the finished film (Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood have this in their contracts, for example) – but this is uncharted territory. Hypothetically speaking, directors on Marvel Studios projects could expect interference from producers on everything from basic aesthetic choices (“That hat can’t be blue, we’ve already shot the parts of Avengers 2 where his hat is red.”) to major story details (“Instead of the Holy Grail, they’re looking for the Eye of Agamotto now – Doctor Strange is going to need the boost”).
So seeing Edgar Wright depart under rumors that this is precisely what happened (re: Ant-Man being rewritten to better fit with the tone and meta-story of the post-Avengers 2 Marvel Universe) manifests as something like film geeks’ worst fear and the Old Guard’s sour grapes dream come true. It’s “evidence” that Feige and Marvel/Disney are running something less like the happy-go-lucky fanservice factory they played at being and more like the assembly-line corporate hackwork some always thought of them as running.
The fans, of course, are not likely to stay bothered for long. As mentioned before, that this is a “scandal” is due to a Marvel project not hitting this kind of a wall this publicly before and Wright being among the handful of filmmakers a certain subset of film-geek critics like as much as they do their favorite Marvel heroes. In a few month’s time, Guardians of the Galaxy will bust out some huge unexpected cameo or a plot detail for Avengers 2 and any ill-will over Wright’s dismissal will be a quick memory – even sooner if his replacement is of a similarly favored stature.
Beyond that… maybe this is the beginning of a conversation that film-analysis needs to have in this era of adaptations, crossovers and franchises with long-term plans about whether or not the strict adherence to Auteur Theory is losing whatever universality of utility it ever had. The fact is, while there are plenty of immediately distinct stylists who are also great filmmakers like Edgar Wright, there are also a plethora for whom distinctiveness doesn’t consistently translate to actual quality (see: Shaymalan, M. Night) and even more whose talents are destined to be overlooked by critics for their lack of preferred camera tricks or a favorite color (the Russo Brothers, who directed what many consider to be the best Marvel offering in Winter Soldier, did the bulk of their earlier work on episodic network television).
Marvel Studios isn’t really auteur, but that’s not a bad thing
Another uncomfortable truth? The Marvel movies are a producer-driven initiative, and that initiative mostly seems to have worked. Filmmakers and Auteur Theorists may brace at the idea of individual directors working under constant “understanding” that whatever they’re doing is a piece of a much bigger apparatus; but from another perspective if the “collective story” of this fictional “universe” is to be taken as a work of narrative art in its own right (and I think that argument could be made) then are Feige and company “auteurs” in their own right? And that’s not even getting into the fact that huge chunks of almost all big-budget, FX-heavy films are “directed” in whole or in part by CGI animators and pre-visualization teams – unless you think Peter Jackson can split himself simultaneously between dozens upon dozens of simultaneous shooting-locations all across New Zealand at once.
Producer-as-creative-voice is a concept Hollywood mothballed in terms of public acknowledgment decades ago even as it continued to be very much a crucial, everyday part of the industry. Maybe this is the point where it comes back? Let’s be very “real” for a moment: I happen to be a fan of the Marvel cycle and this genre in general, but I’m under no real illusions that these are some kind of deeply noncommercial art-films crying out for only the best and brightest cinematic visionaries. Sometimes it’s nice to have (both Joss Whedon and Shane Black’s signature dialogue sound great coming out of RDJ, and Rocketeer helmer Joe Johnston was the perfect choice for Captain America’s origin film) but other times it’s just as good to have hard-working collaborative pros like the Russos on-hand to hammer a cast and visual-language largely culled from two prior films, a story already somewhat plotted and action scenes largely pre-vized before they signed their contracts into a cohesive final work.
But just what happened with Ant-Man?
What I will say is that the (unconfirmed) idea that the supposed problem with Wright’s Ant-Man screenplay was a desire to bring it into line with specific future plans would give me cause for concern, if only because it’s a backwards approach that’s actually the opposite of the savvy maneuvering that got them here. A key part of what made the first wave (and much of the second, so far) of Marvel films and their payoff in Avengers so enjoyable was that the “universe” aspect was put together after the fact, much like it is in comics themselves. Avengers’ rollicking wackiness is owed overwhelmingly to the gymnastics required to make the storylines and characters from an action comedy, a fantasy adventure, a monster movie and a WWII throwback all land in roughly the same space.
Going the opposite route, saying “Ant-Man needs to be THIS so that he fits in with the next crossover” is almost certain to lead to a less interesting final result than “Just make Ant-Man and we’ll work out what he’ll do in Avengers when we see if people like him or not.” That first way is how Warner Bros and DC are currently trying to nudge Justice League into place – it’s not going great so far. They’re doing a movie whose subtitle is Dawn of Justice. An actual movie. Not a parody or a deliberate send-up. A real honest to goodness movie. With that title. Yeah.
Where I stand is that I want good movies. If Edgar Wright thinks he’ll make a better movie leaving Ant-Man than staying he should do that, and if Marvel thinks they can’t make a good movie working with him then they should’ve let him go. But this whole thing doesn’t look like an apocalyptic portent to me, it just looks like the industry – even if it’s disillusioning to be reminded of that here and there.