Within mere weeks, the long-gestating comic book adaptation Ant-Man has gone from one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2015 to a buzzword for crushing disappointment and the ugliness of Hollywood’s corporate sector. The film was my most anticipated Marvel venture to date; an original superhero property, a great story outline, the writer/director of some fantastic action-comedies helming, and a stellar cast, all promising to comprise the studio’s most exciting film in years.
As announced last month, Edgar Wright has departed Ant-Man after Disney and Marvel, taking issue with his script, reportedly sanctioned rewrites without Wright’s knowledge. The rewrites, said to be, “poorer, homogenized, and not Edgar’s vision,” were apparently commissioned from Disney, who had concerns with the “morality of the piece.” Could Scott Lang, a thief who steals the Ant-Man tech to save his daughter’s life, have been written too morally complex a character for the kid-friendly Disney to get behind?
I’ve followed Ant-Man’s development pretty closely over its 8-year (!) development period. I remember thinking how lucky Marvel was to have found a filmmaker whose talent is only equaled by his passion, and for a C-lister like Ant-Man no less. I remember when, after years of uncertainty, Wright finally showed up at Comic-Con 2012, his treasured copy of Marvel Premiere #47 in hand, to announce the film’s impending production, and even screen some test footage he’d shot that Spring to showcase the film’s action sequences.
Ant-Man is a project that has taken a great deal of time and care to get this far. It’s also a project that would be on absolutely no one’s radar if it weren’t for Wright’s name being attached, and the lengthy development period has only served to build fan hype. For Disney to throw that investment to the wind, to disrespect the one director who made Ant-Man, of all characters, a hot property…well, there’s definitely something to be said about both creative and professional integrity there.
I refrained from commenting in full on my Twitter when the news of Wright’s departure first broke, just until I could get the full story. Now that we appear to have it, the verdict is practically unanimous. No matter which way you paint it, Disney and Marvel are completely at fault.
The debacle presents a growing issue I have with Marvel Studios – big money precedes big talent. Back in 2009, Disney seemed content to stay out of Marvel’s business, yet now, it seems Marvel chief Kevin Feige reportedly, “went to bat for Wright and lost,” meaning now it’s Disney’s shareholders dictating the major creative decisions of Marvel’s films. Like it or not, the company is now fully part of the Disney machine, which will spell the death knell for its creative properties.
In the beginning, Marvel were consciously hiring A-list directors for their films – Kenneth Branagh on Thor, Jon Favreau on Iron Man, and Joss Whedon on The Avengers. Those films proved the company was willing to work with directors to make solid, creatively sound films. Yet since the Disney acquisition and the colossal success of Avengers, that mentality seems to have shifted from hiring big talent to hiring cheap talent, replacing director’s visions with the stink of corporate synergy and cohesive universe-building. Marvel knows it’s making billions on every movie anyway; instead of hiring someone like Edgar Wright, whom they’ll pay top dollar for and who’ll, if need be, fight them for what he believes is right for the film, why not hire “yes” men, nobody directors to direct quick-and-dirty crowd pleasers? Why take chances, make mistakes, and potentially create something big and bold and wonderful, when you can continue making safe, proven moneymakers?
Take Thor: the Dark World, a film entirely reliant on Kenneth Branagh’s infinitely superior 2011 original to tell its Asgard-based story. The film didn’t work nearly as well as it should have, largely because director Alan Taylor was hired to execute a pre-plotted, studio-bred story arc. Director and studio clashed behind the scenes over last-minute rewrites and reshoots, leading Taylor to diplomatically bow out of contention to direct the eventual threequel. It’s that increasingly creator-unfriendly atmosphere (coupled with Marvel’s growing history of snubbing talent from the get-go…Edward Norton, Jon Favreau, and Patty Jenkins say ‘hi’) that robs Marvel of even a chance at telling genuine, ballsy stories in favor of safe, formulaic ones which increasingly threaten audience indifference.
Even Captain America: the Winter Soldier, a success by most standards, felt largely a studio effort lacking any sort of directorial vision or identity. Its script was more or less completed long before directors Anthony and Joe Russo entered the picture, with the ready-made, Marvel-approved direction changing very little on its way to the silver screen. This is Marvel re-appropriating their comic book publishing mentality to for the silver screen – its publishing division has an even greater history of estranged writers and artists who’ve left the company over unreasonable editorial mandates. And it won’t end with Wright and Ant-Man – now there’s Scott Derrickson, hired to direct Dr. Strange. Though Derrickson directed Sinister, easily one of the finest horror films in years, he also helmed the Day The Earth Stood Still remake, one of Fox’s corporate ventures when the company was still under the director-unfriendly reign of Tom Rothman. Will Derrickson prove another Marvel “yes” man, or will the director’s penchant for dark, occult-ish mythology channeled so brilliantly in Sinister win out?
(Speaking of Fox, interesting to note how that company and Marvel appear to have switched places. Over the last decade, the former was infamous for taking movies out of its directors’ hands and robbing them of their creative vision. With the departure of Rothman, the company now seems content to let their top directors, among them Bryan Singer and James Mangold on X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Wolverine respectively, largely tell their own stories. In contrast, the entirely of Marvel’s Phase 2 seems to have been dictated entirely by corporate higher-ups.)
So what does this mean? After a frantic search for a replacement director to keep their coveted July 2015 release date, Marvel hired Yes Man director Peyton Reed to helm, with Anchorman’s Adam McKay helping out with the script, likely as a favor to actor Paul Rudd. Yet let’s examine this – the film is still fully on schedule, so Wright’s contributions to the project must’ve been significant enough to where scripting, pre-visualization, costume design, nearly everything about the film thus far has his signature all over it. With Reed shamelessly picking up where Wright left off, that leaves two things:
A. Where Wright’s style deftly balances action and comedy, Reed’s light, insubstantial style and background largely in comedy lacks that same kind of demanding, stylized prowess that the project calls for based on Wright’s contributions, and
B. Reed is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a Marvel “yes” man, directing what is essentially an abandoned Edgar Wright film. To our knowledge, and as is likely the case, he doesn’t bear even an ounce of the passion and investment Wright felt for the Ant-Man mythology. For superhero movies especially, genuine devotion to the material makes all the difference – compare the genuine, heartfelt approach of Kenneth Branagh on Thor to the mechanical, distant direction of Alan Taylor on its sequel.
At best, Ant-Man will retain enough of Wright’s vision to stand out amidst a growing mass of generic, lackluster Marvel films banking on undying audience loyalty rather than bothering to bring that audience something unexpected and, dare I say it, brilliant. Last year, I wrote in my Thor: the Dark World review that I’d rather sit through another Ang Lee Hulk, a film which takes big risks and fails miserably, than yet another “meh” Marvel movie playing it close to the chest. I have a nasty feeling Wright’s tenure on Ant-Man will be a cautionary tale for other auteurs, who will choose to stay far away from a company unwelcoming to risk, and one which threatens to fiercely stamp out their creativity.
Comic-Con will soon be upon us. I can only hope the company panel’s yearly theatrics don’t distract fans and journalists from voicing their disgust. Maybe a public crucifixion for those involved is the only way these studio bigwigs will learn not to make their directors feel small.