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Wrights & Wrongs: Caught in the Middle of Marvel's Ant-Man Backlash

Bob Chipman | 30 May 2014 12:00
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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.

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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.

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