I’ve been a fan of Edgar Wright since Hot Fuzz, which was the first movie of his that I saw. Shaun of the Dead soon followed, and then Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was released and… I missed it. I never got a chance to watch it until around Christmas 2010. Needless to say I loved it. I mean I LOVED it. It placed in my favorite movies of 2010 and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I’ve read the books, watched the movies with friends, watched it with dates, and… actually I haven’t seen it in a while, I should go watch it. Be right back.
Okay, okay, fine, you’re right, I should finish what I’m doing first, and THEN go indulge my fantasies. But really, I love it.
Then The World’s End came out and I was the only one of my friends who really loved it (at least of whom I’ve spoken to). It was generally met with a collective “good but not as good as I thought” response. Except for me, I was giddy all over again, analyzing its portrayal of alcoholism against the backdrop of a global takeover that maintained optimism about the strength of the human race. Simon Pegg gives a revelatory performance, finding something far deeper than I ever would have expected from him, and I already expect a lot. The action sequences are even more finely-tuned and finessed than in Scott Pilgrim. The absolute perfect use of semiotics. The symbolism. It was incredible.
Suffice it to say, Edgar Wright is the kind of filmmaker I aspire to be.
I’m getting off topic.
Earlier today, MARVEL announced that Edgar Wright had left their Ant-Man project.
This is kind of devastating news. Wright has been with the project since the beginning, co-writing the script with Joe Cornish (another phenomenal filmmaker – if you haven’t seen Attack the Block you’re doing yourself a discredit, so go watch it RIGHT NOW!) and so far all the designs we have seen look fantastic, so it’s kind of a tragedy that he will no longer be working on the project.
But what does that mean?
MARVEL has been kicking everyone else’s ass when it comes to both the individual movies and the long-game franchise. Not only have they been delivering consistently excellent movies (with a couple exceptions, but that’s understandable), but they’ve been planning so far into the future it would make your head spin.
With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, MARVEL outdid themselves and set the standard.
CAWS wasn’t just a MARVEL movie, it was an espionage thriller that happened to be a MARVEL movie. That’s a key detail. It means that MARVEL isn’t interested in making “superhero” movies so much as they’re interested in making good movies about superheroes. The big difference is that this allows the filmmaker to approach universal themes of humanity through the lens of superheroes, as opposed to trying to tell a good story about a specific character (a superhero) and hoping that it happens to be relevant to the population at large.
Am I making sense?
Iron Man, where it all started, is a pretty normal movie about a superhero. It’s a fantastic movie, even if it is quite dated in comparison, but it still holds up in my mind. However, it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, it feels like a pretty standard movie. Maybe that’s because Iron Man doesn’t really have “powers” or whatever. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films may have had a lot to do with this, as did the X-Men films, but MARVEL was doing something different. They were straddling the line between over-seriousness (the gritty Batman) and over-silliness (Sam Raimi’s Spiderman)* and the result was a superhero film that could be taken on its own terms, not needing to try and fit into our reality but also not needing to feel like an exaggerated camp-fest (I’m looking at the X-Men trilogy, which I still just can’t get into, although I like First Class).
*Spider-Man 2 remains one of my all time favorite superhero movies precisely because of the silliness that Raimi was able to perfectly embrace and use to his benefit. It also didn’t hurt that the movie got everything about simple storytelling absolutely right.
And so MARVEL played that game for several years, leading up to The Avengers. Thus ended Phase One.
After that, things got interesting. MARVEL brought in Shane Black to do Iron Man 3.
For the first time, a distinct filmmaker was going to be making a distinct film that happened to be about a superhero. Yes, Kenneth Branagh directed Thor, but that was such a godawful disaster I won’t even mention it further. Black did his own thing and made a Shane Black film. Also Iron Man was in it.
The more you know about Shane Black, the better Iron Man 3 is. Watch Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to understand what I’m talking about. It’s obvious that Iron Man 3 is Shane Black’s movie through and through.
It’s also freaking fantastic.
Then The Winter Soldier happened and did something curious, especially in light of Wright’s leaving. The Winter Soldier was an espionage thriller the same way that Iron Man 3 was a Shane Black movie. However, this time, MARVEL didn’t bring in an auteur for the movie, but simply hired some (rightfully so) talented directors who did their job and did it well. But the auteur’s touch was gone. I won’t say it was “missing” as I don’t feel The Winter Soldier needed an auteur.
Nonetheless, The Winter Soldier was an enormous success. It’s probably MARVEL’s best movie to date.
So it’s strange that MARVEL and Wright had “creative differences” – what exactly this means will of course be unknown, but it seems to suggest the future of MARVEL. Could it predict where The Avengers movies are heading?
Has MARVEL cancelled the opportunities for auteurs to take superhero stories and craft them into globally relevant movies indifferent from any other genre? As The Winter Soldier displayed, it is not necessary for a movie about a superhero to be a “superhero movie.”
Couldn’t someone like Martin Scorsese make a movie about Superman and find some incredible value in the story without having to tell a typical Superman story, but rather tell the kind of story he wants to using the framework of Superman himself?
I recently revisited Apocalypse Now and noticed how perfect the decision to tell Joseph Conrad’s story via the backdrop of the Vietnam war was. It’s a prime example of the external situation of the movie complementing the internal content of the film’s moral.
Couldn’t we also do this with superhero movies? Use the superhero himself as a backdrop to the humanistic moral we want to tell?
I’m sure we can, but it seems like MARVEL may not be interested in that anymore. If they’re splitting ways with Wright over creative differences, especially this late in the development process – they’re still maintaining the release date – does that suggest that they’re afraid of burning something out?
Is the success of The Winter Soldier intimidating MARVEL into playing it safe?
I don’t know, but I hope not. At least compared to Sony’s disastrous Spider-Man reboot MARVEL is a god. Even compared to its own track record, MARVEL is getting better and better at what they do, so I don’t know why they would feel the need to shrink back.
I really hope they continue to put out films that aren’t just exceptionally well-made, and aren’t afraid to tackle real-world issues, but that also aren’t afraid to try things differently, to use superheroes as they were intended – as allegories and metaphors that help people deal with very real issues.
I’ll probably still see Ant-Man unless they butcher it somehow, but I have to admit, I’m quite disappointed with MARVEL’s most recent development. Here’s hoping they know what they’re doing.