On Friday, news broke that Edgar Wright was leaving as director of Marvel’s Ant-Man film, which he’d long helmed and represented to the public.
Wright is probably best known for 2004′s Shawn of the Dead. That film was the first installment in a three-movie trilogy, united by their shared irreverent, parody-but-not-parody style. The next two installments were Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013). Each film as directed and co-written by Wright, stars and was co-written by Simon Pegg, and co-stars Nick Frost — although Pegg and Frost play different characters in each film. Several other actors similarly appear in all three films. The trilogy is sometimes known as the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, because a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream flavor appears in each film.
Wright, Pegg, Frost, and other actors from the trilogy previously collaborated on the TV series Spaced (1999-2001). Wright is also celebrated for directing and co-writing the 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.
Wright’s work has been characterized by how different it was — and still is — to the average fare. His work frequently breaks with cinematic conventions, but does so in ways that serve the story. Whereas other offbeat directors might jump around in time, breaking up the narrative, Wright is more likely to do things like play with a movie’s speed, in order to illustrate something in the narrative. For example, Spaced frequently used the device of scene changes that occurred during a pan. The aggressive use of on-screen writing and sound effects in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is another perfect example, because they add to our understanding of the story but do so in a different way. Wright’s work is fun and doesn’t seem to take itself so seriously. It’s innovative and artistic but eschews pretentiousness. Wright’s work also tends to be thick with pop culture references, rejecting the literary idea that art should be timeless. Wright’s stories also feature characters who are disaffected, middle-class, geeky — and who resonate particularly with Generations X and Y.
In short, Wright’s been part of a generational sea change, in terms of how we approach ideas like timely references in art, how we draw the line between “serious” works and satirical ones, or how clever narrative devices have shifted to working for narrative storytelling (rather than distancing the audience or deconstructing the narrative). Wright’s certainly not alone in this shift, but he’s been an important player in it.
Even the most superficial observer of pop culture is aware of the massive following of the Scott Pilgrim movie, which has transcended its genre to become a kind of counter-cultural rallying point, especially for Generation Y (if the generally apolitical and consciously disunited Generation Y is capable of having such a rallying point). Most pop culture observers are aware of the massive cult following of Shawn of the Dead, which is still like no other zombie movie out there and predated the zombie craze. It’s simultaneously a great zombie flick and a loving parody of zombie conventions. (This is also the case with Hot Fuzz and The World’s End.) Some might also be aware that Spaced was something of a shot across the pop cultural bow. It originally aired in Britain and didn’t get much coverage in the American media, but it spread through word of mouth, becoming a staple of smart geek culture.
One of the reasons Wright’s departure from Ant-Man shocked so many is because Ant-Man had so long been “the Edgar Wright Marvel movie.” Wright was hired to direct and co-write Ant-Man in 2006, back when Marvel was putting together its initial slate of self-financed films, in the wake of securing financing to do so.
Wright seemed — and still seems, at least superficially — a good match with Marvel. Wright’s movies may have their own style, but they’re fun, and Marvel Studios have made more-or-less-lighthearted fun their stock-in-trade. Marvel Studios is also famous for being very strict about its budgets, and Wright is known for going the extra mile as a director and not wasting money. Marvel was also taking risks and appealing to a new generation with its movies, and Wright seemed to fit there too.
Ant-Man didn’t move forward very quickly, and Marvel’s first self-financed films (Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk) hit movie theaters in 2008. That same year, Wright reported that a script had been submitted and that he was working on a second draft. In 2010, Marvel released Iron Man 2 and was clearly building a unified cinematic universe leading up to 2012′s The Avengers. Wright spoke about Ant-Man‘s delays, saying that the movie wasn’t a priority for Marvel, which was focusing on its bigger properties — although he added that a great script had to come first, so that was the emphasis at the time. At the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, Wright said that the movie wouldn’t be a part of the shared Marvel cinematic universe, since that universe’s timeline didn’t fit with what he and others (including co-writer Joe Cornish) wanted to do with Ant-Man.
This surprised some, since it didn’t make much sense for Marvel to produce movies outside of its still-fledgling cinematic universe. But the independence of Ant-Man from the continuity of Marvel continuity reflected the early origins of the movie — which predated the Marvel cinematic universe.
With Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World wrapped, Wright reported in 2011 that he’d gone through several drafts of the screenplay. He conducted screen tests in 2012. In October of that that year, Ant-Man got an official release date — 6 November 2015. Kevin Feige, supervisor of Marvel Studios, soon confirmed that the movie would be part of the Marvel cinematic universe’s “Phase Three,” following the second Avengers film. Feige stated that script changes would be required to make Ant-Man fit with continuity. Wright accepted this, but in late 2013 spoke about his desire for Ant-Man to feel like a standalone film:
It is pretty standalone in the way we’re linking it to the others. I like to make it standalone because I think the premise of it needs time. I want to put the crazy premise of it into a real world, which is why I think “Iron Man” really works because it’s a relatively simple universe; it’s relatable. I definitely want to go into finding a streamlined format where you use the origin format to introduce the main character and further adventures can bring other people into it. I’m a big believer in keeping it relatively simple and Marvel agrees on that front.
At this point, the Ant-Man script had probably already been modified, in order to fit with the timeline of the Marvel cinematic universe. Wright seems to have completely accepted that the movie would be part of that universe, which certainly made sense for Marvel. On the other hand, Wright hoped to keep Ant-Man free of too many references to this broader continuity, and his reasoning is particularly interesting. Part of why that first wave of Marvel movies worked so well is because they seemed to be occurring in the real world, or at least one that was “relatable” to viewers. After 2012′s The Avengers, this world had seen multiple big events which virtually everyone in the world would have noticed — such as the arrival of a god from outer space and a war with aliens occurring in New York City. The plot of The Avengers heavily spilled over into the first movie of “Phase Two” — 2013′s Iron Man 3, which outperformed the previous two Iron Man films by a wide margin, in large part because it was rightly seen as a follow-up to The Avengers. In this August 2013 interview, Wright expressed his desire that Ant-Man, as the first movie of “Phase Three,” not do this. In other words, he wanted it to be more like the first Iron Man than Iron Man 3 — to be a movie that could stand on its own, in a more or less relatable world, rather than a denouement to The Avengers: Age of Ultron. And according to Wright, Marvel had agreed to this, at least in principle.
In the same interview, Wright praised Marvel for waiting for him to finish The World’s End. He expressed that Marvel supported the Ant-Man script, and he didn’t mention any continuing reservations or pending script revisions. The impression the interview leaves is that Marvel Studios is a supportive place, has put together its multi-film schedule in a way that allowed Wright to complete his other obligations, and doesn’t want to do Ant-Man without Wright.
In the month (September 2013) following that interview, Disney announced that it had moved Ant-Man‘s release date up, from 6 November 2015 to 31 July 2015, presumably in order to capitalize on the summer blockbuster season. This was a sign of the strength of the Marvel cinematic universe — so strong that it could launch a new and minor character like Ant-Man in the summer. (Thor: The Dark World premiered two months later, in November 2013, and it’s likely that Disney was wishing it hadn’t been so conservative and had scheduled the film for a few months earlier instead.) But it’s hard to imagine that rescheduling Ant-Man didn’t also put that movie under added corporate pressure. The summer’s become almost absurdly crowded with would-be blockbusters, many of them super-hero movies, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to debut a quirky, standalone super-hero at that time — especially when tying the Marvel cinematic universe together has proven so profitable.
Ant-Man was scheduled to begin shooting in the middle of 2014. On 20 December 2013, Paul Rudd was announced as the actor who’d be playing Ant-Man. On 13 January 2014, Michael Douglas was announced as playing Hank Pym, while Rudd would play Scott Lang, Pym’s successor and the present-day Ant-Man. On 23 January, Disney advanced the film’s date to 17 July 2015. Additional actors were announced, and everything seemed to be moving forward well. And then this Friday, 23 May, it was announced that Wright and Marvel had jointly agreed to part ways over “creative differences.”
Wright was off the movie he’d helmed since 2006.
That the news was released on a Friday underlines that everyone knew this was bad news. As anyone who’s watched The West Wing knows, Friday is “Take out the Trash Day” — the day you release bad news, hoping it disappears over the weekend and isn’t covered all week long.
Reaction was swift. Joss Whedon, filming Avengers: The Age of Ultron in the U.K., got himself a Cornetto and tweeted an image of himself with it.
Wright himself tweeted an image of famous filmmaker Buster Keaton looking sad and altered so that he’s holding a Cornetto. Keaton signed with MGM, then the biggest movie studio, in 1928. MGM severely limited Keaton’s creative choices, and Keaton realized that he couldn’t flourish under the strictures of the studio system. He later called signing with MGM the greatest mistake of his professional life. Perhaps realizing the incendiary nature of this image, given what it implied about Marvel, Wright deleted it from his Twitter feed — but of course the image had already been saved and circulated.
Latino Review quickly scored the story behind the departure:
About 3 months ago, Marvel had notes. The meat of the notes were about the core morality of the piece, must include franchise characters. etc., These notes came from the big four at Marvel. Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright did two drafts to try and answer the notes without compromising their vision.
6 weeks ago Marvel took the script off them and gave the writing assignment to two very low credit writers. One of the writers were from Marvel’s in house writing team. Edgar stayed cool, agreed to stay on the project, and read the draft.
The script came in this week and was completely undone. Poorer, homogenized, and not Edgar’s vision. Edgar met with Marvel on Friday to formally exit and the announcement went out directly after.
Edgar & Joe were upset by the sudden, out of nowhere lack of faith in them as filmmakers. Fiege [sic] had always batted for them but this felt like it came from the higher ups.
It certainly sounds like a bit of late-stage tinkering on the part of Marvel Studios. It also sounds like a big shift from earlier statements, which suggest that Ant-Man had already gone through plenty of drafts and that support for the film was based on the strength of those drafts. Latino Review’s reporting suggests that Kevin Feige may well have remained supportive, but may have been overruled by “the higher ups” as filming neared.
The nature of the changes, as reported by Latino Review, are interesting. “Must include franchise characters” isn’t surprising, given how Marvel’s done well linking its movies. Nor is Wright’s concern over this issue surprising, given his previous statements about wanting Ant-Man to be “pretty standalone.” In fact, these kinds of interventions by Marvel have been reported before, and they’re blamed in part for the mess that Iron Man 2 became, given that so many characters were shoehorned into the story to set up The Avengers.
That Marvel wanted to change “the core morality of the piece” is a bit more disturbing. Given their past work, Wright and Cornish weren’t likely to deliver this kind of story, and it would be reasonable for them to assume that any film company hiring them wanted the irreverence for which they are so loved — even if this had to be toned down or tampered with a big heroic climax free of moral complications.
But it’s hard to avoid the fact that Marvel movies tend to have very clear heroes and very clear villains, with very little in between. You can debate whether Magneto is philosophically right (despite his frequent, and sometimes poorly motivated, terroristic attacks), but Tony Stark is supposed to remain heroic, even though his actions are obviously reckless and endanger countless lives. Even when Stark’s alcoholism is invoked, it’s played mostly for laughs, and used to justify visual effects and plot contrivances, then effectively ignored, rather than made a central element of the character. And there’s a history of this moral simplicity chaffing creative types. For example, Mickey Rourke complained that he tried to make Ivan Vanko, the villain he played in Iron Man 2, more complex, but that Marvel left this material on the cutting-room floor, preferring a “one-dimensional” villain and super-hero movies Rourke considered “mindless.”
The word “homogenized” is also key here. Over at the Beat, Heidi MacDonald’s been very good on this point. In fact, she used that same word prior to Latino Review’s behind-the-scenes reporting. (Sadly, the comments on that piece claim that one character is more snarky than another, or that one character’s a god instead of a man in an armored suit, somehow refutes the claim that Marvel’s movies are homogeneous.) She’s also pointed out — completely correctly — that the new Guardians of the Galaxy trailer looks like every other Marvel or Disney movie, and that this shows which way the wind’s blowing at Marvel Studios. (Watching the trailer, I thought its tone had a lot more in common with the current crop of animated movies for kids — with the obvious “gang of misfits” beats and laugh-out-loud, faux-adult touches like Rocket Raccoon adjusting his crotch — than even the action-packed simplicity of many super-hero movies.)
Of course, Wright’s not the first creator — nor even the first director — to part ways with Marvel Studios. The clearest case before this was probably Patty Jenkins, who would have been the franchise’s first female director before she walked from Thor: The Dark World over “creative differences.” There are rumors that creative differences, as well as budgetary concerns, played a role in Jon Favreau choosing not to return for a third Iron Man film and Kenneth Branagh not wanting to do another Thor film (before Marvel replaced him with Jenkins, who also walked).
But no one who’s left Marvel Studios has the loyal cult following of Edgar Wright. And his departure has caused many to question whether there’s a home for idiosyncratic, different writers and directors at Marvel, or whether Marvel’s studio system simply has too strong a hand for an Edgar Wright to flourish there.
In popular culture, few battles are as damaging as ones that divide geeks. It’s one thing for most comics fans not to enjoy manga, but they usually aren’t opposed to manga as a result. Comic-Cons are filled with characters any individual fan might not enjoy or even recognize, but a “live and let live” attitude tends to prevail. But Wright’s departure inevitably positions his very loyal fans against the legion of fans who are often fiercely loyal to Marvel’s in-house movie production.
Obviously, Wright’s the underdog in this situation. But one reason Marvel Studios has thrived is because it’s seen as a comics company capturing Hollywood money for itself and showing that it can make more money doing its characters right than a Hollywood company can make taking liberties. And the idea of a shared cinematic universe, mirroring how super-hero comics tend to be done, is undeniably cool. That’s an almost irresistible story. It’s a story that’s so far proven remarkably resilient, even after Disney acquired Marvel (Remember how Joe Quesada used to mock DC as “AOL Comics?” because DC had a parent company?). And this affects fans’ impressions of movies: there’s a bias in favor of Marvel’s in-house movies, which routinely get pardoned for any liberties they take (After all, these are their characters, right?). And their movies get more favorable reviews by fans than comparably good films from other studios. To say this isn’t to attack Marvel Studios. It’s merely to recognize how the narrative that’s grown up around Marvel taking control of its own movies continues to benefit those movies. If Marvel Studios is seen as a place where an Edgar Wright can’t thrive, this narrative gets complicated. Wright may be the underdog here, but Marvel’s got more to lose. And its growing empire relies on goodwill from fans to a greater degree than I think most recognize.
On Facebook, James Gunn, who’s directing this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, offered some articulate thoughts on the situation, which attempt to carve out a middle road between Wright loyalists and Marvel loyalists:
Sometimes you have friends in a relationship. You love each of them dearly as individuals and think they’re amazing people. When they talk to you about their troubles, you do everything you can to support them, to keep them together, because if you love them both so much doesn’t it make sense they should love each other? But little by little you realize, at heart, they aren’t meant to be together – not because there’s anything wrong with either of them, but they just don’t have personalities that mesh in a comfortable way. They don’t make each other happy. Although it’s sad to see them split, when they do, you’re surprisingly relieved, and excited to see where their lives take them next.
It’s easy to try to make one party “right” and another party “wrong” when a breakup happens, but it often isn’t that simple. Or perhaps it’s even more simple than that – not everyone belongs in a relationship together. It doesn’t mean they’re not wonderful people.
And that’s true of both Edgar Wright and Marvel. One of them isn’t a person, but I think you get what I mean.
This is all expressed well, and the truth of it — that Marvel and Wright are both doing cool things, but that their visions don’t align — is unavoidable. But it’s important to point out that Gunn’s got an obvious conflict of interest: a movie coming out from Marvel. So it’s wise of him to issue such a middle-of-the-road statement, positioning himself as sensitive to Wright but loyal to Marvel.
I haven’t seen anyone point it out, but Gunn’s statement also acknowledges that the tensions between Wright and Marvel aren’t new news to him. He makes it clear that he saw this break-up coming. This suggests that Wright’s past statements for the press may have hidden the fact that there was strife behind the scenes. After all, Wright had a movie coming out through Marvel Studios, much as Gunn does. Airing dirty laundry in public isn’t only a way of alienating one’s current employer; it’s also a way of alienating future employers.
Of course, Marvel Studios can impose whatever creative restrictions or changes it likes on its films. Some such restrictions are inevitable, not only when you’re running a shared universe but even when you’re simply coordinating a line of movies (or any other publications). But comics history shows us that there’s a delicate balance between giving creators the freedom to tell the kinds of stories they want to tell, even if they’re a little different, and the editorial control that keeps a line (especially one sharing continuity) unified.
As instructive as comparisons to super-hero comics are, there is one major difference. In super-hero comics, a publisher might have dozens of titles, so it’s easier to allow one or two of these titles to do something a bit different. Comics are also a lot cheaper to produce, and they don’t require years of lead time. Marvel Studios releases only a couple movies per year, and every movie has to be a blockbuster. A hit like The Avengers can raise the value of every other movie in the line, but the reverse is also true: a real flop or misfire risks lowering the value of the entire line. The last thing Marvel Studios needs is for people to ask, “What was Marvel thinking?” We’re talking about a franchise that’s absurdly popular, so there’s little incentive to take risks.
Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man represent risks, in that they’re not the B-list (or even C-list) characters that Marvel turned into box-office gold. But the benefits of turning these even lesser-known characters into successful movies is also profound. Marvel has long liked to tout its catalog of many thousands of characters, and showing that ones unknown to the general public can be turned into blockbusters increases the implicit value of this catalog — and thus the value of what Disney purchased. In order to mitigate the risks involved, it makes sense that Marvel would ensure that movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man look and feel like other Marvel Studio movies.
Sure, the rewrites of Wright’s Ant-Man might not express Wright’s vision. They might also result in a dumber and far less interesting movie. But no one ever said movie production was a meritocracy, or engineered to produce smarter and more unique movies. Wright’s Ant-Man could have done a billion dollars, but it also could have done a hundred million. Marvel Studios’ pasturized Ant-Man is a lot more likely to fall within the current, absurdly high range of Marvel’s in-house movies.
Wright will probably be asked about Ant-Man for the rest of his life. Marvel’s expected to announce his replacement shortly, because it doesn’t want to delay production and has deadlines to meet. Wright’s replacement will probably be making public appearances, including at this year’s Comic-Con, and we’ll see what kind of questions he gets from the audience.
Is Marvel Studios a place where an auteur like Edgar Wright can thrive? And will Wright’s departure spur other creators to think twice before working for the Marvel Studios system?
However these questions are answered, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that Marvel Studios is now in a very different place than when it started, in 2006, when Wright was hired for Ant-Man. Back then, an idiosyncratic Wright-helmed Ant-Man made a lot of sense. There was no Marvel cinematic universe, nor any continuity to adhere to. The stakes were a lot lower, and an Ant-Man that made $250 or $300 million worldwide would have seemed like a giant win.
Marvel was talking about the possibility of doing smaller films, starring lesser-known characters and with lower budgets. Let the other companies keep making movies starring headliners like Spider-Man and the X-Men. Marvel had several second-string characters, who could likely do as well as the Fantastic Four, which had been a hit in 2005, stunning everyone with a $330 million worldwide take.
Then came the spectacular success of 2008′s Iron Man, with its $585 million worldwide theatrical release. It wasn’t steeped in Marvel continuity; Nick Fury was added after the credits, as if an afterthought. In its wake, The Incredible Hulk‘s $263 million worldwide seemed paltry, and it’s still the only Marvel Studios film not to get a sequel.
It’s now eight years after Wright was hired to direct Ant-Man, and it’s time to acknowledge that the Marvel cinematic universe is a very different place. A place where a $300-million Ant-Man would be seen not as a stunning success but as a big failure, suggesting that Marvel Studios doesn’t have the Midas touch. Money changes everything. Marvel Studios isn’t a scrappy upstart anymore. It’s a blockbuster machine, a crown jewel in the Disney empire, and increasingly a generator of TV shows. Its movies have hit upon a very successful formula: a lighthearted tone, stories that are mostly coming-of-age stories, really bad villains, and extravagant special-effects climaxes. That’s why Tony Stark has to learn to take responsibility over and over. And why upset the blockbuster machine?
Wright’s Ant-Man is the perfect way to illustrate this evolution. Marvel Studios still gets a lot of credit for the ambition it showed in 2006, when it decided to make its own movies and made a lot of smart choices, leading to its box-office victories in 2008. It’s a story that culminated in the unprecedented success of The Avengers in 2012, which definitively put Marvel Studios at the very top of the super-hero movie game, besting Warner Bros.’s Batman, Sony’s Spider-Man, and Fox’s X-Men. Marvel Studios still does good work — as well as some bad work. I’m looking forward to plenty future Marvel Studios releases. But it’s just not the same place it was when it hired Edgar Wright.
Wright’s offbeat-super-hero-movie-that-wasn’t would now fit better at the next upstart, to whom Marvel Studios of today is more like Sony than the Marvel Studios of 2006.
Who knows? Maybe Wright and some friends could secure a half-billion-dollar line of credit too. After all, there are plenty of properties to be licensed — and new ones to be made. And as the history of Marvel Studios illustrates, you don’t get anywhere thinking the established order is sacred.