Marvel, Star Wars, and the Dangers of Movie-by-Committee

We’re in an amazing cultural moment when it comes to entertainment.

For me, this is an especially delightful time. The characters I grew up loving, the ones I was ashamed to know as much about as I did about, are the same characters now pulling in billions at the box office. Just glancing at the highest grossing films of the last few years, and you see massive franchises dominating the top ten, many of which have their roots in the pages of a comic book, or some other, equally nerdy beginning.

This topic has been discussed to death already, and I won’t go into too much detail, but I believe theres a simple reason behind why Hollywood has seemingly stopped coming up with original content. The majority of directors are in their late thirties to early fifties, meaning when they were kids, they were seeing Star Wars in the theater and picking up the first edition of The Dark Night Returns. Why are so many 80’s and 90’s properties being rebooted? Because the people who are now behind the wheel have these properties imbedded in their DNA.

Another massive factor behind the seemingly endless onslaught of reboots is that it’s actually possible now. Let’s look at the Fantastic Four as an example. Marvel’s first family features a team of superheroes whose powers are all represented visually. The Thing is a rock monster. Mr. Fantastic’s limbs stretch on and on. Invisible Woman is, well, invisible. The Human Touch is literally a man on fire. Why did Tim Story reboot the Fantastic 4 after a first attempt so bad it wasn’t even released? Because technology has progressed to a point where these characters can be fully realized on screen. I don’t care much for either of Story’s movies, and I completely skipped the most recent iteration, but you can’t deny its better, or at the very least more believable, than anything that could have been accomplished in a pre-CGI era.

So the nerds are sitting at the control panel, and now we have the technology necessary to bring their obsessions to life. There’s one catch though: Doing this costs money. Lots of it. If you want a movie where a guy in a metal suit flies through space shooting lasers at a purple giant, you can have it, but it’s going to cost you.  Not to mention,  the aforementioned man in iron and the purple giant, along with a dozen others, are academy award nominated and winning actors, adding quite the pretty penny.

This is where the problem has it’s root. Studios have demonstrated that their more than willing to throw half a billion dollars at a single movie, so long as they are all but guaranteed to make it back a few times over. This means they’ll go to incredible lengths to make sure they can get back every possible dollar. And I believe that some of these lengths are a step to far.

Last year, we got the first ever standalone story in the Star Wars universe with Rogue One; this was a milestone for both Disney and a Star Wars fans alike. But the production of Rogue One was plagued with controversy. It’s hard to know exactly what was and wan’t true, but the story basically boils down to: Disney didn’t like Gareth Edwards first cut, they brought in Tony Gilroy as a pinch hit director, and re-shot somewhere between forty and seventy percent of the film. The production fumbles showed in the final product. Re-watching Rogue One with a more crtitical eye, it was easy to tell what was in the original script, and what was part of the clean-up crew. I like the movie, but there’s no denying it’s, at times, a jumbled, confusing mess.

And Rogue One isn’t an isolated incident. Edgar Write was pulled off of Ant-Man because his movie wouldn’t fit the over-all tone of the MCU. Ava DuVernay didn’t get Black Panther because her story was “too black.” There was the massive creative and budgetary battle over Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot. Joss Weadon could only have Hawkeye’s farm in Age of Ultron if he also included Thor’s magical world building hot tub. Age of Ultron also being an experience so brutal for him, he said he never wanted to do something like it again (we’ll see how long that lasts…). It even goes back to the pre-Iron Man era with Rami’s Spiderman 3. Rami wanted to tell a standalone story about Spider-Man and the Sandman, but the studio made him add fan favorite Venom, a decision Rami’s heart clearly was not in.

And the problem only seems to be getting worse. Ben Affleck has stepped down from directing the upcoming Batman film, and it’s now uncertain whether or not he’ll even be in it. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller were fired from the untitled Han Solo project three weeks before wrapping production, forcing Lucasfilm to bring in rewrites, acting coaches, and more dreaded reshoots. And while this has a set of massively different circumstances, Zach Snyder has stepped down from Justice League, making room for Joss Weadon to take the reigns (wow, that really didn’t last long at all). I’m worried about The Batman. I’m worried about Han Solo. I’m worried about Justice League. Specifically with Han Solo, sure they brought Ron Howard in to finish the production, but I can almost guarantee Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan are backseat driving like a drunk friend trying to get home.

So why does this matter, what effect does this really even have? Ant-Man was fun, but if it weren’t for Paul Rudd and Michael Peña, that movie would be another bland, by the numbers origin story. Studio’s are so concerned with making every last cent that anything groundbreaking or innovative gets focus tested and whittled away so it can be slapped in the middle of a highly-profitable universe. I know this isn’t exactly a new statement, studio’s needing to get out of the filmmakers way, but the über-budgeted blockbuster has shown some very dangerous side-effects.

It’s not that I think Ant-Man or Rogue One were bad, like I said, I enjoyed them both. But I would absolutely forgive a few tonal inconsistencies if it meant we got to see Edgar Wright doing a comic book movie. Rogue One was fine, but I can only imagine what it would have been like to see Gareth Edwards’ darker spin on the Star Wars universe. Creativity is being slowly weeded out and replaced for the same tried and true blockbuster, over and over again. Honestly, can anyone tell me the difference between Doctor Strange and Iron Man? Sure, Doctor Strange has some trippy visuals, and a fun subversion of a climactic action sequence, but it just feels like Marvel took out a new coat of paint and slapped it on a tired origin story.

At it’s core, the film industry is a business. If something isn’t going to make any money, then that something isn’t going to get made. In addition, some of the greatest creative thinking in Hollywood has come from studios putting limits on their directors. But at this point, the “machine” of the movie studio has never been more apparent. People, myself included, praise Marvel for its consistency in tone and how everything fits together. But if Marvel can’t allow their filmmakers creative freedom, that tone and consistency will be their downfall.

It isn’t all bad though! While I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by the blockbusters of this summer season, I have been absolutely floored by smaller, non-franchise films. Baby Driver, the movie Edgar Wright started working on after leaving Ant-Man, is my favorite movie of the year. I have yet to hear anything remotely negative about The Big Sick. Get Out was a layered, complex master class in horror from a freshman director. Split, another thriller, was a surprising return to form from the Shamhammer. All of these movies are fantastic, none of them have a production budget over forty million.

Look, I’m not saying the only good movies being made are the indies with tiny budgets and auteur’s behind the camera. I love these franchises. Save from Baby Driver, my top five favorite theater experiences this year have been these huge blockbusters. I love these franchises. What I am saying, however, is that we aren’t getting creative, truly fresh idea’s from the summer movie season anymore. I really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but at no point was I ever shocked by it. It was creative, but it wasn’t innovative. It gave us nothing we hadn’t seen before, and I could tell you exactly how the movie was going to end ten minutes in.

However, studio’s are starting to catch on that people don’t just want the same story over and over again. Deadpool was something we truly hadn’t seen before. Fox took a gamble, sure, but it was a calculated one. They gave it forty million and released it in February, nearly guaranteeing they make it back. With less on the line, Tim Miller had more freedom to tell his story. This paved the way for Logan, another relatively low budget twist on the genre. I’m not saying this means suddenly the Avengers will go introspective or The Batman will be a romantic comedy, but the door has been opened, and it’s only a matter of time before more studios take a more original route.

I don’t write this to be another dissenting voice, screaming with the masses. I write this because I’m passionate about these characters. Comics, where many of these stories get their inspiration, can be one of the most creative, compelling, and genuinely innovative means of storytelling there is. I didn’t fall in love with these characters because they were all the same. I fell in love with these characters because of how different, layered, and complex they were, and continue to be. Sure, not every kid can pick up any comic book and see themselves in the hero. But I guarantee they’ll be able find a character in Marvel and DC’s extensive catalogue with whom they relate too on a deeply personal level.

I wan’t those characters to stop getting watered down.

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