‘Ant-Man’: How Marvel’s most interesting project became an instant train wreck

Ant Man Jumping

To anyone who has taken even just a brief glance at entertainment- and movie-related websites in the last two weeks, or perhaps just performed a quick scroll through their Facebook and Twitter feeds, it’s no secret that Marvel’s planned adaptation of Ant-Man is in big, big trouble.

First, writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), attached to the film since 2006, exited the project, citing creative differences. Then, rumors of a new director (Adam McKay) were hastily confirmed and just as abruptly debunked. And now, with new names added to the studio’s rumored list of potential directors each time one is crossed off, the long-gestating project — still scheduled to hit theaters July 17, 2015 — has quickly transformed from highly anticipated blockbuster into something more akin to a train wreck you can’t help but look away from.

There’s no question that Ant-Man could still be a certified blockbuster, or even a downright good film, but a series of unfortunate events — considered especially so by those (like me) who felt the film could be a legitimate game-changer for a studio hellbent on aversion to risk and adherence to a financially successful, creatively stale formula — has led us to a point where we have really no idea what will happen to the film.

With rumors of a new director flying around each day, it’s safe to assume Marvel doesn’t have their plan of attack figured out just yet, but with the film’s scheduled release date just over 13 months away, it’s interesting to consider how exactly we got to this point, and how these recent developments affect the various parties involved, consumers and fans included. So, where exactly should we start? I suppose the beginning is as good a place as any. Come along with me, won’t you?

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In 2006, Marvel began development on a film adaptation of comic book property Ant-Man, with then up-and-coming director Edgar Wright at the helm and slated to co-write the film with the help of fellow English filmmaker Joe Cornish. The pair had previously written a treatment for the film, a purported heist story centered around two popular incarnations of the Ant-Man character: Hank Pym, and Scott Lang.

Fresh off Wright’s 2007 buddy-cop comedy Hot Fuzz, he and Cornish submitted their first draft of the Ant-Man script in early 2008. And with no real deadline for the film — given both the title character’s (ahem) small reputation and Wright and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s insistence on crafting “a really good script” for “a great genre film” — both Wright and Cornish continued working on other projects. Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was released in 2010, and Cornish’s directorial debut Attack the Block hit theaters in 2011.

Wright and Cornish submitted their second draft of the script in April 2011, and handed in a third draft by July 2011. A year later, in July 2012, Wright confirmed that the movie had received the go-ahead from the studio, and months later Disney, Marvel Studio’s parent company, announced an official release date: November 6, 2015. Late last year that release date was moved up to July 31, 2015, presumably to capitalize on Marvel’s excellent summer track record and a relatively empty summer slate, and then just this past January that date was moved up by two weeks to July 17, 2015, occupying the release date vacated by Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Ant-Man was to be the first in “Phase Three” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), released shortly after Joss Whedon’s Avengers followup, Avengers: Age of Ultron. According to Wright, he and Cornish finished the script last summer, with the film more or less locked and casting set to begin in earnest at the tail end of 2013. Paul Rudd was cast as Scott Lang in December 2013, and Michael Douglas as Hank Pym in January 2014. Also cast in the project are Evangeline Lilly, Patrick Wilson, Corey Stoll, Michael Peña, and Matt Gerald.

Just a few short weeks ago, the long-in-development project seemed ready for production. But on May 23, 2014, in an unexpected move, Marvel and Edgar Wright jointly announced that Wright, who spent the better part of a decade working on the project, had left Ant-Man due to “differences in the vision of the film.” It was later reported that those differences apparently revolved around recent revisions to the script on Marvel’s end, hinging upon things such as the morality and tone of the film, as well as the studio’s requirement that it contain franchise characters. Wright previously stated, and we all assumed, that his and Cornish’s final Ant-Man script required some tailoring to fit into Marvel’s universe, but he also assured us that those changes remained in step with the duo’s vision for both the character and the film as a whole.

With Ant-Man still slated to begin production this month, and in keeping with its July 2015 release date, Marvel apparently had a few directors in mind to take over after Wright’s departure, namely Adam McKay (Anchorman), Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), and Rawson Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story). Last Friday, just one week after Wright’s exit, it was reported that McKay was offered the job; early Saturday morning, multiple outlets confirmed McKay was in negotiations to be the film’s new director — making him arguably one of the best replacements the project could have taken on, what with his comedic sensibilities and almost surprising knack for directing action (see: The Other Guys).

Fast forward to just a couple of hours later, and McKay announced he had chosen not to pursue the job, citing that he had other projects he was committed to. In the days since, Marvel has apparently added two names, Nicholas Stoller (Neighbors) and Michael Dowse (Goon), to its list of potential replacement directors — though it appears talk of Stoller’s candidacy is unfounded — while Thurber has reportedly turned down an offer by the studio to take over the trouble production and Fleischer’s availability is uncertain considering he is rumored to be among Sony’s top candidates for the Ghostbusters 3 gig. If you’re keeping track at home, here’s the scorecard:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 10.10.50 AM

HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE PARTIES INVOLVED — AND US?

Now the already long-in-the-works comic book adaptation finds itself caught in almost laughable development trouble, its studio scrambling to find a replacement director before it is forced to either delay the project, which seems more and more likely as the days go by, or cancel the film altogether, which seems less likely but remains a growing possibility if Marvel can’t find an adequate replacement.

Largely considered Marvel’s riskiest move since slowly assembling Earth’s Mightiest Heroes during its Phase One projects — even riskier than the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, which features a talking raccoon and an anthropomorphic tree — Ant-Man just might prove to be the studio’s first big stumbling block, and perhaps the first real sign that directors, particularly ones of Edgar Wright’s (and Adam McKay’s) caliber, aren’t easily persuaded by Marvel’s promises of a big budget and a massive audience if it means sacrificing artistic vision and integrity.

So what of the director who winds up taking on the project, if in fact Marvel finds its guy (or gal)? Well, he (or she) will have some mighty big shoes to fill, as Edgar Wright has been the captain of the Ant-Man ship for the last eight years. Wright proposed the project to Marvel back in 2006, and has been developing the movie ever since, writing multiple drafts of the script alongside co-writer Joe Cornish, researching technology, shooting test reels, hiring the cast, and so forth. And until recent months, it seemed Marvel was largely on board with Wright’s vision. But for whatever reason, the faith they had in Wright’s and Cornish’s script apparently dissipated.

Now that Wright is gone, it can only be assumed that Marvel is looking for a replacement with sensibilities similar to Wright’s — in other words, someone keen on various forms of comedy who can also competently direct action — but with a vision the studio can more easily conform to its own, a gun-for-hire whose creativity might seep onto the frame when necessary but will remain mostly in the background on a very short leash. That almost definitely rules out Joe Cornish, who co-wrote the script and has directing experience, as it’s unlikely he would want to direct a film for the studio that no longer trusts the script he helped write for the last eight years.

So on Marvel’s end, it’s back to the drawing board to try to find a director who fits the bill. What matters here for the studio, first and foremost, is box office success, not artistic or even critical merit. With how interconnected Marvel’s Universe has become, it’s possible (though unlikely, given the studio’s massive goodwill with audiences) that one misstep could make the whole thing go bust, leaving several planned films scrapped. Remember, Marvel reportedly has this thing mapped out to 2028; they want to make sure every film in that pipeline gets made and brings in big receipts.

That means the studio must carefully assess risks, such as the ones involved in allowing a great filmmaker with an admittedly specific style like Wright’s — a style that birthed the entire Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and the graphic novel adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — to run wild with the superhero film he wants to make (Ant-Man), while maintaining faith that he and his co-writer (Joe Cornish) can deliver a story that audiences (you and me) will want to see and that will fit into its larger “Cinematic Universe.”

For us, Wright’s exit is frankly both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good in the sense that we won’t be forced to see interesting filmmakers like Wright let their creative integrity be squashed by big studios, instead opting to part ways and continue making the films they want to make; on that end, I applaud Wright’s decision. But the whole situation is bad in the sense that we are likely to see more of the same from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which is to say we’ll continue seeing largely safe films that adhere to the studio’s proven formula for financial and franchise success, no matter how much it limits the creative possibilities for each individual film.

And although Marvel will almost undoubtedly continue functioning like the well-oiled profit generator that it is, perhaps this situation will help audiences see that massive studios’ attempts at avoiding or mitigating risk by strictly adhering to formula and churning out the same projects over and over, while good for business, do nothing to push forward the medium, serving only to homogenize art and make it far less important than the dollars earned by these projects. But as long as we, as audience members, continue to create the impression in studios’ heads that mass serialization trumps the intrigue of a great standalone feature, it’s likely that very little will actually change.

So what does that mean moving forward? Well, frankly, it means more cookie cutter heroes, more throwaway villains, more worn-to-death action beats, more obvious cliffhangers, and, how could I forget, more post-credit stingers, leaving audiences in the theater seats far longer than necessary just so Marvel can tease one more small piece of its upcoming cinematic puzzle. And with all those things come directors who don’t have the balls — or perhaps even the ability — to do anything other than what Marvel’s highest-up suits ask. And that, really, is why Edgar Wright is gone; he simply neglected to bend to Marvel’s will.

Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish, had a vision, and along the way, Marvel had suggestions for some script changes so the film fit better into its Cinematic Universe. Wright and Cornish took those notes into consideration and churned out a script that, to both them and Marvel, successfully accommodated Marvel’s suggestions, and it seemed all was fine. Then, just months before production was set to begin, Marvel had more notes for Wright and Cornish, which they furnished to the pair via some rewrites; the script passed along to Wright and Cornish no longer fit Wright’s vision, so he walked.

Prior to his exit, Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man promised to bring new life to a franchise that, frankly, has grown a bit stale. Sure, the films are decent, some are even legitimately good, but Marvel’s films are almost all the same — the setups, the motivations, the action. The only thing that separates each film are the characters, namely the heroes, but even then they all feel pretty interchangeable. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Scarlett Johansson — er, Black Widow — sure all their powers and talents are different, but their respective motivations and arcs fall on very similar lines, and there really are no stakes for any of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

The real question at this point, though, is now that Ant-Man has become the kid on the playground whom everyone points at and stares but won’t go near — an “untouchable”, you could say — what filmmaker with any sort of legitimate directing chops is going to take on the project, occupying a spot that was once filled by Edgar Wright and has now been cast around to numerous other directors who won’t even take the bait? Could Marvel ultimately scrap the project? Only time will tell.

Frankly, though, this is exactly what we asked for — maybe not each of us individually, as I was almost fanboyishly looking forward to Wright’s Ant-Man, but all of us collectively, with our wallets and pocketbooks. And whether we truly want it or not, it looks as though Marvel is granting our wish, letting a legitimately interesting director with a specific vision walk, instead favoring someone who will direct the film exactly how they want it directed so that it is as palatable as possible for as massive an audience as possible, just as each film has been since Iron Man.

In other words, we don’t have anyone else to blame but ourselves.

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2 thoughts on “‘Ant-Man’: How Marvel’s most interesting project became an instant train wreck

  1. For the most part, I agree. I’m the rare comic fan who doesn’ t fawn over each new MCU release, and it’s because of the exact reasons you’ve stated. There is an underlying sameness to it all, a safeness more influenced by 90s Disney than 60s Marvel. It’s culminated in the Agents of SHIELD TV series, which crystallizes all the faults of the movie universe without RJD, a budget, and directorial talent to make up for it.

    But the movies are immensely success, and I can’t/won’t fault Feige and Co. for giving the people what they want.

    But say what you want about the “failure” that is Man of Steel: at least it tried to be different. Unfortunately, it without the yuk-yuk corny conceit we’ve come to expect. (Yes, it was missing a good chunk of its heart, but I do think it had a soul)

    One good thing I can say came from this personally: before this mess, i knew little of Wright. But I’ve binge-watched his movies the last week and, damn, did Marvel let one get away.

    • I don’t fault the suits at Disney/Marvel either — movies are big business, and when movies are this successful on a consistent basis, it makes sense for Disney/Marvel to stick to their formula and give the people what they want. Surprisingly, according to Latino Review, Feige actually fought for Wright’s vision, and the decision to deviate from the Wright/Cornish script largely came from the other top executives, including and especially Disney’s Alan Horn. But yes, you’re right, we can’t really argue with the company for making a decision they felt makes the most business sense, even if that may turn out to be a poor creative choice (and at this point it could actually be a bad business decision, given the lack of success in their search for a new director, but such is the world of business).

      Re: your Man of Steel point, I actually liked the film and found it to be quite thematically rich. My main problem with it, however, wasn’t its tone, its story, or its heart and/or soul, but rather the utter lack of subtlety Zack Snyder brought to the film. Everything is so damn heavy-handed that it tears some of that thematic richness right down. But it went for something different from the superhero films Marvel churns out which, as you said, have an underlying sameness to them — and I couldn’t agree with you more there.

      I’ll just close with this: Wright is one of the most interesting and talented filmmakers working today. That Marvel let him get away is upsetting, especially considering he was the primary reason I was looking forward to Ant-Man is the first place, but he will undoubtedly move on to something else that is just as likely as his other films to turn out great. For me, I’m not sure if it gets better than Scott Pilgrim, but frankly The World’s End is easily the most under-appreciated film in his “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.”

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