With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY becoming the first film of 2014 to cross the $300 million barrier and with it claiming the domestic box office champion ship from fellow Marvel alumni CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER the film business chorus has shifted from Marvel takes big risks to Marvel can do no wrong. Even SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, not exactly a finger on the pulse of pop culture anymore, made note of the ubiquity of the company’s success. They took an expensive film featuring a talking raccoon and a tree with few recognizable stars and opened it in April, and it worked. Marvel can do anything.
Actually, Marvel’s biggest gamble is yet to come.
The accolade’s the company has received for its chance taking are both well-deserved and needing of careful parsing, beginning with figuring out exactly what sort of risk it has really been taking. The big-budget blockbuster genre is very conservative–not surprising considering the giant costs involved–with its structure carefully planned almost to formula (just ask Blake Snyder or Bob McKee) amid many focus groups and much input from a ream of studio executives all with the intent of minimizing the risk an expensive film takes. And while the story of GUARDIANS’ oddness is a good one it also masks the fact that much of what the characters do tends to be in line with the actions and arc of similar characters from other films, albeit with a stranger than usual patina. That was the screenplay (and consequently the film) they were looking for – similar to most other event films with just a trace of quirkiness—and that’s what they got.
It’s the film where they got a bit more than they were looking for, and may do so again, that is going to be Marvel’s biggest gamble. Not the period World War II adventure, or the giant continuity bash or the movie with a talking raccoon. No, it’s the one with the man who shrinks to the size of an Ant, but the risk has nothing to do with that. Well, a little to do with it.
The trials and tribulations of Edgar Wright’s stab at bringing ANT-MAN to the screen are well documented by now, but it’s ultimate problem comes down to being the one film conceived prior to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s conception and the only one which did not fit directly into the now successful franchise’s formula. Over the many years Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish had chipped away at the script much of the character’s historical under-pinning’s had been modified or removed. Original Ant-Man Hank Pym was first removed then restored and made older; new Ant-Man Scott Lang was brought into his place to highlight a light hearted caper film which featured few other recognizable denizens of the Marvel universe and no other recognizable characters such as Pym’s long-time love interest Janet Van Dyne.
Which was fine when it was just one Marvel film in development among many and none of which was being overseen by a guiding hand. But that was the old Marvel way. The new Marvel way has a definite formula to its approach and – as a wide a net as it can cast – a great desire to keep things as close to that formula as possible. So it was no great surprise when Wright ultimately exited the picture; it was in fact a greater surprise that Marvel was going to push ahead with it at all. Raccoons and trees aside, the character is a greater departure from their norm than they have attempted and the ideas Wright was bringing to the table did not seem to fit easily into what Marvel is comfortable doing (or knows people will pay to watch).
The least risky move Marvel could have made when Wright departed would have been to ditch the project entirely, as tied as it has been to Wright’s particular personal style. Instead they doubled down, pushing the start date for filming up to August, moving the 2015 release date up to July (after several other contenders vacated) and going on the hunt for new director and a screenwriter to make the Marvel requested changes.
Marvel has made similar moves in the past – notably with THOR: THE DARK WORLD – but not before with an untried creation for whom a specific vision has not yet been created or tested. Previously they have been content to let creators come in and try out their iteration and then begin honing in on what does and does not work. Certainly much of the success of GUARDIANS can be attributed to giving writer-director James Gunn the freedom to make the movie he wanted to (within previously agreed on bounds). ANT-MAN, on the other hand, has neither the benefit of its initial trial by fire nor a solid vision behind it as new screenwriter Andy McKay (a talented individual but one with a notably different world view than Wright) attempts to meld the differing designs of Wright and Marvel into some sort of cohesive whole.
Can it succeed? Possibly, but like a coin toss, art has no memory. The conventional wisdom currently says Marvel can do no wrong. The problem with conventional wisdom is that like “1984’s” Newspeak it is both eternal and easily reversible with new historic truths quickly and constantly replacing old ones. Marvel can do no wrong, right until the moment it does.