Is There Room for Auteurs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Joss Whedon on The Avengers

Marvel Studios

Kenneth Branagh. Joss Whedon. Shane Black. James Gunn. Joe Johnston.

While hardly a diverse list of filmmakers, much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been shaped by a number of filmmakers who, at the very least, brought with them a distinct taste and sensibility, a filmography that suggests a certain type of movie with which Disney and Marvel’s vast inter-textual franchise would meld. Whatever your opinion may be of the MCU films individually or as a whole, hiring the director of Henry V, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or Tromeo and Juliet isn’t a choice that implies solely functional bottom-line thinking, but rather a notable attempt to match talents and material, whatever the end result may be.

But somewhere along the way, a more definitive mode of risk-aversion seemed to set in, birthing in the summer of 2015 a type of Marvel film that was evidently more regimented, more familiar, and ever-more overtly invested in connecting threads betwixt past and perpetually future entries than shaping a film that feels unique or whole unto itself. Whedon openly discussed his creative and physical exhaustion in the face of the demands of The Age of Ultron, less a standalone film than a massive and intricately realized jigsaw piece crafted for a potentially infinite cinematic puzzle.

Following Whedon “surviving” his second Marvel production was Ant-Man, which made its debut nearly two weeks ago carrying a hefty load of baggage in tow. The much-publicized exit of Edgar Wright over creative differences with the studio mere weeks before shooting started has been mentioned across numerous reviews of the film, which demonstrates the inescapable context with which it arrived in theaters – that of a conflict behind a distinctive filmmaker and a studio seeking to make a film cohere to an ambitious cinematic calendar. And while replacement Peyton Reed is far from some talentless hack a studio brings in to do their bidding, the behind-the-scenes drama makes one fact abundantly clear: the author of Ant-Man is more Marvel than anyone else behind the camera. Regardless of the film’s quality or potential, you can rest certain that the Ant-Man that was released more resembles the controlled ideal of a Marvel film at this point.

There’s nothing unusual over a director and project parting over different visions in Hollywood. Just as there is nothing unusual about a “house style” – the Big Five studios practiced it during the Classical Hollywood era, and now we’re seeing a 21st century version of the same thing, except said style applies to franchises and properties rather than distributors. But as Marvel’s calendar grows, and as it continues to form a cinematic universe that its executives feel must cohere under the umbrella of a narratively integrated house style, what room is there for distinctive filmmaking? What room is there for excess and flourish when the overt studio ideal requires not only the generic expectations of conventional heroic storytelling and the demands of summer-ready cinematic spectacle, but also that each film fulfill the requirements of an ambitious narrative network that must continually operate as a platform for new material?

James Rocchi called this the Marvel Industrial Complex, a fitting coinage as MCU films have been connected by a shared exploration of the relationship of militarized force to industry (in sometimes fascinating ways). What’s concerning about the Marvel Industrial Complex isn’t whether or not these films are any good – some are quite good – but with their arguably disproportionate role within the film industry and the larger film culture. The question of Marvel’s compatibility with distinctive filmmakers isn’t isolated to this particular issue or this particular studio – it pours out into the ambitious plans of other studios and their prospective franchises; the industry of midstream indie directors making giant leaps into franchises as if this were the end game of indie filmmaking; the pages of casting, directing, and release date, rumors that have become the bloodstream of economically feasible film writing (including this site here); and to the many directors and mid-budget films continually left out of this equation.

Last week, Scott Beggs published an insightful article on how the current state of film writing is organized principally within a futurist gaze at “The Possible,” in which “what might happen in cinema is now more broadly important than what happened on screens over the weekend, let alone two weekends ago or (gasp) a year or fifty ago.” The Possible, however, isn’t isolated to the metrics of what types of articles get the most traffic. The desire for The Possible is cultivated towards a certain type of Possible, one that’s framed for audiences as end-credit bumpers or within the breath-bated marketing events of Hall H. Thus, The Possible doesn’t only mean a film culture following a film industry’s lead on anticipated future productions – it also carries an implicit inverse: that which is largely impossible to envision in current Hollywood.

Since the news about Ant-Man, several similar stories of noted directors departing superhero projects have followed, except many such directors haven’t been the white men who typically occupy the director’s chair. Earlier this year, Michelle MacLaren was booted from Warner Bros./DC’s upcoming Wonder Woman over “creative differences,” and replaced with – as Monika Bartyzel points outPatty Jenkins, a director who has fired from Marvel’s Thor 2 several years earlier under those same pretenses. And last month, Ava DuVernay announced she was passing on Black Panther alongside a similar explanation, fulfilling what Neil Miller called Marvel’s “certain way.”

Talented directors like Wright and DuVernay do not and should not have to be sucked into a tentpole franchise to make good on their potential as artists. If history is any witness, news of a distinctive director becoming attached to a pre-existing property should produce as much wariness as excitement. But regardless of whether DuVernay is better off doing “something more interesting with her time and efforts,” and despite the obvious problems around the fact that non-white and/or non-male directors are considered for such films only when there are non-white and/or non-male characters at the center, such ousting is the inevitable other side of the narrow cult of The Possible. It serves as a reminder that, however much excitement prospects of a cinematic future can produce, this excitement takes place only within a claustrophobic realm of what will actually make it to screen. As DuVernay herself reflected on the experience, “…if there’s too much compromise, it really wasn’t going to be an Ava DuVernay film.”

Making sense of a somewhat different crisis of diversity in the source industry of all these superhero films, Laura Hudson observes,

“Rather than a superficial issue of optics or quotas, other critics noted that bringing in a wider range of voices is simply a way of correcting a fundamental creative imbalance, one that permeates the largely white, male world of mainstream comics.”

Just as Marvel makes itself increasingly incompatible not only with directors of distinctive styles and sensibilities, but finds difficulty in hiring women and persons of color for the director’s chair, the term “creative differences” betrays many of its essential meanings: that is, a fundamentally limited view of the possibilities of large-scale filmmaking, growing ever-narrower as productions grow larger. And as these films continue to have a disproportionate, nearly all-consuming role within movie culture, The Possible reveals itself to be paradoxically lacking in imagination.

Correction: The original article stated that filmmaker Ava DuVernay had announced she was “leaving Black Panther.” She had actually never signed on to the project and later stated that she passed on it.

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