Ant-Man, Age of Ultron, and The Problem With Marvel

After the summer that brought us Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, we look at the Marvel formula seven years in...

There are many things to love about the Community season six finale. In addition to being funny enough to bring up in random and seemingly unrelated conversations (like this opening paragraph!), it was a touching half-hour full of wit, pathos, and just a hint of narcissism. However, it also featured what seemed to be Dan Harmon finally grinding a long withheld axe about his problem with Marvel superhero movies—and this was scripted well before the consecutive disappointments of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.

In the episode’s penultimate scene, two characters that have long tiptoed around a will-they-or-won’t-they romance have their much overdue heart-to-heart. It is thoughtful, wistfully hilarious, and perhaps most biting when it pauses for writer Dan Harmon to take the piss out of the biggest movie franchise on the planet right now and its seemingly unending series of “shared universe” adventures. During the sequence, one character professes his desire to be young again, declaring he wants “to have an opinion about those boring ass Marvel movies.” His would-be 20-something lover responds by whispering that she likewise wishes she wasn’t a slave to these “flavorless, unremarkable Marvel movies,” which are so not a big deal.

By the time that the episode streamed last June, Avengers: Age of Ultron already had landed with all the sound and fury of cinema’s most expensive shrug to date. And now even after Ant-Man went smaller (forgive the pun) on budget and scale, the still omnipresent sameness overriding that picture increasingly causes Harmon’s dialogue to have an echo of prophecy. In other words, as the Marvel assembly line continues to ramp up the speed of production, and often with less experienced filmmakers in each passing ‘phase,” have we reached a point where they all taste the same—which is to say you cannot taste them at all?

Let me preface this by saying that I am a genuine fan of Marvel as a brand and stable of fictional characters that lit my childhood imagination afire, and I also gladly own copies of The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy on Blu-ray. In fact, I thought in some respects Ant-Man was quite a step-up from May’s second Avengers film with its focus on a singular thief trying to pull off a heist. It was in those very scenes between Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang and the rest of his small time crooks crew that I could still feel the lingering seasonings of director Edgar Wright’s distinct brand of comedy.

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Unfortunately, seasonings are not flavor, and just as much as I could smile at Michael Pena’s secondhand storytelling flashbacks—a real product of director Peyton Reed’s own ingenuity—I also winced whenever more traditional Marvel crossover elements became inescapable: the bland, immediate Robin Hood altruism of its supposed anti-hero and ex-crook protagonist, the desire to include intertextual connections to the villains of Captain America movies for third act plot convenience, and oh yeah, when the movie grinds to an absolute halt for 10 minutes to showcase an advertisement for next year’s Captain America: Civil War with a cameo by Anthony Mackie as the Falcon.

To be clear, the Falcon is a cool character, and Mackie is terrific in the role of this newly minted Avenger, but when he appears in Ant-Man to screech the pace of the film to a standstill, I could also imagine a similar (if not identical) scenario being something that sent Wright running for the door. It was also the same scene where Ant-Man threw up its arms and accepted its place as just another ho-hum Marvel origin movie instead of being the smart, subversive comedy hinted at in the first act during beats a little off the Marvel formula. Hence, why there were so few of them.

At the end of the day, Ant-Man is a perfectly serviceable movie. It has a few nice moments that are unique enough for moviegoers to not feel like it is a complete retread of previous superhero origin movies (even if the Michael Douglas/Corey Stoll relationship is a pure repeat of the Robert Downey Jr./Jeff Bridges dynamic from the first Iron Man, but with an age-flip). And families looking for a two-hour diversion will get just that. Two hours of distraction, plus a nice fading smile on the walk to the parking lot.

Yet, at a certain point, one would think Marvel Studios’ hands-over-fist financial success would indicate a change in this perspective. I certainly thought that was the case with James Gunn’s groovy Guardians of the Galaxy. But more an exception than the rule, that movie’s literal out-of-this-world nuttiness retroactively appears to be solely the freedom of leaving the superhero genre in earnest behind. Both of 2015’s Marvel Studios ventures are comparatively more straightforward caped altruism and they kept their feet squarely planted on the ground, to the point where Joss Whedon was doing everything he could not to be blamed for Avengers: Age of Ultron’s very loud and very busy blandness.

Eventually, I expected Marvel to let the chefs have more autonomy after the restaurant took off, but all reports from Whedon point to the contrary: the director of the third highest grossing film of all time (and the top superhero one at that), couldn’t even get his preferred cut of Avengers 2 on the big screen, losing character beats in favor for inexplicable set-ups for Thor: Ragnarok and Captain America: Civil War, movies one or two years down the road from what moviegoers were paying to see last May.

And there is the not-so-dirty secret about the Marvel Studios films. They’re not standalone features; they’re an unending series of television episodes with Kevin Feige acting as showrunner. Thus instead of attracting strong cinematic voices like Joss Whedon, Kenneth Branagh, or Jon Favreau as during Marvel Studios’ early days, the production company is increasingly getting TV directors that are used to being micromanaged by producers like Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) and the Russo Brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, incidentally, Community), or directors with so little experience that they will hardly have the clout to say no, such as Jon Watts (the Spider-Man Reboot 2.0 helmer), never mind ones who’ve developed a strong enough style or cinematic voice to contrast with the Marvel brand’s unwavering tonal expectations.

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Of course, there is a definite elegance to this solution, because no Marvel film will ever be that far out of left field from the tonal aesthetic that Feige has cultivated over 12 movies in seven years. Often, Marvel has been compared both internally and externally to Pixar, which also has massive quality control and a level of trust for consistency from audiences. Yet, Marvel is its own special breed apart from Pixar, which until 2015 has never had more than one film released per year. Rather, that Disney-owned animation studio produced one movie a year (if that) and often from directors who pitched individual and distinguishable visions, such as Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille looking quite different from John Lasseter’s own Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, or Peter Docter’s Up and Inside Out.

By comparison, Marvel is moving through productions like a freight train with the intention of only growing output to three films a year by 2017. At that speed, ambition often seems compromised in favor of efficiency. Consequently, the well known “television” model of the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes on less a resemblance to the much celebrated “Golden Age of Television” currently occurring on cable networks and instead appears closer to the hastily produced syndication model of the 1990s. More Xena than Game of Thrones—or even Xena producer Sam Raimi’s indelibly cinematic superhero efforts in his first two Spider-Man films—this is a model that is content with only hitting singles and never doubles. And you can just forget about an elusive homerun.

Undoubtedly, there is an appeal and brilliance to this standardized form of filmmaking. While I would contend Marvel Studios still has not made something as joyful or grandiose as the aforementioned Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, they’ll surely never make a movie as scattershot and miserable as Spider-Man 3. Likewise, I doubt Marvel has ever even dreamed about making a head-turning Oscar winning drama like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Marvel’s shyness around politically uncomfortable allegories will also avoid something as monstrously miscalculated as the last third of the Christopher Nolan-executive produced Man of Steel. By refusing to reach for great heights, Marvel has minimized the risk for low-lows.

Consider the one time Marvel got “political” in Captain America: Winter Soldier: the themes of wiretapping and government surveillance were conveniently abandoned when it was discovered that the U.S. government’s supersized version of this invasion of privacy and assault on civil liberties was the result of a secret Nazi cult hiding within the echelons of power. Once Captain America and saintly government officials like Nick Fury killed all those dastardly Nazis (or, sigh, “Hydra,” lest the film be deemed too controversial for European markets), all was right as rain again.

When contrasted with what Warner Bros. is undertaking with their DC properties, or even what is currently happening at 20th Century Fox with the X-Men brand, there is an undeniable comfort and steadiness to the Marvel method. DC and Warner Bros. are taking some big gambles on having a superhero movie about Batman and Superman fighting, because Superman caused 9/11-styled destruction in a previous film. Similarly, they’re developing an edgy thriller from the singularly authentic voice of David Ayer where the protagonists are a Wild Bunch-esque crew of villains like the child-murdering Joker and his disturbed victim/lover Harley Quinn.

Fox, meanwhile, is giving us our first R-rated, A-list superhero movie with Deadpool and making an X-Men film that dares to put some kind of weird looking Egyptian headdress on poor Oscar Isaac’s head. Even there, however, you can rest assured that an actor of Isaac’s caliber was not hired to phone in a by-the-numbers bad guy performance, which is another familiar component to the Marvel recipe.

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Any of those four movies could be a major success for Marvel’s competitors or they could all be incredible misfires. But next year’s Captain America: Civil War will undoubtedly at least maintain a familiar baseline for moviegoers. How do I know that? Well, Ant-Man already told us what kind of movie it is when it attached a post-credit stinger of Captain America and Falcon capturing the Winter Soldier off-screen.

Does it matter that the one dangling, major emotional thread from Captain America: The Winter Soldier was glossed over for expediency and audience-baiting? From a dramatic standpoint, sure. But it also promises that Marvel has this under control and is willing to sacrifice even its most tantalizing storytelling opportunities to make sure the next film is as well-oiled as the last.

Or, to return to Dan Harmon’s food analogy, Marvel promises the quality control of certain chain restaurants. Whether you get that hamburger in New York or California, North Carolina or North Dakota, it will always taste the same. But to maintain that consistency, it can never be more than that oh, so expedient hamburger.

So actually, no, Marvel doesn’t have a flavorless problem. It’s just that after Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, I am beginning to wonder if audiences are hankering to bite into something a little different.

Feel free to take a bite out of me on Twitter. Also, you should know that Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix is fantastic.

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