JUST SIX short years ago, at Comic-Con 2009, the hall of 6,000-plus high-decibel Marvel fans raucously cheered what was technically billed as the panel for “Iron Man 2,” but something else entirely was in the air. This was the Victory Tour, that palpable moment when an act has had a sudden hit, and now, that wide-eyed surprise is giving way to the seismic pressures and fissures of massive success.
In that moment, if you were at all familiar with the narrative rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll, or of championship sports teams, or of Silicon Valley start-ups, you could realize what was happening before your eyes. The power struggles, and the uneasy alliances, begin once there is actually something worth struggling over, and controlling the direction of. And this event was less an internal war machine than it was a high-performance vehicle with limited front seating.
So as the room of true nerd believers rocked, the panel was introduced one by one, like top-flight team members at an all-star game. But whose name would be called to the stage first? Jon Favreau, the filmmaker who now had a blockbuster to his name? Or perhaps Robert Downey Jr., the kinetic talent and once-high-risk hire who had kicked his demons of the bottle and now was fresh off a “Tropic Thunder” Oscar nomination? The excitement built, the thrum escalated, and then the moderator said first: “I just want to introduce the president of Marvel Studios, and the producer of ‘Iron Man 2’…Kevin Feige!”
Out into the spotlight step-jogged the man who now ran a universe. Feige smiled wide, and warmly. He wore a black polo shirt, and more tellingly, a ballcap that both shielded the glare and marked him as the skipper of this team.
Feige joked that he “wasn’t quite sure” why he was brought out first. It was a nice sleight of tongue, intentionally, because he could sound humble while also affirming his preeminence. He was running this ballclub, whether the film be “Iron Man,” or the “Ant-Man” project he had greenlit with director Edgar Wright several years earlier.
Next announced was Favreau, the conquering director, who thanked the Comic-Con fans for believing in this team two years earlier at this venue, when Iron Man flew under the radar. “It all started here,” he said to the supportive throng. “Nobody cared before you guys did.”
And then, after a clip was shown, materializing into focus almost as if out of nowhere was Downey Jr., in rock-star sunglasses and crisp suit. Now, for our benefit, the performance art was on.
The three men stood side by side, like black-clad musketeers, all for one, and yet because this is Hollywood, there always must be greater weight placed on “One for all.” The trio, playing to the room, acted out a small power-play over what footage would now be shown to the fans.
“We just wrapped a week ago,” said Favreau, stoking the drama. But Downey, jokingly calling the first clip “unadulterated garbage,” demanded that better footage be shown. Here, for our entertainment, was the classic showdown of actor challenging director. Feige rose to faux-referee this mock conflict.
Downey, quick-lipped, took control: “Hey, Feige, I don’t want any trouble. This is [bull], man.” Then he said to the director, as if a diva’s taunt: “I can’t hear that.” And Favreau soon thanked his audience for its “hospitality.”
And right there, in the span of several minutes — even before Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell had been brought out — I wondered whether I’d just seen the future of Marvel Studios, this maker of high-performance vehicles, play out in high comic form. Because the roles had just been defined.
Feige, bill pulled down, was in the driver’s seat. Downey Jr., the restless and incandescent superstar, was riding shotgun and narrating the trip.
And Favreau, the filmmaker who gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe its true creative and commercial beachhead, has never again directed a Marvel picture.
But why, to this day, do quite so many Marvel directors follow Favreau’s lead and soon exit, stage left?
As “Ant-Man” hits theaters today, its near-decade-long Hollywood back-story precedes it in high definition.
Two years before “Iron Man” changed the game for Marvel — making a charted course for “The Avengers” plausible and soon making the studio a sexy $4-billion buy for Disney — there was indie auteur Edgar Wright, set to make his passion project “Ant-Man.”
“Shaun of the Dead” in 2004 had vaulted the British filmmaker into a new echelon, and the stakes weren’t yet so staggeringly great two years later when Wright decided to shake hands with Marvel.
There seemed no urgency, either, as Wright made 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” for Universal, and then 2013’s “The World’s End.” But Feige slated “Ant-Man” for a summer-of-2015 release, and so by early 2014, the creative rubber was meeting the scheduled road completion.
And then, seemingly just like that, fanboy favorite Edgar Wright was out. Ejected from the director’s chair. Officially, Wright and Feige mutually realized the teaming wasn’t working. Either way, the director no longer had custody of “his baby.”
The old “creative differences” were cited. But the apparent battle over story now doubled as a real-life cautionary tale. Disney’s Marvel Studios, for a director, is so much more than a home and a soundstage and a distributor; it is a machine that you are plugged into — one that Feige has called a “very collaborative” process. A machine that arguably, so far, has an unmatched record of box-office success since the unlikely Iron Man and his electromagnet-guarded heart soared for the first time.
And Kevin Feige is master of this commercial arc reactor. He has the power and energy and good-heartedness himself to support talent he believes in. But he also has the great wide Marvel world to think about.
In the real world, even Marvel’s, there aren’t always villains. Sometimes there are just the realities of business relationships that derail.
Amid his departure, Wright beautifully posted on social media a picture of silent legend Buster Keaton holding a Cornetto ice cream — an allusion not only to Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” but also to Keaton’s famed quote that the worst career decision he ever made, after his film “The General” flopped, was getting into bed with a big studio.
In a show of support, Marvel “company man” Joss Whedon (who was in between his two “Avengers” films) posted a picture of himself also holding a Cornetto.
And James Gunn, who was months away from hitting it huge with Disney/Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” wrote on Facebook at that time: “Sometimes you have friends in a relationship. You love each of them dearly as individuals and think they’re amazing people. … But little by little you realize, at heart, they aren’t meant to be together … they just don’t have personalities that mesh in a comfortable way. … It doesn’t mean they’re not wonderful people.
“And that’s true of Edgar Wright and Marvel. One of them isn’t a person, but I think you get what I mean.”
“Guardians” would go on to be one of the year’s biggest hits, of course, and Gunn — like Favreau and Whedon — was aboard to direct the sequel of his first Marvel hit.
But at Marvel, curiously — unlike with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy for WB/DC, say, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man triptych for Sony — a director seldom sticks around for that third picture.
There may be no villains. But why, in a world of friends and heroes, do Marvel directors so often walk?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the resume of the man who was handed the reins to “Ant-Man” — which admirably stuck to its hard-target schedule despite the 2014 tumult.
Feige and Co. chose Peyton Reed, a nimble leader who notably, the same year as “Iron Man’s” release, directed the film titled — yes, indeed — “Yes Man.”
Last May, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” had barely cleared its monster opening weekend when Whedon began to go public about just how challenging the shoot had been for him. This was a man revealing in the specific just what “creative differences” can mean, even when the director stays in the saddle.
Remember how strikingly human the scene was at Hawkeye’s farm, as his cozy homestead seemingly has character reveals big and small around every corner? Well, Whedon shot that scene two ways, he said. And he told the Empire podcast how he hated the “Go save the world, honey!” version he shot, but the “studio quite liked it.”
During “Age of Ultron,” Whedon and the studio also clashed over the dream scenes (“Not an executive favorite”), and Thor’s cave scene, and a Banner/Romanoff bedroom scene. Things, he said, got “unpleasant.”
Today, Feige continues in the driver’s seat, and Downey Jr. is still the core reactor in the “Avengers” films.
But let’s be clear: No one in charge at Marvel Studios is running around with a script demanding: “Auteur, auteur!”
Marvel is so unlike anything Hollywood has quite seen before, perhaps it would help not to even think of it as a studio. For purposes of illumination, it seems more like some other institutions in the state, like the sprawling University of California system (yes, even though Feige is a USC guy). Or like the similarly successful San Francisco Giants (so well-fed by the franchise’s farm system), who have won three titles in five years — all, in other words, since Favreau last took the Marvel stage.
In a new Grantland piece, Jonah Keri writes of the Giants: “One of the most important tenets of roster-building is to downplay past results and make decisions based on expected future returns.”
Now, if it’s elucidating to think of Marvel as the owner of multiple sports teams, then the ballcap-wearing Feige is like the general manager who’s often around the dugout, working especially closely with his manager. And, in an approach not entirely unlike Oakland’s “Moneyball,” you often match “expected future results” with very precise roles on a relatively tight budget. (Marvel Studios, in its precision, doesn’t like to waste a dime or its time.)
So just what does Marvel do? It often hires provably gifted or promising directors (“future returns”!) who haven’t yet had a blockbuster — and hands over the keys to its magic kingdom of cinematic toys. Only the keys, of course, are still fastened to a relatively short leash. Marvel isn’t looking to woo a Spielberg or a Soderbergh or a Scorsese, and the asking price and auteurship that come with them.
Buy commercially low, deliver high, and — hit after hit after yet another hit — most everyone ultimately benefits in some form. The only reported box-office fatigue comes from the folks tallying all those receipts.
You get the Oscar-caliber Kenneth Branagh to deliver a Shakespeare-for-the-masses “Thor” that does boffo box office, and he, in turn, gains the then-biggest commercial hit of his directing career. Branagh ultimately doesn’t return to direct the sequel — does he want to pay that identical artistic price twice? Ay, there’s the rub — but he eventually moves on to a trajectory of directing a Jack Ryan action flick and then Disney’s highly successful “Cinderella.”
Then Patty Jenkins, who guided Charlize Theron to an Oscar in “Monster,” lands “Thor 2.” And while she quickly exits that sequel’s chair — she and the studio are on different pages — DC then successfully woos her to direct “Wonder Woman.”
Or Marvel gets an ol’ visual-effects pro like Joe Johnston, a veteran of the Star Wars empire who won an effects Oscar for 1982’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and he successfully launches the Captain America franchise (with a savvily cast Chris Evans) before the Russo Bros. move in for the sequels.
Disney’s Pixar can sell its directing chair on a wish: What’s your dream project? Disney’s Marvel can sell its directing chair on a promise: What’s your dream toy chest, and dossier spike, for our shared billion-dollar-grossing movie?
Both studios have their versions of reliably canny brain trusts. But Marvel doesn’t have the luxury of “re-shooting” six months of story the way a great animation factory can.
So if you’re going to play for Feige’s team, you enter knowing the rules. Marvel has the limiting mission and interconnected logic and juggled narratives of a universe that’s planned many years out. This is not a studio of station-to-station franchises like the ever-rejuvenating James Bond; these are cinematic planets that must be kept ever aligned.
And so, as “Ant-Man” lands today, it seeks respectable box office, and perhaps a small surprise (say, an opening north of $65-million, or even $70-million, with commercial “legs”). Edgar Wright receives a writing credit, and maybe even some back-end cash still tied to his ejector seat. And Marvel rolls on.
When Favreau and the ballcapped Feige took that Comic-Con stage in 2009, Iron Man, as franchise, was becoming a Big Red Machine. Now, Marvel has a squadron of them.
“Creative differences” over a Marvel film? Eh. That’s just another way of saying, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” It’s just the nature of doing big, big, big business.
And usually, almost everyone involved receives at least a little taste, amid the sweet smell of massive success.