Marvel 2015: No Need For Artists - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
8Sep/152

Marvel 2015: No Need For Artists

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The Avengers face a threat of their own creation in Age of Ultron.  Scott Lang gets a second chance at life thanks to a miracle suit which makes him minuscule in Ant-Man.  Four friends cross the dimensional threshold which gives them dangerous powers in Fantastic Four.  On the small screen, Matt Murdock returns with his friend Foggy Nelson to clean up the streets through the legal system while Murdock combs the underworld at night as a masked vigilante eventually known as Daredevil.  This is Marvel 2015.

Marvel 2015What I've learned watching all the Marvel films this year is that there is no longer an interest in telling any of the stories in a cohesive fashion by reputable artists.  This isn't the same thing as calling all Marvel films a pyramid scheme, which while the best description of their output is not what matters most anymore.  For all their flaws, the first Avengers film and Guardians of the Galaxy at least bore the trademark stamps of their directors and, for a time, held promise that we might return to the personality-rich worlds of the first Iron Man and Captain America films.  But Marvel Studios is not helmed by an artist and now it's more about getting these films out in chunks by people who are able to toe the line while causing as little conflict as possible.

Joss Whedon's press tour reactions to Age of Ultron is particularly telling here, because he had to make concessions to Kevin Feige (current ringleader of Marvel Studios) in order to get the scenes he wanted into Age of Ultron.  We'll get to this soon, but neither the scenes Whedon wanted nor the inserts Feige demanded created a more compelling cinematic vision.  Instead they just added more everything; more scenes, more soundtrack, more acting, more length.  When the first cut of Age of Ultron clocked in at three and a half hours that should have sent Code Black warning signs across the cinematic spectrum as it's clear that whatever Feige has in mind for each phase it doesn't matter the quality so long as it gets out and hits the story beats he wants for future movies.  We aren't enjoying a single product anymore, but trailers for future products which are going to totally pay off whenever we get there.

It's not a pyramid scheme, because at least some people not at the top benefit from a pyramid scheme, but a top-to-bottom sham of cinema which has no end in sight.  It doesn't mean we are completely bereft of pleasure in these films, but it means that what little creative control Jon Favreau or Joe Johnston were able to inject into those early films is gone.  Instead we just get a product, any product, and no matter the quality the product is simply a pay it forward for future products.  This is as cynical as film-making gets, and when on-paper dynamite combinations like Ant-Man and Edgar Wright can no longer be together because of artistic differences, then there's little hope the films are going to get better.

The loose connections to the MCU end up being the worst parts of the otherwise great Ant-Man.

The loose connections to the MCU end up being the worst parts of the otherwise great Ant-Man.

But that's not to say happy accidents can't happen, and Ant-Man is the happiest accident to occur since Captain America: The First AvengerAnt-Man went through three different directors including Wright and Adam McKay before finally settling on Peyton Reed.  It's clear Wright had the strongest influence on the final product of Ant-Man, and that influence resulted in the best MCU film in years.  There's a zip and zest for the material which is clear right from the start as Michael Douglas commands the screen and breaks the nose of a man who dared insult his wife.  This is energetic, direct, and vital - which stands as a stark contrast to the squeamish way MCU films have approached violence by making sure every possible civilian is saved or villain is dispatched off-screen.

The screenplay is filled with actual jokes and funny dialogue, not a bunch of sarcastic smartasses trying to one-up each other in a quip-a-thon contest.  Energy rises and falls in relation to the events onscreen so when Michael Pena's heist plotter gets to clock a bad guy in the end before realizing how much trouble he's in ("That's what I call an unfortunate casualty in a very serious operation") we get a sense of the stakes involved and the demeanor at play.  Pena's role hints at a kooky direction Ant-Man occasionally indulges in, and the bits of personality which shine through (like Pena's love of cubism versus abstract impressionism) really help set Ant-Man apart from the tough guy stylings of the other Marvel films.  Ant-Man is diverse in the best way and highlights how when the MCU can step back and let some of the people the heroes are supposed to be saving interact with the main story it can produce a fun time at the movies again.

A good bit of the credit goes to Paul Rudd for doing for Ant-Man what Chris Pratt was able to do for Star Lord.  He brings a charming credibility to Scott Lang, and kudos to the screenwriters (four in total, including Wright and McKay) for grounding Lang's tale in only semi-outlandish ways before fully embracing the potential of the size-shifting hero.  Rudd had the potential to go full smarm and make the dialogue laid out by the screenplay untenable, but his playfulness and restraint go hand-in-hand with Lang's desire to do right by his daughter and be of use to the community again.  The small-scale (no pun intended) of Ant-Man works beautifully, and when we get to those creative fight scenes with Lang doing battle with Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) among the Thomas the Tank Engine toys, they come from a sense of joy in film-making mostly absent from MCU's output these last few years.

That said, Ant-Man could have been one of the best movies of the year if Wright had been able to stay on as director.  This is particularly noticeable in the editing of Ant-Man, as Wright left enough of an imprint on the screenplay to see the rapid-fire construction of the jokes and how they clearly interacted with storyboarded sequences.  Shots hold for a beat too long before cutting to the punch-line, which is especially clear in the early scenes where Lang talks about how he won't have trouble getting a job, the beat is held too long, then we see he's working at Baskin Robbins.  To director Peyton Reed's credit the sequence is still funny, but the punch is gone, and generic soundtrack drama is added to ominous moments where Wright would have gone with a defter touch.  Another sequence where the deftness and creativity of Wright is noticeably missing is when Yellowjacket turns a worried coworker into a pile of goo.  The shock value is lost when it's all from Yellowjacket's perspective, and if we were in the poor coworker's perspective as his existence is suddenly turned into a pile of goo then flushed away, then the sequence would have been that much more impactful.

It's a shame we'll never see the version of Fantastic Four Josh Trank wanted to make, because there was promise in the half he directed.

It's a shame we'll never see the version of Fantastic Four Josh Trank wanted to make, because there was promise in the half he directed.

The absence of the creative confidence behind Marvel films is most noticeable in Fantastic Four over at 20th Century Fox.  Based on the conflicting reports from Trank, the cast, and the studio executives at Fox, we will never see Trank's version of the film or have a blandly serviceable product that Fox might have been able to churn out.  While Wright was able to leave his DNA throughout the entirety of Ant-Man, Trank was not so lucky with Fantastic Four.  The studio demanded reshoots of roughly forty minutes worth of footage which took the promise out of Fantastic Four while left a limp and unsatisfying aftertaste.

But for that first hour or so, Fantastic Four held amazing promise.  There's an undercurrent of hope and discovery among the economic and social wreckage of Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Benjamin Grimm's (Jamie Bell) lives.  The sequence when Richards goes into the Baxter Foundation for the first time is so optimistic and beautiful I got goose bumps.  Earlier Richards and Grimm are framed in the wreckage of what could easily be Detroit, having to cobble together machines from stolen parts to an end no one except Reed understands and Grimm trusts.  But when they get to the Baxter Foundation they are framed in potential, circular lights hang over Reed like halos as books form literal pyramids of knowledge for Reed to step into.  This cobbled together crew is perfectly embodied by Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), who's creativity and courage provide a practical application to the otherworldly tech Reed is trying to create.  Those moments are fantastic, and I was overjoyed at a comic book adaptation that seemed to embrace the world-changing possibilities of their characters instead of setting up a big bad for them to fight.

Trank also gets to toy with the horror of their eventual gifts before the clear shift from his product to the Fox reshoots.  After the accident grants them their powers we are treated to full-on body horror from Trank.  The grotesque body Reed inhabits after the accident is as much an affront and hope for humanity as the crucified shape he is held down in.  The scene with Grimm emerging from a rock chrysalis, becoming the golem horror people will forever see him as, is a wonderful perversion of the same transformation a butterfly must go through.  It's not all great, and Sue Storm (Kata Mara) is almost as invisible to the plot as she was to her husband in the comic, but the willingness of Trank to delve into both the possibility and terror of these experiments gave me hope that the rest of the film would at least try to fit into that mold.

That hope was misplaced.  While I can't say with 100% certainty where the reshoots started, the awkward breaking point between Reed's escape from the facility he's being held and the "One year later" intertitle is a prime suspect.  Gone is the careful balance between the hope promised by science and the body horror which may result.  The shots become less complex, dialogue frames the characters as to what they need to do, and a villain is quickly introduced so that we can watch the powers in action.  Considering Chronicle positioned Trank as a director willing to delve into the consequences of powers and avoid flashy spectacle without purpose, it's something of a cruel joke that Fox turned his film into just that.  Losing Trank's version of Fantastic Four isn't as much of a tragedy as the missing footage for The Magnificent Ambersons, but showed enough promise in its first two acts that it joins Ambersons as a project lost to the studios.

The most creatively bankrupt movie in decades made more money than some countries will this year.

The most creatively bankrupt movie in decades made more money than some countries will this year.

So if Ant-Man was a happy accident, and Fantastic Four is a disappointing glimpse at what could have been, Age of Ultron is the pinnacle of bloat and disastrous film-making that the first Avengers merely hinted at.  Every frame of Age of Ultron is a reminder of the total creative bankruptcy studio projects are capable of when they film unhindered by considerations of budget, taste, or expectation.  Whedon's first run with Avengers was bad, but Age of Ultron is one of the worst movies I have ever seen.

The cynicism behind Age of Ultron seeps into its screenplay like a cancer.  There are no more recognizable personalities behind any of the Avengers, just a change of faces as one smartass quip goes into the next.  What little fun we could glean behind the then-fresh character interactions of the first film, such as the interplay between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), go in directions which are at best questionable and at worst a social disease.  Take the relationship between Banner and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), who have managed to strike up a relationship in the downtime between Avengers movies because she's able to calm him down despite being the immediate target of his green rage in the first film.  The problem starts with the fact that they have to have a relationship to begin with, as Romanov continues to be a character defined by her relationships to the men in her life instead of anything she's been able to accomplish on their own.  I sat in almost horrified awe as Ruffalo limps through dialogue about how he's a monster and Johansson responds how she's been a monster since she lost her ability to reproduce.  How in the world did dialogue this misguided get into the shooting script and not scrubbed out of existence during the first read-through?  The only strong woman in the MCU is reduced to her genitals (or lack thereof) for a scene in relation to a man who can literally level cities.  It shows how Whedon's school of feminism is only as good as the pain he can inflict on women, and the cumulative result is the worst scene of 2015.

Or, as my loving fiancée' put it, "Can't you see handsome?  Women just can't resist that mom impulse.  Without that forced sterilization she'd be banging dudes during the fight."

The bland cinematography of the first Avengers movie was a benchmark for mediocre, but the impetus behind the shots in Age of Ultron distills the action to a bunch of posing figures.  The MCU has moved toward a strategy of showing the bare minimum of action onscreen so we can see each hero acting "cool".  I can't ignore the hypocrisy behind this, because the heroes go around slaughtering a hilariously outgunned militia in the first scenes then makes sure all the civilians are out of the way for the robot massacre of the finale.  Moments of supposed claustrophobia in the action sequences, especially during the "last stand", simply highlight how easily the heroes are able to dispatch the threats.  All this is without getting into the terrible dream sequences, where the plethora of low-angled shots, ballet dancers, and jittery editing read like baby's first attempt at shooting in a Kubrickian style than communicating anything of importance about the characters or their situation.

These were all the thoughts I left Age of Ultron with, and as the days passed by the inert creativity behind the film nagged me more.  Why, when Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) has chaotic powers at her disposal, is her battle input limited to generic energy bolts?  Why did Whedon decide it would be a good idea to introduce a bewildering stall into the climactic fight by giving the obviously overpowered Ultron (James Spader, the sole positive) break just because?  On that note, why did Whedon fight so hard for bad dream sequences when the epileptic Thor (Chris Hemsworth) cave freakout made as much or as little sense as what he wanted to put in?  Why make Quiksilver's (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) death so dramatic if his overall impact in the movie was as a minor annoyance to Hawkeye then standing mostly mute in the background of scenes while the plot continues on oblivious to his existence?

I don't ask these questions out of diegetic curiosity or what is in store for the next phases.  I ask because they all add up to Age of Ultron being a storytelling disaster, unable to come up with a cohesive vision behind any of the versions of these characters we have seen before and make bewildering guesses as to their motivations via what is to-date the worst comic book direction.  I am tired of smartasses who quip through movie after movie hurting countless people as "heroes" and facing no consequence.  I am tired of action scenes where there is no ambiguity to how cool our protagonists look but discards the effects of each shield thrown or bolt shot.

Age of Ultron is terrible, and the only positive outside Spader I can take from it is that it's unlikely the rest of the MCU will make something this bad ever again.

Daredevil is excellent, not because of the increasing quality of the fight scenes, but because of the nuanced character portrayals.

Marvel's Daredevil is excellent, not because of the increasing quality of the fight scenes, but because of the nuanced character portrayals.

To clear the air and end on a positive note, I want to make special mention of the achievement that is Marvel's Daredevil.  I continue to be one of the sole defender's of the goofy fun 2003's Daredevil produced.  But Marvel's Daredevil is a beast unto itself and holds considerable promise for the positive direction the MCU may be able to take on the small-screen.

I praise not because of the fight sequences of Marvel's Daredevil, which actually improved as the series went on.  The single-shot hallway fight which capped the end of episode 2 is a much ballyhooed but underwhelming example.  The fight choreography is ostensibly impressive then traps many of the movements behind closed doors and through the walls where we can't see.  If you're debating, it's not a good idea to silence yourself at sporadic points during each sentence, and that's the effect the fight has on me as the action darts in front of and away from the camera.  The cinematography of the fights scenes starts rough as well, since they are so dark that it is difficult to tell just what is going on in the early episodes.  You'd think that this fits because Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is blind, but we see through his eyes for a moment and his world is always on-fire, which begs the question of why these fight scenes from Murdock's perspective aren't filmed like that.

There's an obvious answer - because filming every fight scene like that would have put a remarkable strain on the budget and special effects - but the fight scenes get gradually better and more striking with the shadows and light.  The highlight of the season is a battle between Murdock and a skilled ninja.  Speed-ramping is employed to cut to the brutal physical effects each strike has on Murdock, the set is lit in a way that de-emphasizes the darkness that Murdock so often employs, and the fight ends in a desperate bid for success that Murdock rarely had to strive for earlier in the run.  No other fight scene toward the end of the season is quite as successful, but they are more in this mold and effective in their simple filming techniques instead of the splashy one-shot of the hallway fight.

But the technical craft is not why Marvel's Daredevil is the best Marvel-related televisual product of 2015.  It's the nuanced storytelling, especially in the contrast between Wilson Fisk and Murdock.  Vincent D'Onofrio's work as Fisk would earn him an Emmy nomination in a world that took these stories seriously, because he crafts the most interesting villain the MCU has had so far.  He is, as the story makes clear, a perpetual child who speaks in mumbled, hushed, and difficult-to-complete sentences before exploding in violence not because he is threatened but because the women in his life are disrespected.  This stands as a stark contrast with the way the mainline MCU films treat women such as Black Widow.  Fisk is written and portrayed by D'Onofrio as a man who, to the core of his soul, respects and wants the respect of the women in his life.  The women are similarly written with strength and a decided lack of stereotyping with Fisk's romantic partner Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) not portrayed as a delicate flower or craven opportunist.  She is a moral equal, recognizing the orderly potential of Fisk while not kidding herself to the pain he will cause.  Fisk contrasts heavily with Murdock, who has the same protective spirit but uses and discards women as a means to soothe or help in his goals.

This nuance stretches out to every relationship in Marvel's Daredevil, and makes for exciting storytelling.  I know that some of the players, especially Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), are seen as annoyances or distractions but each of their roles adds to the texture of Marvel's Daredevil.  For me, I couldn't go without Foggy and Matt's playful bonding any more than I could Fisk's protective relationship with his mother.  They're all part of the same fabric, and any action taken by any single character ripples out into the fabric of Hell's Kitchen.  With shows featuring personal favorites Power Man and Jessica Jones waiting on the horizon Marvel's Daredevil shows that the complex and involving storytelling the best comics are capable of can be replicated in a televisual medium.

It may not be in the movies, but I'll take the successes where I can get them.

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Ant-ManAndrew LIKE Banner

Fantastic FourAndrew New Indifferent

Avengers: Age of UltronAndrew DISLIKE Banner

DaredevilAndrew LIKE Banner

Posted by Andrew

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  1. The first thing I did after reading this was send Marvel Studios a large box of aloe vera to help them treat all the burns. In all seriousness, though, I get what you’re saying. Marvel has gone overboard with their formula implementation, which is sad because the source material is so rich and ripe for film. It’s a little unfair to include Fantastic Four in this discussion because Marvel Studios was not involved in the making of it. Marvel is indeed infamous for strong-arming directors (Edgar Wright is the prime example, which you mentioned), but they at least recognize what they are like and ties have been cut before it reaches the level of Fox and Fantastic Four. Age of Ultron had studio requested scenes but half of the movie wasn’t wholesale chopped-up and re-shot without Whedon’s presence.

    I do love Daredevil – it’s definitely the best example of what a creative team can do when not hamstrung by Marvel Studios (or Marvel TV in this case). The tone and style of that show fits the character so well. I would say the same general comments about Ant-Man. I saw Age of Ultron twice and enjoyed it for what it was both times; I definitely recognized how bloated it was and how there was a lack of compelling character development, though. There was also a ridiculous over-reliance on CGI. But at the end of the day, I could let it go if it meant seeing the Vision pick up Mjolnir onscreen. I was disappointed, for sure, though.

    I must confess that I still greatly enjoy most of Marvel’s films. They are not cinematic masterpieces, but I treat them like comics. Some are fantastic with great creative teams and some are not so great. We definitely want them all to be great, but I still find enough enjoyment in the films to be on board for the future. I still get excited to see Winter Soldier because I loved that storyline in the comics and they do a decent job of bringing it to life (within the confines of their formula, of course). Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man 1 are also still enjoyable for me. The sad thing is that many of these movies can be so much better but Marvel Studios has no reason to change its formula because they’re making so much money. If enough people started not going to any more Marvel films or reviewing them poorly consistently then maybe they’d adjust. Or, perhaps the more likely scenario is that Warner Brothers delivers a higher quality, comics-based product and Marvel starts to adapt. (I still appreciate Man of Steel more and more every time I see it – despite the bleakness – and if they do something truly exceptional with BvS and Suicide Squad maybe it’ll have an impact.)

    Great thoughts, as always!

    • Thank you for the thoughtful reply Nathaniel. I included Fantastic Four in the discussion because 20th Century Fox seems to be skipping the “starting strong with diminishing returns” phase of super hero films and going straight to the “muck up the director’s vision despite hiring him for that purpose” phase that the MCU is stuck in right now. The parallels are just too strong, especially since Fox already screwed up the Spider-Man reboot and has yet another planned with a three to four movie cycle. To Fox’s credit, at least they realized that the X-Men movies don’t need to have an interconnected web to be successful and the decade-influenced stand alone entry format they are letting Singer toy around with is exactly what the Fantastic Four reboot could have been (at least in spirit).

      I share in your curiosity as to what the DC quality will be like. Man of Steel has, over the course of five or so viewings, become easily my favorite super hero movie and BvS looks to be continuing in that spirit. David Ayer has directed some of my favorite movies of the last few years (Fury and End of Watch) and it looks like Suicide Squad will not be bereft of personality if nothing else. Their measured release schedule, delaying BvS and putting out at most two a year, also has me optimistic. As with all things, time will tell.


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