Friday, August 7, 2015

The Problem with the Studio System and Comic Book Films: Was Josh Trank set-up to Fail ?

I am not on Team Trank, or Team FOX, I am on Team let's take a breather, sit back, and realize the
growing problem with comic book films. I think this problem is two fold.  The first problem is studios are manipulating stories they do not understand/don't care to understand.  The second problem is there is a loss of creativity when studios manipulate a director/writers vision.  The bottom line is that studios want a product. Kevin Feige and Marvel want to create films that fit together like a giant puzzle, and Warner Brothers, and FOX want to follow in this process.

Let's examine the box office of three comic book films from Marvel, the Avengers, Iron Man 3, and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Avengers is the highest grossing Marvel film at 623 million domestic. Avengers involved a limited cast, and the strings of what/who were involved in the Universe were simpler. You still had to see many of the other films to know and understand the back story for these characters, but Avengers, gave you some back story to flesh out the film.  The first Avengers is the best film in the cannon, in my opinion.

Iron Man 3 was next, and while the film dealt with Tony's post traumatic stress from the Avengers, it still felt like its own film.  I was not a fan of this film because I did not like the interpretation of Mandarin, but the film still focused on Tony, and should be applauded for keeping the subject matter contained.  Iron Man 3 mad 409 million domestic, and ranks third at the box office for Marvel.

Guardians of the Galaxy booted up a brand new team for Marvel, we learned about all the characters, and sure there was an Infinity Stone/Thanos tie-in, but the film did an excellent job of creating a brand new world to explore. Guardians ranks fourth, and made 333 million domestic.  I think this box office total is the most impressive, and something Marvel, and other studios should acknowledge.  Guardians is about a team most had never heard about, but because it was fun,  people showed up.  The fun element is something I will re-visit, but many comic book movies have missed this, which has and will prevent them from being successful.

Each of these films connects in a small way, they tell their own story.  The thread that connects these films is small, and audiences do not have to burdened by this connection. As studios maximize their connected universe the weight on movie goers may unravel these tent poles.  Let's take Ant-Man, many friends asked me after the movie who the characters were in the beginning of the film, their was no explanation  They also asked more about Falcon, because they had not seen Winter Soldier, and about the new Avengers base because they did not make Age of Ultron.  These connections are fun for me, but are the studios putting the cart before the horse?

DC/Warner Brothers are putting the cart before the horse in a big way.  Man of Steel was the first film in their current tent pole reboot.  Man of Steel was had mixed reviews from critics, and fans.  I am not a fan of Superman, but the tone of the movie, from director Zack Snyder was off base.  They tried to to go too serious, and missed the whimsy needed with this character.  Man of Steel did well enough at the box office, 291 million domestic, and so they studio went full steam ahead with a sequel.  The problem is the sequel doesn't seem to be a sequel, but a launching point for several DC super heroes, including Batman, Wonder Woman, and possibly more, as they move toward making a Justice League film.

The problem with this plan is while Man of Steel made 116 million its opening weekend (domestic) the film barely crossed 600 million worldwide.  With more characters, including Batman they are trying to ensure a larger audience for Batman v. Superman, but what if its another failure?  There are already other movies connected to this, and sure they make money, but look what happened when people lost faith in the Spider-Man films, the box office tapered so much, they decided to re-boot for third time.  I think DC/Warner Brothers need to be strategic rather than trying to play catch up, especially when their visionary director does not capture the right tone of the characters.

What about the director?  I wonder if Josh Trank felt so powerless as the reviews started to come online?  Before Fantastic Four Trank, had one major film under his belt, Chronicle.  Not a hefty resume, but FOX entrusted this man to start a major tent pole, Marvel has been doing the same thing.  Jame Gunn directed Guardians of the Galaxy, and priort to that he had credits directing two independent films, Slither, and Super. Peyton Reed who directed Ant-Man, had mostly schlocky romantic comedies in his repertoire, Bring it On, The Break-Up, Down with Love, and Yes, Man.  FOX's Deadpool is being directed by Tim Miller, who has no major credits, I could go on an on.  This is not to say that experience is everything because Zack Snyder ruined Superman, but I think when studios take the director out of the equation, or try to manipulate their work you get disjointed work.

Joss Whedon's experience with Marvel on Avengers: Age of Ultron is a a great example of pushing a great director to side, and trying to manipulate the material.  Whedon talked about fighting fighting for Scarlett Witch induced dreams, and the scenes in the farmhouse in an Empire Film podcast “The dreams were not an executive favorite — the dreams, the farmhouse, these were things I fought to keep,” Whedon fought against the mildly confusing scenes with Thor in the cave, and how Marvel manipulated him to keep this material in the film, even after test audiences hated these scenes. “With the cave, it really turned into: they pointed a gun at the farm’s head and said, ‘Give us the cave, or we’ll take out the farm,’ — in a civilized way. I respect these guys, they’re artists, but that’s when it got really, really unpleasant.” 

Whedon talked about being beaten down, and feeling "defeated" by the system.  While I liked Age of Ultron, you can feel the gaps, based on his interview, the film is has its strong moments, but you can tell Whedon had a direction, but studio interference hindered this film's quality.

Whedon and Trank are not the first to cite studio intervention being problematic in these films.  Edgar Wright worked on Ant-Man for a long time, and while he got screenplay and story credits, he left the project under still unknown differences with Marvel. Michelle MacLaren was set to be the first female to direct a super hero film; she was going to direct Wonder Woman, but she left the project over "creative differences." Ava DuVernay was rumored to directed Black Panther but did not take the project stating "I'm not signing on to direct Black Panther. I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be. Marvel has a certain way of doing things and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do. I loved that they reached out to me.  In the end, it comes down to story and perspective. And we just didn't see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences later."  Yet I liked Ant-Man, I am excited for a Wonder Woman film, and for Black Panther, but can these companies do right by these characters moving forward?

I have not seen the Fantastic Four yet, and probably won't.  I know they changed one the characters back stories, and its maddening.  Sue Storm doesn't go with the boys on their mission, it's "bro-time" according to one review.  Not only do I hate this concept, but its a slap in the face to the legacy of these characters. Talking about gender, or any form of diversity in comic book films is another ball of wax, and one another way the studios, and the powers that be are messing with the creative processes.

From no Black Widow movie announced to Trank's alleged changed creative direction for the Fantastic Four, the down and dirty of the situation is that studios want to make money, but they do not realize they are hurting their brand.  Trank's tweet is childish, and there was probably a better way to handle his film being ripped to shreds by critics.  On the other hand what do you expect when this is a director's first "major" film, and the studio potentially chops your film to shreds? Trank can bounce back, but having a well known creative flop on a resume, and nasty tweet to a studio is not a good start. If I were a director on the rise, I would not sign on to a work on one of these films.  Trank was set up to fail, any director who signs on to major studio project will soon learn its not about them, and the studio will have no problem ditching people, and moving forward without a second thought.