Thursday, April 15, 2010

Marvelous Moviemakers: Rethinking the Authorship of the Avengers Agenda

In a previous post, I suggested that Marvel Studios had been partially "playing it safe" in assembling directorial talent for its ambitious crossover agenda. While it's true the studio has hired some auteurs in the shape of Kenneth Branagh (Thor) and Edgar Wright (Ant-Man, if it ever gets made), I argued that the filmmakers at the helm of the other three major Avengers films (Iron Man's Jon Favreau, The Incredible Hulk's Louis Leterrier, and Captain America's Joe Johnston) had yet to prove themselves true artists with a consistent vision across their canon of work. That is not to downplay their talents as craftsmen. Indeed, each is perfectly capable of putting together a quality film. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that I may have misjudged certain filmmakers, and also overlooked the fact that the auteur is not always necessarily the director. Indeed, a screenwriter, actor, or even producer can also claim the signature of a film. That said, as more and more details have emerged about Marvel's upcoming slate, I have come to recognize the artistry that we can expect, or at least hope for, with each individual film.

The Avengers (2012)

First, I'll address the recent news that Joss Whedon (pictured right) is in final negotiations to direct The Avengers, the culminating point in Marvel's master plan. A revered pioneer of geekdom (mostly in the realm of television), Whedon is known for his instantly recognizable dialogue style and ability to juggle ensembles of lovable characters. He should have no problem handling the already-charming likes of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Samuel L. Jackson. Some are concerned that Whedon's involvement might not guarantee commercial success because his only film to date, the impressive(-to-me) Serenity, failed to hit with either critics or moviegoers. The fact remains, however, that the star-studded Avengers will have had five surefire blockbuster hits advertising its main characters by the time it is released. A director's name rarely has much to do with box office success. Nobody knew who the director of New Moon was, nor did they care that his only prior movie was the disappointing Golden Compass. At least Whedon has a rabid cult following. Ultimately, the name brand is probably enough that director of The Avengers doesn't matter. It just so happens that this director is extremely talented.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In addition, it looks as if Whedon will get to polish the scripts for both The Avengers AND Captain America. So while Joe Johnston may or may not offer a visionary take of his own, Whedon could ensure an auteur's stamp on the film after all. Before Whedon's involvement, Captain America was continually shaping up to be the "safe" movie that I suspected it might be. The choice of Chris Evans in the lead role - an undoubtedly great actor, but one who will have starred in five comic book adaptations, including another Marvel property, before Captain America - seemed a bit too obvious. As did the casting of Hugo Weaving, who has made a name for himself playing maniacal villains. Such choices sometimes have the tendency to be predictable to the point of boring, but hopefully the writing will be strong enough to play to the actors' strengths in a refreshing way.

Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010)

The true auteur of the Iron Man series is Robert Downey Jr. (pictured left), who gives the films their heart and soul. It is his improvisation on set that brings the character to life and creates a comic tone unique for the superhero genre. Jon Favreau seems to encourage this improvisational approach, which is extremely risky for a big-budget action film of this kind. Such courageousness must be admired, and with a can't-lose star like Downey Jr. guiding the rest of the cast, it will be hard to mess up the upcoming Iron Man 2. Unless, of course, Tony Stark is given less screen time due to a possible overload of characters and plot lines, which some are worried might be the case. But as long as Favreau puts as much care into bringing the new characters to life as he did with Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in the first film, Iron Man 2 just might be invincible.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Like Downey Jr., Edward Norton is an actor-auteur, although Norton's contributions to The Incredible Hulk are slightly more tangible, as he performed a page-one rewrite of Zak Penn's screenplay, making several changes in dialogue and adding pivotal scenes of character development. The actor also worked with Louis Leterrier "in every phase of production, including the editing." Leterrier even described his role to Entertainment Weekly as more of a mediator between Norton and the studio than a director guiding the creative trajectory of the film. If included in the Avengers film, I wonder how much control Norton (and Downey Jr., for that matter) would have as an actor-auteur.

In conclusion, I rescind my claim that Marvel is playing it safe, as it seems there are able auteurs behind each of their films, be they directors, writers, or actors. The mere fact that they are attempting a massive cinematic crossover of such magnitude is in fact quite the opposite of playing it safe. Marvel is attempting a feat as courageous as the heroes they are trying to bring to the screen. What matters in the end, however, is whether or not the films are good, and the impressive talents they have assembled certainly increase the chances of these movies being good, or at least interesting.


Eric Ambler said...

Glad to have you back!

Chris Weitz is far too intelligent to be wasting his time on Stephanie Meyer adaptations. It might be impossible now, but try to find his NPR interview on "The Treatment" in advance of the "New Moon" release. The guy knows his stuff. "Golden Compass," as I'm sure you know, was majorly futzed with by New Line.

I've been looking forward to "Captain America" (Johnston gave us "The Rocketeer," after all), even with the straight-from-marketing title prefix ("Hey, we gotta remind them of the movie they'll see next year, too" *does line of coke*). Plus its old-timey vibe gives it the promise to be the rare modern comic-based movie that's neither super moody nor aggressively in-your-face. Of course, it could wind up completely boring but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

"Avengers" intrigues me much more with Whedon on board. I'm confused as to what you mean by his "instantly recognizable dialogue style" though. Maybe it's because I've never seen Buffy, but is it something beyond making up fake future slang? (Sorry that this unintentionally sounds like a Writing 340 comment)

And finally, I worry for "Iron Man 2." Not that I was a huge fan of the first, but very short turnaround times don't bode well for blockbusters. I even think I recall Favreau talking about how the script wasn't finished when they started shooting. RDJ can't improvise EVERYTHING, can he? I'll point to the example of "Casino Royale," an incredibly successful reboot because of the time they took to craft it (the casting alone seemed like it took a year, for chrissakes); then they quickly popped out "Quantum of Solace" which everyone but me seems to dislike. The "too much, too fast" axiom applies here, especially when considering how budget inflate for sequels and the subsequent pressure to broaden the story and/or pack more shit in to put more asses in the seats.

Or, they could just convert all these films to 3D and blow their noses with Benjamins.

Well done, Cameron. Can't wait for more!

Cam Siemer said...

Thanks for reading, Eric!

To be honest I don't really know much about Chris Weitz, and I suppose that fact kinda proves my point. If I don't know who he is, I'm sure the target demographic for Twilight doesn't. And I don't see "Chris Weitz Is My Master Now" t-shirts.

I'm also looking forward to Cap. I think its premise alone, as you implied, automatically gives it a rare tone. I'm looking forward to seeing Chris Evans in the leadership role, and the inevitable jokes about him being younger than RDJ.

Perhaps it's more the way Whedon's characters deliver the dialogue that seems consistent throughout his work: snarky and snappy.

I see your point, but being a sequel, I'm assuming they could jump back into things more quickly than if they were starting from scratch. Spider-Man 2 also came out two years after Spider-Man, and it's one of the best superheroes movies around. For some reason, the second movie in a superhero series always seems to be the best one (Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II, and, in my opinion, Batman Returns). I'm only hoping Iron Man 2 can do the same. We'll have to wait and see if all those new characters are fluidly incorporated into the plot. Look at the Nolan Bat-films. They each have three villains (Begins: Ra's, Scarecrow, Falcone; TDK: Joker, Two-Face, Maroni) and seem to do just fine. I'll probably be writing a review on Iron Man 2 after it comes out to see where it fits in.

Kristal said...

While Chris Evans has seen his fair share of comic book movies, I'm excited to see him shoulder Captain America on his own. He's consistently been the best part of mediocre movies (see: The Losers, Fantastic Four, Push), so hopefully this will be the vehicle that finally fits his talents.

As for Whedon's dialogue, he definitely has his own style that I think will be a big help in these genre films. In Buffy and Angel, he had a way of spinning phrases that made it seem smart and natural to talk about demons and hell-mouths.

Great post and I'll definitely be following this blog to see your thoughts once Iron Man 2 is released. :)

JennStrat said...

Hi Cam its Jenn from class!! In my endless loop of self-distraction I started reading your blog. Really great write-up! With the recent confirmation from Hugh Jackman that Darren Aronofsky will be directing Wolverine 2 I found it very timely to analyze how studios can both commercially and artistically adapt these comic legends to the screen. I believe one of the best things that can happen for an adaptation is when the artists involved (whether the actor, director or writer) become personal advocates for the film. Jackman producing Wolverine and subsuquently attaching Aronofsky to direct is a great example of this. Im hoping to see more "outside the action movie director canon" selections like this for both DC and Marvel films in the future...

With DC comics considering moving their headquarters out to LA this week (to presumably engage completely with WB Studios) its also interesting to look at how the model is changing for comic book film adaptations. While I think these films often benefit from increased interaction with the creators of the source material (DC and Marvel) I also struggle with the implication that this will eventually shift the focus completely from the publications to the films. Hopefully there can be more marketing integration between the publications and the films so kids keep using their allowance to buy the newest issue of batman:)

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