If you ever start a blog, there are some productivity-sucking pitfalls you should avoid. I may, in the past, have mentioned how long stretches of depression can make it hard to write anything: slightly more problematic than that is when you have way more writing projects than you have time for, meaning keeping up a blog becomes challenging as you have to pour your energy in another direction. Also it doesn’t help when Netflix drops Sense8 and the second season of BoJack Horseman in rapid succession. “I’ll just watch one Sense8 while I eat lunch,” you say. Poor fool.
Got lost for a second there, where was I?
Right. Anyhoo, with the first draft of my first ever pantomime script submitted for review, and the first few scripts of Writers Circle‘s second season knocked off (that is to say, the easy-to-write ones), I finally return here.
So, what’s been happening? Right, yes, superhero movies.
Marvel’s first flaws?
Critics everywhere were eagerly watching Ant-Man’s performance, because between the obscure character and the late-hour firing of Edgar Wright, everyone was champing at the bit to write their “Marvel’s first bomb!” articles.
Not me, though. First off, I’m not a critic, I’m some guy with a blog. But mostly I maintain their first bomb was Incredible Hulk; it’s just that when Marvel Studios was only two movies in, and two years away from their next release, critics didn’t care. This was 2008, and the big news in comic book movies swiftly became The Dark Knight.
Ant-Man is making Phase One (ie. Iron Man through to the first Avengers) money, which is fair, because it’s a Phase One movie: a perfunctory origin story. Its domestic gross will likely end up around the first Thor’s. Lower than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, higher than Captain America: The First Avenger. Respectable, if on the low end for the studio, certainly lower than anything else in Phase Two (Iron Man 3 to Ant-Man), but by no means a bomb. Ant-Man’s grosses aren’t a sign of Marvel’s inevitable collapse: they’re a preview of Marvel’s business strategy going into Phase Three. A big movie to earn the serious coin (as Age of Ultron did and Captain America: Civil War almost certainly will), a smaller movie to introduce a new character (like Ant-Man or next year’s Doctor Strange). The sequels and team-up movies will earn Marvel their big paydays, allowing for more modest hits featuring new characters. Even if Doctor Strange does bomb worse than Incredible Hulk, Civil War and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will keep the studio running.
So no, Ant-Man’s grosses don’t spell trouble for the Marvel machine. It’s Ant-Man’s villain that does that.
The Justin Hammer test
Following Ant-Man, I came up with a new way to express my distaste in Marvel’s ability to write villains: the Justin Hammer test. It’s similar to the Bechdel test, which judges female representation by asking if a movie a) has at least two female characters, who b) have a conversation that c) is not about a man. It’s similar in that passing the Justin Hammer test does not mean you have a good villain, just like passing the Bechdel test doesn’t magically result in positive female representation. It’s about setting the bar drastically low in order to call attention to how many films still can’t clear it.
The test is this: if you replaced the villain of this Marvel movie with Justin Hammer, the evil industrialist played by Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2, would it affect the plot?
The success rate is not good.
Every Iron Man movie fails the test, because their villains are so similar as to be basically interchangeable (I could have called it the Ezekiel Stane test, but chose Hammer because he’s the shallowest of the evil arms dealers who hate Iron Man). Iron Man 3’s big “twist” was to reveal that the villain wasn’t Tony Stark’s comic book nemesis the Mandarin, but instead yet another evil arms dealer who wanted to steal Tony Stark’s innovations and sell weapons, and… that’s about the entire depth of their characters.
Loki passes, as no amount of scheming is likely to place Justin Hammer on the throne of Asgard, nor is Thanos likely to loan him the Mind Gem and an army of Chitauri to conquer the Earth. Dude probably has trouble even getting government contracts these days.
Winter Soldier’s Alexander Pierce… gray area. I could buy Justin Hammer as a high-ranking Hydra agent, certainly one who could get access to their Winter Soldier. Don’t buy him being given control of SHIELD, but then the idea that anyone but Nick Fury was in charge was new information at that point.
Guardians of the Galaxy passes. Justin Hammer has no opinion on the planet of Xandar, and as established, isn’t exactly on Thanos’ speed dial.
Thor: the Dark World passes, but only proves that passing the test doesn’t get you a good villain. Malekith was shit.
Ant-Man fails completely. Darren Cross is trying to steal Hank Pym’s creation in order to sell it as a weapon. Take out “Hank Pym” and plug in “Tony Stark” and it’s literally any Iron Man plot. Darren Cross isn’t just a bland, generic villain; he’s a bland, generic villain that we’ve already seen in at least three of their earlier movies. And with arms dealer Ulysses Klau being set up as the potential villain of Black Panther, they seem weirdly committed to trotting out the exact same villain plot at least one more time.
This is what spells trouble for future Marvel movies. They’ve almost never been good at writing villains, but Ant-Man can make you wonder how hard they’re even trying.
Ultron show cracks
Let’s be clear: Age of Ultron did not fail. It made a crap-ton of money and most people who watched it liked it plenty. So nobody is talking about why Age of Ultron failed. But it did earn less than the original, and was less universally beloved, so people are talking about why it was a little disappointing. How after Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, it was a bit of a letdown. Part of that has to do with the fact that it can’t regain the “holy crap, they’re really doing this” sensation of bringing the characters from these five very different movies together for one adventure. But that being said, getting to skip the first movie’s second act of “Boy howdy, they surely don’t get along” and very little else, and go straight to the Avengers running around Avenging together should have carried us through that. The problem is, Age of Ultron was missing something else kind of key.
The first Avengers movie was the capstone of Phase One. It was the victory lap. Not only did the characters of the first five movies come together (albeit with a new actor playing Bruce Banner), the plot points and supporting casts of several films also played a role. Iron Man’s arc reactor, Captain America’s Tesseract, and Thor’s jerk brother Loki all came together to create the big crisis of the third act. It really was the culmination point of everything Marvel Studios had done that far, with the mid-credits reveal showing that something bigger was still to come.
The problem is that “still to come” is taking a little longer than we expected.
The mid-credit reveal of Thanos as Loki’s benefactor, as we now know, was not to set up the next Avengers movie, but to set up 2018/2019’s two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which will serve as the big payoff for a decade’s worth of Marvel Studios movies, as everyone who’s dealt with a kind of bland villain trying to rule/destroy their world with an army of faceless minions and a magical space rock come together to fight Thanos, who will have an army of no-doubt faceless minions and six magical space rocks. So that is the big plan, as we’ve known since last year when they laid out their entire Phase Three roadmap at a special panel.
Which, you know, wasn’t necessarily because Warner Bros. had just revealed their plan for DC movies and was dominating the geek news, but, well, the timing is suspect.
But to return to my point, this puts Age of Ultron in an awkward position. How can it be the capstone of Phase Two when we now know that the real narrative push is leading to Infinity War? It can’t, not really. And a lot of its drama and tension is drained by knowing that most of these people will be back in a year for Civil War. Age of Ultron wasn’t a victory lap for Marvel Studios: it was just another cog. Forced to spend a chunk of its screen time setting up future movies by revealing that Loki’s sceptre was another Infinity Stone (which just adds to the appearance that Thanos is really, really bad at his job, but that’s another rant), creating the Vision to wield it, and having Thor go on a vision quest to make it super clear that Thor: Ragnarok is going to be super important in setting up Infinity War, seriously you guys, don’t skip Thor: Ragnarok even though the Thor movies are the weakest ones.
At least that’s how I read the whole “Thor needs to go stand in a pool and have a vision” thing that ate up a surprising amount of the second act.
Marvel Studios is unquestionably popular, and the most consistently successful movie studio on the planet. They made themselves this by adhering to a formula, a formula that reliably produces hits ranging from “adequate” to “massive.” Some critics have become so enamoured with the Marvel formula that they lash out at any comic book movie that dares to break from it. Yes, okay, the Amazing Spider-man films deserve every dis they receive, and I have no reason to believe that Fantastic Four (or Fant-four-stic, as the title reads) is in any way good (a full hour before they get their powers? BOOOOOO), but the X-Men films have still been more hit than miss (and if they pull off Deadpool and Apocalypse, that shifts the needle considerably), Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy didn’t quite stick the landing but still holds up, and when you’re so enamoured with Marvel properties you actually believe Agents of SHIELD is better than Arrow or its superior spin-off The Flash, you need to step back and reassess.
Drifted from my point.
Fox is trying to keep the X-Men gravy train going, and based on First Class and Days of Future Past they’re not doing terribly, except when they give Wolverine his own movie.
Warner Bros. is trying their own thing, with a more serious tone (ugh) and less rigid control over their filmmakers. They have some rules, sure (or else why would they be on their second Wonder Woman director), but still less micro-managing. They’re aiming to be the studio of “auteur” superhero movies, like Nolan’s Batman trilogy. “Here’s our sandbox,” they say, “Come play in it.” Hidden message: “We wouldn’t have fired Edgar Wright.” Which, come on guys, we don’t know that, you fired Joss Whedon off Wonder Woman back when, we haven’t forgotten.
There are those who say the only “auteur” superhero movie in recent memory is Guardians of the Galaxy, which… maybe, but it still fit the formula a little too much to give it full credit.
Will it work? We don’t know. Their only entry thus far was the divisive Man of Steel, a qualified success at best. We’ll need to get through Zach Snyder’s Batman V. Superman and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (by which point there’ll likely be a Comicon trailer for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman to dissect) before we can begin to judge.
Yes, it’s true: DC’s approach removes the safety net Marvel’s formula has provided them (“I’ve never heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but hey, Marvel movies rarely disappoint”), in that liking Suicide Squad is no guarantee that you’ll enjoy Wonder Woman. But on the flip side… Marvel’s formula is showing its cracks. If they can’t start writing better villains, or at least stop writing the same villain, and make some more movies that stand alone rather than as prelude to something else… I can envision people starting to get tired of it.
But I am often wrong.