On May 23rd this year, superhero production house Marvel and English director Edgar Wright released a joint statement, announcing Wright’s departure from the Ant-Man project. He was hired to work on the film in 2006 – with only one film under his belt, and before Marvel was owned by Disney (at which point they had not yet independently produced a film). This move was unexpected; Ant-Man has only a year until its release date, and with cast and crew firmly in place*, shooting was set to start soon. So what happened?
The Hollywood Reporter claims that Marvel ordered rewrites of the script that Wright had worked on with Joe Cornish (director of Attack the Block). While the team had been open to this possibility, Marvel apparently altered the script without their participation – when Wright received their completed piece out of the blue, he left. The film’s star, Michael Douglas, called the turn of events ‘disappointing’. The director’s close friend and frequent collaborator, Simon Pegg, said it to be a ‘terrible shame’ – Marvel’s loss. It is likely that when Ant-Man hits screens in 2015, the replacement director, Peyton Reed (previously of the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man), will face many awkward questions about the situation. Wright will undoubtedly also be asked his opinion on the final product. However, what is noticeable here is the formation of a pattern from Marvel.
Patty Jenkins was initially hired to direct Thor: The Dark World (2013) – Marvel fired her without warning, replacing her with Alan Taylor. The Hollywood Reporter presented conflicted reports on the subject; one story proposed Marvel was afraid she displayed ‘a lack of overall clarity’, while another version contests this entirely – she had a vision. It was said there were creative constraints on Jenkins, because of Marvel’s need to comply with their wider cinematic universe. And, it is worth noting that Kenneth Branagh, the director of the first Thor, declined to return for this sequel. Similarly, Joe Johnston did not return for the Captain America sequel, nor Jon Favreau as director (although he remained an actor and executive producer) for Iron Man 3.
Of course most apparent are those replacements that do not occur behind the scenes – take the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk in The Avengers. Both the director, Joss Whedon, and the star of The Incredible Hulk, Edward Norton, were interested in a reprisal of Norton’s role, yet Marvel decided to recast. A dispute over money was the first story to surface, but it later seemed this was not the case. Norton had a degree of creative control over the previous film (an uncredited rewrite and involved in the editing) and was opposed to its relatively brief running time – as was the director, Louis Leterrier. President of Production at Marvel, Kevin Feige, defended their decision, ‘rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as a part of an ensemble.’ The actor’s agent branded Feige’s statement ‘a purposefully misleading, inappropriate attempt to paint [Norton] in a negative light.’
Regarding the Ant-Man situation, Feige told The Guardian he did not think Marvel had been a ‘big evil studio … too scared [of] the outside-the-box creative vision’. But consider Norton, Jenkins and now Wright – it is undeniable that Marvel have achieved a difficult reputation. Are they not worried about the consequences of their careless stubbornness? To look to a smaller scale for answers, there is Terrence Howard, who played James Rhodes in the first Iron Man and was replaced by Don Cheadle in its sequel. The actor suffered after the company were only prepared to pay him an eighth of what had been negotiated. He claimed Marvel justified their decision with – ‘We think the second one will be successful with or without you’ – a rather callous rejection, but one that does explain their reasoning.
Indeed, so far, there has been no need to worry; Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World and The Avengers were all successful. Will Ant-Man be any different? It is possible. I cannot be alone in feeling significantly less enthusiastic about it now Wright has gone. What differentiates this situation from the others was the director’s decision to leave, as opposed to Marvel’s. Feige told MTV in 2013 that Wright’s vision was ‘the only reason we’re making the movie.’ If Wright has departed before pre-production, the project could have stopped there. At this point, however, Ant-Man will probably make its release date; the cast and the Marvel brand will be enough to draw an audience, but how big will that audience be? Marvel’s enforcing of their singular vision, treating actors and filmmakers like cogs in a machine… their belief that everyone is replaceable – how can this be sustainable? Will it backfire on them – with Ant-Man or another film – unless something changes?
* Since time of writing, actors Patrick Wilson, Matt Gerald and Kevin Weisman have also left the project; while the definite reason is unknown, there are speculations that a newer script discounted Gerald and Weisman’s characters at least (Wilson is said to have a scheduling conflict).