The war between art and commerce is one that has raged since the birth of cinema and obviously long before. Its most recent battleground was on the production of Ant-Man, where Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) left his post as writer-director because of studio-enforced edits on the script. After scrambling to find a replacement helmer for the July 2015 film, Marvel decided on Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down with Love) as director and Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) as rewriter. I’m okay with this, because I have to be.
When a filmmaker acquires a “name,” any news of a new project is met with great relish. Edgar Wright has rightfully acquired this level of cult loyalty. His affiliation with geek culture combined with his adept handling of comedy and action make him a great choice for any superhero movie. Selecting him as the writer-director of Ant-Man was understandably met with great enthusiasm, especially after the showing of his Ant-Man test footage at the 2012 San Diego ComicCon. His sudden departure was met with the same level of response, albeit in the realms of shock and disappointment.
To Marvel’s credit, going after people like David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Children’s Hospital) and McKay at least showed that the studio was trying to maintain some semblance of continuity by focusing on two of the more off-beat (and better) comedy filmmakers working today. I have no opinion on Reed, but I’ve liked a good amount of McKay’s previous work. Still, neither of them fills me with the same anticipation Wright did.
When coming to terms with the change in leadership, I decided to apply what I learned from Community Season 4. Never particularly commercially successful, NBC’s Community inspired a great amount of loyalty among its small fan base. A huge part of that was due to showrunner, creator, and mastermind Dan Harmon, whose distinct vision for the series made it into something truly unique- a network comedy that connects very personally with its audience. At the end of Season 3, Sony (the show’s producer) fired Harmon (some personality clashes also played a role in their decision) and named David Guarascio and Moses Port as replacements.
Going into Season 4 was a weird experience. I had followed these characters for three years and wanted their continued presence with the hope/delusion that the program would remain on a somewhat even keel. But knowing the off-season shenanigans made me constantly question if I was going to respond to the show itself or to the drama behind the scenes. If I disliked an episode or the direction of the series, was it a genuine dislike, or was it because a subconscious loyalty to Harmon made it so the show could never satisfy me? Inversely, if there was something I liked, would I give credit to the new writers/showrunners, or would I still give credit to Harmon because he was the one who created the universe, and some residue of his leadership was bound to remain? Even though I knew the daunting task faced by the new showrunners (which included not just taking the helm of a television series, but living up to the reputation – and Internet ire – earned by a cult show), would I give them enough time and leeway to find their own voice, or would I immediately discount them against my better judgment? Would I be able to approve the altered direction of the show, or would I constantly be wondering where it was supposed to have gone?
The answer to all of these questions was a little from Column A and a little from Column B. I’d like to believe that I was open-minded enough to take the “new” show on its own merits, but I’ll admit I couldn’t ignore information about the overthrow no matter how much as I tried. It would have been interesting to know if people unfamiliar with the shake-up even noticed a change, but most Internet comments came from people aware of and influenced by the turnover. At the end of the day, Community Season 4 tried to please fans and newcomers alike, but couldn’t ever really shake the baggage.
In a bittersweet ending, the usurpation turned out to be a mistake on the part of the studio. After outcry from diehard fans (and cast members), Harmon was brought back to lead Season 5. But Community was canceled before reaching Season 6 (or the prophetic movie). Nevertheless, Season 5 was a definite return to form for Community. It became a perfect example of the importance of having someone in control with a vision, a voice, and most importantly, a passion.
Despite finding its footing, Season 5 was still not “best timeline” Season 5. The cast and crew had to make lemonade out of a lost year, and the truest journey of the Greendale Seven was lost to the “What Ifs?” As is Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man. However, Wright put so much time and effort into this film that it’s practically impossible to eliminate all of his soul. By the time the movie hits theaters, it will be a futile quest to try to figure out what is his, what is McKay’s, what is Reed’s, what is Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige’s, and what just naturally occurs when you’ve got so many cooks in the proverbial kitchen still making changes mere weeks before the project is supposed to start filming. All of my Community questions will apply once again. But I won’t be the only one giving credit where credit probably isn’t due and putting blame on the wrong people. Regardless of how the movie turns out, it won’t be hard imagining that there’s the perfect “Edgar Wright Cut” in some alternate universe that we will never see, and that belief, at least to some extent, makes any other version of the film automatically disappointing.
There won’t be some Harmon-esque Return of the King for Ant-Man 2. Even at the low end of expectations, Ant-Man will make more than any of Wright’s previous works. The majority of people going to see this movie probably won’t even know about the turmoil, nor would they even care. All we can do is hope that Reed, McKay, and the rest produce a quality film. It won’t be Wright’s, but it will be something. We’re going to invest the time and money into this movie anyway, and I’d rather have an enjoyable experience than one that allows me to go online and proudly proclaim “shows them for losing Edgar Wright!”
But what about the future? Edgar Wright spent nearly a decade trying to make Ant-Man a reality; it was a passion project from before there was even a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Comic books and superheroes possess important, individual meanings to each person. Auteurs may now be hesitant, if they don’t feel flat-out forbidden, to take on the characters they grew up with, the characters they have a passion for, the characters they love. If the Community experience taught me anything, it’s that there’s no substitute for personal connection. The real problem will be if the demands of the mega franchise ends up dissuading the creative people whose dedication kept these characters in print for nearly half a century from even attempting to share their spark. For now Ant-Man has some Wright left, and since we’re going to be stuck with these movies for a long while, let’s take them at face value and make the best of it.