The recent sad news of director Scott Derrickson leaving Doctor Strange: In The Multiverse of Madness due to “creative differences” brings me back to the same loss of Edgar Wright on Ant-Man – and for the same exact reasons. While Marvel Studios continues to build a strong coherent roster of blockbusters with their expansive cinematic universe, the DCEU finds itself in another tricky position entirely. I want to take a step back and really look at what both studios, the juggernauts of comic book film adaptations in Hollywood, are really going with their visions. That begs the question, why is it that DC is giving its filmmakers such enormous free reign creatively, while Marvel Studios challenges that notion? The answer isn’t as black and white as we think.
When Iron Man released in 2008, the world was introduced to the idea of a superhero team-up that hasn’t been done before in filmmaking. It was undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, and Kevin Feige deserves great praise for actually managing to pull it off to the extent that it’s now the largest superhero franchise and brand in cinematic history. It was a big gamble for Marvel Studios to follow through with The Avengers, but it paid off greatly for them. However, to achieve this level of consistency in order to bring each superhero under one roof without clashing tones and styles, liberties (or maybe the lack thereof) had to be taken with each film’s director to create a coherent vision that gels with the overarching universe.
As bold as a vision as a cinematic universe was, over ten years and nearly two dozen films later, it’s become evident that this formula – while it still works – has come at a great cost to the creative vision behind each unique idea or concept. Feige needed to make sure that each film at least retained some consistency with its themes, tone, or style that would make for an easy transition into the tentpole collaborative films like The Avengers. Understandably so, since it would be difficult to actually have a plethora of heroes with clashing visions or drastically different ideologies from its previous directors exist under one banner. Here’s the biggest problem with that: the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in having one unifying identity, is losing its individualism.
If you buy into a Marvel film, there’s an extremely good chance that your price of admission will be worth it.
That isn’t to say that Marvel movies are bad. In fact, a large majority of them are consistently good. If you buy into a Marvel film, there’s an extremely good chance that your price of admission will be worth it. You know what to expect, and what kind of experience you might be getting out of it – and it is a fulfilling experience, ultimately. Tying back into Feige’s united vision for all Marvel movies to follow similar structures and tones, it’s good structures and tones that define them and almost guarantee enormous box office success. However, when we look at the universe at large, the entries that stand out to me – and ones that I consider my personal favourite – actually have a lot more individualism than the others.
For example, every film directed by the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War, and to an extent, Endgame) all feel unlike anything else in the MCU. Say what you will about James Gunn and Guardians of the Galaxy, but those have, without a shadow of a doubt, his creative DNA all over the series. Doctor Strange did confine to certain MCU guidelines, but where it shined creatively, it was all down to Derrickson’s vision. Even the rewrites of the Ant-Man script still had traces of Wright’s brilliance, which made for indistinguishably the best and most fun moments in that film that felt wholly “Edgar Wright”. Taika Waititi also conformed to typical MCU tropes with Thor: Ragnarok, but his brand of unique comedy still shone through that made it as good as it was.
A horror movie in the MCU would be alarmingly out of place, and that’s where Feige might’ve had a squabble with Derrickson’s creative edge.
Unfortunately, these aren’t entirely representative of their creative visions. Each film in the MCU still, in some shape or form, has to mold itself to fit into a criteria that Marvel has built, all for the sake of more easily uniting these visions. What I assume Derrickson wanted out of In The Multiverse of Madness was a far more horror-centric film than initially anticipated. A horror movie in the MCU would be alarmingly out of place, and that’s where Feige might’ve had a squabble with Derrickson’s creative edge. In my personal opinion, and I’m sure was the case for many who were also anticipating the sequel, that idea was absolutely marvelous. It represented the perfect shake-up that the MCU needed, showing that it’s capable of taking bolder risks creatively to trade blows with its current competitor. Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, and I’m now half-expecting the Doctor Strange sequel to ditch its horror elements entirely for a more uniform, consumer-friendly product that aligns with the singular overall MCU vision.
This is where DC and Warner Bros. step in. When the DCEU kicked off with Man of Steel, it was evident that Warner Bros. had plans to compete with the MCU. Unfortunately, they rushed the process, intervening in Zack Snyder’s visions for Batman v Superman and Justice League, which resulted in the abysmal mess that is their efforts to unite a barely developed batch of characters. I’m sure Snyder isn’t without blame here, but looking back at it, Warner Bros. seems to be learning from their mistakes. Their solution for fixing this? Doing the exact opposite of what Marvel is doing, and giving their filmmakers a lot of creative control – and I don’t need to tell you how well that’s actually worked out for them.
Warner Bros. seems to be learning from their mistakes.
When I look back at some of my favourite superhero movies over the last decade, a few Marvel movies come to mind, but even the best in that line pale in comparison to the best of DC. Joker is a masterpiece, and arguably the best comic book film since The Dark Knight. It’s also leagues above anything that the MCU could ever hope to produce. Warner Bros. trusted director Todd Phillips (and Joaquin Phoenix too), which resulted in its creation. Warner Bros. trusted Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, which resulted in a remarkably unique superhero film. Warner Bros. trusted David F. Sandberg with Shazam!, which resulted in a great family action film. Each of these films were unique in some respect, standing alone and on its own two feet without shackles to conformity of a greater identity, and they worked.
Now, that’s not to say Warner Bros. isn’t entirely without sin here either. They do have a history of meddling with scripts that often result in messy or otherwise hollow flicks (Suicide Squad, for instance, and what I assume for the upcoming Birds of Prey), but they have a greater track record of giving directors free reign over the vision of each film. Now, they aren’t trying to build towards an Avengers-like tentpole film, or have any bracket to keep in check. DC films now have the ability to be as outlandish, unique, and drastically different as the directors want them to be. Personally, I find that much more exciting. The mystery lingers. We’re back in a time when we never knew what to expect of superhero movies. They could either be superb and go above and beyond the call of duty (Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight) or complete trainwrecks (Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four). DC’s new business plan has reintroduced uncertainty back into the superhero scene, and love it or hate it, we’re always at least curious to see if it flies or falls flat.
Generally, I find that with the risk of giving directors creative control, it’s like a game of Russian Roulette. There’s always a chance that the studio will strike gold (Christopher Nolan, Todd Phillips, Patty Jenkins) which results in some of the finest modern superhero films. There’s always going to be duds too. But the pay-off when they do get it right is strangely better than the best of the MCU, arguably. I’d personally rather have that, the risky creative play, over the safe and conforming play.
Where does that put us now in the superhero cinema sphere? Marvel Studios runs the risk of burning out, and fatigue settling in. Sure, they have more toys to play with after the Fox acquisition, but I fear that even what those properties brought (creatively different) to the game might be chopped, stripped, and told to join the queue of the MCU. I’d rather have a risky great idea than a safe one. Those are personally more fulfilling experiences.