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The Death of the Auteur Blockbuster, 2000-2016

Suicide Squad premiered last week, to incredibly negative reviews and an incredibly impressive box office.

There are a lot of discussions to be had about that, but the most interesting narrative is the story that has developed behind the scenes. If rumours are to be believed, it seems that there is a very intriguing book to be written about the production of Suicide Squad, although the less said about Jared Leto’s bodily fluids the better. Writer and director David Ayer was reportedly given six weeks to write a script featuring almost a dozen major characters, only for the final cut to be given to a company that had cut the film’s viral trailers.

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It is not particularly proud moment for film-making, particularly given the emphasis that Warner Brothers had put on their blockbuster slate as “film-maker driven.” Indeed, the laundry list of rumoured deleted scenes has become a convenient stick with which the movie might be beaten. How in the name of goodness could Suicide Squad be so messed up as to portray the fundamentally abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn as loving and affectionate? The answer is that the original cut of the movie was candid about the abuse, but it was cut out.

Although Warner Brothers’ DC movie slate has become an easy target for pundits looking to score cheap shots and drive page-views, the problem is more fundamental than that. In hindsight, with the summer of 2016 coming to the close, it feels like the end of the era. The curtain is drawing down on the short-lived “blockbuster auteur” era of big budget franchise film-making.

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If Suicide Squad serves to draw down the curtain on this era of blockbuster film-making, it feels appropriate. After all, Warner Brothers offered some of the best examples of the form. At the start of the twenty-first century, Hollywood was in a transitional state. Computer-generated imagery was changing what was possible on film. The idea of the movie star as the singular driving force behind a movie’s success was slowly fading. Intellectual property was on the cusp of delivering its own star power.

Comic books are perhaps the most obvious example of this. They are preexisting intellectual property, and so come with an established brand. More than that, they are populated by characters who have saturated popular culture for decades, whether in cartoons or radio shows or even earlier films. Hollywood had always been fond of pre-existing intellectual property; after all, Batman and Superman were veterans of the silver screen. However, the new millennium brought a renewed interest in (along with advances in technology to enable) telling these sorts of stories.

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Comic book are by no means the only example of this trend, of course. The past few decades have seen Hollywood embrace remakes of old television shows like I, Spy or The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Get Smart or Starsky and Hutch or Star Trek. Adaptations of young adult novels are also very popular, from the Harry Potter series to the Hunger Games to Twilight to lower-tier stuff like The Maze Runner or Divergent or The Mortal Instruments. However, comic books are the most ubiquitous (and most oft-cited) examples.

However, who was going to direct these adaptations? Veteran Hollywood film-makers tended to be quite wary of the ideas of franchises and sequels. Many of them were arguably a brand within themselves, or at least managed their own brand; Steven Spielberg had his own brand with the Indiana Jones films, while George Lucas was the man behind Star Wars. James Cameron and Ridley Scott seemed primarily interested in their own thing; they seemed unlikely to want to be tethered to somebody else’s intellectual property for so long at that stage in their careers.

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So, Hollywood went looking for young and exciting film-makers, offering them larger budgets in return for doing studio work. Bryan Singer’s direction of X-Men and X-Men II at Fox is one of the great examples from the turn of the millennium, as is Sam Raimi’s direction of Spider-Man and Spider-Man II. These were very much “outsider” directors; they were very much established, but not the kinds of directors who were household names. They were not likely to be directing star vehicles for huge movie-stars with incredible budgets.

Budget is perhaps an issue here. The budget on the original X-Men was only $75m. That sounds like a lot of money, until one realises that X-Men: Apocalypse cost $178m. Even in the context of 2000, Mission: Impossible II cost $125m, while Gladiator cost $103m. Comparatively speaking, X-Men was reasonably budgeted. It was easy to trust Bryan Singer with that kind of money, because if the movie bombed there was not a lot at stake. The studio could shake it off. For point of comparison, Suicide Squad is estimated to have cost $175. Before marketing.

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Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi were able to craft blockbusters that appealed to their own sensibilities. In their own way, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films were as heavily stylised as Tim Burton’s Batman. They borrowed liberally from both comic book continuity and classic schlock monster movies with an esoteric (and rather twisted) sense of humour. Spider-Man and Spider-Man II might be Spider-Man films, but they are also very much Sam Raimi films in terms of tone and aesthetic.

While Fox and Sony pioneered this approach, it would arguably be Warner Brothers who truly perfected it. In the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, Warner Brothers hit upon the idea of attracting young up-and-coming directors to put their own stamp on franchise films. Released in 2004, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was directed by Alfonso Cuarón, and is easily the most visual sumptuous of the films in the franchise. The plotting and scripting might have gaps, but Prisoner of Azhaban is the most memorable of the series.

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However, Warner Brothers would strike it phenomenally lucky in 2005 when they hired the young director Christopher Nolan to reimagine Batman. It should be noted that Nolan inherited the project from director Darren Aaronofsky, which speaks to the level at which Warner Brothers were willing to trust these projects to singular artistic visionaries. Nolan had made waves with the release of Memento and had also done a solid job with the remake Insomnia at the studio, which was notable for one of the better late-stage Al Pacino performances.

Nolan was given the freedom to rework and reimagine the Dark Knight in his own image. He brought in his brother Jonathan Nolan as a co-writer with David S. Goyer. He brought in his wife Emma Thomas as a producer on the project. Nolan drew from a wealth of influences from Denny O’Neil’s The Man Who Falls to Frank Miller’s Year One. However, Nolan made his own film. Batman Begins was a game-changer for superhero cinema, laying out perhaps the single best superhero origin story on film and perhaps the definitive Batman origin.

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Nolan followed up the success of Batman Begins with two sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. He also interspaced the three films with his own passion projects, The Prestige and Inception. It seemed to be part of Nolan’s relationship with Warner Brothers. The director would deliver a superhero blockbuster, and then be afforded the time and budget to work on his own projects on his own terms. It was a productive and symbiotic relationship. Nolan is one of the rare modern blockbuster directors with a unique vision.

However, Nolan’s superhero films were not treated as secondary. They were not of lesser import than his own work. Any scholarly examination of Nolan’s work will have to spend considerable time on his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan’s Batman films are as much a product of their author as they are a result of their intellectual property; they speak to both the character’s long history and to the director’s core themes. As played by Christian Bale, Bruce Wayne seems as likely to hang out with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb as Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent.

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It is worth noting that Nolan’s three superhero films are considered rare artistic achievements in their own right. The Dark Knight was considered a potential contender for the Best Picture Oscar. When that nomination failed to materialise, the Academy announced plans to extend the Best Picture slate to include ten nominees; many point to that as an acknowledgement of the perceived snub. Heath Ledger remains the only actor to win an Oscar for his work in a superhero film. Hugh Jackman even included it in his opening number at the ceremony.

Nolan’s success with the Batman trilogy encouraged studios to gamble with directors, putting them on high-profile projects from small-scale success. Warner Brothers seemed the most committed to this approach, which paid off remarkably well. George Miller had worked in animation and family films for most of the nineties and the early years of the twenty-first century, but found himself entrusted with huge stacks of cash and sent off into the desert to shoot a sequel to a long-forgotten franchise. The result was Mad Max: Fury Road.

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When it came time to build up their superhero properties, it made sense that Warner Brothers would follow a similar model. Director Zack Snyder had a rather strange career when Christopher Nolan selected him to direct Man of Steel. Snyder had provided a solid remake of Dawn of the Dead and made a huge splash with the out-of-nowhere comic book adaptation 300. However, since then the director had struggled with films like Suckerpunch or Watchmen. However, Snyder was a strong visual stylist with his own strong themes and ideas.

Indeed, Warner Brothers committed themselves to a film-maker-centric universe. Reportedly, there was a lot of horse-trading involved to convince Ben Affleck to sign up to play the Caped Crusader in Batman vs. Superman, with the studio tacitly agreeing to support his other output and promising him the opportunity to write and direct his own Batman movie… starring himself. Again, there is a sense that the studio was banking on film-makers as much intellectual property. However, there was a change taking place.


2008 was dominated by The Dark Knight.

It was a hugely influential movie. It had a massive impact in the mechanics of how Hollywood produced blockbusters. Just look at how many movies borrow liberally from it; that “theme as dialogue” scripting style, that bit where the villain wants to be captured midway through the movie, that iconic Hans Zimmer score, that sheer influence of the film as acknowledged by those actually working in the field. Everything from Law-Abiding Citizen to Skyfall owed a debt to The Dark Knight.

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However, there was a revolution taking place in the background. In 2008, Marvel Studio launched Iron Man. On paper it was a little like those weird indie superhero films, in that it came from a director whose credits included films like Swingers and Made and starred an actor that many considered to be washed up and had proven himself singularly incapable of holding down a recurring guest spot on Ally McBeal. It had a sense of humour about itself, it was wry, it focused on character.

Still, the biggest game-changer in Iron Man was the idea of a “shared universe.” The concept was old news to comic book fans, but new to movie-goers. The idea was that iconic comic book characters could share a fictional space an interact with one another. Marvel Studios hit upon the idea as a way to popularise the characters that had not been sold to studios like Sony or Fox during the publisher’s late nineties bankruptcy. After all, who would want to go see a movie about Iron Man if there was an X-Men or Spider-Man movie playing elsewhere?

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So Marvel hit upon the idea of building its second-tier heroes and tying them all together. Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a scene hidden in the credits of Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. appeared in a scene in the credits of The Incredible Hulk. Agent Coulsen popped over from Iron Man to Thor. Howard Stark appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger. All of this was building to a singular blockbuster that would bring all of these characters together: The Avengers.

It was quite a feat. However, it required considerable coordination. After all, the writers and director working on Iron Man couldn’t do whatever they wanted to do, because those characters were needed further down the line. The studio struggled with this in those early days, with extended stretches of Iron Man II seeming like an over-long commercial for a film that was not due to land in theatres for years. Marvel Studios could not tolerate some auteur coming in and doing what they wanted to do, things had to be tightly managed.

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Over time, the Marvel Studios model came to look more and more like television. Writer and director Joss Whedon was brought in to direct The Avengers and to “oversee” the movies that followed. It was a role that seemed roughly comparable to a showrunner on a really expensive and periodic television show. Film directors like Kenneth Branagh and Jon Favreau were gone, replaced by television directors like Alan Taylor, Anthony Russo and Joseph V. Russo. A house style was imposed, overseen by mastermind Kevin Feige.

During this period, it seemed like Marvel Studios became increasingly hostile to directors who wanted to make their own films. Patty Jenkins might have directed Monster, but she was unable to work with Marvel Studios on Thor: The Dark World. Edgar Wright was initially attached to Ant Man, but was eventually replaced by Yes Man director Peyton Reed. Joss Whedon has spoken (politely) at length about the kind of creative impositions forced upon directors working for Marvel Studios.

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To be fair, the studio would occasionally hired directors with unique sensibilities. Robert Downey Junior had worked with Shane Black on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so the veteran screenwriter and director made a great choice to replace Jon Favreau when the latter declined to return for Iron Man 3. The results was one of the boldest and most ambitious of the Marvel Studios films. It was also one of the most divisive among the hardcore faithful. James Gunn was given the freedom to make Guardians of the Galaxy, which was safely insulated from the core properties.

However, these movies were very much the exception rather than the rule. The Marvel Studios approach proved financially successful. Owned by Disney, the company is movie-making behemoth that tends to attract positive reviews and generate enthusiastic social media content from on-line fans. It demonstrated that there was a clear alternative to the “blockbuster auteur” movement that had developed in the years since X-Men. Think of it as the “blockbuster television” approach.

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It is worth pausing to break down exactly what this house style involves. The television comparison is perhaps a little accurate, with many of the recent slate of Marvel movies coming with a “teaser” attached that is similar to the style employed on television. In Ant Man, this teaser even comes before the opening credits, more closely emulating the televisual style. Small snippets hinting at later movies are buried in the credits, emulating the “next week on…” trailers that frequently follow popular television series.

These teasers are important, because they promise an on-going story. Each film is not really a singular narrative entity, but an interlocking chain of events in which every unit serves the bigger picture. When Thor ends with the rainbow bridge destroyed, severing Thor’s connection to Earth, it does not matter. Because The Avengers needs Thor on Earth, the ending to Thor is undone. Although all indications at the end of Iron Man 3 are that Tony Stark has put Iron Man to rest, healing his heart and destroying his inventory, the character returns for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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There are no endings. There are only deferments. Characters in these films can only dream of the closure afforded to Bruce Wayne at the end of The Dark Knight Rises or Furiosa at the end of Fury Road. There is only a perpetual “to be continued.” Character continuity matters little from one film to the next. Scott Lang spends most of Ant Man trying to demonstrate that he is a responsible adult who can be trusted to spend time with his daughter. One would imagine that custody would be an issue when he becomes a fugitive again over the course of Captain America: Civil War.

The stock argument is that this narrative style approximates the source material, that characters like Batman and Superman are part of a single long-form serialised narrative that stretches back to the middle of the twentieth century and will likely continue long into the future. However, this ignores the realities of comic book publishing. Batman might run forever, but writers like Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder get to tell their own stories on the comic, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

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The climax of these movies is inevitably the same; large scale property damage rendered in computer-generated imagery. Although films like Ant Man and Civil War tend to feature more intimate final confrontations between individual characters, these smaller confrontations are inevitably proceeded by bombaste. Ant Man very cleverly boils down to a miniaturised confrontation in a little girl’s room, but before it gets there a building must be destroyed. Before Iron Man and Captain America throw down in Civil War, an airport is destroyed.

In most cases, this involves visual references to 9/11. Indeed, The Avengers popularised the “hole in the sky” as a canny bit of post-9/11 imagery; the visual recurs in projects as diverse as Suicide Squad, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ghostbusters. This urban carnage shifts geographical location, but it is always present. Washington is attacked in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Despite its space opera setting, even Guardians of the Galaxy indulges in a bit of 9/11 city carnage.

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At the same time, there were a number of high-profile setbacks to the “blockbuster auteur” school of big-budget movie-making. There had always been something of a tension there, between the desires of a studio mining intellectual property and the director trying to deliver a film. Sam Raimi’s work on Spider-Man III is one such example, a film undercut by the studio’s desire to shoehorn in a popular character that was of absolutely no interest to the director.

However, the examples have mounted in recent years. The departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man is one such example, demonstrating to the studios the perils of keeping a property on ice while waiting for the director. Wright seemed to hold up the entire Marvel slate, holding back a potentially viable property that was ready to go to market. When Wright could not deliver the product on schedule and to specification, he was effectively cut and a director more in-line with the studio’s sensibilities was drafted.

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Marc Webb’s failure to jump-start a new Spider-Man franchise with The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man II was another such moment. Webb had done great work with (500) Days of Summer, but seemed to struggle with the demands of building a shared universe around Spider-Man. In the end, the studio to jettison years of work and decided to start from scratch. This brought Sony into cooperation with Disney, loaning the character back to Marvel Studios for Civil War to salvage the brand.

However, perhaps the most obvious (and spectacular) cautionary tale came in the form of Josh Trank. Trank was an indie director responsible for the superb low-budget superhero film Chronicle. On the strength of that film, he was drafted in to provide a bold new vision for Fantastic Four, a property that had historically proven difficult to adapt. Fox wanted to build a shared universe with their X-Men properties. This proved too much for Trank, who had a meltdown of epic proportions of social media and caused no shortage of embarrassment.


This sets the stage for 2016, and its clash of the superhero titans.

Not Iron Man and Captain America in Civil War. Not Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent in Batman vs. Superman. Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers at the box office. Both studios had big films opening relatively close together, superhero spectacles that would pit iconic heroes against one another. It was a box office battle to beat all box office battles. It was also a battle of film production models. Which would produce the best blockbuster? The “blockbuster auteur” style of Batman vs. Superman or the “blockbuster television” style of Civil War?

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Batman vs. Superman was a profoundly odd film. It was directed by Zack Snyder, and nobody would ever confuse it for the work of another director. It had a lot of the director’s quirks and tics. There was a lot of desaturation, with Superman’s suit occasionally appearing purple and the skies permanently grey. There were a lot of epic long-distance shots and tight close-ups, but very few middle-distance shots to help viewers get a sense of scale. More than that, there was a sense that Batman vs. Superman was tailored specifically to Zack Snyder’s interests.

After all, Snyder is a director responsible for 300 and who has expressed an interest in adapting The Fountainhead. With that in mind, Batman vs. Superman makes a great deal of sense. It is a film about power and politics, about the ability and the authority to reshape the world. It is fascinated with the idea of who is invested in power and how people respond to that power, with characters engaging in broad philosophical discussions about gods and absent fathers that often seem quite removed from the business of one guy in a cape punching another guy in a cape.

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It is not at all what audiences expected from a superhero film. Where were all the clever quips? What about the bright colours? How about some moments that could easily be captured in gif form? Where was the knowing irony in all of this? Why wasn’t anybody winking at the camera to let you know that they weren’t taking this “guys in tights” thing too seriously? Why wasn’t there a bro-mance? Why didn’t Lex Luthor look like he does in the comics? Why did Superman spend so much time thinking about whether or not he had the right to act? Why was Batman such a jerk?

These are legitimate complaints. Batman vs. Superman does look and feel dour. It is a long way from Richard Donner. Its third act descends into CGI chaos. However, there is a strong sense that it is trying to say something meaningful and relevant. A black woman asks how Superman decides “which lives matter”, a bold political statement. Batman’s war on crime is presented as disproportionately affecting the poor and disadvantaged. Superman is presented at once as a metaphor for American self-image and human belief in the divine.

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More than that, Snyder is playing with ideas that clearly interest and excite him as a film-maker. The idea of Superman as an angry god towering over mankind with ominous glowing red eyes might not be what fans want or expect from a Superman film, but it was a legitimately novel and provocative take on a character who had been around for more than seventy years and who has been subject to countless reworkings and reimaginings. After all, it is not as if Snyder deleted all copies of the Richard Donner films before working on Batman vs. Superman.

More than that, the film has a very distinctive look and feel. As much as fans might claim that Batman vs. Superman is heavily influenced by the style and tone of The Dark Knight, there are very clear differences in the way that Nolan and Goyer approach these characters. Most obviously, Nolan is much more grounded in terms of aesthetic, while Snyder creates something akin to a desaturated dreamscape. In contrast, it is hard to pick any of the Marvel movies as having a unique visual style. What interests the Russo brothers as film-makers?

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That said, Civil War offered a readily-parsable superhero movie that had all the ingredients that fans had come to love about the genre. There was the illusion of topicality, with mentions of terrorism and surface-level questions about liberty-against-security. There were plenty of meaningful glances exchanged between the various angsty male leads, although the film was very clear that under no circumstances would that homoerotic tension be acknowledged in anything the most ironic fashion.

And it was fun! And it was light! There were quips! There were jokes! There were moments that could easily live long and productive lives on Twitter and Tumblr as gifs! And, beneath it all, that knowing sense of irony that assured everybody that this wasn’t to be taken seriously. Captain America and Iron Man might come to blows, but Civil War wasn’t going to let politics get between bros. When they throw down in the final act, it’s purely personal. Civil War is very good at giving audiences what they expect. It is much better in that regard than Batman vs. Superman.

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Repeatedly over the course of the film, it’s made clear Tony doesn’t really believe in what he’s doing. He is not a bad guy. He doesn’t genuinely believe in the central ideological debate of the film, and is only doing it as a form of compromise. The movie ends with Tony and Steve still on good terms, Steve writing a sincere letter to Tony and promising that the two will still work together whenever the world needs them. It does not matter that Steve inadvertently crippled Tony’s best friend or that Tony tried to murder Steve’s best friend. Who cares?

Civil War avoids anything remotely related to an actual theme. The movie revels in the exercise of power and authority, rather than questioning it. For a character called “Captain America”, the movie bends over backwards to avoid dealing with implications of a guy dressed in the American flag acting unilaterally on foreign soil. Metaphors about gun control are avoided. Any question about what gives these characters authority to act is sidestepped. Civil War endorses a weird superhero elite who operate according to their own rules, fighting amongst themselves.

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Tellingly, Civil War is more interested in personal relationships than anything political. Steve protects Bucky not on principle, but because he happens to be friends with this superhuman killing machine. Tony doesn’t seem to care too much about Bucky until it is revealed that Bucky murdered his parents. It seems that issues about power and authority only matter within one degree of separation. When characters fight, they joke about pulling punches, which seems at odds with the movie’s decision to open with the heroes causing considerable civilian collateral damage.

Audiences loved it. The narrative was cemented. Marvel Studios movies like Civil War were fun and faithful and exciting. Warner Brothers movies like Batman vs. Superman were dour and self-serious. The fans threatened to mutiny, helped in no small part by a film reviewing community that seemed to seize upon Batman vs. Superman as something that should have been prosecuted in the Hague. More than that, Warner Brothers came under fire. Zack Snyder was a target.

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Articles suggested that Warner Brothers “needed” a Kevin Feige type to reign in those pesky directors who might try to make their own films, imposing a rigid house style upon the output. Petitions were signed on Change.org, the website used by the Obama White House to engage with actual serious stuff, to have Zack Snyder removed from his directorial duties on Justice League.

The studio went into damage control mode, inviting bloggers and critics to visit the set to reassure fans that the big crossover movie would be suitably “fun.” The trailer at Comic Con underscored this idea. There are broader suggestions that Warner Brothers was revising its approach to movie production in the wake of high-budget high-profile big-name-director flops like the Wachowski sisters’ Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending or Edgar Wright’s Pan or Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea.

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While veteran Warner Brothers collaborators like Todd Phillips or Clint Eastwood (or Ben Affleck) are probably insulated from this change in creative direction, it does demonstrate a clear shift in the studio’s priorities. Ironically, the response to a number of big-budget flops was not to trim budgets or reduce the volume of tentpoles, but to gut the studio’s medium-budget output. With that in mind, it seems fair to suggest that there are likely to be big changes in how the studio chooses to put together those big-budget tentpoles.

Suicide Squad is very much the net result of this particular situation, the end point of this transition from the film-maker orientated blockbusters of the early twenty-first century to the era of corporate synergy. It seems safe to say that the version of Suicide Squad that was released in cinemas was not the version that David Ayer wanted to make. It was reportedly stitched together by a marketing company responsible for the trailer, in large part due to the studio’s response to the overblown outrage over Batman vs. Superman.

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In the context of Suicide Squad, the result is a movie that comes dangerously close to an incoherent mess. The editing in the film is terrible, with scenes repeating themselves, and big reveals simply repeating information that had been clumsily provided at the start of the film. Character development is abandoned for the kind of gags to which audiences respond, with Harley Quinn feeling more like a walking gif factory than a character. Anything potentially uncomfortable, like the abusive subtext of her relationship with the Joker, has been stripped out of the film.

There is a clear sense that Suicide Squad has been tailored to avoid the kind of outrage generated by on-line fan communities, the kind of outrage that protested against a portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 that wasn’t steeped in racist Oriental clichés. The kind of narrative that attacked Batman vs. Superman for having a Batman who was fundamentally “fallen” and a Superman who was too “broody.” After all, imagine if those fans saw a film where the Joker physically abused Harley Quinn. Imagine the outrage.

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In some respects, this is very much a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. The same critics who insisted that Warner Brothers needed to take back some creative control from directors like Zack Snyder on Batman vs. Superman were horrified when the studio took a proactive hand in the editing of Suicide Squad. Fans who protested the portrayal of a deranged and unstable Batman also complained that the removal of the abusive aspects of the Joker/Harley relationship.

The result is a movie that is as bland and inoffensive as it is possible for a movie about killer psychopaths to be. It is a shame, because there are moments that hint at a film that is so much better than the version released in theatres. Amanda Waller is a fascinating character, and David Ayer seems to cast her as a state-sanctioned version of Alonzo Harris from Training Day. The film hints at the same questions of power and authority that made Batman vs. Superman so intriguing, but anything of substance has been surgically removed.

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In many ways, this seems typical of the summer slate for 2016. The year has been one of the most disappointing summers on record, as far as live action blockbusters go. There are a lot of enjoyable films, but nothing that really grabs the audience. Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters are probably the best of the bunch, but they seem unlikely to contend for spaces in end-of-year top tens. There is a lot of solid and reliable stuff out there, a lot of familiar content, but nothing particularly striking or visceral. No Dark Knight. No Fury Road.

There is some indication that this is to be the future of big-budget film-making, a much safer mode of film production in which the studio takes a more active role. There are already reports that Disney have stepped in on Gareth Edwards’ work on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, nervous about what the director might produce. Reportedly early cuts of the film were too distinctive, too divorced from the brand. Apparently Tony Gilroy stepped in. The most descriptive summary of those early cuts suggested that Edwards had turned in a Star Wars film that was too much “like a war movie.”

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This model of film production aims to give movie audiences exactly what they want, as driven by social media feedback and focus groups. The director is ultimately a cog in the machine, as studios worry that these visionaries might get out of control and go “off model.” Safety is paramount. The security of the brand is important. It is okay for a film to be underwhelming, like The Dark World or Avengers: Age of Ultron, so long as it doesn’t run the risk of riling up the fans and being burnt in effigy.

However, this is disappointing. In this day and age, would Christopher Nolan be given the freedom to put his own stamp on Batman Begins? Would Sam Raimi be trusted to deliver his vision of Spider-Man? What are the odds of a pleasant surprise and a genuine reinvention of a cult icon in a conveyer-belt process? If the price of The Dark Knight or Fury Road is the occasional Batman vs. Superman, it seems more than reasonable. Radically tweaking the model to avoid such potential surprises works both ways. It is at once a ceiling and floor.

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Movie making has always been an industry, particularly when working at these sorts of budgets. Nobody really wants to know how the sausage is made. It is just reassuring to know that you are buying from a craft butcher rather than an assembly line. Civil War won the battle of the titans. But the audience ultimately lost.

32 Responses

  1. Really interesting article that I do agree with. The Marvel movies are fun for what they are but they have been getting way to bland and polished now and it’s sad to think this is the way of the future. I shared your article with 2 friends on Facebook already who are gonna really agree with this. I still need to see that 3 hour cut of BvS.

    • Thanks for the share, Douglas!

      The three-hour cut of BvS doesn’t solve all of the movie’s problems. Indeed, I suspect that one of the reasons it is being heralded is because it actually focuses quite a bit on the minutiae and plot mechanics so it explains what is happening clearer. Personally, I thought the best additions were those that fleshed out the world and which hinted at the movie’s socio-political themes; the idea that Batman targets street-level crime in disadvantaged communities in a way that doesn’t actually make things any better, the emphasis on minorities and the “servant” class at the fancy dinner parties paralleling Clark’s experience as an immigrant. (He is, after all, only at one of those fancy parties in an official capacity.)

      I do need to do a review of the ultimate edition.

  2. First off, I just wanted to say that I am really enjoying this series of articles about the nature of filmmaking today. They are quite interesting.
    “Batman Begins was a game-changer for superhero cinema, laying out perhaps the single best superhero origin story on film and perhaps the definitive Batman origin.” Ok, it is time for an unpopular opinion. I don’t get the love for the Christopher Nolan trilogy. I found them to be too dark and unpleasant. Batman Begins had so much violence in the first 30 minutes that it took me several watches to get through the film. As for the Dark Knight, I found the pro wire tapping message objectionable, and the story of Two Face and all the the events in Hong Kong to be tacked on. I’m not denying that these films are not well acted, well scored, and well shot, though Batman Begins suffered from too much Shaky Cam, but I just don’t get why they are considered great films.
    “The climax of these movies is inevitably the same; large scale property damage rendered in computer-generated imagery.” Not just the Marvel movies, but seemingly every action movie resorts to these climaxes now. {art of the reason I loved Skyfall so much because the climax is small and intimate, and uses primarily practical stunts. CGI can be useful, but it is just used so much it is tiring. Both the Star Wars: the Force Awakens and Star Trek Beyond relied on the effects far too much.

    • “As for the Dark Knight, I found the pro wire tapping message objectionable”

      But the movie agrees with you there, which is why Lucius Fox abandons Bruce. So…?

      • Well, Lucius Fox finds it wrong, but agrees to do it, and that helps them find the joker. I always interpreted it as something you have to do to defeat terrorists even if it doesn’t seem right.

      • I don’t know.

        I never bought into the logic of The Dark Knight as a defense of the Bush administration so much as an exploration of its politics. After all, the Joker wins. He is last seen laughing to himself in something approaching victory, and the only way that Batman preserves peace in Gotham is by lying about Dent. (Indeed, the only way that the Joker loses is when the people on the ferries refuse to play his game; the key point is that Batman and Gordon ultimately do wind up playing.)

        I suspect Nolan was also uneasy about that reading of The Dark Knight as a defense of Bush, hence the structuring of The Dark Knight Rises as essentially a direct repudiation of that reading. Batman’s murder of Ra’s Al Ghul just leads to more instability; locking up prisoners without trial only generates resentment; Bane employs the same Bush-era tactics that Batman and Gordon did, going further and even staging a mock “occupation” of Gotham in the style of the “liberation” of Iraq and Afghanistan. Batman’s desire to control terror ultimately ends up unleashing an extended period of terror and hardship upon the community that he sought to protect.

        Even Gordon’s big “… I hope you have a friend like I did!” rant is played as a pathetic moment of self-justification rather than the heroic moral compromise that a lot of people read into The Dark Knight. (“Your hands look plenty dirty to me,” is a line that makes it clear Gordon’s rationalisations are little more than that.)

    • Thanks William!

      I’d disagree with you entirely on the Nolan films. I think they’re among the finest accomplishments of American blockbuster cinema; certainly there’s a credible argument to be made that they are among the first truly great post-9/11 films. (Having this discussion with friends, I think Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was the only earlier challenger for the title.) Although your opinion of the trilogy is not as rare as you might think; my former roommate found them far too dark for his taste. My gran enjoyed The Dark Knight to a certain extent, but also added that she missed Cesar Romero. (Not Adam West, mind you. She was very precise about that.)

      But that’s a great point about Skyfall. Which I really love. I’m not sure if I prefer it or Casino Royale, which is a testament to the general quality of the Craig era. (Even Quantum of Solace and Spectre are solidly okay action films, whose greatest crimes are squandering great ideas. There’s nothing as terrible as Moonraker or The Man With the Golden Gun or Diamonds are Forever here.)

      • Honestly, I would take Moonraker over Quantum of Solace. If I turn my brain off, I can enjoy Moonraker as a very silly piece of fluff. If I turn my brain off with Quantum of Solace, I see a film that has nausea inducing action scenes, and is really nothing more than a basic revenge story. That being said, I do agree with you that Quantum of Solace had the potential to be much better than it was. The idea of Quantum working with the CIA was intriguing, as well as the idea of Bond being extremely emotionally compromised. Unfortunately, the film went into production without a finished script, so Daniel Craig and Marc Forester had to rewrite several scenes on the fly, and unfortunately it shows.

      • I don’t think Quantum of Solace is good, to be fair. But my brother described it as the longest post-credits sequence in history, and I think it’s fun to look at it in that way. I think it’s the franchise’s only direct sequel, in that it is basically a coda to Casino Royale. It’d be great if it were done better (or even particularly well), but I think that’s enough to make it interesting.

        Moonraker… I don’t know. There’s still the innate creepiness of Roger Moore’s Bond at work, which even undermines The Spy Who Loved Me for me. (My favourite Moore film is For Your Eyes Only, but I have a soft spot of the “switch the brain off” variety for Live and Let Die and even A View to a Kill. Yes, I know they’re terrible.)

  3. Insightful, amazing and more than a little depressing article on the state of blockbusters. I think that this stance is even more heavily enforced by the fact that Midnight Special was a financial failure. This probably wasn’t entirely the fault of the audience but of the studio, I never saw a single trailer for the movie until I saw it on a plane. In one line, Midnight Special affected me than the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, it was a genre movie without an established IP behind it, so it wasn’t advertised heavily or released widely so audiences couldn’t find it or didn’t know about it and it flopped becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Thanks Ben.

      Midnight Special was great, wasn’t it? It is a shame that it didn’t do better, because it truly deserved to.

      • I enjoyed Midnight Special but was as a follower of both Shannon and Nichols I was a little disappointed. Take Shelter and Mud were both vastly better films, I thought. I also saw it shortly after seeing Room, which dealt with similar parenting themes. Without that perspective, I probably would have enjoyed Midnight Special much more than I did. I wonder if any of that had any impact on its general reception or if that was just personal.

      • I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say vastly, but I think Midnight Special is definitely the weakest of the three.

        Although I am also the rare person who wasn’t overly moved by Room. I thought the film would have worked better as a two-night miniseries, if it was dead set on that “in the room” and “out of the room” format. If it had to be a film, it really needed to cut a lot of either the “in the room” or “out of the room” stuff. (I much preferred the “out of the room” stuff, but it felt truncated by the film’s need to spend so much time in the room beforehand. But, the in the room stuff was clever enough that I didn’t overly begrudge it.)

  4. Reblogged this on Dominic J. Nardi, Jr. and commented:
    A thoughtful (if depressing) summary of the state of Hollywood blockbusters circa 2016…

  5. I agree that this is an insightful (and at times depressing) read. You definitely captured the main reasons why I barely go to the movies anymore (and haven’t seen any of the Marvel films since Avengers 2). I did want to get your take on the Planet of the Apes films though. Rise and Dawn (especially Dawn) were two of the best genre movies of the decade so far. Everything I’ve learned about the making of those films suggests Fox supported the directors and really allowed them to put their stamp on the franchise. I don’t really know enough about Fox to generalize to other franchises, but I’m still hopeful for War of Planet of the Apes.

    • Very good point about the Planet of the Apes films. Two great films that I think genuinely caught audiences (and critics) by surprise. And I think they do kinda fit the mold as these sorts of weird socially-charged blockbusters that dominated the 2000-2016 era.

  6. Depressing but insightful and hard to disagree with. Well, I do have a lower opinion of the Nolan Batman films than you, but otherwise I agree.

    As a fan of the Michael Stackpole/Aaron Allston X-Wing novels I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the meddling on Rogue One.

    • It’s very strange that you’d hire a director like Edwards and be surprised when he turns in something that is a marked departure from the house style. But, hey, there’s a reason I’m not a producer. Which is probably for the best for all involved.

  7. Articles! By Darren! Awesome. Your articles were why I started reading your site in what, 2009? Keep it up.

    I find it pretty disappointing that superhero movies are stuck between perfectly manufactured but uninteresting films with Marvel and weird, and badly made “director driven” DC movies. Marvel gives decent to mediocre directors no freedom and DC/Warner Bros give too much freedom to directors with no idea how to use it.

    • Thanks Justin. Hoping to do a couple more in the coming weeks, although my schedule is a bit hectic, hence the reduced review schedule. It was fun to just wax on about stuff in a general sense without having to talk about a particular or singular object.

  8. I think you (maybe fairly) limit the 2000-2016 “blockbuster” to comic book/superhero movies. If the “death” only occurred around the time Avengers was released, there have still been a handful of successes since then. Jurassic World and Furious 7 were turned over to Colin Trevorrow and James Wan. Both were box offices successes and did fair with the critics. Neither is on the level of The Dark Knight but neither is as bad as Batman v Superman or Fantastic Four, either. And at least I’m not aware of any studio meddling that interfered with the result.. I wasn’t a fan of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity but it qualifies as well. Nolan also continues to do this thing and Interstellar was very much billed as a blockbuster event. It was always going to be too science driven to reach the success of Inception.

    I guess the problem is the tremendous pre-planning studios are doing with these franchises, which are almost exclusively superhero movies. Nolan made Batman Begins and Favreau made the first Iron Man because they wanted to, not because the studio had a long standing obligation to release a movie featuring those characters on a specific date. They weren’t doing it on assignment.

    DC is producing terrific trailers and those are driving opening weekend box office. This shows that their directors do have potential, but they’re being asked to deliver a specific product. For comparison’s sake Marvel’s trailers are not very interesting aside from the characters and quippy dialogue and that’s what’s largely driving its success. I think you pointed out Marvel’s Civil War was not much to look at but still made a better film that Batman v Superman. I am in the minority but I think X-Men Apocalypse was the best superhero film of the year. It seemed to achieve a careful balance between the blockbuster comic book movie checklist from the studio and tell a story that inspired Singer. I love the climax of Xavier telling Apocalypse he’ll always lose because he’s alone and “I am not.” It’s a really well earned character moment.

    And as for whether you should keep doing this – you’re a good writer/blogger so write what you’re interests you.

    • Thanks Jason.

      I didn’t hate Apocalypse like most seemed to do. In fact, I kinda liked the idea of seeing Singer do a big generic superhero film after kickstarting the genre with X-Men, moving the franchise a little bit away from the “mutants as persecuted minority” template and towards a more generic tentpole. I’m not sure I’d want another movie like it, but there was a sense that Singer was getting to play with the toys that others had brought into a sandbox that he created, and it was hard to begrudge him that.

      And you’re right about the piece probably focusing too narrowly on superhero films. Most notably, Warners seem to still trust James Wan with the bulk of their horror output, which resulted in two of the summer’s stronger offerings in terms of pure entertainment value; The Conjuring II, which was a weird horror blockbuster hybrid, and Light’s Out, which is really great and fun until the last one hundred seconds or so.

  9. I will not mourn the “auteur blockbuster.” I much prefer an Edgar Wright movie to an Edgar Wright blockbuster.

    In fact, I see an upside to the current blockbuster model – I didn’t care for J.J. Abrams’ previous work, but when he subsumed his own style to ape George Lucas in the Force Awakens, for the first time I truly enjoyed his work and at the same time, found myself liking Star Wars again. Likewise, after Godzilla I was reluctant to give Gareth Edwards another chance but I have some hope that Rogue One will reign him in (I doubt Disney will let him cut away from a battle scene to instead depict glimpses of it on a background monitor).

    It’s also possible history will tell a different story about these times; in 2000 would we have called X-Men an auteur picture? Perhaps in another decade we’ll consider the Russos auteurs.

    • Fair point.

      But I think there is a perceptible tone shift in blockbusters that happened around 2000 and seems to have faded this year. Another commenter point to the Planet of the Apes movies from Fox as an example of the same kind of style, a more socially-conscious and allegorical storytelling style that seemed more adventurous than the pop corn spectacle of the nineties. (Although I’m a big fan of the nineties blockbuster era, even if a lot of the films were somewhat formulaic.) To be fair, there may be something a film reviewer’s bias creeping in here; I see a lot of films, so I tend to value novelty and deviation as virtues.

      And I don’t know that there’d be a huge difference between an Edgar Wright film and an Edgar Wright blockbuster. Was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World noticeably weaker than World’s End? With the death of the solid middle-budget film that coincided with the modern blockbuster era, it seems like the blockbuster model was a credible way for talent to interact with the studios; direct a blockbuster and get the freedom to do your own thing, like Nolan interspacing his Batman films with his passion projects and Affleck signing on to do Batman in return for support for his own mid-tier films. While it would be better if those writers/directors had that freedom anyway, I think it was a good thing that the horse-trading existed.

      • I certainly think you’re on to something by analyzing these trends – but maybe the auteur blockbuster is simply battered, not down. After all, we have another James Gunn blockbuster coming and I have hope Coogler’s Black Panther will speak in his voice. And old school directors like George Miller, James Cameron and Ridley Scott are still out there.

        I don’t believe there is a great difference between Wright’s blockbuster (if Scott Pilgrim can truly be considered such) and the rest of his output, but given how much time of his life he wasted on an Ant-Man film he didn’t get to make, I’d rather he devoted his energies to films which *are* made.

      • That’s a fair point. I think Scott Pilgrim was Wright’s shot at a blockbuster. I remember there being a lot of buzz about it underperforming. But you’re right about the time and energy that was ultimately wasted on Ant Man.

      • @michaelhoskin, I think you’re onto something. Between “War for Planet of the Apes,” Ridley Scott’s next Alien/Prometheus movie, and a few others, I think we’ll always have some auteur blockbusters over the next few years. They might not be a part of the superhero/comic book genre anymore, but I think there will always be some franchises that are willing to experiment a bit more.

  10. I think you’re proceeding from the assumption that BvS was all auteur-driven creativity, and that Civil War was all studio product-crafting. If that were the case, it actually makes the case for studio-crafting. To my mind, Civil War succeeded in making all the deep and complex philosophical statements that BvS failed to get across, for the very reason that Civil War made the philosophical dilemmas personal.

    What you seem to forget is that this is the very function of superheroes. They are the personification of philosophical ideals. Spider-Man represents the acceptance of responsibility for civilization and the social contract that comes with adulthood. How would that come across if he wasn’t indirectly responsible for his uncle’s death?

    BvS failed not because it dabbled with complex ideas, but because it failed to find anything meaningful to say with them. The clash of philosophies lead nowhere, because both characters had the same philosophy, presumably Snyder’s philosophy, ‘to do whatever one wants regardless of consequences is the highest good.’

    Civil War gave us a clash between Iron Man, the personification of hubris, and Captain America, the personification of compassion. Though the story chooses sides, it neither condones not condemns either completely. Both are flawed. And the moral outcome is personified by T’Challa, who balances both, neither forgiving his enemy, nor giving in to violent revenge. If you think all that was just calculated to please and appease a tetchy audience, you missed much of the film.

    Batman V Superman, by contrast, abandoned its philosophies in the end, and instead gave us a kidnapping caper, shoehorned in at the last minute. It dabbled in themes of action and consequence, but never really made anything of them. The film failed to say anything definitive. Any subtext was vague at best. Not subtle. Vague.

    What’s more, this vague dabbling took precedence over the simple mechanics of action and consequence. There was no story logic, just a series of events linked with the loosest associations. One gets the impression that the director felt simple story mechanics got in the way of his philosophical musings. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the one is dependent on the other. If the story logic doesn’t add up, the philosophy falls flat, and you’re left having to cobble together a last-minute plot to get us through act 3.

    If that is what we get with an auteur’s vision, I’ll stick with the studio product. At the end of the day, the author’s intent is worthless. The only thing that matters is what’s up on that screen. BvS may have had pretensions to depth. But it doesn’t matter. Any amateur can write a pointless story, and then tell you what it’s supposed to mean. A real auteur doesn’t need to explain.

    • Oh dear, i’m sorry, please forgive my poor manners. What I should have said at the beginning is “Great article, really interesting and thoughtful analyses on the current state of the industry.”

    • I’d have a hard time arguing that the characters in Batman vs Superman have the same philosophy.

      Wayne is an established American billionaire who is used to exerting his will upon the world because he has the economic and social power to do so. “The world only makes sense when you force it to,” he suggests at the climax, and that is the nightmarish depiction of Batman at the heart of the film. Whereas Nolan’s Batman is about cultivating a narrative around himself, Snyder’s is about using the power that is his by birthright (as heir to a railway and oil fortune) to reshape the world because he can. Plus he’s very clearly nativist; there’s something positively Trumpian in his fear of the alien.

      In contrast, Superman is very much an immigrant who is a lot more anxious about using his own powers to reshape the world. And it’s a motif that that the film returns to time and time again. There is an emphasis on class in Batman vs. Superman, with the emphasis on the Spanish-language-speaking serving staff at Lex’s party and even later at the party that Bruce and Diana crash. Clark makes a point that Batman’s war on crime disproportionately affects poorer neighbourhoods; the people in Gotham who have the most direct experience with the Bat are African-Americans (“there’s a new kinda mean in him”) or the disadvantaged. And Superman’s status as a foreigner and outside is repeatedly used against him, as a basis of criticism and as a justification for moral panic.

      And, that said, the film is messy. The third act is a CGI disaster that gets bogged down in a completely unnecessary CGI slugfest with a one-dimensional antagonist. The colour scheme is incredibly (and frustratingly) dark. Eisenberg’s Luthor is just a strange fit, both in terms of writing and performance. The film has a sense of humour that is incredibly mean-spirited, to the point that its biggest jokes are the fact that Clark Kent is a ridiculously terrible superhero identity and Zack Snyder is using these films to tell the most pretentious and self-serious reimagining of Superman II possible.

      I think that’s bolder than Civil War, which couches itself in so much irony that it almost suffocates. A guy dressed in an American flag is involved in a unilateral intervention on foreign soil that results in the loss of innocent life; Tony is drawn into the debate by a grieving mother. However, the debate never feels particularly sincere. Characters joke about pulling punches with each other. Tony never actually believes in what he’s doing, because then there would actually be a danger of alienating audience members. Tony is a man whose company sold weapons. Early films suggested a lot of guilt about the damage he caused. Have him actually tie that into his motivation. Have him try to stop Steve because it’s the right thing to do. Because power unchecked does not lead to good things, because people believing they have the right to operate without supervision or democratic oversight leads to bad things.

      Have Steve resist registration because he believes it is open to abuse, because he believes that it is an issue about self-determination, because he fought in a war against a country that marked certain of its citizens as “different” before engaging in a highly organised purge of them, because he has seen what happens when you concentrate too much power in the wrong hands in The Winter Soldier. Both Tony and Steve have legitimately defensible positions, ones that resonate with contemporary issues like gun control and American foreign policy. But Civil War isn’t at all interested in any of that, even as a secondary concern.

      Steve fights registration because Bucky is his friend. Tony half-heartedly fights for registration because he sees it as a pragmatic rather than philosophical argument. Tony eventually fights Bucky because Bucky killed his parents. It doesn’t matter that Bucky killed dozens of innocent people before and after that assignment. He didn’t really care that much.

      And again, Civil War is undoubtedly the better produced of the two films. It is cleaner and sleeker. It has a much more conventional (and less mean-spirited) sense of humour layered with irony and self-awareness. But it also seemed more cynical to me, because it goes from “dead kids” to “witty fight banter” in a way that seems disingenuous and very much tailored to audience expectations. Again, what do these characters actually feel and think, beyond their relationships to each other? Why would Ant Man risk throwing away his custody rights for that final fight scene? If Tony is worried about having dead kids on his conscience, why does he draft Spider-Man?

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