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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.