Introduction to Blockbuster Filmmaking: Why a Couple of Community Producers Are a Perfect Match for Marvel
On Wednesday, Marvel Films announced the director for Captain America 2: The Return of the Sepia-Stained Pectorals, due to be released in 2014. Make that directors: Brothers Joe and Anthony Russo were given the gig over fellow finalists Tim Story (Fantastic Four) and George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau). At first blush it may seem strange that the fraternal filmers responsible for the “Advanced Gay” episode of Community and the Arrested Development episode in which Jason Bateman and Will Arnett endeavor to track the seal that ate their brother’s hand would be given the keys to such an expensive, if retro, sports car. (The first Captain America made over $368 million worldwide in 2011. Take that, globalization!) But from a purely creative perspective, the Russos — whose previous feature credit was 2006’s failed bromance You, Me and Dupree — are actually an inspired choice. Their time on manic sitcoms like Happy Endings and especially Community provided opportunities to direct everything from bottle episodes to full-on paintball bloodbaths, and their zippy sensibilities are a good fit for the winking pop propaganda that made the first installment a surprising success. But there’s an equally clever business sense at play here as well. After dabbling with proven cinéastes for the opening chapters in their ever-expanding multiplex multiverse — Shakespearian Kenneth Branagh for Thor, ’40s fetishist Joe Johnston for the first Cap, and aging swinger Jon Favreau for Iron Man — Marvel has turned to another medium entirely to find the talent capable of keeping the party going, and, more importantly, the costs down: television.
The turning point seems to have come late last year when Monster director Patty Jenkins — a choice so far outside the box she’s not even in the building — dropped out of Thor 2. Although neither side commented on the split, it seemed clear that the exigencies of Marvel’s big-budget assembly line (Thor 2, like all of the studio’s sequels, had a release date sketched out long before it had a script) clashed with Jenkins’s auteurist bent. And so Jenkins was quickly replaced with Game of Thrones and Mad Men veteran Alan Taylor, who himself beat out fellow cable directors Brian Kirk and Daniel Minahan for the gig. Television guys (and gals) are plenty used to demanding working conditions, continually churning out hours of content under outrageous (and, in the case of Game of Thrones, icy) circumstances. The goal is always to service the material and keep things moving — and to stay as far from the spotlight as possible. (Jenkins herself, of course, has worked in television but only in the way most feature folk do: by swooping in to institute a visual aesthetic in the pilot — as she did with the rain-soaked The Killing — then leaving the scene of the crime for others to follow in her soggy footsteps.) This hardworking humility must appeal to a mass-market content farm like Marvel, who have observed both the highs and lows of rival DC’s dabbling with more visionary filmmakers. For every Christopher Nolan elevating the Batman franchise into a billion-dollar art-goth masterpiece, there’s a Bryan Singer sinking Superman for a generation with heavy-handed metaphors and the mystifying casting of Kate Bosworth. By linking a franchise too closely to a particular filmmaker, a studio is taking on enormous risk whether it succeeds or fails — as we will soon witness in the post-Nolan era of Gotham City. Better to keep the focus on the costumes, not the egos and extravagances of those behind them.
Furthermore, as critic Mo Ryan astutely pointed out at the Huffington Post, Marvel’s recent run of box office success is downright TV-like in nature. The universe-building, serialized storytelling of the past few years is something never before attempted in the high-cost, higher-risk world of cinema, and Samuel L. Jackson’s unprecedented nine-picture deal, while no doubt wildly lucrative, is more reminiscent of the odious seven-season commitments actors are forced to sign before agreeing to star in network pilots than of a typical movie star contract. The Avengers was the culmination of this risky long-term strategy and, with a billion-dollar haul, it can also serve as an affirmation for the decision to entrust big budgets to those with small-screen résumés. After all, Joss Whedon was nobody’s idea of a blockbuster feature director, but, armed with a militia of ace storyboarders and CGI artists as skillful and faceless as the Marvel Bullpen of yore, his highly specific skill set turned out to be perfect for a project with more moving pieces than Tony Stark’s latest pleasure suit. The talky hour-long shows on which Whedon cut his teeth involved the servicing of multiple characters, the skillful blending of genre ambition with mainstream indulgence, and, most important, the constant, careful monitoring of budgets. TV showrunners tend to represent the company line, not chafe against it like Michael Cimino in Montana. (There was a reason why half of The Avengers took place on the very claustrophobic, very soundstagey helicarrier.) And that’s a valuable asset when it’s clear that going forward, Marvel is less concerned with making something visually interesting than making something, period.