In a rare entertainment news example of the “Friday News Dump,” it was announced that Edgar Wright would no longer be directing Walt Disney's Ant Man. This was indeed a shocker, as the beloved cult director had been involved with the project since 2006 and was considered the primary reason why fans were excited about said film. And as the story spread on Saturday that this was indeed something of an art vs. commerce struggle, another shoe dropped, this one being that Drew Goddard would no longer be the show runner for the Netflix Daredevil series. Now this was likely a case of Goddard prioritizing his directing gig for Sony’s Sinister Six Spider-Man spin-off. Both stories combined to create a “death of Marvel” narrative. It’s a good story, one that speaks to the hardcore fan as it plays into the cliche of a tyrannical Mickey Mouse sticking his finger into the pie of the fan-friendly Marvel cinematic universe. But the truth of said narrative is mostly irrelevant. In terms of the financial health of these massive franchises, the biggest fans are the least important.
Last week, Warner Bros. (a division of Time Warner) announced its title for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel. The title, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, was met with immediate catcalls and criticism, from ours truly included (my fake titles were arguably better, and “Challenge of the Superfriends” was robbed!). I think it’s a goofy title, one that basically involves some Warner executive saying “Well, Batman v Superman isn’t enough, it needs something to explicitly tie it to Justice League” But the very people taking to the Internet to complain about the somewhat redundant and overly wordy title, or pretty much anything to do with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are also going to be among the first in line to see the picture at the first available IMAX 3D showing.
Ditto the ones who are the most outraged about Edgar Wright leaving Ant Man over “creative differences.” They will protest and criticize, perhaps rightfully so, but they will be the first to post or share the first poster and the first trailer and the first clip. The hardcore fans are the least important demographic for the likes of Walt Disney and Warner Bros. because they are already sold on the property in question. Ant Man won’t be the easiest sell, but Disney knows that the comic book junkies will surely be among the ticket buyers on that all-important opening weekend. Putting aside how often fans are wrong about stuff like this early on (Heath Ledger was a terrible choice for The Joker, Daniel Craig was a horrible pick for 007, etc.) why go out of your way to make the vocal minority happy at the expense of the silent majority?
It goes back to something I complain about quite a bit; the needless over-saturation of marketing materials for the “big” films. The vast majority of the promotional material is about keeping the film in the news cycle for sites that often target the already interested. Now on the other side of that coin, studios know full-well that the difference between success and failure is about getting everyone else into the theater. Fan outrage isn’t what killed Batman & Robin and fan approval didn’t make Batman Begins into a hit. It’s about convincing the general audiences to check out your comic book adaptation or fantasy property that makes it a hit. It’s about convincing audiences who at-best read The Hobbit in middle school to check out Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring on opening weekend.
The “fans” complained about organic web-shooters or the goofy looking Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but the vast majority of that film’s $114 million opening weekend in May 2002 came from casual Spider-Man fans and/or people who just thought it looked like a good time at the movies (that upside down kiss in the rain sold many times more tickets than fan approval). And the success of Transformers didn’t rest in the deluge of hardcore Transformers fans all flocking to the theater, but rather the copious general moviegoers of all demographics who thought that a big-scale Michael Bay action film about cars that turned into robots looked like a great way to spend the Fourth of July holiday weekend. There are exceptions, such as The Twilight Saga, but most mass-market franchise thrive on general interest rather than fan approval.
The casual moviegoers that propelled Star Trek Into Darkness to $467 million worldwide thought it was an entertaining science-fiction adventure with a fun cast and strong special effects. They didn’t care about the whole “Is Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan?” controversy or the hamfisted callbacks to Wrath of Khan or the 9/11-truther undertones. It was the hardcore Star Trek fans who took to the Internet to proclaim the film to be the “worst Star Trek film ever.” But Paramount knows that most of those ”Trekkies” will still show up for Star Trek 3 in summer 2016 no matter how much they disagree with the choice of Roberto Orci as director.
It’s not that Hollywood doesn’t care about or doesn’t appreciate the geek fandom. It’s just that said geek fandom doesn’t make up very much total box office for a given film. Edgar Wright is a popular filmmaker among hardcore movie nerds and the geek set. But Wright’s pictures are not what anyone would consider massive moneymakers. In fact, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a prime example of geek adoration utterly failing to translate into mainstream interest, as the $60 million Universal film earned just $47m worldwide despite rapturous geek approval. If Disney and/or Marvel thought Edgar Wright’s Ant Man wasn’t the one that would best appeal to broad audiences, be they right or wrong in that assessment, then the choice of serving general audiences or sticking it out for the hardcore fans was an obvious one.
That doesn’t mean that Walt Disney perhaps should not have taken a chance on Wright’s vision as a matter of artistic principle, especially as Marvel has built enough audience goodwill to roll the dice on a project like Ant Man. And I’m always annoyed when a studio sees a property that is making them lots of money and yet still artistically interferes anyway. But the notion that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is on the precipice of collapse because they are going against the wishes of the hardcore fans is based on a false presumption. The Marvel Cinematic Universe began so successfully precisely because Iron Man appealed to the casual moviegoer to such an extent that fan approval was merely a bonus. The Dark Knight didn’t gross $1 billion worldwide because the hardcore fans thought it was the “greatest Batman story ever told,” but rather because it clicked with all theoretical moviegoers.
Fans hated Spider-Man 3, yet it was the biggest-grossing Spider-Man film of all time. Ditto (for the next few weeks) X-Men: The Last Stand. Sometimes fan approval and box office success meet up, as was the case with The Avengers or The Hunger Games. The geek crowd didn’t make Lionsgate’s Dredd 3D into a smash and fan disapproval didn’t turn any of Fox’s Star Wars prequels into flops. We can scream “Michael Bay is the devil!” all we want, but the Paramount’s upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot will succeed or fail financially regardless of the hardcore fan approval. The theoretical disapproval of whatever becomes of Ant Man won’t be a darn thing in terms of that film’s box office performance next July. Because the fans screaming the loudest are going to show up anyway.
The current wave of comic book films and fantasy franchise properties are allowing the comic nerds of the world to see their four-color heroes on the film and television screens in a manner that was arguably implausible just a generation ago. But that’s only happening because films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Thor: The Dark World are appealing to huge swaths of general moviegoers who barely know how to read a comic book and/or care nothing about the properties being adapted. As a result, the very fans who are most excited for this material find themselves pandered to during the marketing campaign but otherwise ignored in terms of artistic and commercial decisions. Because the hardcore fan is going to show up no matter who directs Ant Man and/or no matter how much they claim to disapprove of the latest Amazing Spider-Man film.
Warner Bros. doesn’t care if you approve of Ben Affleck being cast as Batman, and nor should they. The fan outrage meant free publicity and a big movie star like Affleck meant guaranteed mainstream interest among general moviegoers. And Walt Disney doesn’t care what you think about Edgar Wright leaving Ant Man. The success of failure of these films will be determined by the general moviegoers who just-plain aren’t as passionate about these properties as the so-called “fanboys.” Marvel Studios was a success not because of the fans, but because they found a way to make Thor accessible to the non-fans.
The passionate comic book fan is the equivalent of the hardcore left in the Democratic Party. They know you’re not going to stay home, so why bother placating you in the first place? I’m not saying this is a good thing. As a general rule executive interference makes inferior movies. The end result was still a talented filmmaker losing an internal battle with studio executives over artistic differences. But that’s how it is.