The seemingly unstoppable success of Marvel Studios over the past eight years can be pointed to as the origin point for a number of trends in contemporary cinema, from the superhero movie boom to the preponderance of “cinematic universes,” linking diffuse properties into a monolithic whole — a trick that doesn’t appear to have worked out successfully for anyone aside from Marvel, to date. But there’s another lesson that Marvel is attempting to teach, even if no one — aside from audiences — appears to be listening, so far: redefine the very idea of who is making the movies in the first place.
For the longest time, of course, the closest thing a movie would come to an “author” would be the director. Sure, movies are the work of a small army of people, but it would be the director who set the tone and made the decisions — at least until the era of blockbuster franchises when directors of individual movies within a series would have to fit a set of pre-determined rules and demands installed by the producers of the larger property. As long as they did that, however, they were free to do whatever they wanted with their individual movies, allowing for movies like The Empire Strikes Back or Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; features that maintained their own voice despite the demands of the larger whole.
With Marvel, things are different. It’s not only that Marvel’s movies share an aesthetic so that the different installments don’t just become consistent, but virtually interchangeable — it’s that, as of Ant-Man, Marvel has literally made their products interchangeable. The post-credit sequence of Ant-Man, after all, was actually part of Captain America: Civil War that was imported into the former movie at the last minute in order to remind viewers that Ant-Man was definitely, 100 percent, connected to all those other Marvel movies that they knew and loved.
The wholesale, uncredited lift of a scene from one movie into another is the most extreme example of Marvel’s willingness to keep the authorship of its movies fluid; post-credit sequences of movies have long been directed by directors other than those responsible for the main movie — something that Thor: The Dark World‘s Alan Taylor complained about in 2013 — and just this past week, James Gunn has talked about directing the Stan Lee cameo sequences for at least three Marvel movies, underscoring the fact that multiple directors work, often uncredited, on each Marvel movie.
Directing a Marvel movie is, some have argued, more akin to directing a television show, where the focus is on serving the vision of the writers or producers (in this case, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige). There’s a case to be made for that, although it would be difficult to argue that writers get much more respect in the Marvel movie method. Ant-Man writer/director Peyton Reed admitting that he was upset that Scott Lang’s “Giant Man” power reveal would happen in Captain America: Civil War comes to mind here; again, the greater whole prevails over the individual movie, or the artist responsible.
So who is the author of a Marvel movie, if not the writer or the director? It’s tempting to make the case for the Marvel brand itself. It’s the name that audiences identify the movies with as a whole, and it’s the name that has come to define expectations for subsequent movies. We know what to expect from a Marvel movie, and we grade each new release against the Marvel movies that came before. In many ways, the Marvel brand is the most successful creation of Marvel Studios to date, achieving in less than a decade what took Pixar, Disney et al far longer to cement in the minds of their fan base.
To date, other studios that would rival Marvel haven’t followed its lead on this issue. Warner Bros’ Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is clearly a Zack Snyder movie, distinct from David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and, from what we’ve seen so far, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Even Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was obviously the work of J.J. Abrams. But what happens when studios notice how successful Marvel had become by submerging individual voices in service of the unified studio vision …?