With Ant-Man and The Wasp earning solid reviews and tracking for a huge debut, Marvel Studios has delivered 20 films in a row over a 10 year period, all with positive reviews and booming box offices to match.
It’s an incredible achievement when you compare it to the ups and downs faced by other superhero franchises. However, things are not always as they seem. The well-oiled PR machine behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would like you to believe the studio makes it look easy because it IS easy.
We’re here to tell you it’s not always rosy behind-the-scenes at the hit-making factory, in fact there’s been a lot more trouble in paradise than you may expect.
In 2015, during the infamous Sony hack scandal, emails between Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and Sony CEO Michael Lynton were made public by Wikileaks. In the exchange Perlmutter, a Donald Trump supporter, made it clear he thought female-fronted superhero movies were a very bad idea.
He listed Elektra (“very, very bad”), Catwoman (“a disaster”), and Supergirl (“another disaster”) as examples of poor female-fronted superhero movies apparently in a bid to dissuade the Sony boss from green-lighting any more. Not long after this leak Disney CEO Bob Iger reorganised the reporting structure at Marvel Studios so that its president Kevin Feige no longer had to report directly to Perlmutter.
An act of war
Another example of Perlmutter upsetting the apple cart came very early in the life of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Marvel CEO had a reputation for being mean-fisted, and one way he found to keep the costs down on Iron Man 2, the third film in the MCU, was by getting rid of Terrence Howard, the original Rhodey.
Howard was paid $3.5m for the first film and had been promised $5m for the sequel. He was later told that his part had been reduced, along with his pay packet. Howard’s agent reportedly said “f*** you” to Marvel and then next day the studio hired Don Cheadle as his replacement.
According to a report on the FT, Perlmutter commented that audiences wouldn’t notice the actors had changed because black people “look the same”. He has since denied making the comments.
The Marvel merchandising machine is as well-oiled as its PR department. However, one recurring complaint about the supporting merch for all its movies is the lack of visibility of its female heroes, specifically Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.
Her character first appeared in 2010’s Iron Man 2, but she didn’t get an action figure until The Avengers came out in 2012. Mark Ruffalo even tweeted his employers to ask for more female-focussed merch.
In 2017 it was revealed that Ike Perlmutter – who comes from a toy industry background – had ordered Marvel to scale back production on Black Widow-themed toys in 2015 because “he believed ‘girl’ superhero products wouldn’t sell.”
An Ant-Man movie had been in development at Marvel for many years before it was finally released in 2015. Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish pitched their idea for an Elmore Leonard-style heist caper to Kevin Feige in 2004, and the Hot Fuzz director even spoke about the film at San Diego Comic Con in 2006, a full two years before the release of Iron Man.
Superhero fans were suitably hyped about the visionary director contributing to the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe but in 2014, as the film was in pre-production, Wright announced he was parting ways with Marvel due to “differences in their vision of the film”.
The director called it a “heartbreaking decision”, but after the studio wanted to work on the script with a new writer, Wright explained his departure saying “I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.” It was a PR and production disaster for the studio that culminated with one of the lowest-grossing Marvel Studios movies yet.
Creative differences – Part 2
In 2011 Marvel Studios hired Patty Jenkins to direct Thor 2. It would have been the future Wonder Woman director’s second feature film following the Oscar-winning Monster, however it never came to fruition.
Jenkins had pitched a Romeo and Juliet-inspired Thor movie, calling it “a war between the gods and the earthlings”, but when Marvel began to get cold feet on the idea, and had another story they wanted to tell, Jenkins quit.
“I’m glad I didn’t do it because I could have made a great Thor if I could have done the story that I was wanting to do,” she later told Uproxx. “But I don’t think I was the right person to make a great Thor out of the story they wanted to do.”
Thor: The Dark Place
Patty Jenkins’ decision to walk from Thor 2 upset one of the franchise’s biggest stars. Natalie Portman, who played Thor’s love interest Jane Foster, was reportedly so unhappy with Marvel’s decision to part ways with the director that she only completed work on the film as a “contractual obligation”.
She didn’t return for Thor: Ragnarok, telling the Wall Street Journal “As far as I know, I’m done [with those films]. I mean, I don’t know if maybe one day they’ll ask for an Avengers 7 or whatever, I have no idea. But as far as I know, I’m done, but it was a great thing to be a part of.”
Portman was one of the few actors who didn’t appear in the Marvel Studios’ massive 10 year anniversary team photo. Idris Elba also called his time on The Dark World “tortuous”.
The Incredible Sulk
Another big name who was conspicuously absent from Marvel’s big reunion was Oscar-nominee Ed Norton. The American History X star headlined 2008’s The Incredible Hulk and was heavily involved in rewriting Zak Penn’s script. However after looking at the first assembly of the footage, a lot of Norton’s revisions were dropped in favour of a shorter, more action-packed film.
A dispute to who should get script credits went to the Writer’s Guild for arbitration and it was decided Penn would be listed as the sole screenwriter. Norton was understandably peeved, and the behind-the-scenes drama became public knowledge before the film was even released. Norton refused to do interviews to support the film, and was quietly replaced by Mark Ruffalo before the Hulk made his next screen appearance in The Avengers.
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers remains Marvel Studios’ crowning achievement, but its follow up… less so. While Age of Ultron remains a solid entry in the MCU, it’s never going to top a poll of fans’ favourite MCU entries, and Whedon himself describes his work on the film as “a miserable failure”.
Whedon says the experience of making that film had “beaten him down”. “Some of that was conflicting with Marvel, which is inevitable,” he told Variety. The writer-director clashed with the studio over his vision for the film, who forced tough decisions on the director over which scenes made the final cut.
He later severed all ties with Marvel Studios, where he’d become an unofficial advisor on all its films, switching allegiances to the DC movie universe… with mixed results.
Digging a hole
Jeremy Renner, the actor who plays Hawkeye, found himself in a spot of bother while promoting Age of Ultron. When asked about fans “shipping” Black Widow with various Marvel heroes, Renner described Scarlett Johansson’s character “a slut” and “a complete whore”.
The comments were met with a swift backlash from fans unhappy with the way he talked about one of the franchise’s few female characters, and Renner issued an apology. He said he was “just poking fun during an exhausting and tedious press tour”, but that didn’t seem to ring true when he doubled down on the remark in an interview with Conan O’Brien.
Renner described the drama as “Internet trouble,” and then fired off some more questionable ‘jokes’. “Mind you, I was talking about fictional character and fictional behaviour, but, Conan, if you slept with four of the six Avengers no matter how much fun you had, you’d be a slut, just saying,” Renner said. “I’d be a slut.”
2016’s Doctor Strange faced fierce criticism after Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One in Scott Derrickson’s mystical superhero movie. In the comics, The Ancient One is traditionally portrayed as a Tibetan monk, so naturally there was a huge backlash against the decision to cast a white English actress in the role.
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans said the decision “tarnished” the franchise’s reputation, but Marvel defended the decision saying “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.”
Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill later suggested the decision had been made to change the character from Tibetan to Celtic had been a monetary one to avoid annoying the Chinese market. The conversation dominated the discussion around the film, and the director and cast were constantly asked about the topic while promoting the film.
Ant-Man and The Wasp arrives in UK cinemas on 3 August.