What’s the secret to churning out enjoyable, critically acclaimed, box office destroying blockbusters multiple times a year, in constant succession?
It’s a question that plenty of movie studios would love to know the answer to. Making a single hit movie is challenging enough, but achieving this time after time with astonishing consistency is a task that very few studios can ever manage.
A lot of attention has been given to Marvel over the years, as studios that we’ll generously simply refer to as being less consistent (we’re looking at you, Fox) attempt to figure out what makes the MCU’s movie process work so well.
As it turns out, there are three very simple questions at the heart of any Marvel project which, when applied to every aspect of planning, help to keep the project on track.
According to producer Jeremy Latcham, who has served as a creative consultant on plenty of Marvel movies, it all comes down to making sure that the story works:
“[We're] honest about: does this work? Is this good for the character? Does it give me a good feeling when I watch it? And that’s all that matters.
Apparently, this key idea of questioning whether movie elements actually serve the story has remained at the heart of Marvel projects even as the studio has grown into an enormous multi-headed beast.
“Despite all the new bells and whistles, and all the new people that want to come play, and all the excitement, the actors that want to do it, and everything else, the fundamental way we make a movie, I don’t think has changed. The room that we sit in, the cards on the walls, the arguments we have, the laughs that we have, the disagreements that we have.”
While it’s difficult to definitively claim that all of Marvel’s success comes down to making sure that each element of their movies serves the main story, it really shouldn’t hurt.
There are some movie studios producing regular tentpole franchise films that could really do with making tough decisions to cut unnecessary fat.
X-Men: Apocalypse could have done with Bryan Singer questioning whether he really needed superfluous characters like Archangel or even Nightcrawler.
Anything that Zack Snyder has ever touched would have benefitted from the director being forced to give a two minute elevator pitch that actually explains the entire story in a coherent manner.
Heck, even movies in the Transformers series would be far more watchable if someone—anyone, even a caterer—took Michael Bay to one side and asked him if all his disturbingly lecherous focus on underage girls in skimpy outfits actually benefits the movie’s overall narrative.
There’s a problem in Hollywood at the moment, particularly with these big blockbusters, which is the result of directors caring more about what’s cool, than about what makes for an enjoyable story.
The roots of this can probably be traced back to the early work of the Movie Brats—directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas, who were among the first to realize that explosions are cool. Before this, Hollywood movies were built around characters and stories, rather than enormous spectacle.
Left unchecked, this has resulted in wave after wave of movies that are designed to work like a commercial break—an endless stream of visual distraction that lacks any real substance other than the message that you should buy more stuff. Sometimes the stuff in question is a product placement, but more often than not, it’s a tease for a future movie.
This, of course, is primarily Marvel’s fault—the studio perfected the art of the sequel tease, much to pretty much everyone’s chagrin.
Perhaps moments like Thor’s magic bubble bath in Age of Ultron could have been rejected based on Jeremy Latcham’s three rules. But with movies like Doctor Strange managing to avoid these awkward moments a little more, and Civil War at least justifying the inclusion of Black Panther and Spider-Man for story reason, we might be getting to a point where the studio does an even better job of crafting fantastic stories, and cutting out anything that doesn’t work within the narrative of the movie.
It's just a shame that, in this one aspect of filmmaking, all other studios are hesitant to copy Marvel’s approach.