Scorsese, Marvel & Art in Cinema

Martin Scorsese kicked over a fifty-gallon oil-drum full of worms, not just a can, when he said Marvel movies were not cinema. Figures in the industry as varied as Ken Loach and James Gunn leapt into the fight. Now it’s my turn. You’re welcome.

It depends how we’re defining ‘cinema’, surely? Let’s put aside the definition of the building where we go to watch the movies themselves. That leaves us with either the business or the art of making film.

As a business model, the MCU is unquestionably genius. Ten years of interconnected blockbusters appealing to all ages, leading to an ongoing series of ever-bigger climactic event films. By 2017 they had made almost $11 billion on an initial $4 billion investment. After nineteen films they were up to around $16 billion. Then, of course, Avengers: Endgame overtook Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time (at least, unadjusted for inflation, and until Avatar gets a re-release when the sequels come out). And we’re just discussing revenue from the films themselves here, never mind the merchandising, commercial tie ins and increased comic sales.

You have to go back to 2011 to find a year when Disney didn’t take the number one grossing movie at the box office (that year it was the last of the main Harry Potter franchise) and they have dominated the top five ever since, not just in numbers of films in those slots, but also in the revenue, being comfortably ahead of nearest rivals. So well done Marvel, you won all the money. But this is not a blog about communism versus capitalism. Earning all the money does not inherently make Marvel movies ‘despicable’. But it does mean that anyone who cares about films at all should care about this argument. That is a colossal amount of power for one studio to have.

Obviously, if the success of the MCU prevents younger and independent filmmakers from getting attention and audiences that’s deeply problematic. The paradox here is that directors like the Russos, Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi are getting shots at mega-blockbusters arguably earlier than they would have done previously, albeit with a lot of studio oversight.

Western mainstream culture is clearly dominated by these particularly shiny superheroes to the point where other characters are struggling to make themselves heard over all the ‘kapows’, but Gunn was quite fair in his assertion that these are just the modern equivalent of westerns and gangster movies. Westerns in particular dominated cinema for years, so perhaps it will take the Marvel equivalent of a Heaven’s Gate to change that situation. But if we leave aside the financial dominance, we still should ask: are these films cinematic ‘art’?

Heaven’s Gate came at the end of what is still arguably the most exciting cinematic decade, the decade that invented blockbusters and franchise movies as we know them today, that gave birth to the idea of merchandising on a massive scale and produced some of the greatest movies ever made. It gave us Superman, in 1978. And while Leone was giving us a fresh take on the Western in the sixties, it was 1972 when The Godfather turned the disposable gangster film (and a pulp novel) into a bona fide classic of cinema. It was, of course, the decade that Scorsese came to prominence.

As I was writing this, Scorsese published his own eloquent and heartfelt elaboration in the New York Times, and for him, it is clear that the argument is about art, which he and his peers stood for in cinema. He talks about emotional engagement, about being ‘surprised and thrilled’ and about characters he could relate to.

When I looked back at the figures for 2014, when Scorsese’s film ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ was out (albeit released in late December 2013), I was struck by two things. First, it was only the sixtieth highest-grossing film that year and that, while Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a film I don’t care for, was number one, the second highest-grossing Marvel film was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is one of the three Marvel movies I put on my list of favourite superhero films. Now, that’s a great film, but in terms of making me feel something, it doesn’t come close to Wolf. True, what I feel for most of that film is revulsion at the lead character and his cronies, interspersed with hopelessly hysterical laughter. Several reviewers at the time marvelled at the fact that this and later, Mad Max: Fury Road, had been made by men in their seventies. They’re obviously quite different films, but in terms of visceral, raw emotion, there isn’t a Marvel film that can touch them. Not for an adult, anyway.

And that’s the thing. Tastes change. As a child, the wonder of seeing superheroes on the big screen was second to none. Friends who are parents talk of the ‘privilege’ of seeing that same explosive excitement on the faces of their children. As dusty adults, we lose some of that ability to suspend disbelief, but you can touch on it when you re-watch a cherished film from childhood, like a silver thread that connects you directly to your younger self. To this day, I’ve never made it through ET without crying.

But… but… I can’t shake that feeling that Scorsese is so right when he says there is no ‘revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger’ in these films. That snap was pointless, I felt nothing apart from mild annoyance at the less than perfect CGI when Tom Holland disintegrated. There can’t be any real emotional involvement in films that, by definition, follow some variation of the Hero’s Journey every single time and are episodic to such a degree that without watching every single one (some of which, let’s face it, just aren’t very good) you can miss large portions of the story.

Is that just movie snobbery? Maybe, I’m quite willing to concede that I probably look at these things too deeply. Sometimes I annoy even myself. But there’s definitely been a shift. I just couldn’t raise any joy at the most recent Spider-man MCU movies in comparison to the first two Raimi outings of the character back in 2002 and 2004. That’s partly because of too many Spidey movies since then, and partly because of superhero saturation in general. And talking of snobbery, there has also to be an element of hidden geek joys becoming so mainstream now that it feels as if a world I could retreat into as a child and as a shy young man has been somehow cheapened or compromised. I was so desperate to see that first Spider-man film I went on my own on opening night, despite the fact that I was due to go the very next night with a date (she couldn’t make opening night, I literally couldn’t wait a day longer, and no, I didn’t let on to her that I’d seen it). But now? Well, the figures prove that everyone and their mum (yeah, your mum) is going to see these films.

But again, that doesn’t make them somehow bad films and Scorsese himself was explicit about that in the original interview, he specifically called them ‘well-made’, and whatever you think about his argument or his films, that is high praise from a filmmaker as experienced and respected as Martin Scorsese.

There is another element to this: the effects and the budgets. Famously, the tagline for Superman was ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’. Part of the joy of these films is seeing the incredible superhuman antics of these characters taken from comic pages and transformed into believable moving images. The idea of seeing Superman fly in ’78 was hard to believe at the time, but it remains convincing today. The challenges of making it happen required ingenuity and innovation which are part of the fun itself. You go into the cinema with an element of challenge toward the filmmakers, wanting to be convinced, wanting your disbelief to be not just suspended, but disintegrated. When the 2002 Spider-man came out, some of the web-slinging effects were a little unconvincing and a lot of people still don’t exactly love the Green Goblin suit. But the film did enough things well to earn both a 90% Tomato meter score and become the highest-grossing film that year.

It’s different now. The budgets are so high and the technology so advanced that we never really expect to be unconvinced by effects. A man or woman flying on-screen is routine. Sure, there’s something of a backlash against CGI and a pull for more practical effects which is probably tied into all of this, but for me, this is one of the key differences between the Sam Raimi Spider-man films (the first two, anyway) and the modern MCU ones. There’s less sense of risk-taking. There’s little difference anymore between a ‘live-action’ movie and a cartoon. Witness the 2019 version of The Lion King, another Disney picture for the most compelling evidence of this. When any visual spectacle is possible, when anything a director can imagine can be realised in the cores of computers, then something is lost. In the NYT article, Scorsese talks about an ‘event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself’. Beautifully put. In modern blockbusters, that equation is often out of balance, because we impatiently expect the impossible and gorge on it like an all you can eat buffet. For me, this has polluted other films. I have a love for the Mission Impossible franchise. But my enjoyment of one of the set-pieces of the last film, Fallout, was slightly harmed because I assumed the HALO jump skydiving sequence had been created with CGI. It wasn’t until afterwards I learned that Cruise had done the jump for real, though by now I suppose I should expect that.

It also means that the boundary between cinema and gaming, which remains the real entertainment cash cow of our age, is increasingly slight. The ‘art’ of cinema is increasingly reliant on the same creative industries as it’s more successful cousin. That’s not to criticise gaming. Anyone who has played even some of the ‘Triple-A’ games of recent years will see that art is thriving in that industry, and some of the smaller, independent studios are pushing it in fascinating directions. But I think it is a valid criticism of some cinema. At what point do you cease to be making a movie and start making a cartoon or a video game? How do you draw the line? Should you? What if post-production goes on longer than photographing actors? Is that still technically a film that you’ve made? Of course, that argument doesn’t start and end with the MCU. Even Scorsese’s new film The Irishman relies heavily on CGI to de-age the characters. Though that is in the service of telling a very human story, which brings us full circle back to the argument of emotional engagement.

If James Gunn is correct, and these Marvel movies are just the westerns and gangster movies of our times, then to satisfy a Scorsese or a Coppola or a Loach, we will need the equivalent of an Unforgiven or The Godfather. We need a film that does for comic book movies what Watchmen did for comics. That film has yet to be made and it’s not going to happen quickly. Joker this year was a radically different take on the genre and very much a film aimed at adults that must be commended and admired. It was also deeply, directly and unapologetically derivative of Scorsese’s work. Yes, he had some involvement but wasn’t ultimately a producer, as originally hoped. It was certainly a very human story, much more so than anything so far made by Marvel.

The film that comes closest to achieving this for me and stands head and shoulders above any other comic book film is, of course, The Dark Knight. Revelation? Check. Mystery? Check. Emotional danger? Check. A film with such a strongly realised theme, characters and such brilliant storytelling that it deserves to be considered against the films of the auteurs in this argument. And that’s because Nolan himself is an auteur, who earned the right to be so by making progressively more challenging and satisfying films as well as proving to the studio that not only was he a bankable maker of blockbusters, he could casually create an entirely new sub-genre in the process. Sure, Batman Begins wasn’t the first movie reboot, but the bold style and swagger with which he did it have been copied with diminishing returns ever since.

The emotional danger in The Dark Knight is there even before the film begins. We know already that the stakes have been raised as soon as Bruce Wayne puts on that mask. Instead of the corny ‘I made you, you made me’ dialogue from the 1989 Batman, we have the ending of Batman Begins to launch us into the new story, with Commissioner Gordon revealing that playing card. And let’s not forget that Bruce Wayne is very much human, a fact that Nolan emphasises in all three movies. He could die. There were an awful lot of people crying in the cinema where I saw The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 because it was entirely believable that he might do so at the end of that film. But he didn’t, and that’s another thing that sets the middle film apart. Batman doesn’t win. At best, he has a pyrrhic victory which echoes into the final film and causes him emotional trauma. All the heroes in that film go through something horrific, two of them die, Harvey Dent not just once, but effectively twice as first his humanity, then his life is extinguished in two separate incidents. The rousing speech at the end of the film is contrasted against images of failure: Batman pursued as a criminal; the light of the Bat-Signal being extinguished with an axe. It’s bleak stuff.

Now, compare that to the end of Avengers: Infinity War where half the life in the universe is extinguished with a snap of Thanos’ fingers. Here’s where Scorsese’s argument is completely on the (Colour of) money. The scale is so much more, but the emotional impact so much less. It’s impersonal. The people we’re asked to emotionally engage with are super-human. The two most relatable characters are probably Peter Parker and Steve Rogers, because they start life as regular humans as opposed to geniuses, billionaires or gods. But they’re heroes whether or not they have their powers. Heroes in this universe don’t lose. Ever. If they die, they die as heroes. They never see their integrity compromised by a hard dose of reality.

But that’s okay, because that’s why in one sense, Marvel movies are art and massively successful at it, not just financially. DC goes dark Marvel goes light. As it was, as it ever shall be. The MCU has brought Marvel comic books to life in all their colourful, funny, vibrant and sometimes over-the-top glory. To go into the cinema and watch an MCU movie is to step into the pages of one of their books. Yes, it absolutely is a ‘theme park’, definitely more so than ‘cinema’. But that in itself doesn’t matter. We should worry about their dominance, sure. Anything so successful at the expense of other elements in a system could overtake and destroy that system. Scorsese and his peers should be championed, not pilloried for raising these questions, and his own personal championing of younger independent filmmakers speaks volumes about the man and his artistic integrity. But once again, these films are not ‘despicable’ in and of themselves. They are great at what they do, and we should feel no guilt about enjoying them. Those of us who love cinema can like them too. Going to a theme park is always fun. Just maybe occasionally, go on a ride with a smaller queue. Enjoy something a little unusual. Because if Stan Lee taught us anything, he taught us that it’s okay to be different.

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