Look, I love Marvel. I draw superheroes, read the comics and sell themed jewelry at craft fairs. I go to see the movies when they come out at the theater, while I’ll admit that I quite like Disney Plus — in some small part because I can’t resist the frightening allure of Baby Yoda — but it also allows me to dig into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the drop of a hat. The franchise is exciting. It’s funny. It’s massively likable. In short, I certainly know that I’m opening a real can of worms here as I state outright that renown director and producer Martin Scorsese knows what he’s talking about when it comes to his bashing on superhero flicks. “I don’t see them,” he said recently. “I tried, you know?” He has controversially deemed many of them “not cinema.” Moreover, the film industry’s future is under threat due to this, for makers and viewers alike.
It isn’t that the superhero genre has less artistic potential from any other film genre, which seems, unfortunately, the primary takeaway many have pulled from Scorsese’s remarks. At least, “The Guardians of the Galaxy” trilogy director James Gunn appeared to interpret them in that way, as shown in his response to Scorsese and to other critics and filmmakers who were agreeing with the fresh anti-Marvel criticism. “Many of our grandfathers thought all gangster movies were the same, often calling them ‘despicable,'” Gunn wrote, noting that all film genres have been ridiculed at some point or another in history. “Superheroes are simply today’s gangsters/cowboys/outer space adventurers.” Gunn’s argument against the generalization of genres holds up to a point. Neither Westerns, rom-coms nor detective thrillers are wholly bad genres for their numerous flops when envelope-pushing works likewise stem from them. However, when the appearance of subversive movies in theatres grows infrequent, irregular or drowned out by fluff, those same genres will inevitably suffer from issues in desperate need of criticism.
Superheros Satisfy Specific Demands
Superhero-themed films are more than capable of provoking their viewers’ intellect as these movies experiment with form and tread on unexplored narrative terrain. That’s the reason we find movies like “Thor: Ragnarok” or “Joker” to feel surprisingly new and why “Black Panther” and “Birdman” were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Such movies are “cinema” in the sense that they behave like art. They aren’t wholly constructed in the way a product is meant to appease as many people as possible — trying to fill all of the molds that corporations like Disney are certain will sell big. Nonetheless, not enough superhero movies are so cutting and nuanced as “Black Panther.” It’s frustrating when several superhero films do dip their toes into potent ideas but just don’t press into them as much as they could — notably, “Iron Man 3” explored white terrorism and “Ant-Man” critiqued the American incarceration system. These pleasant, fun films might have been much more amazing had they elbowed their way into these ideas further. Now, I can hardly recall what happens in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” aside from fight scenes. It’s not that the film’s characters were no good, but rather that they weren’t put to full use. I adore comic book writers Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s depiction of the Vision in one of the hero’s newest renditions — “The Vision” is a poignantly written tale about family conflict, bigotry and isolation. If the Vision had so much complexity in “Age of Ultron,” then the film genuinely could’ve received some laurels. Many superhero movies are filled with more entertaining, rather than challenging, content when they just don’t have to do so.
The fact is those groundbreakers aren’t the films Scorsese meant to put under fire, but rather he attacks the masses of those films that don’t hit such a mark. In his op-ed for The New York Times on the subject, Scorsese clarified that the issues he finds in superhero flicks are that they are “made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.” He’s fighting against today’s barrage of movies that follow rigid formulas and that don’t aim to grow their genre beyond the inflation of mass attention and extreme income. “They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way,” Scorsese wrote. “That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.” Most everyone, myself included, fancies good shoot-em-up bangers and explosions from time to time. Even Scorsese notes how he loves the action of Hitchcock films in his op-ed. Still, a strict diet of these films can’t possibly be good for our cultural dialogue or our imaginations in the long run — it’s just as unhealthy as attempting to subsist on delicious tasting ice cream alone.
Like eating a good chocolate sugar cone from time to time, there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeing individual movies engineered to evoke immediate visceral reactions from us, including excitement. Genres built excessively on such films, however, will inevitably add up to hollow reputations. Here I think of horror, a genre I thought I didn’t love until I learned that substantiative, high-concept horror exists. The reason for my initial distaste came from what I thought horror was: merely over-the-top shock factor gore. Films of such a vein don’t draw audiences in by advertising anything deep, but they promise an incredible adrenaline rush. Without their scares, what would anybody remember about such horror films except for their overused tropes? Yet, “Get Out” and “A Quiet Place,” films which focus heavily on the gravity of real-world issues like racism and ableism, stand out from the other horror pictures we’ll forget about in the next few years. These are the movies we’ll most remember. For example, the earliest features ever made, slapstick reels, were played at theatres and fairs to make guests laugh, only to be thrown away later like candy wrappers. It wasn’t until certain creators like Charlie Chaplin came around and made comedies like “Modern Times” or “The Great Dictator” — these films engaged in conversation with significant problems of the era like the Great Depression or the plague of Nazism — that changed slapstick from a genre nobody took seriously into enduring eminence.
Don’t Forget the Underdogs
As for the crisis of today’s film industry climate? Well, there are a decreasing number of opportunities for movies like “A Quiet Place” or “Modern Times” to land with audiences, point-blank. Theatres are becoming increasingly corporated. I can expect to show up to my closest Cinemark to see a high-end blockbuster any given day of the week. Scorsese terms this trend “a chicken and egg issue,” where much of the success of these films springs from their self-feeding widespread availability and marketing. “In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen,” Scorsese wrote. Chain theatres are now less and less the homeplace of many cerebral, weird and emotive films as opposed to their new home at festivals, small theatres — like Salt Lake’s Broadway Theatre — and, yes, streaming services such as Netflix. Even midbudget movies are slowly being squeezed out from getting showings. “It’s a perilous time in film exhibition,” as Scorsese put it, “and there are fewer independent theaters than ever.” So forgive me if I happen to be looking forward to “Cats” a little, but it’s the first blockbuster I’ve seen around for a while that’s willing to pull offbeat punches, even if it doesn’t land them. I mean, it has to beat whatever Disney’s last CGI remake was.
The scope of factory-like cinematic populism can be disheartening to individual viewers. After all, it’s not as though everyday joes can pull any real fights against mega-film companies like Marvel, not when we like the movies they offer to us as much as the next person. The solution isn’t to veto this season’s “Star Wars,” rail against every reboot or stop going to mainstream theatres altogether. Mark Ruffalo, the talented actor who portrays the Hulk in Marvel’s “Avengers” films, recently proposed his solution on BBC radio. Ruffalo explained that economies will always shape society and its media. “We should have a national endowment of the arts that gives money to another kind of cinema and does support another kind of cinema,” he said, adding that it should be one “that lets young, new talent come in that isn’t just driven by the marketplace but driven by precepts of art.” Along these lines, consider supporting small scale film as often as the big dogs, and stay on the lookout for local and limited screenings. After all, who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new favorite as enjoyable as the next major saga to appear in pop culture.