In the last two weeks, comic book fans on the Internet have found a rather odd person to be angry at: the legendary director Martin Scorsese. At a panel for his new movie The Irishman, Scorsese was asked about the Marvel films and dismissed them as “not cinema” and “theme park ride movies.” Just a few days ago he doubled down, saying these types of films were “invading” theaters and that theater chains needed to do more to promote “narrative films.” Of course, everyone is in an uproar, but the real question remains: are Marvel movies actually cinema? Let’s see if we can figure out a satisfactory answer.
Usually when the definition of a term is in debate, I like to read the dictionary, but the definition of cinema is literally “a movie” which doesn’t help. So let’s think about how we as a culture have decided to define it. Basically cinema is something big and important, the classic uplifting of the human spirit movie. Think more David Lean or Stanley Kubrick and less Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay. It’s movies like 12 Years a Slave or Birdman, not Transformers or The Fast & the Furious. There are some that tow the line well, like the recent Ad Astra or Mad Max: Fury Road, but per our definition it’s either fun or profound.
Now, take note that this discussion is just coming up now, as Disney prepares to mount an Oscar campaign for Avengers: Endgame and Joker seems set to score major nods at the Academy. Previously the defenses for these types of films amounted to “oh it’s just a comic book movie” or “why are you taking it so seriously, it’s just a fun movie!” However, now comic book movie fans want to challenge an undisputed master of cinematic filmmaking and tell him that he’s wrong about what cinema really is. It’s a fascinating turn of events, but a good discussion to have anyways. Now let’s take a look at Scorsese’s first set of comments:
”I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Looking at that, I actually find myself agreeing with Scorsese more than I don’t. I know that makes some angry, but let’s not kid ourselves here. The vast majority of comic book movies are not designed to challenge audiences, evoke emotions or even present something new or fresh. They’re designed, usually by committee, to appeal to as many people as possible so they can make as much money as possible. This of course applies to both Marvel and DC, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I love dumb fun movies as much as anyone else, and they are important as an escape from the real world.
That being said, I think it’s important to still remember what these movies actually are, and not make them into something they weren’t meant to be. No one would ever call Fast and Furious high art, but they’re virtually no different than three-quarters of the MCU. You might disagree with me, and I can already hear angry keyboard clicks, but let’s be honest with ourselves. These are not 2001 or Casablanca, and I’d argue that they’re not even Lord of the Rings or Star Wars… does that mean they’re not cinema, though?
Obviously, not every one of these films is safe blockbuster fare, and I wonder which of these films Scorsese has actually seen. If I were someone close to him I would have urged him to watch different movies than the rank-and-file bland assembly line comic book films we have now. Specifically, I’d give him The Dark Knight, Logan, Deadpool and Into the Spider-Verse as examples of comic book movies that transcend the genre and become something more. They elevate the genre to something higher and show audiences what comic book movies can be. It undercuts Scorsese’s point that he doesn’t actually watch these movies, so I would hope that he’d take the time to familiarize himself with, at the very least, these great ones.
When these comments came out, I honestly thought that would be the end of it. If Scorsese responded to the backlash (and why would he?), he could say he was blindsided and just kind of said what was coming to his mind. And he said some nice things, especially that they are well made and the actors shine in their own way! But no, he had more, and these are his comments from a recent Q&A, courtesy of Indiewire:
During a press conference this weekend at the BFI London Film Festival, the Academy Award-winning director said, “Theaters have become amusement parks,” according to CNET. “That is all fine and good but don’t invade everything else in that sense. … That is fine and good for those who enjoy that type of film and, by the way, knowing what goes into them now, I admire what they do. It’s not my kind of thing; it simply is not. It’s creating another kind of audience that thinks cinema is that.”
Scorsese did not relent in his screed against superhero tentpoles. “It’s not cinema, it’s something else,” he said. “We shouldn’t be invaded by it. We need cinemas to step up and show films that are narrative films.”
Okay, that has a lot more to unpack there. First, he does take care to throw in a couple more compliments, specifically that he admires them and acknowledging that they are some people’s types of films. However, I think he does make a crucial point in his favor and a massive logical mistake in this statement. Since I’ve been kinda down on the MCU, let me just start with something Scorsese got incorrect in all this.
It’s a common assumption amongst some of the more artistically minded in Hollywood that if there just weren’t as many comic book movies or blockbusters in general, other types of films like dramas, romantic films and sci-fi movies would be able to flourish. They wouldn’t be relegated to the label of “indie movies,” given a budget of five dollars to work with, and then dumped into specialty theaters that only five cities have to die a slow death unless Oscars are in play. And when studios do give these films a chance, they are promptly buried because people would rather not take a chance on something new and see the comic book movie for the fifth or sixth time.
As much as I hate to say this, you could take away comic book movies tomorrow and these other films wouldn’t make any more money than they do now. There were seven superhero films released this year (eight if you count indie film Fast Color), out of hundreds of others. In the cinemas right now is one comic book movie, Joker, amidst two animated family comedies, Oscar drama, two sci-fi action thrillers, Downton Abbey, an adult horror movie, and J-Lo as a stripper. That’s quite the wide variety of movies in theaters that are being supposedly “invaded” by comic book movies.
While comic book movie fans need to accept that not every Marvel film is the pinnacle of cinema, the more artistic types need to accept that audience interest just isn’t there anymore for those types of films. Sometimes a couple break from the pack, but unfortunately that’s the nature of the business. In fact, I would argue that filmmakers should be glad for comic book and blockbuster films, as those give the studios the money to fund these “true cinema” movies even though they might not make any money at the box office. It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits everyone, as everybody still gets paid and the theaters still have a diversity of films for prospective audiences.
Scorsese has a point, though, in his comment about how people are being brought up to view these types of films as cinema. Now cinema is subjective term, which I’ll get to, but the fervor with which comic book movie fans defend their movies and exclude almost all others is an interesting phenomenon. I see a lot of bad hot takes on the Internet, but I’ve never seen as many as when a comic book fan attempts to explain why Guardians of the Galaxy deserves an Oscar nomination rather than a “boring movie” like Whiplash. Or why that no-name, irrelevant director Steven Spielberg doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he discusses the film industry.
The backlash against Scorsese himself underlies a rather strange defensiveness that these types of fans have against criticism, even though superhero films are the undisputed champions of the box office and dominate our culture. I’ve seen a lot of rather unpleasant comments leveled at him, and while the accusations that he knows nothing about movies are entertaining, I wonder just what these people watch other than these movies. I understand the appeal of Marvel, but does what Martin Scorsese thinks really matter? Do we need to tear down his films (okay, attempt and fail to) just because he doesn’t think Ant-Man & The Wasp is the best movie ever? Come on, guys, we need to do better than that. Let me just quote Sam Jackson here and say that we’ve “got to get past the Marvel stuff” because “Other f’ing people make movies.”
While I wanted to get into the comments themselves, I understand that this doesn’t answer the base question: are comic book movies cinema? Well, to be honest, I’ve given my opinion on Marvel movies but… it ultimately depends on the viewer. Cinema is not something you can measure with some kind of scale or rating system that assigns an objective rating or value to it. Cinema is subjective, dependent solely on what the individual viewer takes away from it. I know people who find The Godfather boring and cried at Transformers 2, and I also know people who hate Star Wars and think every foreign film ever is amazing. Do I feel that they’re wrong? Of course I do, but does that mean that they are objectively wrong?
I personally think that Superman: The Movie is the perfect example of what I’d call cinema. It pushed the boundaries of film when it released, it had a heartwarming story and excellent performances, and it really inspired me as a kid. Lord of the Rings, something closer to what we might define as cinema, had a similar effect on me. Is there a clear difference in story, effects and direction between these two? Sure, but the impact was so similar that they hold that coveted title as true cinema in my opinion.
Do I think the MCU is cinema? No, not really. I think they have some good films and are consistently entertaining overall, but to me a series built on repeating the same basic story over and over again isn’t very interesting or special. The achievement of it all is fascinating and the ones that do manage to stand out deserve all the credit in the world, but to me the main goal is to get butts in seats. Anything else like heart, intelligence and unique vision is strictly secondary to the goal of making the green. To me that’s not cinema, that’s making a product, but that’s just me. You’re free to disagree and I’d love to have that debate, but not with anger-driven, non-thinking fanboys. Let it go, guys, enjoy your dominance! It’s okay for people to disagree!
C. Robert Cargill, the writer of Doctor Strange and one of my favorite people on the Internet, made a great point on Twitter in the aftermath of this. He wrote that cinema doesn’t actually have to be heady or difficult or only for adults. Anything that inspires awe in a child (like Star Wars or Harry Potter), that brings a family together (like It’s A Wonderful Life or Toy Story), or that even just makes you share a laugh with your friends (like Airplane or Girls’ Trip)… well, that’s cinema too. We’ve allowed ourselves to exclude certain types of films from this category because we feel like there has to be a hallowed place for the important movies to be, and that is a shame.
Does all of this mean that Marvel movies are on the same level as the films I just listed, or that they are above criticism? No, but in that same vein I posit that movies like Citizen Kane, The Shining and Apocalypse Now aren’t beyond reasonable critique either. It all depends on the person, and rather than using these moments to tear each other apart, we should be coming together to share our experiences with film. We live in a very interesting time, with a whole lot of stuff to watch and enjoy, and I think we should be grateful that awareness of cinema is as high as it is. Let’s be cool to each other, guys, and stop giving those who disagree such a hard time. Tribalism has ruined our politics, comics, musics and sports, let’s not let it destroy movies, too!
The Irishman hits Netflix on November 27.
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