Last week, esteemed director Martin Scorsese made headlines with his criticism of superhero movies, which have enjoyed a huge resurgence thanks to Marvel’s hugely popular parade of blockbusters in its interlinked ‘cinematic universe’. In an interview with Esquire, the director of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull said he didn’t watch Marvel movies, argued that they weren’t cinema, and compared them instead to “theme parks”.
Other critically acclaimed filmmakers were soon piling in. Francis Ford Coppola called superhero films “despicable,” and Ken Loach said they were boring and that they had nothing to do with the art of cinema. “They’re made as commodities like hamburgers, and it’s not about communicating and it’s not about sharing our imagination,” he said. “It’s about making a commodity which will make a profit for a big corporation – they’re a cynical exercise.”
It’s a stance that’s divided opinion among filmmakers and fans. But who is right? Here, WIRED’s Amit Katwala and Will Bedingfield discuss their thoughts on the matter in a civil and constructive conversation that at no point collapses in to childish name-calling.
Amit Katwala: I’d like to start by agreeing with Ken Loach that the Marvel movies are a bit like hamburgers, in that hamburgers are great and everyone loves them.
Will Bedingfield: Except veggies with ethics! But, actually the hamburgers analogy is a good way of getting at the beef: Scorsese and co. see the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU) as a mass-produced product pedalled by corporations for profit, rather than, in their words, ‘art’ made for people by people. To be honest, it’s not much deeper than the tired distinction between low art and high art (low art here just meaning art made primarily to cash cheques).
AK: I think a lot of this is about snobbery. Scorsese compares superhero movies to ‘theme parks,’ but that’s ok, right? Theme parks are fun and they don’t pretend to be ‘high art’ at any point, and I don’t think anyone is going in to watch Iron Man 3 thinking it’s going to change their entire perspective on life.
Although, having said that – some of Marvel’s more recent films have had a genuinely transformative effect on cinema, in terms of the techniques used (one scene in Thor: Ragnarok spawned an entire new technology) or the fact that they’re giving different groups of people a chance to take centre stage as in Black Panther, for instance. Scorsese certainly hasn’t done that.
WB: Fair on Black Panther. And I think Scorsese’s comment that the films “aren’t cinema”, at least taken at face value, is obviously ludicrous. His value judgement about whether the films are good or not doesn’t disqualify them from being films. An A-Level philosophy student could tell you that.
I’m also not sympathetic to the position that a film that is produced primarily for profit is inherently valueless; cinematic history is littered with great films that had to prove that they would make money in order to get made. It’s late capitalism baby!
AK: Exactly, and with the exception of Loach, maybe, it’s not like the directors making these criticisms are working entirely separately from these systems. These aren’t niche art-house films: Scorsese’s works have grossed more than a billion dollars in his career. Maybe it would be a fair criticism coming from someone whose ‘art’ was completely unmotivated and untainted by profit, but he’s benefited from the promotional Hollywood machine just as much as any superhero movie.
WB: What I am sympathetic to though, and I think this is where we differ, is that the Marvel films are samey – they feel like a homogenous product. It isn’t snobbery to point out that the money-spewing leviathan that is the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ churns out a very aesthetically similar product over and over. You can make this point while recognising high points like Black Panther or Thor Ragnarok. Anyway, snobbery – provided it’s backed up with sound reasoning – is good, otherwise what would be the point of talking about art at all?
AK: I think it’s a bit unfair to lump all 23 MCU movies into one homogenous lump – yes, there are some that are pretty similar, but others are distinct types of story – Ant-Man is a classic heist movie, for instance, and there’s very little similarity in tone between something like Guardians of the Galaxy and an early entry like Captain America.
If you just watch the trailers – and I doubt from his comments that Scorsese has even done that – then sure, they all look pretty similar. But then Scorsese has been criticised for a lack of gender diversity in his films, so maybe you could level the same accusation at him. How many gangster movies has he made?
James Gunn – who directed the Guardians of the Galaxy movies – made a good point on social media (which I’m amazed he is still using, considering), and pointed out that superhero films are simply the go-to genre of the day. Before that it was Westerns, or gangster movies, or space epics.
WB: It’s the fundamental structure of a universe that I think is limiting. Westerns and gangster movies did not exist within one universe – there are vast differences in style and tone and character between a Scorsese movie and a Coppola movie, just to draw on the two mudslingers. Whereas the nature of the MCU’s single world means that the films must share certain ongoing fundamental similarities, like a television series. It’s a bad trend for people who want variety – in voices and stories – from their films.
AK: I think that’s a fair point, and maybe there’s something to be concerned about if the success of the MCU ends up squeezing out other types of films from being seen or made.
But I think that’s a structural problem in cinema generally – studios love a safe bet, and how many of the new non-superhero releases we see are sequels, or prequels, or reboots? Everything being linked into one universe (on multiple worlds, though!) is maybe limiting in terms of elements of the plot, but I think we have seen a good diversity of viewpoints, and different directors putting their unique spin on things.
Just look at the difference between Kenneth Branagh and Taika Waititi’s takes on Thor, for instance. They might look the same on the surface, or share a similar structure, but – like a hamburger – there are lots of different flavours available.
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