director's cut

Okay, Fine, Let’s Talk About Marvel

What is the Justice League of Aging Auteurs really rebelling against? Photo: Marvel Studios

So, I guess this is our new reality, in which every director of a certain age must be asked for their thoughts on Marvel. The current wave of interrogations started earlier this month, when Martin Scorsese, currently doing press for his Netflix release, The Irishman, opined that Marvel movies were 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,” he said, in words that have since been echoed on every corner of the internet. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” The whole thing might have quickly blown over, but then Scorsese was asked to offer his opinion again, and he doubled and tripled down. “We shouldn’t be invaded by it,” he later explained of the superhero-movie subgenre. “We need cinemas to step up and show films that are narrative films.”

Then Francis Ford Coppola chimed in, ratcheting up the rhetoric by calling Marvel movies “despicable.” Then somebody asked Ken Loach about thembecause why the hell not? — and, in what surely came as a huge shock to everybody, the director of such anti-capitalist masterpieces as Riff-Raff and Land and Freedom deemed the candy-colored movies about Übermenschen repeatedly saving the galaxy, produced by one of the planet’s biggest corporations, “a market exercise.” Fernando Meirelles, he of City of God and The Two Popes, was next, with Wim Wenders and Wong Kar-wai presumably to follow. Pedro Almodóvar was characteristically ahead of this current debate when he told us earlier this year that he thought superheroes were “neutered.” (Though he may yet chime in again; he’s doing press for a new release, after all, and the hustle is the hustle.) Hell, Jodie Foster beat them all to the punch when she said, two years ago, that “going to the movies has become like a theme park,” and compared empty-calorie blockbusters to something akin to “fracking — you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth.”

Naturally, each round of the latest criticism has brought forth waves of Marvel fans, and even a few Marvel directors (and, oh look, Disney head Bob Iger has now chimed in as well), not just defending the comic-book movies but, in some cases, declaring that their elders’ inability to worship these movies without reservation constitutes some sort of moral failing. And the cycle of mass hysteria gets repeated all over again as soon as another director chimes in. It’s like an international reply-all catastrophe. It’s exhausting, and it’s not over yet.

I say bring it on. Keep the takes coming. Let’s have this fucking debate.

I’ve been writing about comic-book and superhero and franchise films for decades now. I’ve had to watch and rewatch them, as a writer, a fan, a parent. I don’t entirely agree with our greatest auteurs’ dismissal of them; I’ve enjoyed my share of comic-book movies, and I’d even include a couple of them among their respective decades’ best. As industrial phenomena, they’ve allowed some directors to gain the clout to go on and make smaller, presumably more personal pictures, as Taika Waititi did when he recently followed up Thor: Ragnarok with Jojo Rabbit. (Directors are always saying they’re going to follow up their big blockbusters with something smaller and more intimate, but rarely do they actually do it. We’ve been waiting for George Lucas’s “experimental” movies for four decades now.) And I’ve been impressed with the occasional subtlety these films have provided, particularly in the way they … GAH!

You see what’s happening here? I sound like a hostage grateful that my captors occasionally let me eat a nice meal. It’s the Stockholm syndrome writ large, across an entire cultural industry and its consumers. And I think that this might be what the Justice League of Aging Auteurs is really rebelling against.

Scorsese and Coppola and Loach and that ghost of Sam Peckinpah I recently interviewed during a séance might find Marvel lacking in artistry and soul, but I suspect that what they’re really responding to is the underlying reason why they were asked about Marvel movies in the first place — the superhero (and, more generally, the IP-driven blockbuster) subgenre’s complete and utter dominance of today’s cinematic landscape. These are not filmmakers given to outrageous pronouncements. They continue to function in an industry alongside craftspeople and actors who have probably worked on, or hope to work on, a blockbuster or two. (A Spider-Man was the star of Scorsese’s last picture; his co-stars were Kylo Ren and Qui-Gon Jinn. The one before that co-starred Harley Quinn. His latest co-stars Rogue.) If these directors are speaking up, that probably means they’re feeling a certain alarm on their end — a growing sense that the things that made their chosen art form what it was are dying, replaced by something ominous and totalizing.

There’s one thing Scorsese said that really sticks out: Speaking of Marvel movies, he said they were “creating another kind of audience that thinks cinema is that.” All great films create their own audience, in a sense; you can’t really broaden the art form’s range of expression without teaching your audience new ways to experience and think and feel about what’s onscreen and, by extension, the universe beyond the frame. Citizen Kane does this; Rashomon does this; 2001 does this; Jeanne Dielman does this; Do the Right Thing does this. (And it’s not just the capital-M Masterpieces that do it, either. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits does this; Chloé Zhao’s The Rider does this; Robert Greene’s Actress does this. I could go on, but we’d be here all day.)

Superhero movies have done this to some extent, too — in sci-fi-thriller parlance, they’ve terraformed their own audience — but they haven’t really expanded our capacity for feeling. If anything, they’ve limited it, delivering tales of moral clarity, with ready-made, mix-and-match character interactions. There are occasional exceptions. (Black Panther’s Killmonger might technically be a bad guy, but he’s a deeply moving one. And Thanos is the saddest villain, like, ever. And can Captain America’s BFF, the Winter Soldier, still be an okay guy if he also killed Iron Man’s parents? Well, he was brainwashed at the time, so …) But by and large, in these movies, nuance is an occasional grace note, not the norm. It’s understandable that Coppola and Scorsese might be somewhat alarmed and dispirited by all this, especially since their work has always been about dubious people. Scorsese’s characters are, among other things, killers and abusive lunatics — and he makes us care about them, even find them charismatic. In these works, nuance and discomfort are the norm, and it’s moral clarity that’s rare; of all the many people killed in Coppola’s first two Godfather movies, only like, two of them probably deserve it.

Admittedly, action-adventures have rarely been known for their complexity. This was true in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it was true in the ’70s, and it’s true now. But the tentpolization of cinema in recent years has also been accompanied by a certain self-inflation — a belief, parroted by fans and filmmakers and corporate honchos alike, that superhero epics and space-war movies and adventure fantasies matter in ways they never quite mattered before. We hear it every year when we wonder if that year’s big superhero hit might get nominated for Best Picture. Indeed, self-importance lies at the heart of these movies’ complete takeover of the industry.

Well, partly. The fact that Hollywood and film culture in general have over the years become beholden to a few serial megatitles at the expense of almost everything else is the kind of topic books have and will be written about. And it happened not because the people who made these pictures were evil (they weren’t, or at least most of them weren’t) but because of a confluence of somewhat understandable reasons. The films were, by and large, well-made and exciting. (That they were capable of earning tons of money even when they were lousy, as with the loathsome Iron Man 2, certainly didn’t hurt.) And people were willing to go to them even as other parts of the theatrical market were suffering.

But conceptually, these movies also presented clear images of good and evil at a time when our society was begging for it. The rise of superhero movies, and other IP-based fantasy and sci-fi-action spectacles, broadly coincided with the post-9/11 era. The first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings titles came out in late 2001. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man opened the following year, after having to write the Twin Towers out of its plot and its marketing. The first X-Men and the first Star Wars prequel had arrived a couple of years earlier, but their sequels came post-9/11, with a newfound political charge. We needed heroes, we needed battles between good and evil, and we needed the lines drawn clearly for us.

At least, we thought we needed them. Comic books and cartoons provide children with simple tales to help them make sense of what looks to them like a complicated world. And as our world has become increasingly more complicated and unsettling — or, perhaps more accurately, as we’ve become increasingly aware of how complicated and unsettling our world has always been — the films we consume have become ever more infantilizing. That’s not necessarily the fault of the films themselves; it’s the world that reduced us to fearful children again, not comic-book movies. Comic-book movies understandably, maybe even unwittingly, maybe even thankfully, took advantage of this circumstance and gave us what we wanted.

Action blockbusters have always been successful, and the industry’s more independent-minded artists have always struggled to get around the financial imperatives of what is, after all, a business. But the last 15 or so years have seen rapid monopolization across many industries, and these types of releases have become dominant in what is increasingly looking like a zero-sum game. While lots of other films get made — more, in fact, than have ever been produced before — all the oxygen in the room gets sucked out by the big ones, leaving the smaller ones to choke.

A treatment can become a dependency; a symptom can become a cause. And many of us who welcomed these movies with open arms may now find ourselves trapped in a tiresome world of absolutes — and not just cinematic ones. We might even be able to trace some of the intolerance of our disagreements in the real world, where opposing views become unacceptable and we live through constant, numbing cycles of hyperbole and constant accusation, to the fact that the stories we tell each other — the cultural products that are supposed to both shape and reflect our experiences — are mostly made up of simple narratives, simple quandaries, simple resolutions.   To put it another way: People who are genuinely upset by Scorsese’s comments should ask themselves why they’re so upset by them, and whether their response, in its own way, proves his point.

Okay, Fine, Let’s Talk About Marvel