VVIBES is a Vague Visages column featuring regular contributors. The October 10, 2019 edition addresses Martin Scorsese’s recent comments about Marvel movies not being “cinema.”
The development of the MCU business model has heralded an entirely new form. This form has transcended the cinematic; it is a conflation of theatrical scale, video game aesthetics and episodic storytelling models. Scorsese is correct in his assessment that this is not cinema as it has been understood since the conventions of time, space and narrative were settled in the early 20th century. The anger this has elicited is interesting, as it seems that the participants in these events — again, MCU films have transcended the status of mere “movies” — are unaware of this shift; they still cleave to the idea that cinema bestows some kind of credibility on the consumption choices to which their identity is tied. At heart, they are brand loyalists who will follow their favoured intellectual property into whatever form it mutates in the coming years. My guess is that these franchises will eventually throw off the theatrical experience as an anachronism and embrace new forms of sensation. Scorsese understands all too well that cinema is merely an adjunct to what Disney and their ilk have planned for these properties.
When likening a Marvel film to a day in a the park, Scorsese said, “it isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” That’s not particularly fair to Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man when he leaves behind his wife and child and sacrifices everything to save the world in Avengers: Endgame (2019). Now, if Scorsese were basing his opinion exclusively on Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019), perhaps his brash comment could be excused. Yet, credit should be given to several superhero filmmakers who have successfully shown glimpses of pathos and explored the genre from unique perspectives. They include Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi and Richard Donner. The timing of Scorsese’s slam of superhero films upon the opening of DC Comics’ Joker is especially ironic, when so many aspects of Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver (1976) dwell within Todd Phillips’ dark tale of the DC villain’s origination. Even comic book writer Frank Miller’s Catholic guilt-ridden interpretation of Marvel’s very own Daredevil owes a significant amount of debt to Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Harvey Keitel’s character, Charlie Cappa. Even if Scorsese is right that the human drama of superhero films cannot match Citizen Kane (1941), they have the potential to excel in artistry if more filmmakers follow the lead of Anton Furst in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). The challenge to superhero filmmakers is that we’re approaching the end cycle of the genre after several decades. It may become increasingly difficult to keep the material fresh and relevant, while remaining true to the mythos and characters.
In modern film culture, many people seem to believe that wearing a genre uniform automatically correlates with expertise, and that anybody who doesn’t wave a genre flag can’t possibly understand genre specifics or genre history. Beyond that, people like to focus on movies that only make them feel happy — the “life’s too short to watch bad movies” crowd. Scorsese — who has spent over 50 years making challenging movies and promoting world cinema — seems concerned about the mass consumption of mediocrity, and how so many moviegoers use poignant and personally-relatable moments to defend average genre filmmaking. Just keep an open mind. You don’t have to choose Criterion over Shudder, or vice versa; you don’t have to dismiss one genre to establish your expertise in another. Watch various types of mainstream and indie movies, both good and bad, especially if you’re someone pursuing a career in film journalism.