Recent Marvel films are a warning for cinema’s future
Recently, the cesspit that is Twitter has found itself the battleground for a war between two of the Internet’s loudest partisan groups. No, they are not the Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the uber-fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and acolytes of legendary director Martin Scorsese.
See, the problem all started when Empire magazine asked Scorsese what he thought of the most recent entry in Disney’s flagship superhero franchise, Avengers: Endgame.
Scorsese was honest and direct in his response, admitting that he thought Marvel movies were “not cinema.” He explained that, “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.”
Marvel fans remain furious, calling Scorsese an out-of-touch old hack who can’t get with the times, unable to move past casting Robert de Niro as a succession of angry white men. The “true film” contingent, the kind of people who can recite the complete filmography of Luciano Visconti from memory but have never seen The Dark Knight, are content to call Marvel fans idiots who think corporate schlock qualifies as high art. No one is happy, everyone is mad and a lot of film reviewers and journalists have posted downright awful takes. Time for another awful take!
I’ve enjoyed Marvel’s output from time to time, particularly those movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that allow their directors to break loose a little. Taken on their own outside the franchise structure, films like Taika Watiti’s gleefully silly Thor: Ragnarok and James Gunn’s mile-a-minute Guardians of the Galaxy are fun, breezy action films that have no problem flexing their creative muscles.
However, I can’t say that the entirety of the House of Mouse’s output under the Marvel brand is worth the watch. A distressing amount of Marvel’s output under Disney falls into the category of “I’d watch that on an airplane if there was nothing else, I guess” cinema and shows no signs of giving up.
For every Black Panther we get, there’s at least two more films like Age of Ultron or Thor: The Dark World, bland and gormless products with sleepwalking actors and the color tone of a Soviet apartment block. If you can find any artistic message in Ant-Man and The Wasp besides “We own the rights to this character and have Paul Rudd under contract,” you’re clearly better at this whole film criticism business than I am.
Given that, it’s easy to see why the people who claim that a forgettable yawner like Captain Marvel has more going on from an artistic perspective than a Goodfellas or a Casino which don’t really hit the mark. Brie Larson briefly wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt before a CGI model that sort of looks like Brie Larson flies into space does not make for a well-crafted period piece, or even a fun two hours.
In fact, I think that the attempts to place Avengers: Endgame — a movie that features a giant CGI green man dabbing and has the gall to give both Scarlett Jonhannson and Jeremy Renner speaking parts — as somehow superior to the likes of The Last Temptation of Christ or The King of Comedy are downright comedic. “Endgame made lots of money, so more people like it than anything Scorsese ever made,” an imaginary Marvel intolucator might say. So what? Avatar also made a lot of money, and the last time someone pretended that movie was good, I was in fifth grade.
Why be so uptight about this distinction? Because we shouldn’t reward lazy filmmaking. There is more skill and technical excellent in the Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas alone than in any individual Marvel movie. That’s not an indictment of these films’ talented cast and crews, but of a corporate filmmaking process that takes place almost entirely on a greenscreen and eschews any sort of risk-taking in favor of dumping off an unfinished product for the visual effects department to finish later. Even talented directors like Waititi and Ryan Coogler are saddled with this laziness — witness the final battle in the otherwise well-constructed Black Panther that looks like a poorly rendered cutscene from a Playstation 2 Marvel game.
Furthermore, just because something is fun doesn’t mean it’s high art. Sure, I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, but I also enjoyed the Guardians of the Galaxy reskin of the old Disney Tower of Terror. Neither is particularly thoughtful. I adore dumb action classics like Die Hard and Evil Dead 2, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m watching The Godfather or The Seventh Seal. Superhero movies can theoretically be vehicles for mature, thoughtful filmmaking, but Marvel’s current output isn’t exactly examining the human condition in full.
One such person who doesn’t care much for the finer points of moviemaking is Disney CEO Bob Iger, who clearly took Scorsese’s criticism poorly. “I don’t think he’s ever seen a Marvel film,” Iger said in an interview with the BBC. “Anyone who has seen a Marvel movie could not in all truth make that statement,” he added. Iger further went on to challenge Scorsese to a debate on the subject, and defended his company’s flagging Star Wars franchise amid the series’ noticeable drop in quality. It is not a good look to attack someone who’s questioning your movie making process while arguing over the charred husk of George Lucas’ one-time passion project.
Is Scorsese telling people to stop seeing Marvel movies? Absolutely not. And Iger’s callous dismissal of the critique shows that he and the rest of the Disney higher-ups never understood his case in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a larger-than life action movie on the big screen sometimes, but the film industry and audiences would be best served if there also existed a place for more serious fare. The issue is not that Disney is making lots of superhero films, but that they’re trying to rid movie theaters of any semblance of creativity and artistic drive by squeezing out anything that isn’t a franchise action movie. In their attempt to monopolize and consolidate the cinema experience, Disney shows no care for film’s past, present or future.
As Scorsese put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.”
As Disney begins to spitefully bar classic films in its newly acquired 20th Century Fox archive like Alien and Raising Arizona from being shown in independent theaters, we stand at a precipice for the industry. Even old hands like Scorsese are having to adapt. His most recent film, The Irishman is a co-production with Netflix, who will have the exclusive streaming rights to the film after its cinematic release. As long as Disney refuses to slow down the Marvel pipeline and audiences keep enjoying them, new spaces for more mature fare outside of the traditional theater might very well open. Perhaps in the future when you see ads for the likes of Spider-Man: I’d Like A Stand Mixer on My Wedding Registry or Captain Marvel: Rising: Revengeance: Reloaded, you can ponder what creativity might be flourishing just outside of the frame.