By Ben Spaeth
Photo: Marvel – Source
Let’s not sugar coat it, pretending that any of us are a higher authority on filmmaking than Martin Scorsese is a fool’s errand. He is by far one of the most accomplished directors of our time. His opinions on some of the most popular films in the world, can and will shape the opinions of audience members and critics alike who hold his films in high regard. That’s why when he says things like “Marvel movies aren’t cinema” of course it’s going to draw the attention of twitter users and media outlets alike. However, we shouldn’t accept Scorsese’s claim that Marvel movies aren’t cinema without at least examining the counter argument for why Marvel movies should be considered cinema.
In his New York Times opinion piece, Scorsese outlines his reasoning for why he believes Marvel movies fall outside the realm of cinema. He opens the article by stating he has only seen a few Marvel films and does not specify which ones. Ideally his claims would be easier to refute from a film critique standpoint if we knew the specific movies he viewed, as it would be easier to understand where he’s coming from. This makes a lot of his article seem like blanket statements and over generalizations about the franchise as a whole. Now I’m not suggesting that Scorsese can only critique Marvel movies if he’s seen every single one, but if he’s only seen Thor: The Dark World of course his opinions might be skewed.
Scorsese’s main criticism is that Marvel movies lack the ability to convey the emotional and psychological aspect of human existence. To an extent he is right. Once a character is given unworldly powers and thrust into intergalactic space battles, it may be hard to ground their internal struggle and relate their existence back to the audience. This doesn’t mean that characters in these films don’t have meaningful arcs and internal conflict. Albeit formulaic at times, the internal conflict is often what drives the superhero’s journey throughout the film.
Take the Spiderman films for example. The one commonality these films have is Peter’s struggle to balance his superhero life with his regular life, while understanding that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Ultimately Peter in each Spiderman series decides that because he has been gifted the power to do good and save lives, he must use it, no matter the effect on his own personal life.
The internal conflict a superhero faces throughout their film is often a moral conundrum rather than an examination of their own existence. Shifting the character’s emotional and psychological experience away from the groundedness of everyday life and into the questioning and reflection of the character’s own morals shouldn’t be the grounds to expel these films from the category of cinema.
Another criticism Scorsese lobs at the Marvel films is the lack of vision of an individual artist. While Marvel films certainly have a lot of overhead, it is important to note that these are tentpole films. Of course the studio heads are going to be highly involved with the making of these films, because their jobs rely heavily upon their success.
Even with the vast amount of studio overhead, the uniqueness Scorsese claims can only be achieved through the risks taken by the individual artist are still present in Marvel films. James Gunn and Jon Watts are two great examples of this. They both have very clear and distinctive styles that make their films standout from others in the Marvel universe.
As for Scorsese’s claim that Marvel movies are, “closer to theme parks then they are to movies” we shouldn’t criticize films for utilizing and showcasing the advancements of modern special effects. If anything these films show how far filmmaking has come. From George Méliès experimenting with multiple exposures and hand painted color, to the latest motion capture technology and 3D modeling software.
However, Audiences may come for the glamorous special effects and fight scenes, but stay because they genuinely are invested in the characters. This is why the DC franchise is far less successful than Marvel at the moment. They haven’t built up their characters (aside from Wonder Woman and Shazam) or established to the audience why they should care about each character’s personal journey.
Ultimately this boils down to a debate over what is and isn't art. Scorsese is certainly an auteur filmmaker, so it’s not surprising to see him define filmmaking along those lines. While Marvel movies are produced for the sake of mass consumption, rather than to achieve a particular artistic purpose or message, they still resonate with people. That’s what filmmaking really is about. Creating an experience that makes the audience feel something they wouldn’t have otherwise.