First things first: regardless of what anyone says about your favourite film franchise, it will not diminish in value in your heart.
This was a necessary reminder to myself as I began to pen this article hoping to defend my unwavering love of MCU against comments made by the filmmakers of the most legendary films I know of including The Godfather and Taxi Driver.
When the likes of Scorsese and Coppola disparage everyone’s favourite superhero universe, it may sting at first but you can accept it, agree to disagree with it and leave it at that. But what might be worth exploring is the Hollywood cinema landscape, where it stands as of today, the role that Marvel plays in shaping its experience and what may have lead Oscar-winning filmmakers to make such comments.
Martin Scorsese: “That’s not cinema. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,”
I remember watching Iron Man in 2008, the first time in the theatre. I loved every second of it and left enthralled. I was hooked from then onwards. This is the case for thousands of other fans but it is also true that Marvel fandom craze has increased exponentially with the never-ending release of one blockbuster film after another with captivating storylines, mature character developments and finally the integration and overlap of different superheroes’ lives and their ensuing character conflicts and chemistries in the Avengers films.
Since 2008, the MCU has seen award-winning actors and critically acclaimed filmmakers taking part in its films. Right from the very start with the likes of Robert Downey Jr. to Benedict Cumberbatch of more recent years. The franchise has also seen Hollywood giants such as Cate Blanchett and Jake Gyllenhaal take leading one-off roles in their films.
I say this because the kind of mainstream, general mass adoration that the MCU enjoys, objectively one wouldn’t think that it would attract a certain brand of “serious” actors. At the same time, when Marvel manages to secure established artists, it is a validation of the quality of content being produced by the studios we love to love. Not to mention that nearly all Marvel films have received favourable critic reviews.
Understanding the MCU effect
To put into context the cultural significance of MCU, Todd Phillips has been quoted saying “You can’t beat Marvel — it’s a giant behemoth. Let’s do something they can’t do.” To his immense credit, he has managed to make a film that is critical of many aspects of society, including its treatment of the poor and mentally ill and subsequently displays the horrifying reality that might in. Aided by Joaquin Pheonix’s soul-crushing performance, many have been compelled to called Joker a masterpiece.
It is not just nagging children and their parents who are forced to pay attention to Marvel’s latest releases. Instead, the franchise has been successful in making people from all backgrounds heavily, emotionally invested. As a result, the effects have forced players in the surrounding film industry to put MCU at the forefront of their minds.
Where does the cinematic value lie?
There are are a few things to consider here. One that there is truth to Scorsese’s words about Marvel movies having a “theme park” like quality to them. It is every bit a larger than life experience that all but immerses the viewer into the superhero worlds themselves.
However, the fact that it is all these things neither necessarily diminishes the cinematic value of these films nor its effectiveness in storytelling. Captain America: Civil War struck a chord with the public in terms of the push and pull countries across the world experience with authorities and governing bodies. Most people will tell you that Thanos’ reasoning in the last two Avengers movies made sense to them.
At the end of the day, yes, the films are black and white.
Being somewhat of a film nerd, I have spent hours reading and watching interviews of various actors, directors and writers. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that those who make the films which might make you laugh at their nonsensical premises, maybe some of the most intuitive and intelligent people you come across who are also more attuned with their audience. There is a particular kind of skill, intelligence and art to creating something that has the possibility of resonating with the majority and this is something that gets wildly ignored.
Even a movie that is filled with what may seem like pointless action and romance that doesn’t fit into the storyline can still manage to dole out a message to the public that is incredibly timely and important.
Bollywood director Rohit Shetty’s (known for films such as Golmaal and Dilwale) latest film Simmba is a perfect example of that. In the movie, a corrupt police officer played by Ranveer Singh goes through a change of heart and is compelled to fulfil his responsibilities when he learns of a rape case. Ultimately, the movie delivers some powerful dialogue in favour of women’s rights and harsh steps needed to be taken against sexual harassers.
Coppola: “When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”
I find it ironic that these stalwarts make such comments about films which are supposed to be a public service completely oblivious to how they come off as gatekeepers to a community of storytelling. It is unnecessary to mention it, but I will get the fact out of the way that they are entitled to their own opinions.
Historically we have seen established greats in any field be critical of the things that manage to garner mainstream attention. It has happened in literature, it continually occurs in visual art and so it shouldn’t be surprising that MCU is now facing this backlash. However, I would normally expect such filmmakers to completely ignore the existence of movies which they do not believe qualify as cinema.
The fact that Avengers: Endgame stands as the highest-grossing film of all time cannot be ignored in this scenario. The previous record-holder, Avatar, did not have 14 films to its franchise to garner this kind of response. Additionally, it has been said Scorsese had to fight his way through to get funding for his latest film, The Irishman starring Robert De Niro.
By the people, for the people?
I will make another case for this line of criticism. It is glaringly true that quality art is not necessarily rewarded with money in our world. This is an issue we find ourselves grappling with on the daily and will especially resonate with those who want to see better films being produced in our very own Bangladeshi industry. At the end of the day, the content that gets mass-circulated are the ones that the public wants to see.
When Coppola says that we expect to be inspired and learn something from the movies we watch, he is a hundred per cent correct.
What is incorrect is his implication that Marvel films fail to do any of that.
I can understand how it may seem that way to someone like him, but the reality is that he falls in an incredibly tight minority. Many people will agree that you require a certain level of education, awareness of films and literature and mental acuity to truly enjoy “high-thought” films. As sad as it may make you, there are too many people today who are not the correct audience for those films. Does that mean what does cater to an audience that is merely different, should be stopped from being produced? Surely not.
MCU will endure and so will cinema
The fact remains that Marvel films continue to touch hearts and inspire millions of people. Equally, there are those who are unaffected by them and expect movies to tell more nuanced stories with less definitive takeaways. While constructive criticism can guide actors, writers and directors to improve upon their work should they choose to, mere disqualification of a certain brand of movies can serve no purpose other than being a voice of one’s personal opinion. In any case, Marvel fans will look forward to Marvel continuing with what they do best.
As for those who see the truth in Scorsese and Coppola’s words, Marvel films alone cannot be the sole object of their scrutiny. Rather, a much larger and explorative discussion must be had on the structure of the Hollywood industry and how it can be equally rewarding to diverse forms of storytelling.