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Filmmakers Are Right To Speak Out Against Marvel

In a particularly misjudged moment, online publisher (and devoted Marvel Studios fans), ran an article entitled “Marvel Movies Have Earned More Than Double Scorsese and Coppola’s Box Office Hauls Combined”. They also tweeted the piece, with an accompanying smirky caption, to their 175,000 strong follower base.

Upon first glance, this author looked up and down scanning for any signs of relevance. There were none. And then, from out of nowhere, like a sucker-punch from the glove of Anthony Joshua, it hit me. It couldn’t be more relevant, and it’s one of the largest reason why cinema’s leading auteurs are speaking out. What is Marvel’s, or worse, Marvel fans’ initial and primary comeback to questions posed? Well, money: not art, not filmmaking, not storytelling, not cinema – money. It sums up modern perceptions of filmmaking and silver screen success in one ugly, vacuous nutshell.

The overarching sticking point in this feverish debate (which has seen Martin Scorsese (read my review of The Irishman), Francis Ford Coppola, and now Ken Loach all make comments about Kevin Feige’s behemoth), is whether Marvel films are “cinema” or “art”. Now, like many cultural debates, our individual perceptions will always differ, so rarely is there a definitive “correct” answer. One man’s garbage is another man’s masterpiece. However, in the case of Marvel, some of the questions stemming from the growing debate tree are focussed around the integrity and validity of the films, and perhaps there are some answers to be unearthed here.

Sorry We Missed You

Loach summed it up pretty much perfectly in a recent interview with Sky News. He said: “It’s about making a commodity which will make a profit for a big corporation – they’re a cynical exercise. They’re market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema”. You see, Marvel’s number one goal in any exercise is to generate money; the film, its story, its craft, and even its audience are all afterthoughts. If this wasn’t the case, they would be far more innovative, unique, thematically ambitious and audacious with the types and styles of film they release.

A clear example to reflect this argument means we should take a look at their inconsistent cousin over at DC Comics. The black sheep of the superhero canon. Very rarely are films from DC’s archive either as successful, or universally celebrated by die-hard fans, as much as Marvel, and it is not because the movies “aren’t as good”. It is because the studio takes bolder creative and artistic risks – some good, many poor – but the point is they put the film, the creator’s vision, and the craft first. The results and revenue are secondary. They are willing to test the water; provide something new, something of unique value. Marvel quite simply aren’t, because that would be to the potential detriment of extracting slippery, easy money from conveyor belt viewers. Would Marvel ever take a gamble and make a movie like Joker (2019), or Suicide Squad (2016)? Of course, they wouldn’t.

Now that isn’t to say there is no value in Marvel’s gargantuan, box-office-obliterating output because, quite obviously, the collective MCU franchise brings pleasure to millions of people world-over. They have a tried-and-tested formula which generates immeasurable results, and an unfathomable influence in the modern industry which means more and more professionals (be that performers, designers, musicians et al) are desperate to work with them.

But, in this writer’s opinion, the films often lack a clear creative voice; rather becoming a gangly jumble of odds-and-sods which have all been tacked together by a flimsy narrative arc about glowing stones. An ongoing complaint of mine has been that each successive entry into Marvel’s canon just feels like an extended commercial for a forthcoming entry. It lacks body, texture or shape, and fails to muster any sense of unique identity. The few films which do manage to forge their own path, such as Ryan Coogler’s slick and stylish Black Panther (2018), are then glued onto the fringes of the narrative arc to further expand the universe (or, in more formal terms, bring in more potential revenue sources by expanding the audience base). It’s a shame really because Coogler’s film is one of the better, more visionary titles from their extensive vault. This isn’t the sole Marvel film one likes before you attack the comment section. Personally I’m also fond of Avengers Assemble (2012), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), plus Avengers: Endgame (2019) was undoubtedly an exciting popcorn flick for the most part.

In regards to the artfulness of the studios’ films, there is no denying they are all visually and audibly impressive – thanks to an infinite bank vault of consumer cash and technologically advance software – but is that “art”? I’m not sure. That’s more akin to “theme parks”, as Scorsese thoughtfully referred. His comment was not derogatory (rather a small moment as part of an overall retrospective interview about his career with Empire), but has obviously been taken out of context for the sake of click-bait and aggressive Twitter fuel. Marvel films are big, bright, colourful, loud, and often very long, but as a uniform collective, they aren’t “cinema” for Marty; rather “something else”. And I think he’s right, because he – a legendary screen artist – is talking on behalf of the most important point (and people) in the whole landscaping of filmmaking – the audience. Because at the barest bones of this whole debate, the hidden theme here surrounds how filmgoers perceive the content they are exposed to.

Scorsese, like many filmmakers and fans alike, fear that Marvel Studios (and other major studio houses) are changing young people’s perception of “cinema”. Their idea and expectations of “cinema” aren’t cinematic in the truest, deepest sense of the word and art form. Now change isn’t always a bad thing, but when you consider just how rich, innovative, powerful, and historically integral cinema history is, and compare that to the sheer infancy and creative single-mindedness of say Marvel, then yeah, it’s a big problem. We cannot have audiences thinking or feeling that “cinema” as an entity is superhero mega blockbusters, because it isn’t. That’s the smallest, most minuscule portion of what makes up a gigantic, beautiful pie. And worryingly, these behaviours are already starting to ring true. You only have to look at the average response to Loach: most people under the age of 25 haven’t got a single clue who the hell he is.

Now as we know, Loach is hardly a box-office smash, but would we say he’s a bad, or irrelevant filmmaker because of that? Should we listen to the new minds who perceive “cinema” as Chris Hemsworth flying around with a magic hammer? Should his films not be considered “cinema” because they might not appeal to the widest, most consumer-friendly viewership? Absolutely not. In fact, this author would argue that he is even more valid and vital because of this – he challenges the medium of cinema with powerful, impactful and timely works; films which echo our human experiences and interactions. Sure, cinema can be escapism – which is what the Marvel movies comfortably nestle into – but as a whole it doesn’t have to be. It is a diverse and complex art form; one with many shades, shapes, languages and tones.

The Irishman

The amount of dumb Twitter comments railing filmmakers for their comments on this debate because of their age, or social relevance in a digital media age, rather than for their views, is quite frankly embarrassing. I alone have seen in excess of fifty “old man yells at cloud” comments aimed at Scorsese and Coppola in particular because they are old so they clearly hate everything and just love to moan. Very few are actually considering the cultural impact of the duo, which again highlights the importance of their feedback. Scorsese and Coppola are among the most important and influential voices in cinema history, ever. They alone have given more to the ART and CRAFT of filmmaking than Marvel could ever even dream of.

And, like all artists and masters of their craft, they are fully entitled to their opinions on subject matters concerning that craft. Whether people (well, Marvel fans) like or accept their opinions is at their discretion. They aren’t the first people to speak out against Marvel or big superhero studios either; David Cronenberg has, as has Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and Ridley Scott. Hell, even Jennifer Aniston has complained about them. In fact, The Revenant (2015) director’s comments are even more damning than those currently whipped up in this media circus. He said:

“…they are honestly very right-wing. I always see them as killing people because they do not believe in what you believe, or they are not being who you want them to be. I hate that, and don’t respond to those characters. They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.”

Now personally, I think Iñárritu is reading the literature of Marvel’s films a little too cynically here, but he makes an important point about the culture they breed; just like Loach did, just like Scorsese and Coppola did. Our cinemas as working entities are so oversaturated with large-scale “theme park” movies, that our immediate response to film as a medium is more of a carnival or circus than a personal craft. And those filling the seats are becoming so overexposed to a formulated, cookie-cutter practice of filmmaking. There’s no challenge to the art form, or challenge to the spectator. The biggest challenge we as viewers seemingly face now is Thanos snapping his fat purple fingers.

But in the end, when it all boils down and you filter out the noise, the simplest answer for audiences is to demand for more: expect more from your biblical, escapist multi-million blockbusters just as you do from your intimate character dramas, or powerful political biopics. There is a time and a place for all filmmaking processes, and consequently, there is a need for more audiences – young and old – to understand the importance of cinematic craftsmanship and artistry. The art of film has a vibrant past, and an even brighter future, but we need to root out this idea that money, or scale, or statistics, or star power is the answer. It isn’t all about box-office results, the biggest A-listers, the best special effects, the highest IMDb rating; it is about appreciating everything and everyone who contributes to our art form – expanding the dense literature and history of film in the process.

As an audience member, one is very weary of Marvel films, but it’s my choice to watch them: I don’t have to. I can ignore them. However, as a cinephile, I’m deeply concerned – like the directors who have spoken out – that our perceptions of “cinema” are changing, but not for the better. Because that’s something you cannot ignore. They are right to stand up for their craft and their art, and we’re right to support them.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

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One Comment

  1. Why doesn’t James Gunn just quote Liberace and cry all the way to the bank? That, at least, is a double-edged response, both honest and funny.

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