As the editor of the Arts & Entertainment section of the Wheel, it’s my responsibility to ensure that our writers contribute to conversations in the art world. Recently Martin Scorcese, Pedro Almodóvar and Jim Jarmusch, among other renowned filmmakers, made dismissive remarks toward Marvel films. In particular, they argued that Marvel films should not be considered cinema or the equivalent of snack-food entertainment.
I asked A&E writers to weigh in on the debate, and here are some of their thoughts.
— Adesola Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Aayush Gupta: Embodying the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Disney peddles magic and dreams, fueled on nostalgic, formulaic creations. One need not look further than the Marvel Cinematic Universe for this; the treasured franchise is rigorously supervised by executives, leaving little room for creative liberties. Scorsese and Coppola, among others, are justified here. While entertaining, each film is the same core product packaged in different ways. A new Marvel movie is like a new iPhone: bigger, flashier, but ultimately a cash-grab maintaining the same recipe as previous iterations. The bigger problem is that they have set the standards for what comic-book films should be, making it difficult for studios to take newer approaches at the risk of being condemned for not conforming to the rules. Ultimately, capitalist consumerism rules, allowing uninspired work like “Captain Marvel” to make over $1 billion. It is harsh to say all Marvel movies are objectively not “real cinema.” But let’s not pretend that they are anything more than gratuitous blockbusters earning money that would make even Scrooge McDuck envious.
Noah Whitfield: The stories that graced the pulp pages of comic books in the ’50s and ’60s depicted the dynamics between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the face of the growing threat of global conformity and collectivism, America spawned the superhero to champion individualism. Scorsese and Coppola’s own films are character studies about morally ambiguous characters like Travis Bickle, the loner from “Taxi Driver” and Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the maniacal general from “Apocalypse Now.” These characters have complex stories that puzzle the audience with indeterminate moral messages. Marvel executives have decided that people use movies as a form of escapism, and they do not want to alienate paying customers by bringing real-world politics into their entertainment. The result is a movie experience devoid of contemporary significance. In reality, there is no looming threat of a Thanos-type enemy waiting to snap half of us out of existence; he is a work of fiction. Once Marvel stopped telling stories steeped in our reality, its films lost their cultural impact.
Anna Harrison: Scorsese’s disparaging comments miss the mark because they fail to recognize the personal impact the MCU has on millions of people. To say that Marvel movies aren’t “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” shows that Scorsese hasn’t tried to keep up with the MCU. Marvel succeeds because of the depth of its characters. Viewers bought a man in a can fighting purple Josh Brolin because they care about these characters — the filmmakers convey the characters’ emotional and psychological experiences, and so when Iron Man died, people felt it. Maybe not Scorsese, but certainly many others. We shouldn’t forget that Marvel made an enormous gamble with “Iron Man,” a movie about a D-list hero played by a recovering addict and directed by a guy most known for his indie films. The MCU is built on one huge risk. It began — and continues — because people care. Scorsese could direct well-founded criticism at Marvel concerning its lack of in-universe consequences, etc., but this ain’t it, chief.
Natalie Merizalde: Scorsese is one of the most influential directors of the past century, and we should not be so quick to disregard his opinion. In fact, I think it is a bit ridiculous that so many people would instinctively snap back at a director of this caliber for pointing out a simple truth regarding the state of the MCU. Marvel employs talented crews and staff who are supported by shockingly high budgets to pump out easy, crowd-pleasing action films. The MCU is beloved for creating formulaic summer movies with big names and easy social commentary, which receive obscene profit margins and rise to holy status in pop culture. For the most part, these movies are decent, but Scorsese denies that they qualify as art in the sense that they lack any significant attempt at artistry. While a few films defy this convention, such as the gritty thriller style of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Marvel movies are largely pre-packaged and packed into the same conventional narrative and stylistic formula that was established in 2012’s “The Avengers.” Disney and its beloved son, Marvel, continue eclipsing the global entertainment scene with their lack of originality. Scorcese is merely asking, for everyone’s sake, that they, with their ludicrous budgets and their huge net of talent, give up this pretense of inspiration and representation and start giving us something more.
Zack Levin: Who cares? Every time a new form of entertainment or genre comes to attract a mass audience, there’s always the same conversation about whether or not it can be considered true art. This discussion will result in little to no change in the industry considering Marvel’s consistent hot streak this past decade. We say words like “cinema” and “art,” but we can’t come to terms with a universal definition because they are undefinable. There are whole schools of thought that provide opposing definitions of art to one another. There is no authority on who gets to define these terms. Anything can be artistic if you stretch hard enough. One could argue that “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” is a harrowing dive into gateway drugs and spiraling behaviors in a depressing commentary on addition — or it’s just a fun story about a mouse enjoying baked goods. Both readings are equally valid. It’s up to you to make your own opinion on the subject. Nothing is cinema, everything is cinema, and that’s about it.
Saru Garg: Honestly, I’m tired of this debate. Art is subjective, and therefore, so is what constitutes cinema. If Scorcese, Coppola and Almodóvar, three industry giants, don’t find anything redeeming about Marvel, then cool. That’s their opinion! People who are offended by their comments should realize that the only person’s stance on Marvel that should matter to everybody is their own. Since the filmmakers made these comments, there have been ludicrous attacks on them, like accusations that Scorcese hasn’t done enough for representation in film compared to Marvel, whose tent poles for diversity are “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel.” Out of 23 films, this isn’t much to praise. Scorsese has arguably done more, if not as much, for film than Marvel. He has films that address diversity, like “Kundun”. Additionally, he founded the World Cinema Project, which is dedicated to restoring international films. Scorsese’s opinion isn’t irrelevant because he hasn’t impacted the industry as much as Marvel. His opinion on Marvel should be irrelevant because its presence does not invalidate other thoughts. It’s just one personal assertion.
Kamryn Olds: Scorsese is right. Superhero films are often like “theme parks.” People go, enjoy themselves and leave, with few truly moved by their experience. Sadly, the rise of streaming has caused Hollywood to embrace these mega-films as the best way to get viewers willing to pay the $15 price of admission. But just because a film is entertainment doesn’t mean it’s not cinema. Just because it’s spectacle doesn’t mean it’s not part of an artistic canon, as film theorist Tom Gunning famously asserted in “The Cinema of Attraction.” Marvel’s influence marks a moment in cinematic history in which talented filmmakers are using spectacle to get their work seen and voices heard in a still-changing media landscape. Whether Hollywood’s dependency on sequels and reboots is sustainable: that’s a different question. Along with a cinema of superheroes, the industry must also devise a popular cinema that can tell stories without fight scenes. Still, I say we are far from the supremacy of tent-pole pictures, as demonstrated by the recent successes of various “specialized box office” flicks. On Nov. 27, I look forward to streaming “The Irishman,” Scorcese’s Netflix debut.
Adesola Thomas: “Do you think God stays in heaven because he too lives in fear of his own creations?”
-Steve Buscemi as Romero, “Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams”
Rhett Hipp: Comic book movies are not cinema in the same way that comic books are not literature. By definition they are, but by connotation they are not. The word “cinema” evokes a sense of artistry and style that most MCU movies don’t need to concern themselves with, just as the word “literature” evokes a sense of insight and depth that many readers simply aren’t looking for when they go into a comic book store. There are, of course, exceptions to both. Some superhero flicks have proved themselves as more than “theme parks,” such as “The Dark Knight,” “Logan” and, most recently, “Joker,” just as comics like “Watchmen” have earned literary merit. However, most superhero movies just want butts in chairs, not Oscars on shelves. This shouldn’t negate how much audiences enjoy these movies, but the distinction between popcorn movies and art-house cinema hardly seems like a new concept worth so much fuss.
Jeffrey Rosen: Does the MCU provide a layered aesthetic experience providing meta-commentaries on our society? Usually, no. But it does allow us all to come together and forget about the stresses and dangers of the real world and pretend that superheroes can make everything right. The viewing experience of “Avengers: Endgame” felt much more like a communal experience than a simple movie viewing. The MCU makes me feel happy and connected with people, and if movies should do anything, I think they should do just that. Furthermore, comics as a medium provide short, often free-standing stories which fit in and add to a grander plot that takes place over multiple issues. This is essentially what has been done with the adaption of the MCU from comics to movies. In this way, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, have not only adapted the characters of the MCU but have essentially replicated the storytelling devices that comics employ. For example, “Doctor Strange” simultaneously told Doctor Strange’s origin story while also setting up the premise behind “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame”). This leads me to believe that the MCU not only qualifies as cinema but also as some of the best cinematic adaptation ever.