Superheroes: Real cinema or fluff?

Martin Scorsese recently spoke out about the blandness of superhero movies. Is the claim valid?

In a recent interview with Empire Magazine, legendary director Martin Scorsese declared comic book movies (more accurately, Marvel movies) as “not cinema.”

It’s been a debate, online more than anything, whether superhero movies deserve the acclaim they get from fans and critics, as well as the massive financial return they receive.

Scorsese went into greater detail on how he felt about the movies as a whole: “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.”

This comment of course solicited responses from a number of different perspectives; those who wholeheartedly agree, those who stand to defend the Marvel Universe and those who see both sides. There are, however, a number of things to take into consideration when analyzing all angles

First and foremost; filmmaking is considered art, and art, as you’ll learn anywhere from anyone, is subjective. What one person finds entertaining or beautiful or sad; someone else may find something different in it. It’s why so many people will flock to see the latest blockbuster from Marvel or DC while some others may sit back at home and vehemently refuse to watch it. Both parties are right to do so because that is their preference.

So with that single point of art being subjective, should we stop there and say it’s a difference of opinion between Scorsese and Marvel? We could, but we won’t.

As much as I love the Marvel movies, from Iron Man to (in)patiently awaiting the first teaser trailer for Black Widow, there is a formula and pattern to these kinds of movies.

Is it inherently bad to follow a formula if it works? No, I don’t think so. It’s why families write down recipes and pass those down through generations – This is what works. Stick to it. Maybe play with it a little here and there, but this is the core idea.

My next point brings us to the fact that Scorsese mentions they don’t have a human connection in trying to convey emotions which is where he starts to lose me. One of the biggest draw factors to superhero stories, from comics to movies, is how we escape into those stories.

Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Wolverine, Daredevil, Iron Man… these are all characters we can see bits of ourselves reflected in; some of those good, some not, but it’s self-reflection. We’ve all wished we could dodge bullets or fly or had billions upon billions of dollars at our disposal to build technologically advanced caves under our mansions or construct flying suits of metal that are equipped with artillery – it’s escapism.

When you see yourself in another person, fictional or not, a connection is formed. Anyone with a close familial tie will instantly sympathize with Peter Quill/Star-Lord in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies because of his unwavering bond with his deceased mother. Someone who wishes they could be with the person they love, even if that’s impossible, will want to see Steve Rogers find happiness with Peggy Carter one way or another, or even understand the sorrow he carries with him 70yrs after World War II.

The stories may not overtly scream emotion at us, and it’s a slow build to trust the writers, directors and actors with our investments of time, finances and emotions, but the bonds of emotion are, in fact, there.

My last point brings us to the harsh reality that movies/film/cinema, whatever term you want to use for it, has changed dramatically. People are quick to criticize a comic book movie releasing once every few months (with the occasional one or two coming out in a shorter window) while the Western genre of the 1940s – 1960s had movies releasing once every few weeks, if not more.

Since those years, the movie theatre experience has declined drastically. Ticket prices are up (it costs $14.75 for a general admission, non-reserved seating, here in Ont., Canada) and the lack of attendance causes distribution companies to demand a higher percentage of ticket sales than ever before.

As a result, theatres increase the price of food and attractions to make up for the loss of income through ticket sales. Ever wondered why arcades and in-theatre restaurants have started to make a comeback? This is why.

Like it or not, tentpole movies like The Avengers or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and even non-comic book movies like Star Wars or the upcoming Avatar sequel – all of these movies bring audiences in to spend that money and keep the theatre experience alive.

Scorsese’s movies do not do that, and that’s where his approach may partially stem from. While critically successful, The Wolf of Wall Street brought in $392 million dollars when it released in theatres.

A month prior, Marvel Studios released Thor: The Dark World which was a fairly disappointing movie for many fans and even to this day, remains the black sheep of the MCU family. That movie’s box office take? $644.6 million.

Now of course, money does not equal quality, if it did, we would consider the Transformers movies some of the best ever and I’d be ashamed to live in that world, but there is a clear indication of what people go to the movies for – Fun.

Scorsese has his newest film The Irishman releasing in selected theatres next month, but it also premieres on Netflix the same day. The film had been in development for years but no studio would bankroll a 3.5hr movie because the landscape just does not support it as people don’t pay for 3.5hr gangster movies anymore, regardless of quality.

You know what movie recently got a 3hr runtime? Avengers: Endgame. Why? The sales supported it.

My rambling is not to be confused with disdain or resentment of Scorsese – I admire him greatly and deeply appreciate the contributions he’s made to filmmaking over his career. Ask any film buff for a list of their favourite movies and you’re guaranteed to find one or two Scorsese films.

I do however think that the bitterness and willful dismissal of comic book movies as “real cinema” or “art” or whatever debate the internet sparks on a weekly basis should be left in the past. Popularity does not mean something is terrible.

There’s even a small sense of gratitude, in a sense, that Scorsese should feel as the recent Todd Phillips movie, Joker, draws heavy inspiration from Taxi Driver, one of Scorsese’s most well-known movies. As a result, people who see Joker may even look into some of Scorsese’s movies if they haven’t already, which is the beauty of filmmaking and storytelling.

At the end of the day, we should not take aim at either side. Scorsese is entitled to his opinion even if it doesn’t fit the taste of most people, myself included. Are Marvel/superhero movies “real cinema”? Yes. For the time we live in, they are. They’re what keep the traditional theatre experience alive and what keeps people interested in movies (for the most part)

If going to a Marvel movie is comparable to a theme park, a Scorsese movie might be an expensive dinner out, then smoking a cigar with a hard drink at home in peace and quiet.

There’s an audience for both, and plenty of theatres to cater to them.

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