The Marvel Cinematic Universe has entered intermission, so it would appear that our culture is filling the void by assessing the state of Marvel movies. Or, rather, the media has filled the void by assessing whether we should be assessing the state of Marvel movies, since this question has been thrust on us by an abrupt surge of backlash from major auteurs.
While the starting point for this debate — do Marvel movies qualify as cinema, or just theme park rides in movie form — came from an off-the-cuff remark by Martin Scorsese, today’s polarizing internet-based discourse saw it as a battle cry.
The lines have been drawn: Fandom arbiters Kevin Smith and James Gunn on one side, defending superhero movies for all their worth; Scorsese, Coppola, and other aging auteurs on the other, decrying their vapidity. First things first: It’s time for a moratorium on cornering major directors whose work falls way beyond Hollywood’s purview and asking them to assess Hollywood product that has nothing to do with them. (Alas, poor Ken Loach.)
However, at the root of this argument lies an age-old debate about the work of art in a commercial landscape, and whether or not some aspect of said art can survive under that constraint. As much as this argument may invite disdain from some members of the critical community, it stems from legitimate concerns, especially as Marvel movies make billions of dollars worldwide while major filmmakers struggle to get their original visions made and seen.
Having said all that, these are tough times for even-keeled assessments, but I’d like to suggest a radical proposal: Both sides are right.
From a pure technological perspective, this debate was over before it started. Of course Marvel movies are cinema: They’re feature-length, narrative-based blockbuster experiences, with precise characters and long-standing pop culture currency. At the same time, they clearly exist within a different category of cinematic expression, one mandated by capitalist pressures above all else. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a shot in hell at coming together in the first place.
While Scorsese may not find much to appreciate about the Marvel storytelling mold, the most appealing aspects of Marvel movies involve their capacity to go beyond the call of duty as it pertains to the soul-sucking blockbuster cliché: Iron Man works not because Tony Stark has a lot of fancy tech, but because the best movies in the series pair those visuals with whip-smart dialogue and gadget-based slapstick that owes more to “Modern Times” than other CGI spectacles. The joy of “Guardians of the Galaxy” stems from dopey chemistry between its space-faring adventurers more than cosmic visuals accompanying them. And that first hour of “Avengers: Endgame” is probably one of the most costly studies of societal grief in Hollywood history.
But these are fragments in a larger, busy tapestry, one that often doesn’t work in individual ingredients so much as the way they speak to a larger whole. A true appreciation for Marvel movies involves serious investment in the way in which they’ve been engineered to tell one continuous story. No studio has ever pulled off the same storytelling achievement on that scale.
To that end, we may have reached a breaking point, in which the obvious definition of cinema requires a revision. Marvel movies are a certain kind of cinema, but they exist in a different category altogether from the ones that other filmmakers consider their vocation. And that means there is zero sense in asking filmmakers from that other, non-Marvel category to assess Marvel movies in any way that might reflect back on their own work. It’s like asking Picasso to assess Banksy: One might have an opinion about the other’s work, but it’s hard to imagine why it would matter any more than anyone else weighing in.
Of course, some aspect of the Marvel movie phenomenon stems from the desire to be taken seriously by certain facets of the film community even as it entertains the masses. Scorsese and Coppola most likely have philosophical problems with the mandates driving these movies rather than the movies themselves. Hard to argue with those. But anyone paying close attention to the MCU can see the visible attempts — usually by directors and screenwriters rather than the studio itself — to rise above the crass mold of big-budget mayhem and find some greater substance at its core.
With promising new Marvel installments from the likes of Chloe Zhao and others in the pipeline, the quest to keep Marvel movies both profitable and director-driven continues; filmmakers will have plenty of opportunities to consider whether these movies actually deliver on the potential of the medium. The best filmmaking exists outside of any preordained expectations, or at least transcends them, and the surprise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date has been that its best entries managed to go beyond the call of duty, generating real depth and intrigue even as they satisfied the bottom line.
That quest continues, and it sure beats the alternative. But even if it makes for a compelling challenge for the directors and Disney, there’s no reason to assume other filmmakers will cheer it on from the sidelines, at least until they wind up on the payroll. Scorsese and his ilk have better things to do, and so does anyone who delights in the broad range of possibilities that movies offer up. Marvel movies exist. It’s time to move on.