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Superhero Movies Aren’t Ruining Cinema, They Are Saving It

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BY April 29, 2020
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In my response to Martin Scorsese’s comments that Marvel Movies aren’t cinema, I focused too much on Scorsese’s own oeuvre. Or, as one Twitter user with Strong Opinions™ put it: I spent more time putting down Scorsese (not my intention) and not enough defending Superhero movies as cinema. In the aftermath of his initial comments, Scorsese doubled down on trashing the genre. The criticism goes beyond the 76-year-old filmmaker simply not liking the comic book phenomenon (akin, perhaps, to the westerns or musicals of his own youth). Rather, Scorsese keeps comparing superhero movies to amusement park rides, which is a polite way to say they have no artistic value as stories.

In his original complaint against these films, Scorsese said it more plainly. Superhero movies aren’t “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” Scorsese said. He doubled down on this at the BFI Film Festival, saying that superhero movies “invaded” theaters and that the owners should “step up and show films that are narrative films.” The venerated filmmaker couldn’t be more incorrect, both about what smart theater owners should do and that superhero movies aren’t “narrative” films.

As James Gunn pointed out in his tweet on the subject, not only is Scorsese wrong, it’s tragic that he’s commenting on movies he’s not even seen. Sure, he’s criticized big, dumb action movies all his life. But, stories in the comic book tradition are not more simplistic than the cinema of old. They are, at least, equally complex in what they demand from their audience. From following an ongoing continuity to trusting the audience enough to see the subtext behind the CGI punch-em-ups. It just takes a few more steps for audiences to get there and a willingness to look for it.

The Human Narratives In Superhero Movies Are Present in All Cinema

SUperhero Movies Cinema Black panther killmonger death Image via Marvel Studios

The unquestionably excellent cinematic storytellers throughout cinema all try to tell big, impossible stories set in an alien world. Whether it’s a period piece or some exotic landscape, filmmakers don’t just want to tell simply “human” stories. They want to transport their audiences to another place and time, immersing them in fantastic sights and sounds. Stories in the comic book tradition also do this, though rather than a big screen they only had tiny panels. Sure, plenty of comic book creators told simple, childish stories with big flashy action. Yet, other storytellers imbued their characters with the sorts of human, psychological problems that fueled literature then and cinema now.

Not handling the characters correctly doesn’t just ruin the movie, but they can kill entire franchises. Green Lantern and Amazing Spider-Man 2 both spent too much time trying to build this humongous, beautiful, epic world, without giving us enough to care about any of the people involved in it. The Marvel movies especially understand this, contributing to their massive success. It’s no accident that in every solo introduction film, the hero faces off against a dark mirror of themselves. These stories examine what happens when people get extraordinary power, and present two different philosophies about how to use it. Only in superhero movies, usually, those who use it the right way actually win.

There are other familiar conflicts found throughout cinema at play here. There are examinations of how duty requires sacrifice, either physical or emotional. They examine how secrets and lies, often told to “protect” someone still cause damage. They also address the inevitable truth that you can’t be at your best alone or when pursuing selfish motives. The human stories throughout superhero movies sounds like cinema to me.

Case Study: The Winter Soldier and the Dark World

Superhero Movies Cinema Cap and Thor Image via Marvel Studios

To be fair, the Avengers films are a different story, literally. Because of the sheer amount of characters in the films, some inevitably get the short shrift with characterization. We never learn why Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson believes in the Avengers so much in that first film. His death has meaning to characters, but to us it’s just sad to lose the guy we’d seen in all the films up to this point. (Though, ironically, the Agents of SHIELD television show made a proper character of him after-the-fact.) Yet, even they’ve improved. The emotional journeys of the characters in Avengers: Endgame had depth and impact. They’re getting better at it.

But, let’s look at two specific Marvel movies, arguably the “best” and the “worst” of their canon. They both came after The Avengers, and both tried to do equal parts narrative and saga-setup work. Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier are unquestionably big, dumb action movies with laughably impossible premises. Yet, both succeed in telling deeply human, personal stories about the main characters that end with the total destruction of their way of life.

Thor: The Dark World Was Shakespearean Drama

Superhero Movies Cinema Thor the Dark World Odin Image via Marvel Studios

If you saw the first Thor sequel, it’s probably not your favorite Marvel movie. They made some bad calls, such as forcing Christopher Eccleston to speak in a ridiculous alien language the entire time. The central story was weird, even for a comic book film. A reality-altering nebulous goo (that’s also an Infinity Stone) embeds itself in the body of the human woman Thor loves. He disagrees with his parents about how best to address this, and they end up fighting a war on many planets at once. At the end of the film, Thor is released from his duty as the ruler of his people so he can follow his heart. However, his quasi-villainous brother is impersonating his father, whom he imprisoned in a nursing home on Earth, and this is bad.

Yet, underneath that crazy alien nonsense, there’s a story about a family torn apart. Thor’s father wants him to abandon the love he feels to rule, settling on a more acceptable wife. Thor’s mother wants her sons to be happy, yet ignores Thor because her adopted son, Loki, sits in prison. And, Thor’s mother ends up dead. He openly defies his father (again) in order to do what’s best for the woman he loves. Thor also believes he loses his brother just as they get each other back. Even the happy part of the ending, that he chooses love over duty, proves to be tragic in successive stories. Like it or not (and many Marvel fans don’t), Thor: The Dark World tells a big, cinematic, literary story.

Captain America: Winter Soldier Makes a Gigantic Political Statement Everyone Missed

Superhero Movies Cinema Captain America Winter Soldier Image via Marvel Studios

When it comes to the scholarship surrounding literature, the intention of the author is only a small part of the ultimate impact of a work. Maybe Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Joe and Anthony Russo all just wanted to tell a kickass spy story. Yet, what they achieved transcends that. In hearing from very passionate Scorsese cinema fans on Twitter, one criticism of Marvel films is that they are propaganda for the American military machine. To critics’ credit, many of these films are made with the help of the US military, who provides filmmakers access to their facilities. Marvel movies definitely don’t paint the US military as the bad guys (except in The Incredible Hulk, though the villainy is personal not systemic).

Still, Captain America is maybe the most political piece of superhero cinema, ever. The film takes a literal symbol of American morality and then makes the entire support system around him riddled with corruption. Sure, SHIELD doesn’t really exist, but it is unquestionably a stand-in for both the United States intelligence and defense apparatus. These institutions are infested with the very evil they were meant to fight. The storytellers’ answer to that problem is not to weed it out and maintain the status quo. No, they burn it all to the ground. And, just as most idealists do, when they destroy what was built to keep the whole thing going, they don’t have anything to replace it with. And that’s just the big picture.

Throughout the movie, the heroes all represent people who served their country, only to end up its enemies because of their principles. Still, even a brainwashed, evil killer is capable of redemption. What makes this superhero movie the kind of cinema Scorsese talks about are those parts of the story.

The Communal Cinema of Superhero Movies

Superhero movies cinema Avengers Endgame theater Image by David Holt via Flickr

The other part of Martin Scorsese’s assertion that superhero movies aren’t cinema suggests these films replaced worthier stories from joining people together in a visual narrative experience. This is also laughably preposterous. One thing about enjoying art or sport in a group is that people seek an emotional rush from what they watch. And they love to cheer. Comic book movies provide that in a way other films almost never could. In this respect, they are akin to theme park rides. Because folks who go through them together all find themselves feeling equally worried and exhilarated throughout.

Opening night crowds are the clappers and cheerers. See any superhero movie on opening weekend, and people are going to cheer, clap, and laugh out loud during the film. Yet, for weeks after Avengers: Endgame opened, the scene in which Captain America is “worthy” to life Thor’s hammer evoked audible gasps and spontaneous applause from the crowd. People will talk about going to see that film like they talk about going to Star Wars during its initial theatrical run.

They also put asses in seats. In August of 2018, the comic book and genre blockbusters of the summer saved the profits of theater chains across the country. Solo: A Star Wars Story and Ant-Man and the Wasp were the “flops” on the Disney slate that year, and they were the fourth and fifth most-attended films, respectively. They also bring people to the theater for movies they might not go see. Films like BlacKkKlansman and the Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor saw high earnings, possibly because their trailers were attached to these blockbusters.

The real threat to the experience of communal cinema is not comic book movies, but theater-owned streaming services where people can watch new releases in their homes.

Cinema Doesn’t Have to Wallow In Despair, and Neither Do Superhero Movies

Superhero Movies Cinema Logan Rain Despair Image via 20th Century Fox

Outside of the costumes and sci-fi magic in superhero movies, there is one more reason people might think they aren’t cinema. Cinema, as a term, refers to movies of a specific artistic caliber. When a storyteller makes the decision to tell a narrative that leans on hope and with an uplifting ending, there are some who see this as the wishful thinking of childhood. Real Art™ does not indulge itself with whimsy. Violence, pain, sadness, futility, and death are what’s supposed to be artistically interesting. Happy endings are for children, and the good guys never win in real life (even when they do).

In fact, many of the comic book movies considered to be the peak of the form follow this rule. One need only look to the history of The Watchmen to see how important that artistic cynicism is to getting folks to take an art form seriously. Films like Logan or The Joker are worthy of awards, only because they increase the level of despair and pain in their stories. Yet, from one perspective, hopeful stories are more difficult to tell than these morose ones. It takes a unique kind of artistic vision to look at the tragedy in the world and want to tell a hopeful story. It’s almost like they have a special power that others don’t which they use to both fight the good fight and inspire others without that power to do the same.

It’s Okay to Not Like Comic Book Movies, But You Don’t Get to Decide If They’re Art

Superhero Movies Cinema Wonder Woman Art Poster Image via Warner Bros

Whether you are genius director Martin Scorsese or just a fan of movies, it’s perfectly fine to not like comic book movies. It’s okay to think superheroes are silly or bad metaphors or whatever it is that people have against them. Maybe it’s the franchise-factory nature of these movies that upset you. Maybe it’s all of it. There is no one out there who thinks that everyone should like these stories. The beauty of the countless books, movies, series, and podcasts out there is that there is surely something for everyone. Perhaps you feel that there should be more room for the stories you like? Comic book fans, who had to wait more than 50 years before the stories we like hit big screens in a meaningful way, can empathize with that.

However, whether you are genius director Martin Scorsese or just a fan of movies, you don’t get decide what is “art” and what isn’t. To say that something, particularly something enjoyed by the masses, is not art doesn’t make you a connoisseur. No, it makes you the same type of jagoff who said that Shakespeare was garbage or that Dickens wrote melodrama for idiots. Not only is it offensive and wrong, it’s not an opinion that will withstand the test of time.

Of course, the best part about art is talking about it and how it makes you feel. Let us know your opinions in the comments below, one way or another. Because Scorsese is right about one thing. Sharing the artistic experience with other people is something we should all try to do more often.

MoviesPop CultureComic Book MoviesDCEUMartin ScorseseMarvel Studios

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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