SALT LAKE CITY — “Not cinema.” “Theme parks.” “Despicable.”
Decorated filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have pointed opinions about superhero movies. The directors behind “Taxi Driver” and “The Godfather,” respectively, have both made headlines in the past few weeks for sharing their critical opinions of Marvel movies in particular.
“There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare,” Scorsese writes. “And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other. For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.”
The stars and directors of Marvel movies, and (of course) social media users, fired back.
The debate started with an interview Scorsese gave to Empire magazine in early October. Stating his belief that Marvel movies are “not cinema” and that they are more like “theme parks,” Scorsese told Empire these films are not “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Coppola took things a step further, saying in a recent interview that he calls superhero movies “despicable,” according to The Guardian.
“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right,” Coppola said, adding that “we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”
What is it about superhero movies that are so polarizing? Marvel turning into such a pop culture behemoth probably has something to do with it. There’s a sort of David-versus-Goliath element to many of the comments from Marvel detractors, a feeling that cinema and the independent filmmakers behind riskier projects need to be defended from the encroachment of men (and women) in capes.
But are they right? Are Marvel movies really just a cinematic amusement park, as Scorsese says, made only to entertain and take our money? Or are they capable of imparting enlightenment, knowledge and inspiration — what Coppola defines as “cinema”?
A lower art form?
The debate over what type of movies can be labeled “cinema” or “art” is nothing new.
“Genre films,” which include fantasy or science fiction (like superhero movies), as well as anything from horror to romance to Western, tend to be looked down upon, according to Jeffrey A. Brown, an associate professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University and author of “The Modern Superhero in Film and Television.”
Critics often dismiss horror as a genre worthy of critical acclaim. A recent movement in Hollywood has referred to certain films that are well-received by critics as “elevated horror” — like “Get Out” or “Hereditary” — in order to distinguish them from more run-of-the-mill horror films (like the “Scream” franchise), according to an article from BBC last year.
“Whenever a horror movie makes a splash ... there is invariably an article calling it ‘smart’ or ‘elevated’ or ‘art house’ horror,” novelist and critic Anne Billson tweeted. “They hate horror SO MUCH they have to frame its hits as something else.”
Superhero movies seem to be in the same boat, and it doesn’t help that their source material — comic books — have also been traditionally viewed as a lower art form. The very first superhero adaptations were “considered B movies,” Matthew McAllister, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, told the Deseret News.
“You know, you release them to kids, you have third-rate stars, you make them quickly, the dialogue is hackneyed.”
Superhero movies and reception
It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that Hollywood began to see any real potential in superheroes. “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve in 1978, and Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989 were game-changers for the genre, McAllister said.
“‘Superman’ brought in big stars like Marlon Brando and planned sequels,” McAllister said. “And ‘Batman’ brought in all the merchandise.”
But even still, the success of these films were seen more as one-off events than part of a larger trend toward superheroes in general. Though both “Superman” and “Batman” had sequels, they didn’t do as well at the box office.
It wasn’t until the launch of the “X-Men” franchise in 2000 — and particularly Sam Raimi’s “Spiderman” in 2002 — that superheroes really began to take off. “Spiderman,” starring Tobey Maguire, was the first summer blockbuster after 9/11. It was an unprecedented hit, breaking box-office records when it took in $114.8 million after just three days in theaters.
The popularity of superhero movies at this time is no coincidence. Their rise has coincided with the 9/11 era, and superheroes that “come in and save the day” serve a “cultural purpose” during this moment of American history, Brown said, adding that when the world is in a state of disorder, it can be inspiring to watch a clear-cut battle between forces of good and evil and see “the good guys” triumph.
Other superhero films quickly followed in the wake of “Spiderman,” including two “Spiderman” sequels, more entries in the “X-Men” franchise and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” in 2005. There were also less-successful films such as “Daredevil,” “Ghost Rider” and “Fantastic Four.”
But the game changed again in 2008, when Marvel Studios released a film about “Iron Man” — a lesser-known hero. Not only was the film wildly successful, but Marvel released it with an “endgame” in mind: “Iron Man” was only part of a larger picture, phase one of a larger wave of superhero movies to come.
This forethought has defined the superhero genre ever since. Superhero films are no longer just series — both Marvel and DC refer to their collection of films as a “universe.” And earlier this year, “Avengers: Endgame” broke box office records to become the highest-grossing film in history, earning more than $2.7 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.
“These are things that are not planned by the year,” McAllister said. “They’re planned by the decade.”
The dangerous side of superhero movie success
With movies like “Avengers: Endgame” dominating the box office (seven of the top 11 highest-grossing films in 2018 were superhero movies, according to reports), the concern from filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese is understandable.
Superheroes are taking over Hollywood, often at the expense of other types of films. Many independent filmmakers are seeing this play out as studios are unwilling to spend money on what they view as riskier projects.
Even Scorsese said he’s been affected. The director worked with Netflix — rather than a more traditional movie studio — to release his newest film “The Irishman.” The film will have a limited theatrical release before moving to the streaming service in late November. In his New York Times op-ed, Scorsese implied that at least part of the reason for the shorter theatrical release of “The Irishman” has to do with an overabundance of superheroes.
“Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would,” Scorsese wrote. “But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.”
In a somewhat surprising move, Marvel superheroes like Benedict Cumberbatch have stepped into the ring and come to Scorsese’s defense.
“I know there’s been a lot of debate recently with these very fine filmmakers coming to the fore saying that these film franchises are taking over everything,” Cumberbatch said, according to the Guardian. “And I agree, you know. We don’t want one king to rule it all and have a kind of monopoly. ... We should really look into continuing to support auteur filmmakers at every level.”
What does this mean for cinema?
With their dominance in the industry, should Marvel movies be considered “cinema”?
If we follow Coppola’s definition that we gain “some enlightenment, some knowledge, or some inspiration” from cinema, then it possibly can.
“The lessons are there,” Brown said, adding that sometimes they’re easy to miss because they’re wrapped up in entertainment.
He pointed to “Black Panther” — a film that grapples with racial issues and frustrations — and also the recently released “Joker” that deals with mental health issues. But other films may be more subtle about their treatment of serious topics.
“At a basic level, the stories are about right and wrong, good and evil, how people should behave,” Brown said. “There are lessons in there about justice, about the law, about how we should treat each other. And they’re wrapped up in explosions and a lot of fun, and characters that can fly, which just makes it a lot more digestible.”
But while there are valuable lessons to be gained from superhero films, McAllister said the oversaturation of the market and Hollywood’s love affair with superheroes could be problematic.
“Are they the only lessons we can learn from film? Are they the only ways we can get excited about movies? I think the answer is no,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways we can learn from film, and a lot of ways we can get excited. But are those other ways getting shut out?”