In a November 4, 2019 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, film director Martin Scorsese further explained his position that Marvel (and other) superhero movies are not ‘cinema’. Instead, he likened them to theme park rides. This is not a new debate, as there has always been a split between ‘movies’ and ‘film’. Movies are for popcorn-munching entertainment; films are audio visual works of art that explore the human condition.
This distinction is perhaps as old as the medium itself, and the two have existed side by side since the beginning. At the very first Academy Awards in 1928, there were two Best Picture winners: the epic WWI fighter pilot action drama, “Wings”, and the poetic tale of a man struggling with his good and evil sides, “Sunrise”. Fast forward almost 60 years and we see “Back to the Future”, “Rambo” and “Rocky IV” leading the box office, yet “Out of Africa” won Best Picture while coming in a distant 16th in sales. Blockbuster movies made the studios enough money so they could still afford to make ‘art’ films that weren’t as profitable.
Then, things began to change. Up to this point, if you wanted to see a ‘movie’ or a ‘film’, you would go to the same place: the local theatre or drive-in. With the advent of video sales and later, DVDs, the movie houses were no longer the only choice. As HBO and other cable channels began making more quality content, many chose to stay home instead of paying for a babysitter to go out and see a film the kids wouldn’t enjoy. And today, this divide has only increased with Netflix and other content-producing streaming platforms.
Scorsese touches upon the economic factor driving the popularity of Marvel and DC comic movies while the ‘grown up’ films (which he labels “cinema”) are on the decline. Yes, movie studios don’t want to take risks, but in the past, these risks were mitigated by a rounded-out slate of offerings that they produced. Now, much fewer movies and films are made for theatrical exhibition, so they have to be even more careful and selective. Thus, the copy-cat mentality: If this movie/genre worked before (made a profit), then let’s make more of them!
But Mr. Scorsese, I believe, is missing one of the most important points about the whole situation: Superhero movies are not just high action blockbusters with infinite sequels, they are actually episodic or serial at the core. This is a fundamental difference that distinguishes them from the ‘cinema’ films that he laments are a dying breed.
To explain, traditional cinema is mythic; superhero movies are not. In any mythic tale, the main character has to confront her or his inner demons just as much as the outer villain in the story. This requires him or her to go through a complete psychological transformation, and by the end of the film, they are no longer the person they were at the beginning. When we watch such stories, we can be transformed ourselves, or at least awaken that other, ‘better self’ that lies within each of us.
Episodic stories are quite different because the character simply cannot go through such a meaningful change. Buck Rogers is still Buck Rogers, Indiana Jones is still Indiana Jones, Spider-Man is still Spider-Man. The only exception is in the first of a series that serves as an origin myth, or how it is that they became who they are. But afterwards, they can no longer change if the franchise is to survive. Think of Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”: In the original movie, he made the mythic transformation from Luke the farm boy to a Jedi Knight, and he remained so to the last.
This is easy to see in television shows, especially sitcoms, which means situation comedy. The humor is in who the people are and how they respond to what the world throws at them, and the response is always the same. They cannot grow or change lest the whole situation – and comedy – would be lost. Gilligan was never suddenly going to ‘get it’ and stop screwing up, and, the stranded passengers were never going to get rescued. That’s the whole point of the show. The Seinfeld characters could never become likable; Lucy was never going to stop driving Rickey bananas with her crazy antics; and, for the doctors and nurses at the field hospital in M*A*S*H, the Korean War could never end (in fact, the show lasted much longer than the actual conflict).
And that’s how I see the comic book superhero movies – as episodic serials that simply don’t allow for growth and change. Sure, Iron Man, Batman and the Avengers may face new challenges in each movie, but essentially, they remain the same at the end until they are ready for the next villain or disaster to conquer.
I think Mr. Scorsese didn’t make this point clear and I think it is significant to consider if we are really going to look at what is going on with movies today. I find a bit of irony that the ‘cinema’ films are now to be found on the TV, while the serials are playing at the movie houses.
But ultimately, I agree with the esteemed auteur. Even that word, auteur, has fallen from favor. It refers to a storyteller that has his/her own point of view and retains much of the creative control in what is a collaborative medium. My all time favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick, who epitomizes the label perhaps more than any other. Scorsese is another and we need more of them.
Few and far between are the visionary artists (and yes, he names a few) today. I would love to see more character driven films that don’t rely on big explosions and epic battles to provide engaging entertainment. I enjoy mythic tales where the battleground is just as much inside the hero’s psyche as it is in the outer world. I want to leave the theatre affected emotionally and personally in a way that inspires me to become more than I am.
I also want to munch popcorn and be taken on a thrill ride if I choose to do so.