Scorsese v Marvel (or why fans make the best critics)

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*This post contains a spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War*

During an interview with Empire, legendary director Martin Scorsese was asked (for some reason) what we thought about Marvel films and replied:

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. 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.”

Look, I’m not going to try and tell you Iron Man 3 is better than Taxi Driver, but it seems a bit much to claim Marvel films aren’t ‘cinema’. Genius that he is, I would submit there are a few flaws in Scorsese’s reasoning.

Definition

The funny thing about equating being cinematic with “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” is that it fails to identify any quality of film that distinguishes it from other mediums. Surely most good plays, books and TV series also “convey emotional, psychological experiences”?

By contrast, one thing that cinema perhaps does do uniquely well, is deliver exciting spectacles that make you feel like you’ve just been on a great theme park ride. That kind of spectacle is in many ways the purest cinema; it was often all very early films consisted of. And it tends to be the aspect of a film that is most diminished when it is watched on a TV rather than in the cinema. Scorsese himself has demonstrated that character drama is less inherently tied to the cinema by releasing his latest film on Netflix, a decision which would be unthinkable for the next instalment in the MCU.

Boundaries

However, even if one accepts this definition of cinema, does it follow that Marvel films fall outside it?

There are films, including very good films, that are essentially a succession of adrenaline shots. The Raid, for example, doesn’t give much weight to the ‘emotional, psychological’ experiences of its characters. And for good reason, they are there to fight each other in magnificently choreographed martial arts sequences. Plumbing the depth of their psyches or watching them evolve as people would be beside the point.*

However, Marvel films aren’t really in this category. Character is a key part of the exercise. It’s not a coincidence that superhero films are almost invariably named after their protagonists. They tend to jettison the plots (and often the look and tone) of their comic book source material. They will, however, always retain the characters.

It simply isn’t true to say that these films aren’t trying to ‘convey the emotional, psychological experiences’ of these characters. For example, the opening act of Avengers: Endgame is essentially all about making the audience feel our heroes’ anguish at having failed to prevent half the universe’s population being killed. More of it is devoted to a support group meeting, than to action.

Not that we should mistake the presence of action for the absence of character. Good action sequences frequently express something about the characters in them. For example, the story of both the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy is about the formation of a team. Hence at the start of both films, the action sequences have the heroes opposed to each other or at least pursuing divergent objectives; around the midpoint they are working together but ineffectually so; and by the final battle, the audience sees them operating as more than the sum of their parts.

The point

I unpack these comments not because I think they are important in and of themselves. The MCU will continue not withstanding Scorsese’s disinterest and he has clearly earned his right to his cinematic preferences. It is disappointing that many outlets treated his off-the-cuff remarks about films he’s clearly not that interested in as important pronouncements, but they do need page views and this kind of thing gets people talking (as I’ve illustrated by writing a blog post about it).

However, they do illustrate something about the nature of criticism. That an undeniable genius can misread a sub-genre in a fairly basic way, illustrates that it is basically impossible to offer a meaningful critique of something unless you are interested and engaged with it. As interest and engagement tend to go along with enthusiasm, it’s almost invariably going to be the case that fans make the best critics. Ask a metal-head to assess an opera and it’s likely all you will learn is that it’s not a piece of metal music. Ask an opera lover who appreciates what an opera can be and you’ll get a real sense of if the work before you measures up. So, ironically if you want to know what’s wrong with superhero films, then you really need to ask someone who loves superhero films.

*Though it’s worth noting that even in a film like the Raid the filmmakers still need you to identify with the characters enough for you to emotionally invest in the action. Notice how before the fighting starts in this sequence (NSFW), there are multiple close-ups of the heroes face, giving you the opportunity to appreciate the extent of his fear.

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