Marvel vs Cinema: The Scorcese Debate

Earlier this month, Martin Scorcese caused a bit of a storm when he said the following:

“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.”

Now, as I’ve made fairly clear here, I love Marvel. I grew up obsessed with Spider-Man. I have proudly watched every single MCU film in the cinema besides Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy (thought it would be terrible, I was wrong). My point is, I should be slightly biased here. But remember, I am also a film student and as my whole family will testify, I am a big fan of high-art (in their words “pretentious”) films, and I am also an enormous Scorcese fan. Let’s not forget that he directed my favourite film of all time –The Departed. With all that taken into account, I think I’m actually in a pretty good position in terms of neutrality to judge this debate. So, let’s delve in.

That’s a lot of characters

Firstly I want to clarify what Scorcese actually meant, because it has definitely been blown out of proportion. He wasn’t saying Marvel films don’t have a place, he’s just saying they’ve evolved into their own art form. He said later in the interview:

My concern is losing the screens to massive theme park films, which I say again, they’re [their] own new art form…and it’s great to go to an event like an amusement park, but don’t crowd out Greta Gerwig and don’t crowd out Paul Thomas Anderson and Noah Baumbach and those people, just don’t, in terms of theaters.”

The point he’s making is to go and see these Marvel films, and he doesn’t have an issue with them, but don’t do that at the expense of filmmakers who are more concerned with art than money. I’m not saying Marvel directors and producers and Kevin Feige (whatever he is) aren’t concerned with art, I know how much they, and especially he, care about their fans and making good films and a good story. It takes artistic skill to put together 23 films with an interlinking story, character development and have the world obsessed with them. But if they didn’t make money, they wouldn’t keep making them. The films are designed to put people in seats, and that’s fine. But let’s not forget that Mark Ruffalo never got a solo Hulk film, all because the first Ed Norton one didn’t make money. Let’s not lie to ourselves and say that Robert Downey Jr’s cameos in the Spider-Man films were solely for the plot, and not at least partly because Marvel knows people want Downey. Don’t we all? I often liken the films to Ed Sheeran’s music. I love Ed Sheeran. And it’s good music, he’s a talented guy with a great voice and numerous classic songs. But I don’t lie to myself and say that his music isn’t formulaic and mainly just designed to get on the charts. That’s how I feel about Marvel. They have perfected the formula for making something just good enough that it gets good critical ratings, but also that the masses love. It’s genius, in its own way. But has any Marvel film ever been Oscar worthy in any major category? Has any film ever been worthy of a nomination? (No, Black Panther wasn’t and Downey shouldn’t get one this year). That’s just because the films that win the Oscars in general are purely designed for art, and for a message. The focus is in the craft, the acting and the details, not in the explosions.

Let’s dig a bit deeper, because it’s something I’ve thought for a while. Is the cinema dying? That’s what this is really about, and what Scorcese is saying. Is the art film losing its chance to shine? I was making the point to my dad a year or so ago that none of the top highest grossing films are original material anymore (besides Avatar). Don’t believe me? Here’s the top 20:

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. Avatar
  3. Titanic
  4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  5. Avengers: Infinity War
  6. Jurassic World
  7. The Lion King
  8. The Avengers
  9. Furious 7
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  11. Black Panther
  12. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
  13. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  14. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
  15. Frozen
  16. Beauty and the Beast
  17. Incredibles 2
  18. The Fate of the Furious
  19. Iron Man 3
  20. Minions

Of those 20, 15 are franchise films. Of those remaining 5, Titanic is based on history and Beauty and the Beast is based on a fairy tale, so that leaves us 3. 3 out of the top 20 highest grossing films ever are original stories, and two of those are made by Disney, whose saga of animated films almost count as a franchise. Only Avatar to me, stands alone as the original work, and that is being franchised as we speak. There is not a single other film in the top 50 highest grossing films that is not either part of a franchise, Disney or based on a book. Check if you don’t believe me.

Soon to be plauged by franchising, Avatar stands alone as original

That is an undeniable problem. If you were thinking about the best 50 films of all time, how many would be on both that list and highest grossing? One, maybe two? So why aren’t people going to watch these films? And as Scorcese was worried about, are we “crowd[ing] out” the art directors? In short, yes, we are. The cinema as a medium for watching films is dying. Companies like Odeon are doing their best to revive it with their Odeon Luxes, but the experience of the cinema just doesn’t seem to be one people want. And why would they? Why would you pay huge prices to watch something that you can stream on Netflix in a few weeks time? Well, people seem happy to do so for franchise films, just not art films, and that’s a shame. People don’t want to be challenged intellectually at the cinema, or most don’t, and that’s fair. The cinema is one of the best methods of escapism, and there’s nothing wrong with using it as such. But in doing so, you are certainly limiting yourself and cutting yourself off from a mass of culture. But let me at least give a pitch for going to see art films at the cinema.

Odeon’s valiant effort to make going to the cinema more of an experience is certainly welcome

For me, the beauty of films is to do with affect. No, not effect, affect. Affect theory to do with film talks about how a film makes you feel, involuntarily. Sometimes in films, you get goosebumps at a moment of pride, you cry at a moment of sadness, whatever it is, you feel it. That’s what cinema is about, and while franchise films might be easier escapism, you will not and cannot get the same depth of affect from those films. There’s just less to appreciate. I’m aware this is all massively pretentious film student shit, but it’s true. And the thing is, when people actually get around to watching art films, they love them. I’m not talking high high art inaccessible crap, I’m just talking about proper films. The Master, There Will Be Blood, Inception, The Departed, Get Out, Nightcrawler, Lady Bird, I could go on and on with films you’ve definitely seen but almost certainly didn’t see at the cinema. But why? Why not enjoy the artwork in the way the maker intended for you to? With a big bag of popcorn and a massive drink of coke. So yes, I will be going to see all the rest of the Marvel films in the cinema, as should you, but maybe push yourself a bit too, go to the cinema on a weekday to watch the new indie film rather than stream it. You might love it.

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