Why Marvel Films are Undoubtedly Cinema

By Darius Thornton

Superhero fever is a phenomenon that has swept across the globe, and, as a result, Marvel Studios is on top of the entertainment world. Their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that began with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, is a juggernaut, earning both unparalleled financial success at the box office and considerable praise from critics and fans alike. So much so, that their eternal rivalry with DC hasn’t been much of a rivalry these last few years. By adapting classic Marvel comics characters and storylines into original arcs and stories, they have captured the collective imagination and dazzled audiences everywhere. With the first three “phases”, known as the Infinity Saga, completed, the direction of the future overarching story of the MCU is uncertain. The current global health crisis has delayed the first two films of Phase Four, Black Widow and The Eternals to 2021, when both were slated to be released this year, the former in May, the latter later this month. But to quote Nick Fury from Spider-Man: Far From Home (oh, and Shakespeare too), “uneasy is the head that wears a crown.” When you’re on top, people are going to throw stones at you, that’s just a given. Maybe it’s out of jealousy, maybe they just want to seem cool and contrarian, or, maybe, they legitimately want to knock you down. Whatever the case, a brand as big as Marvel is certainly used to taking its fair share of shots, both from those inside and outside of the entertainment industry. But it’s not everyday those shots are declaring your movies “not real cinema” and happen to come from one of the greatest and most acclaimed directors of all time.

In a 2019 op-ed with the New York Times, Martin Scorcese, director of classics such as Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, and many others, expressed his rather unfavorable opinion on Marvel movies. He had this to say specifically: “don’t think they’re cinema. I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.” He isn’t the only one either, as Francis Ford Coppala, director of the acclaimed Godfather trilogy, is on record calling the whimsical comic book films “despicable.” Now, I’m going to preface this by saying that Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola are obviously  both entitled to their own opinions. And both are filmmaking geniuses who have both forgotten more about cinema than I’ll likely ever know. But I do disagree, strongly actually. Merriam Webster’s definition of cinema is rather simple: “ a motion picture”, though it is also used to refer to the film industry as a whole. This definition is very loose, and if we use it, every film that has ever been made and ever will be made is cinema. But this is obviously not the point Scorcese is making. He says that they are not cinema as he knows it. So, it is important to establish context about the films of his era. The bulk of his work was made during the ‘70s and ‘80s–the height of the crime-drama era–that people more commonly call “gangster movies”. However, these films are more than just profanity-laced, ultra-violent tales of crime. Films like Goodfellas and Taxi Driver tell personal stories in the atmosphere and backdrop of a gangster movie, often chronicling a character’s rise and fall, either highlighting how their flaws will doom them and their strengths will save them. The best of these genres of films featured great acting, brilliant scripts, and of course, transcendent filmmaking. So Scorsese made these kinds of films and grew up on films from people like Alfred Hitchcock, who also made character-driven stories with a lot to say–see Psycho, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. We are shaped by our experiences, so this likely became Scorcese’s idea of what “cinema” is. And he clearly doesn’t see this in Marvel movies.

Like anything else, filmmaking has grown and evolved. We’ve gone from westerns, to gangster movies, to space sci-fi movies, and now is the era of the superhero. Scorcese comparing them to theme parks suggests that he believes that they are nothing but flash, good at generating cheap thrills and excitement with action and explosions, but lacking in any real substance, at least compared to the films of his era. To that I say, that’s more of the identity of Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, but I digress. Yes, it’s true Marvel movies are primarily action and adventure movies whose primary purpose is to excite and dazzle. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer. The MCU is not only beloved for its spectacle and action scenes, but also its likeable and memorable characters. Characters like Tony Stark, Captain America, and Thor are each likeable in their own, unique ways and have grown immeasurably over the years through the trials and tribulations they endured in, not only their own personal stories, but the larger overarching Infinity Saga that spanned the ensemble films. In ten years, Tony Stark went from an arrogant playboy, millionaire genius who was out only for himself,  to someone who not only used his gifts to protect people, but a father figure and mentor, as well someone who was willing to lay down his life to save the universe. Captain America went from the ultimate altruistic, dutiful soldier, to someone who learned instead follow his own morals and carve out his own life for himself. Thor learned that he should be who he is and not try to be what others expect him to be. And these are only three of the dozens of arcs that the heroes, villains, and supporting characters go on over the 23 film epic. Many continue to go see these movies not only for the excitement, but because they’re invested in what happens to this cast of characters and how the story will move forward. Marvel films are not hollow or devoid of substance just because their primary focus is to entertain. 

Moreover, I think this mindset is one that is common among those who make  more contemporary, character-driven, intimate, “artsy” films. Comic book movies, or action/adventure movies in general, really have this stigma attached to them–that they’re all flash and nothing else. A shallow or haphazard story, with barebones characters and no larger themes to speak of. But, this just simply isn’t the case. Sure, the action is always at the forefront, which given the genre, is to be expected. And some MCU films are more committed to having a story than others, but if you actually look even a bit beneath the surface, they do have a thematic story. The Captain America trilogy is about the relationship between people and authority. How far is too far, when concerning security? The two Spider-Man films are coming-of-age stories that center around common teenage issues like growing up, insecurity, and feeling inadequate. Guardians of the Galaxy is about found family. While these may not be as complex as some of the themes Scorcese explores in his films, they are undoubtedly profound in their own right–and relatable for so many.

It’s for all these reasons that I disagree with Scorcese’s opinion that Marvel movies are not real cinema. To me, they are not only cinema, but great cinema (for the most part at least). Of course, there is more to the argument, an extra layer of criticism levied at the MCU for its adverse effect on the Hollywood machine, but that’s a separate topic for another day. To wrap things up, I’ll share the principle I use for critiquing not only films, but art in general–you can’t criticize something for not being something it was never trying to be.

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