November 15, 2019

Martin “Thanos” Scorsese vs. the Marvel Universe

This is truly the age of faux controversy. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of the social media behemoth to take a fairly innocent celebrity comment, strip it of all context, and blast it out there to get all those thumbs furiously tapping out as many knee-jerk tweets, texts and posts as possible. I was particularly interested when King of the Movie Nerds Martin Scorsese caused a major kerfuffle with a comment on Marvel superhero movies in an Empire magazine interview:
“I don’t see them,” he says of the MCU. “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.”
(By the way, I mean no disrespect in using the term Nerd; quite the opposite. Not only does Mr. Scorsese, well into his ‘70s, work his butt off making great movies, he spends his time off the set tirelessly advocating for film preservation and the richest possible viewing experience. Recently, he’s tackled the arcane tech issue of motion-smoothing on newer TVs that changes the way movies look on the small screen, and is working with major manufacturers to develop a “film mode” that better replicates the look that filmmakers are going for. It takes a passionate nerd to step in and do the nitty-gritty work so the rest of us can take it for granted that our favorite films will be there for us.)

Home viewing night with popcorn
Martin would prefer you watch his movies in a theater, but if you
have to watch at home, turn off that motion-smoothing setting.
There’s nothing new or particularly outrageous in Scorsese’s remarks. Lots of people have been comparing the blockbuster comic book and sci-fi movies to amusement park rides since at least the early 2000s. Heck, I’ve said it more than once on this blog -- in fact, it’s enshrined as part of my “About the Blog” statement (revised in November 2018):
“Theaters compete [with Netflix and Amazon Prime] with CGI-infested blockbusters that more resemble amusement park rides than traditional movies (and desperately try to deliver on ever-more exorbitant ticket prices). It’s Cinerama all over again, trying to woo jaded consumers away from the net, if only for a couple of hours. An increasingly desperate Hollywood pushes every franchise entry, re-boot, re-make or sequel as an “event,” with accompanying big ticket prices, leading to empty wallets and growing cynicism.”
Scorsese tries to be as gentle as possible with his fellow filmmakers -- “ well made as they [MCU movies] are, with actors doing the best they can…” -- while simply expressing a personal preference. That this should become such a huge news story, with all the theatrical hand-wringing and head-shaking (e.g., “James Gunn ‘Saddened’ by Martin Scorcese...”) is characteristic of a culture that needs to stoke controversy and outrage over everything, 24/7, to capture eyeballs and sell ads.

Variety’s coverage of the teapot tempest featured a number of prickly, defensive tweets from the usual MCU suspects, but I smiled when I saw this very sensible reaction:

To be fair to the MCU fans whose feelings got hurt, I think saying that superhero movies aren’t “cinema” is somewhat closed-minded. Even if you privilege art over industry in your conception of Cinema with a capital C, just because a movie doesn’t plumb a group of characters’ psychological depths doesn’t mean there’s no art or cinematic value there.

The purpose of the art is just different -- in the case of superhero movies, to create worlds that inspire wonder and awe as backdrops to basic conflicts of good and evil. You can complain about the techno-fetishism, or the over-reliance on digital effects, or even simply that they’re loud and dumb (and believe me, I do), but hey, to give the Devil his due, they are also the result of small armies of highly talented, passionate people who work long hours at their art.

Poster - House of Frankenstein (1944)
When I was kid, we'd never heard of a "shared
cinematic universe," but we sure did love the
Universal monster rallies.
Also, if we think of cinema as having an enduring value and relevance for audiences over longer time frames, then we have to pay respect to the good-vs.-evil melodramas that, on the face of it, seem so puerile. After all, millions of people still enjoy the fruits of the very first cinematic universe -- the Universal monsters -- decades after they first appeared in theaters, while many of the “adult” dramas of the period are all but forgotten. (If home video releases and streaming availability are any indication, then the monsters win hands down.)

In a recent Den of Geek article, "Universal Monsters, How the Wolf Man Created the First Cinematic Universe," David Crow writes,
"Over 80 years since it began, the Universal Monsters legacy continues to stretch into a new century, spreading celluloid immortality like a juicy Transylvanian kiss. The Universal Monsters did it first, and in many ways, their blunt directness had a special charm that is sorely lacking in the self-seriousness currently masquerading in their bloodless, caped descendants."
I doubt Scorsese would hold up the Universal monsters as a model of good cinema, but at least a few current film writers appreciate the “ancient” (by 2019 standards) antecedents of today’s multi-billion $ fantasy and sci-fi franchises.

Scorsese’s crime was expressing an off-the-cuff, mild prejudice that we all indulge in from time to time: Comic book movies aren’t cinema; George R.R. Martin’s novels aren’t literature; Andy Warhol didn’t create “art.” You don’t have to agree to see where the person is coming from.

Lithograph reproduction - Andy Warhol's soup can
I don't know if this is art, but I know
what I like, and I like soup.
Maybe true “cinema” should engage audiences more directly with deep, meaningful takes on the human condition. Maybe superhero movies don’t cut it. So what? My advice to MCU fans is to walk away, decide not to engage. You don’t need to have the whole world behind you, and certainly not dear old Martin, to enjoy your movies. Take the high road. Watch The Irishman when it comes out. Cleanse your palate by enjoying a more down-to-earth drama or comedy. Maybe track down an old genre flick or two just to get a sense of how movies have evolved (the classic Universal monsters might be a good place to start). Then get back to your passion, refreshed and relaxed, and watch some superheroes artfully kick ass.

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