So Whose Cinema is it Anyway?
By Rahul Puri
A word that evokes so much. Beautiful scenes, beautiful people, emotions and imagination. Sometimes all four rolled into one memorable frame. An art form that evokes the most in people; cinema is still, even after over a hundred years, the most powerful tool in we have in media. But who gets to decide what is cinema and what is not?
It is something that has come into sharp focus in recent weeks as there has been a rather interesting and at times unseemly spat between ace director Martin Scorsese and his, what seems, pure chagrin of superhero movies - the target of this has been the most successful exponent of that genre in the last decade - Marvel Studios and their burgeoning MCU.
Scorsese began by stating that these films were not 'cinema'. He went on to explain that these films lacked the proper ingredients of cinema - for instance, surprise, true emotional participation with the stories and a sense of not having any real stakes to them. He explained that his words were not out of hatred, and that he believed there was a lot of great artistry in the films but in his opinion, these movies were simply huge juggernauts that were taking the audience away from real gems of movies by choking off the supply and ramping up demand in the eyes of young people who now feasted on them.
I am not entirely sure if I have summarized his piece written in an Op-ed in The New York Times perfectly, but if you wish to read it in full - the link is here https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.htm
I am no one to tell Martin Scorsese anything about cinema. The man is an institution of film-making and some of the films he has made are up there with my all time favourites. In the words of Patton Oswald, Actor and huge comic book fan, "I love comic books and comic book movies. But Martin Scorsese gets to have any goddamn opinion on any film he wants!". And I kind of agree. This isn't really about Mr. Scorsese at all. It is about cinema and the changing face of it. So if you were expecting me to bash one of the most celebrated film-makers ever, sorry - this isn't that piece.
My opinion put simply is that Marvel Studios and the MCU is one big fat target. Your film tanked, blame Marvel. Your film didn't get an opening, blame Marvel. There are too many sequels and reboots, blame Marvel. Global Warming is a thing, you guessed it. Blame Marvel. The last decade has seen unprecedented success for the studio with twenty films, joined together in one large world-building story, the likes we have never seen and may never seen again and that success has brought changes to the way films are made, perceived and demanded. It also brings a massive bulls-eye sign on your back. Scorsese isn't the first to lay into Marvel and the plethora of Superhero films, his contemporary - Francis Ford Coppola - had some choice things to say about the genre as well but where as Coppola seemed to be driven more by sheer annoyance, Scorsese decided to break down his criticism of the films in his Op-ed. It was probably something he needed to do as the backlash was also swift.
Bob Iger - Disney CEO (Disney owns Marvel if you have been living in a cave for a while) basically dismissed the criticism as any shrewd businessman would. The Marvel franchise makes billions for Disney and Iger isn't going to allow someone, whoever they are, to take potshots at one of his prized assets. Iger also has the luxury of not being a film-maker, so his level of reverence for 'Marty' isn't what people from inside Marvel Studios needs to be. Chris Evans, Captain America and extremely thoughtful actor, in his response basically said that although Scorsese was entitled to his opinion, no one owns the word 'cinema' and saying that the MCU films are akin to an Amusement Park ride was highly derogatory to the people who worked on those films. A lot of people have used the 'Amusement Park' analogy. The superhero films are a fun experience but eventually don't leave you with any real feelings. I personally love amusement park rides and think that this analogy is bad for them as well as the MCU movies. Amusement Park rides are all about experience and those people that say they don't leave an impression or are just about momentary adrenaline rushes, haven't been on enough rides. Similarly for me, those people banging on about superhero films being repetitive and having no or little emotional stake, haven't seen enough of them or read enough comic books.
Comic books as a source are all about stakes. The stakes are always massive when you think of the culmination. Some world or universe changing or obliterating scheme but that is not what makes the great ones really live in the memory. It is those comics that take the characters on a journey and we see those characters grow through those experiences. I submit Marvel Studios have done that with their films. Tony Stark in the original Iron Man is not the same man we meet in 'Avengers: Endgame'. The world he lives in has taken its toll on him and he now has a vastly different approach. He has a family and a kid. The stakes are different. Higher maybe but they have changed. Isn't that the hallmark of a worthy character? 'Captain America: The First Avenger' is an origin story based on the source material, but The Winter Solider is about espionage and intrigue. The stakes are again world changing but in a different way. 'Thor Ragnarok' too was about breaking the character and seeing him emerge out of that chrysalis into something new - and the effects of that are not what you would expect at all. Now I am not saying that all of the MCU films are like this, there are always clear winners and losers, especially over a twenty film run, but to say the films are without any substance that makes for great movies is biased and sadly a little ignorant. Comic books are about imagination and wonder and if films are meant to jog young people's imagination and get them thinking of possibilities, then these films are huge drivers of that.
That isn't to say that the genre doesn't have it's downsides. As with all successful genres, there will always be movies that are poor imitations. Perhaps even some of the MCU films fall into that category but superhero films are not alone here. When 'Star Wars' released we saw a huge amount of mediocre Science Fiction. When Schwarzenegger ruled in the late 80s and early 90s, there were some truly terrible action movies made. Heck, even after Scorsese made his gangster epics and before that, when Coppola made 'The Godfather', there were some poor gangster films that followed as by-products. That is the system and Scorsese and Coppola have been beneficiaries of this in the past. Maybe now the wheel has swung the other way. Will it last? Maybe not but good films with good stories will always last and right now, Marvel Studios are making their fair share of these.