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Scorsese may be right that Marvel is ‘not cinema’ – but superhero films make us feel more than identity-politics Oscar bait

Scorsese may be right that Marvel is ‘not cinema’ – but superhero films make us feel more than identity-politics Oscar bait
Scorsese’s claim that Marvel movies are not ‘cinema’ highlights the gap between the films people want and the ones the film industry, and culture at large, esteems.

This gap reflects a broader alienation between “people” and elite taste-makers across all social spheres.

But… ‘Endgame’ grossed $2.8 billion at the BO, Scorsese’s latest is on Netflix

In the past week, in the New York Times, Martin Scorsese doubled down on his earlier assertion that generic Marvel films are “not cinema” and lamented the failure of studios to take risks.

The question “What is cinema?” advanced by Andre Bazin over 50 years ago, still poses a challenge to complacent assumptions. 

How can Scorsese claim that Marvel films are not cinema, when from a commercial standpoint they outperform everything else? What’s more, they do this on such a scale that, in terms of tickets sold and viewing figures – ‘Avengers: Endgame’ earned $2.8 billion at the global box office – other films look insignificant. 

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To further complicate things, Scorsese’s next film ‘The Irishman’ will not been seen in cinemas – it is barely ‘cinema’ from a nominal point of view. It is a Netflix production, an online streaming experience, shown cinematically at a handful of selected screenings.

The franchise movies are the ones people actually watch in a cinema. Art movies, despite winning Oscars, do badly by comparison.

From ‘Titanic’ to ‘Moonlight’ – decline of the Oscar-winning hit

How did prestige Hollywood productions, Scorsese’s “true” films, become so niche, and why has their place in the cinemas been usurped by colorful adaptations of other media?

This dichotomy did not always exist. There were always mindless blockbusters that were not made for the red-carpet circuit, but until about 20 years ago, the films that won cinema prizes also used to be the ones seen by the most people. For example, ‘Titanic’ was simultaneously a classic cinema story and a blockbuster. Looking at past Oscar winners, such as ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ ‘Forrest Gump’ or even ‘Schindler’s List,’ it’s easy to conclude that the genre of “Hollywood film” coincided with popularity.

Swapping universal storytelling for identity politics

Key to answering this question is the relatively unremarked phenomenon of the decline of universalist ambition in storytelling. 

Cinema has long been accused, by neglecting women and minorities as driving forces of narratives, of not fulfilling its universalist obligations. But instead of seeing the often woeful representation of women and minorities as the unfulfilled promise of universalist claims, the idea of universal perspective was written off altogether. 

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What filled the narrative vacuum was the concept of ‘voices’ and ‘narratives’ (plural). This fragmentation became the prime mover for contemporary cinema. What the audience gets are films in which history, and life in general, are re-hashed from a black, female, gendered or disabled perspective. This tendency culminates in films like ‘The Shape of Water,’ in which all the characters are presented as relating to the world through their identities – gay old man, black cleaner, white bad guy, fish-man foreigner, disabled woman. 

These films are not designed to share humanity but to feel your own guilt in relation to the struggles ‘others’ have to go through. Humanity, when fragmented into voices and bodies, can only be apprehended through empathy and respect. The idea of a common humanity is an affront to this logic. 

Most people feel alienated by this identity-based approach to storytelling.

Captain America to the rescue

This is where the Marvel films come in. They might not fulfil cinema’s full potential in the way Scorsese is striving for, but at least their stories relate to us all.

Scorsese’s criticism of franchise movies is that they are simply not art. “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures,” he writes. “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”

Scorsese describes Marvel movies as theme park films. Their worlds, characters and problems are easy to understand. The characters are usually good, or at least good at heart, or literally aliens, who can be killed easily without controversy. The only time characters address their own internal contractions is done through postmodern dialogue, with witty remarks that draw attention to the ludicrous anachronisms inherent in the Marvel universe. Iron Man addresses Thor, meeting him for the first time, “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?"

This is a world away from Scorsese’s understanding, that it is the way filmic stories are revelatory – that they show something to us about the world that we have not realized but recognize instantly when revealed – that defines them as art. This is key. For stories to be able to deliver this experience they are necessarily premised on an understanding that all human beings share one specific commonality – humanity. These stories work because they want to tell stories that are universal. When Henry declares in the opening of Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” the audience is meant to recognize a very human struggle through this controversial character no matter who they are – they are all human.

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In a sense, Scorsese is correct. Marvel films are not art. Nevertheless, they still have an attitudinal advantage over contemporary Hollywood art cinema, premised on something worthwhile. Marvel films try to address their audience not as individualized reflections of identities but as sharing a common humanity. They do this on a lowest common denominator – the eternal struggle of “good and evil,” but this hackneyed trope at least has in it the ghost of a universalist perspective. 

The appeal to a greater humanity, even in a crass, stunted from, is what audiences get from Marvel movies. It is, admittedly, a diminished version of the truth, portraying humans as one-dimensional and unchanging. But, designed as they are to speak to a global audience, it sees them as part of a greater world. And this is why they are meaningful, through sheer commercial necessity. 

In the choice between the officially sanctioned, suffocating art aesthetic, and lowest common denominator universalism, people are choosing the latter. Scorcese is making a case for expanding art to be universal and popular again – but will the filmmaking elites take up his challenge?

By Dr. Maren Thom,  a researcher and writer, focusing on film and culture. She lives in London.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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