Opinion - Scorsese and Coppola Vs. the MCU: Are we focusing on the wrong argument?
There’s been a lot of buzz lately to a topic that has been discussed in one way or another ever since the concept proved successful beyond anyone’s imagination:
Are the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies cinema?
While the last couple of months have seen auteurs Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola deride and insult the venture, this isn’t exactly a new thing. Back in 2015, Steven Spielberg faced nerd ire when he predicted that not only would Superhero movies go the way of the Western, but that the film industry itself would implode due to the increasing costs of tent-pole films, which most Superhero movies end up being. Neither of these predictions have come to pass yet. And to be fair, Spielberg, unlike his two contemporaries, did not make any comments as to their cinematic value.
Before I dive any deeper, let’s look at the comments made.
First up is Scorsese. “I don’t see them. 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.” He elaborated further in another instance: "The value of a film that’s like a theme park film, for example, the Marvel type pictures where the theaters become amusement parks, that’s a different experience. As I was saying earlier, it's not cinema, it’s something else. Whether you go for that or not, it is something else and we shouldn’t be invaded by it. And so that’s a big issue, and we need the theater owners to step up for that to allow theaters to show films that are narrative films.”
Coppola added to that days later: "When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he's right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. I don't know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it's not cinema. He didn't say it's despicable, which I just say it is."
What I’ll try to do here is start off with the broad premise, that being that Marvel films aren’t cinema, and then take a look at each director’s comments and discuss if there’s any merit to what they’re saying.
So, are MCU films cinema? Well, first off, let’s consult the dictionary. The definition provided by dictionary.com offers three definitions: 1. A motion picture. 2. Motion pictures collectively as an art. 3. A motion picture theater. Well, MCU films are indeed motion pictures, fulfilling the first definition and as such fall into the second as well. But that second one brings in the word ‘art’. Ho boy. This is where the pretension comes in. We now have to ask ourselves the big question:
What is art?
And once again, back to the dictionary…where we find FIFTEEN different definitions. Let’s go with the first one listed, as I’m sure that’s what our pair of directors meant: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. Focusing in on the tail end of this definition with the use of such words as ‘aesthetic principles’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘appealing’, we end up coming back to an old adage, that such things are in the eye of the beholder. Thusly, if both directors had simply inserted ‘to me’…or a phrase to that effect, then, well, we’d still be having this conversation…because the internet…but it’d be worth even less of our time than what it already is. You could look at it, say ‘hey, these guys don’t like the MCU…okay,’ and then move on with the rest of your day. But lacking that phrase, with Scorsese doubling down and Coppola being pretty heavy handed in his disdain…plus…you know, the internet…well, here we are. It comes off as an attack and one that has riled the proverbial hornets’ nest.
I have to give Scorsese credit with how he starts: “I don’t see them. I tried, you know?” So, unlike many who feel it necessary to complain about…well…anything…at least he gave it a shot. He tried it and didn’t like it. Cool. I can respect that. He then goes on to say that to him, it’s more like a theme park ride. Okay, I can see that too. There are a lot of ups and downs and certainly plenty of spectacle…sure…hell, even critics will point out some of these films as being a rollercoaster or a ‘wild ride’…so, again, this is a totally apt comparison. Where his argument falls apart is here: “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” First, in his defense, the fact that there is a board or ‘brain trust’ overseeing the creation of these films and thus giving the impression of ‘corporate filmmaking’ or ‘film by committee’ can be considered appropriate. After all, we are talking about Disney here. And while this kind of committee might be necessary to determine where these films fall in the overall story arc of the MCU, the core themes fall in the hands of the producers, writers and directors of each film…just like any other cinematic work. Whether it’s the classic tried and true formula of the Hero’s Journey or to more sophisticated matters such as what defines a family, when is it necessary to question authority or gender and racial empowerment, Marvel films, while generally not too terribly deep, can and do convey emotional and psychological experiences to the millions of people who have viewed them.
Coppola tries to piggy-back onto this argument and also fails. He says “we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.” Sure, again, I’ll admit that Marvel films aren’t too terribly deep, but core to any hero’s story is to give the audience some inspiration. It’s simple drama and, again, a vital component of the hero’s journey: the main character is faced with overwhelming odds and, via whatever theme and or macguffin the filmmaker wants to use, if the story is successful, we’re to pull for and become inspired by said hero and, with any luck, allow what we’ve seen to inspire us in our daily lives. Sure, the instant you walk out of the theater you’re not going to be attacked by a horde of robot drones, but the same attitude of ‘a kid from Brooklyn’ who could do this all day might just help push the viewer through a tough, albeit far more mundane, period or event in his or her own life.
Where Coppola’s argument really falls on its face is when he says, “I don't know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again.” This is really stupid. Well, okay, it’s stupid when you think about it, but on the surface, sure, it seems valid. If you sit and watch the same thing over and over again, no, you’re not going to get too much more out of it after the second or third (maybe fourth) viewing. But come on…we ALL have at least one movie, maybe more, that we’ve seen a million times. And there’s a reason for that…whether it’s that the story resonates, we love the cinematography, there’s a character you strongly identify with…so on and so forth. Any movie buff has at least one movie that they can point to and say “I practically have that memorized…wanna watch it with me?” So even to that end, the viewer is STILL getting something out of that film he or she has watched over and over again…and that is comfort. Then there’s the larger principle: if there are indeed only 7 stories, then aren’t we all watching the same movies over and over again anyway? And shouldn’t a master filmmaker like Coppola intrinsically know that? What’s disappointing is that Francis felt he needed to put a little stank on that last dig, calling the whole experience ‘despicable’. Now, what I’m hoping is that he’s using that term to hitch on to the closing part of Scorsese’s argument…which we’ll get to next, but he doesn’t outright say that. In fact, the way his sentence is structured, there’s really no way that he could be attaching ‘despicable’ to anything other than the films themselves and, by proxy, those that view them…because, let’s face it, if they weren’t pulling serious cash, Marvel/Disney wouldn’t be making them. That’s unfortunate…and yeah, does come off as pretty elitist. I mean, if he’s that way about cinematic ‘comfort food’, is Coppola the same way about actual comfort food? I guess that does indeed beg the question: Would Gordon Ramsay call someone ‘despicable’ for going to a McDonald’s to grab a quick burger? Hard to say, really, but it would indeed be equally douche-tastic.
What all these nerd headlines seem to be ignoring is the tail end of Scorsese’s argument…one that honestly is quite valid: “Whether you go for that or not, it is something else and we shouldn’t be invaded by it. And so that’s a big issue, and we need the theater owners to step up for that to allow theaters to show films that are narrative films.” Between Disney gobbling up movie studios like some cinematic Pac-Man and the continued studio reliance on blockbuster style movies not just during the summer but nearly throughout the year at this point, a lot of small or mid-sized budget films are getting squeezed out of the multiplex only to be screen at hard-to-find or out-of-the-way arthouse theaters that only movie goers in larger metropolitan centers will have access to. In a sense, even Scorsese’s wording is accurate, we SHOULDN’T be invaded by it. Yet blockbusters are where all the advertising bucks go…which is weird because in this day and age of social media, let’s face it, there’s really no need to advertise when the next Marvel movie is coming out, it’s gonna hit you in the face a gazillion times before it opens anyway. The primary focus of advertising is to sell you a product or to get you excited about it, right? Don’t put millions of dollars behind a campaign to sell people something that they already know about and are lining up for (to be fair, not that this stops the schmucks at Coke, Pepsi and fucking Apple...). Take that money and put it behind a film that the studio might believe in but has less word of mouth or actor/brand recognition.
Unfortunately, and I’d planned to write another article addressing this (and might possibly still), this isn’t a problem just relegated to movies in the multiplex but also to home video. Obscure…and, hell, let’s face it, even not-so-obscure…films of both today and yesteryear are becoming harder and harder to find given both brick-and-mortar and online streaming’s fascination with the new and shiny…just like in the multiplex. Here’s a challenge for you, the next time you’re in a Target, try to find a movie that’s over 5-10 years old. Sure, some of the classics will be there, like say Star Wars, Alien, Back to the Future…but find me a copy of The Last Starfighter or Rosemary’s Baby or the Omen. Now, to the credit of both Best Buy and Wal-Mart, at least they make an effort to carry some lower budget and direct to video titles (three cheers to Best Buy for introducing me to Wolfcop!) as well as some of the classic genre faire being offered by such great third-party distributors such as Shout Factory and Vestron Video, but even those selections are limited as to titles that just came out recently. There are occasional exceptions…like the time I scored a Dolemite boxed set at Wal-Mart…but more often than not, the only way you’re going to find something in brick-and-mortar is it for it to be relatively new or part of a series that has a new entry either in theaters or just coming out on the home video format. Streaming is a bit more cunning and at times even more difficult. Services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime certainly don’t have to worry about shelf space the way that brick-and-mortars do…but they too, and perhaps rightly so…also fall prey to the lure of the shiny new films, putting them front and center. While older catalog films are present, you certainly have to dig for them or know exactly what you’re looking for in order to find it using the search engine. The other issue is time…not as in when the film was made, but how long it’ll actually be on the service of your choice…as films enter and exit on a monthly basis. Just because you found an obscure film on Netflix in October, don’t automatically assume it’s still going to be on your viewing list in December.
Wow…okay, that started off pertinent then devolved into a tangential rant, didn’t it?
Back on topic, what we’re seeing here is something that those associated with comics are quite familiar with, but is still a novel concept in film…known only by a few franchises, most notably James Bond and Godzilla…in that we have a core character/characters/concept that has been shaped by creators that have come before and will be shaped by creators that have come after. In comics, you have the editor that suggests stories and assigns them to a writer and artist team…and they run with that to create something that is uniquely theirs. This isn’t too dissimilar to the relationships between producers, writers and directors. What sets the Marvel films apart from the other cinematic franchises I just mentioned is the fact that Marvel has kicked this kind of production into high gear. While it is typically 3 to 4 years between Bond or Godzilla films (depending on the amount of behind the scenes drama, it could be more), the break between Marvel films is 3 to 4 months. In some ways, you could liken this to mass production…the changeover from crafted products to those created on the assembly line. Thus, does this argument boil down to artisans fighting against automation? That, like art itself, is for the beholder to decide.
I mean, come on, I write reviews on mass produced plastic toys, am I really the right person to make that kind of decision for you???
Sure, Scorsese and Coppola’s comments, particularly the latter, on the surface seem to be as pertinent as “Old Man Hates Change”, but at least the second half of Scorsese’s argument has merit. While the Marvel films certainly aren’t for everyone, particularly those that like to engage in ‘high art’ as opposed to art for mass consumption, well, that’s just it right there, isn’t it: the films may be ‘low art’…but depending on the beholder, art nonetheless. But the very real showdown at the multiplex, small and medium sized budget films being squeezed out by mass-produced blockbusters, is certainly something worth any movie goers’ attention. If we were to put this into food terms, yeah, sometimes you just wanna grab something from Taco Bell on the way home from work, but sometimes you want a quiet sit-down at a nice restaurant that crafts your dish. All movie goers should have that option, wherever they are…not just those in urban areas with the veneer of ‘culture’. And Hollywood could be…and should be…doing more to keep that option open.