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Is Marvel “real” cinema?

There has been much talk ever since Martin Scorsese gave an interview to Empire Magazine in early October. In the interview, Scorsese boldly stated that Marvel movies aren’t cinema. He later elaborated with an opinion piece in the New York Times on November 6th. He supports his claim by using his own experiences in film and his observations of modern franchise movies. Scorsese talks about the artistic elements of cinema, the necessary presence of risk in films, and the business model of the modern movie franchise.

The main difference between Scorsese and the people who are Marvel fanatics is age. Scorsese himself acknowledges that the era that he grew up in saw and thought of movies in a very different way than today’s youth. Like many art forms, cinema has changed over time and has caused differences in taste among generations. Scorsese even says “I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself”.

Scorsese’s personal taste was developed through the various aspects of the films and filmmakers that he came to love. The type of cinema that Scorsese admires is about revelation and characters. Revelation in movies has the ability to confront the unexpected on a big screen with endless possibilities. Characters allow for the complexity of humans to be explored on screen. These aspects, along with the risks that filmmakers are willing to take, are what make cinema. According to Scorsese the framework of a general movie is there in Marvel movies, but there is no revelation or risk. The movie is left empty and deprived of any enriching complexity.

I, as a young aspiring filmmaker, do agree with Scorsese. From my own experiences, I find that the filmmakers who take the most risks, in regards to not appeasing to a certain trend or a set of guidelines, usually make the best and most interesting films. As Scorsese phrased, “They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way”. The stories within Marvel movies are usually very basic and almost formulaic. The reason why is that Marvel movies aren’t being made to break any rules or create something that provokes discussion about its elements. The people who work on Marvel movies do not go through an artistic process, but rather conduct research to find out how the movie could generate the most revenue. By limiting Marvel films to what appeals to the largest amount of consumers, the studio has eliminated any sort of creative risk. It makes sense from a purely business standpoint. Why wouldn’t you continue to use and develop a formula that can create the high-grossing film of all time?

Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, recently responded to Scorsese’s thoughts on Marvel in a Hollywood Reporter interview. Feige argued that Marvel does take risks in its movies. In the interview, he said, “We killed half of our characters at the end of a movie”, in regards to Avengers: Infinity War. The type of risk which Feige is referring to is not the same kind of creative risk that Scorsese and I believe is essential to making art. In the New York Times opinion piece, Scorsese emphasizes that cinema is an art form and not just an experience. As mentioned before, it is the revelation and characterization which lie at the center of good cinema and separate it from franchise films. The only thing that is left in Marvel movies after all creative risk as been stripped away is the special effects. The result is an onscreen amusement park ride. Hitchcock films, on the other hand, were able to deliver on many different levels. Films like Psycho were able to keep you on the edge of your seat and also offer a glimpse into different human complexities that would develop throughout the story. Marvel movies seem to only deliver superficial thrills and shocks.

A good question that Scorsese asks is, “Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be”? His reason for speaking out is that franchise films are becoming the main choice for moviegoers. I do understand Scorsese’s point because it difficult especially for youth to be exposed to things, such as movies, that fall out of the pop-culture bubble. If these franchise films eventually become the only options at movie theaters, I think there is a serious problem. However, I don’t believe movie theaters should refrain from showing and promoting Marvel movies. If anything, it’s the franchise movies that keep movie theaters up and running. Ideally, there would be a balance between franchise movies and “real” cinema. A more pessimistic view of the situation could say that true cinema is dying and the remaining fans of it should simply find ways to watch it on their own. I would argue that a balance is possible and would both allow for pop-culture to flourish while also introducing the youth to meaningful pieces of art. A perfect example of a film that encompasses this blend of art and pop-culture is Joker. When I watched Joker in the theater, I was taken on a psychological roller coaster that seemed to manipulate the thoughts of myself and those around me. I found myself laughing hysterically like the Joker himself and also deeply disturbed. It was both entertaining and very risky for a superhero movie due to its dark nature. But Joker isn’t just different from other superhero movies because it’s “dark”. It’s the exploration of Arthur Fleck’s tormented mind that director Todd Philips so vividly portrays through his vision. 

Some cinema lovers may say that streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu are aiding the killing of cinema. I would say that it’s the polar opposite. Scorsese himself has released a Netflix movie this month called The Irishman. Scorsese said that Netflix, “allowed us to make The Irishman the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful”. In this case, Netflix is realizing a creatively risky film that other modern studios may not have wanted to touch. It’s a big deal that a streaming service of Netflix’s caliber is willing to give artists a platform to share their vision with the everyday consumer.

Netflix taking on movies like The Irishman is a sign that there is still hope for the future of cinema. It is not all bad news when it comes to the movies that are being released today. Some filmmakers who truly create art include Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, Quinten Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese himself. As I continue my filmmaking journey, I will continue to push boundaries and take risks so that the art of cinema does burn out. Because in the words of Casey Neistat, an unconventional filmmaker, “ The most dangerous thing you can do is play it safe.”

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