A new instalment of les anciens versus les modernes, or simply a case of ‘your fun is wrong’?
Over the last few weeks, a new (though not really) discussion concerning the Marvel superhero movies has ruffled feathers all over Hollywood and beyond. Multiple film directors, such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have dismissed the Marvel films as unfit to qualify as ‘cinema’. Whereas Scorsese preferred comparing the experience to a ride at a theme park, Coppola even called the films ‘despicable’. Is this a reality check from artists, calling for acknowledgment and a distinction between art and kitsch within the medium of cinema? Or is it the establishment lashing out to a new form of entertainment in which they do not recognize themselves?
One very interesting argument for the implied rift between ‘cinema’ and Marvel movies issued by these directors is the notion of instant gratification, implying that there is no real build-up to these narratives. Now, before we continue, I have to make a few things clear:
- I have watched all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, most of them in cinema
- Despite liking them, I also have issues with some of the choices of these films, whether they concern (play on) clichés and tropes (as I’ve said before, two tropes don’t always make a right) or narrative structure.
- I am not going to fangirl my way around this debate, but I’m still going to reflect critically on what’s being said.
So let’s get down to it, shall we?
So about the ‘instant gratification’ thing.
My first reaction to this notion, as a literary girl, was dude. All cinema is instant gratification. Try reading a book sometime. However, it would be hypocritical to compare different media to each other like that. Still, I think it is something to keep in mind when discussing cinema: it is generally, and especially compared to other narrative media, very fast-paced. Hell, even videogames take more time to convey a narrative nowadays (as my current playthrough of Divinity: Original Sin II keeps reminding me).
Remaining within the borders of the medium of film, the accusation of instant gratification in these movies is mainly aimed at the high amount of action scenes and other theatrics used to keep viewers entertained, as opposed to the notion that viewers should be engaged enough by plot and cinematography alone. In an era with such a saturated narrative market, however, it seems somewhat logical that this development takes place within cinema along with the rest of the world.
Just for one more second, though. Instant gratification in Marvel?
While we’re on this subject, it is also very tempting to emphasize the fact that it took Marvel 20 movies, spanned over 10 years, to get to the end of their Infinity War story arc. That’s not what you could call ‘instant gratification’ from a narrative perspective. The comic book-esque structure on which the films are based allows for much more characters to experience things and have adventures simultaneously, allowing for a large, non-linear narrative with intertwining paths. This engages its audience not only because of the fireworks, but because there’s much more opportunity to engage with the characters and their plights, and clearly distinguish them from one another.
That’s not to say that it is not incredibly impressive when directors manage to achieve the same connection and engagement within a smaller timeframe as happens in ‘proper cinema’. The MCU simply fits a new demand for complex, non-linear and character-oriented narratives, which take more time and therefore will have more adrenaline-filled moments. It has somewhat reterritorialized the comic book structure into cinema: a movement which has similarly occurred in the television industry.
‘Our’ ‘fun’ is ‘wrong’
But back to Marvel, and their apparently not-so-cinematic universe. I’m starting to think that it is mainly the moneygrab that was the ‘extended’ cut of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, in which hardly any new meaningful content was added (compare this to other ‘extended cuts, such as the legendary Lord of the Rings ones, and know why people were disappointed) that lead to this discussion. The fact that this was released in cinemas only to snatch the record for highest grossing feature film from the then reigning champion Avatar does make it feel as though Marvel is trying to weasel itself into the history books. Add to this the fact that Marvel and Disney have expressed high hopes to win Best Picture (along with practically everything else) at this year’s Oscars with Endgame, I can really understand that directors are getting anxious as they see Disney’s shadow creep toward their academy.
It is completely understandable that artists like Scorsese feel the urge to criticize. Some of this critique has already been nuanced, no longer flat out dismissing Marvel’s films but acknowledging it as a ‘different kind of cinema’, which is nice. Though it is hard to distil a genuine discussion from the mess that is social media, where these directors have been assaulted with negative comments regarding their opinions, old interviews have been dragged up to ‘prove’ hypocrisy, and in turn Marvel’s directors and also involved actors’ personal opinions are thrown into the mix of voices. Have these statements been nuanced purely due to pressure on social media? Is this a question of freedom of speech, or a case of a new generation lashing out for not being acknowledged in what they love? Who wants to be told that their fun is wrong? All fun was wrong, once, you know.
The actual result of this debate
I’ll shed some light on something that bothers me, personally. These critiques by famous film directors are not new at all. They aren’t ground-breaking: many critics, reviewers, bloggers and video-essay-makers have made similar points. Marvel movies follow certain formula’s, in which characterization, interconnected storytelling and emotional connection to its audience (and Disney making lots of money) are prioritized over cinematography in a more traditional sense. And the more invested the viewer is in these films, the more aware they (generally) are of these flaws. Yes: this generation of cinema-goers is perfectly capable of critically reflecting on what they love. Which renders the dramatic statements by these directors, and all the media attention they receive, kind of obsolete from a critical viewpoint.
So all that this whole discussion established is a new rift between les anciens and les modernes, the ‘established order’ opposed to ‘kids these days’. Thus, they qualify their own viewpoints as yes, a source of authority, but at the same time as traditional and even somewhat dated. The claim that ‘this is not cinema’ strongly evokes the notion of ‘this is not art’; a statement which over the course of the last century no longer qualifies someone as an art connoisseur, but as someone who does not recognize the need for, and value of, something new.
I’ll make it clear that this blog is by no means intended to be my evangelical argumentation why Marvel films are the new artistic vision this generation should unconditionally follow: on the contrary. I hope that the future of interconnected film ‘universes’ will be balanced out more with standalone experiments in storytelling: stuff along the lines of the recently debuted Joker film for instance.
What I do hope I conveyed today is that this strategy of attacking Marvel is counterproductive if these directors hope to change viewers’ attitude toward Marvel movies. Instead, all this approach actually changes is the public’s image of the directors themselves. As they try to qualify themselves as superior and authorative when it comes to cinema, they characterize themselves as old men, sad to see that what they love no longer is the status quo of what ‘does well’ in cinema. Puffing up their chests, grumbling from their comfy director’s chairs, they reprimand a new generation of filmgoers with what comes down to: “Nonono, stop! You’re doing it wrong. Your fun is wrong.”
 I’d like to refer to Patrick H. Willems’ video’s on the MCU in order to nuance the assumed applicability of a comic-book narrative structure to feature films: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzIJ4HzLiIE