Criticizing Marvel

Martin Scorsese really wants you to know what movies he isn’t watching. The response to Scorsese’s original comments about Marvel movies not being cinema focused on whether or not he could say such things rather than whatever merits the claim had. This is an odd response, since there is nothing more Hollywood than famous people saying dumb things. Outside of Hollywood, it’s a buyer’s market for outrage and some grandee talking about the good old days hardly warrants a quick “okay boomer” let alone the caps lock key.

Around the same time Scorsese was telling us he doesn’t do his homework, a sharp eyed Alan Moore fan also dug up the comics author’s thoughts on the popularity of superhero movies (original source here). Moore’s criticism is more thoughtful and deals with the content of the stories and so naturally was unreported at the time and under-reported now. The comments from Moore and Scorsese present two poles when it comes to criticism of the latest trend of comic book movies. While only one has a hope of being the kind of critique that ultimately improves the object of criticism, I will deal with both.

They don’t make them like they used to

Any given generation of creative workers is going to see themselves as revolutionizing the form and shattering the arbitrary conventions of the previous generation, while the previous generation will look on the cataclysmic work of these fops and despair. Film’s reliance on technology throws this dynamic into sharper relief as creative innovations can be easily dismissed as a rote application of a new technology, but film has a long history of innovations that are obviously wrong until they aren’t.

Consider the film edit. Films were stationary, uninterrupted shots until the cut was introduced. The cut is now considered essential and defining for cinema (through examples like the Kuleshov experiment which I have consistently misattributed to Pudovkin in past articles), but making the first cut requires the insane assumptions that the audience will want the short shortened, and that they will not be terrified by the severed head that we now call a close-up.

The history of film is full of obviously bad ideas that go on to make truckloads of money. Sound was limiting in every sense, planting actors near microphones and the camera crew in a soundproof box. Orson Welles challenged “Name me a great performance in colour!” Snow White was Disney’s folly. 3D had been tried and dumped in the 50s. There are also plenty of examples of obviously bad ideas that suffered a swift death at the box office (some enumerated in the film Matinee with John Goodman).

Some of these changes came about in response to substitutes like television, and this is exactly why movies have changed today. The 00s seem to have been less about Weinstein and Down and Dirty Pictures, and more about HBO and Michael Bay. While the period was exciting for what Scorsese would consider cinema, HBO embraced TV’s potential for longer form stories and Michael Bay was ignoring critics and making movies that only made sense to watch on the big screen. Interesting and artistic movies haven’t gone away (if anything there are more of them than ever), but the landscape has shifted to reflect the way we watch them.

Around the time Scorsese was making a name for himself, you could only watch movies in a theatre and the biggest source of distraction would be the other viewers. Today streaming is providing instant access to just about everything, you can now play video games on the same screen that would otherwise play a show, and they’re also available on a device you can pull out during the movie at one of the boring bits. The cost of going to the movies now isn’t just the nominal price of the ticket and some snacks, but the opportunity cost of all the other awesome stuff you could do without leaving the house.

These factors don’t just come into play when deciding to go to the cinema but also play into what is shown on the screen. Filmmakers can no longer rely on an audience’s undivided attention. If you play Elite Dangerous, you’ve almost certainly had a TV show or movie on at some point. Even if you keep your phone in another room at home, domestic matters may produce an interruption.

Scorsese is almost certainly aware of this, and none of these facts necessarily contradict the claim that Marvel movies are “theme parks” and “not cinema”. This is, none the less, where I break with Scorsese. There is nothing about the incentives facing filmmakers today that make the movies anything less than they were back in the 70s. Dunkirk was a really good movie and clearly is best seen on the big screen. This is not to be a cinematic Bentham and declare equivalence between Dunkirk and Marvel movies (in truth, the last Marvel movie I saw was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and before that Iron Man 2), but rather to point out that perfectly respectable films are capable of using the same techniques to deliver what most would consider cinema as defined by Scorsese. What he calls a theme park seems awfully close to respecting people’s time and money and offering value. It also makes Scorsese’s comments on Joker seem all the more churlish since the adaption clearly plays homage to his earlier work, and would seem to be the kind of film that is attempting to be more than a theme park.

I’m not qualified to say whether or not Marvel movies have reached some threshold of cinema, but I can at least apply the same measure to Scorsese. It’s been a while since he’s made a movie like The Last Temptation of Christ. The last Scorsese movie I saw had one good bit about selling a pen and 178 minutes that made me feel gross and bored. I am certain that none of the Marvel movies have Leonardo DiCaprio on his hands and knees begging to Margot Robbie’s vagina, but I am a long way from seeing how this isn’t anything but a pure play to the crowd, the same thing that Marvel does. Sex and action don’t require translators and can count on an healthy international box office.

Nobody needs to see every entry in the Marvel cinematic universe to decide if it’s for them, but not everyone is not making an absolute statement about the artistic merits of an entire genre. Of course, this kind of attitude is nothing new for comics or fantastic stories in general. There is an annoying convention where critically acclaimed works wind up in the literature section, while the rest goes into the science fiction and fantasy sections for people who come into stores wearing pointed ears. Scorsese’s criticism is elitist and born of willful ignorance, and probably has less to do with Marvel movies and more with a frustration with the demands of contemporary audiences. But if we are going to live in a world of heightened spectacle and long running franchises, are these the best movies we can hope for? Is there something useful we can extract from the criticism to get something better? Enter Alan Moore.

Adaptation

It’s hard not to like Alan Moore. He is a talented writer, smart, opinionated, and when he offers opinions outside of the area we respect him for, the results are commensurate with the kind of influence we should hope from famous people. Alan Moore has not had a good run with Hollywood, and yet he has succeeded in offering a far more insightful critique of Marvel movies than Scorsese who is supposed to be an expert. Moore’s criticism succeeds because he considers the demand that these movies are fulfilling and asks whether this is the sort of thing we want society to have such an appetite for.

To be clear, I’m sure Moore would rather purge Los Angeles with fire, but the milder form of the criticism could be rephrased as “If we are going to have these superhero movies, do they have to be these ones?” I’ve not seen many of them, and the assumption does seem to be movies like Avengers: Endgame and not Black Panther or Logan (either of which I can imagine have a very enthusiastic audience screaming “Yes! More like this!”), but for the sake of discussion let’s say that everything up to this point fails to meet some threshold of acceptable culture. What is to be done?

The answer is in the comics. Not all comics are alike. I have read relatively few, and most come from the Vertigo line, and so I don’t have much exposure to superheroes (ironically, the only one I can think of is Promethea by Alan Moore). With that in mind, there is clearly a very broad range of the types and quality of stories that are told through comics, which is exactly why Disney’s acquisition of Marvel was such a good idea. The audience is as diverse as the material, and readers will likely stick to their favourites, but comics fans do not seem to be saying “oh god, why do they keep making these things?” when a new issue comes out. No doubt some of these stories will fall short, but as with movies there is nothing inherent in the fact that it is a comic that stops it from being a good story, and comics generally got a lot better the less people stopped thinking about whether nor not a certain type of critic approved of what everyone was doing.

Moore famously took series like Swamp Thing and used it as a vehicle for themes that have only become more relevant. If the modern audience is now thoroughly saturated in the conventions of these superhero movies, then it is perfectly primed for the kinds of stories that take those conventions and uses them in the service of something greater. In this light, it is unsurprising that HBO’s adaptation of Watchmen landed in fertile soil.

With great power comes great responsibility and so by taking on more serious themes comic book adaptations open themselves up to more serious criticism, just as comics do. Todd Phillips’ comparison of Joker to John Wick 3 is weak since John Wick is not attempting to make the kind of comment that Joker is. It is cowardly for Joker to attempt to address the subject that it does and then hide behind “it’s just a movie” when people seriously but critically engage with its themes. Whether you think Joker lived up to its ambition or that its critics were right, it is hard to say that there isn’t an appetite for movies like this and they should present themselves with conviction.

A modern audience has a reasonable expectation that the time and effort that goes into watching a movie in the theatre is paid off with a worthwhile experience. Marvel movies are a remarkably successful example of something that meets that demand, and there is no lack of source material. The audience isn’t wrong for wanting what it does, but it is also important to remember that the audience also wants and needs meaningful stories. Comics have moved beyond funny books and have some degree of commercial respectability, if mixed critical acceptance. Hollywood has succeeded at getting people into the theatres, and so there has never been a better time to tell them something worth hearing.


Note on affiliate links: I am a member of Epic’s Support-a-Creator Program for which I am given a portion of sales for traffic I drive to the site or which contain the creator tag SYSTEMCHALK. I am also a member of the Humble Affiliate Program. The inclusion of a given title is for illustrative purposes first, but when it is available on either link I will provide such a link. As always, I encourage you to do your own price comparison or buy on your preferred platform.

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