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The Superhero Movie Debacle: My Thoughts

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

This is an editorial piece, of sorts, by our own Professor Zach Cheney. Dr. Cheney is a shameless proponent of film history, global cinema, and truly great films...which are literally the only ways that he compares to Martin Scorsese.

Drowning in a sea of superheroes?

I’ll start this with a caveat, distancing myself from any colleagues or students who might disagree with me: I’m speaking for myself in this little essay, not for APU and not for the Department of Cinematic Arts. Whenever the now-incendiary topic of superhero cinema (or, perhaps, superhero “cinema”) arises, one must take care to make a clear stand. My thanks in advance to all who read this fairly, whether they agree or not.

Have you read Martin Scorsese’s controversial piece in The New York Times on Marvel movies? He actually doesn't restrict his critique to the MCU, but he name-drops Marvel as the embodiment of what general movie culture has become in recent years. If you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to do so before proceeding with this one. I’m of the opinion that “Marty” does a great job explaining himself. Nevertheless, I believe that many have misread him. I believe that this misreading is largely due to an over-investment in the kind of movies that grieve this great director.

Before delving into the really hot stuff of whether superhero movies constitute “cinema,” a brief word on Martin Scorsese. Scorsese isn’t merely a “great director.” He’s one of the world’s greatest authorities on film history, living or dead. I say this as someone who spent two years in a master’s program studying cinema and six years in a Ph.D. program training as a film historian. Marty’s knowledge of movies is unsurpassed, and it certainly far surpasses my own.

Scorsese (center) along with Prof. Aboubakar Sanogo (left) and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova (right), formalizing a partnership with the African Film Heritage Project. Photo courtesy of Dave Allocca/Starpix Courtesy of The Film Foundation.

Further, he founded the Film Foundation back in 1990, which is an institution for saving and preserving films desperately in need of restoration. Scorsese is acutely aware that more than 50% of all films before 1950 have been lost forever, and he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen with the films we still have. By 2007, he founded the World Film Project, which has very similar goals to the Film Foundation but aims to retrieve the works of Third World filmmakers, mostly in Africa, South America, and Asia. I screened several of just these Scorsese-rescued films in my World Cinema class last spring. I could go on, but I’ll add just one other thing: name a remotely-prestigious film award, and Martin Scorsese has probably won it. This guy is a true Cinema Boss.

Why am I giving you all of this background before cutting to the chase? I’ll answer that question with another question: have you ever heard the phrase, “consider the source”? It’s an offhand, rhetorical way of dismissing a thought or statement when the person uttering it lacks credibility. Generally, it’s fallacious reasoning to make such an appeal, and we all do it, consciously or not. In the case of Martin Scorsese, I’m making the same appeal but for a different reason. Martin Scorsese suggested that there’s something hugely problematic with the current state of cinema, and this upsets you? Well, I say, consider the source.

Martin Scorsese has credentials. He has integrity. He has proved himself as a champion of cinema not merely in terms of the films he has directed (but let’s please not forget about those), but in terms of the tireless work he has done to ensure that films around the world get their chance at being seen, regardless of their genre, regardless of how cheaply they were made, regardless of how many A-list stars populate their images. When someone like this speaks, we should listen.

Scorsese honoring acclaimed French director Agnès Varda at a tribute ceremony in 2018. Photo credit: JALAL MORCHIDI/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUTT

Spoiler: that doesn’t mean you have to start hating superhero movies! The mere fact that so many folks have taken offense and reacted so vehemently to Marty’s argument suggests two possibilities: either this champion of cinema is really wrong, potentially fundamentally wrong about what cinema is—right at the moment when he’s releasing not one but two films currently being lauded as excellent, if not masterpieces—or we’re not stopping to consider the possibility that someone who objectively knows more than we do about movies might be able to correct our thinking on the subject. In the immortal words of Kendrick Lamar: be humble.

Now that I’ve said all of that, I should probably respond to Marty’s editorial on its own terms. Forthrightly, my viewing practices and propensities run very consistently with Scorsese’s. This positions me not just to see where he’s coming from, but to agree with him. As someone who spent six years of his life (see above) getting paid essentially to read books, I also feel pretty confident in my ability to read something properly. This means not getting fired up over a detail here or a bit of phrasing there. It means contextualizing everything a writer is saying and being fair to the overall argument. It means not nitpicking when a word choice isn’t the one I would’ve used.

Let’s get right to the point with Scorsese’s argument, to the part that probably has most feathers ruffled. It’s not the part where he says these superhero films aren’t really for him. It’s not even the part where he says these movies are a lot like theme parks. That’s patently obvious, due to the fact that these movies are routinely turned into amusement park rides and in some cases are actually based on theme park rides. Can we just admit the fact that Disneyland—the literal benchmark for amusement parks—was and is a Disney enterprise, and that it’s literally Disney’s influence over today’s entertainment industry (including its ownership of the MCU) that has created this issue to which Scorsese is responding?

So, what’s upsetting to people? I suspect it’s the part where Scorsese says that these movies aren’t really “cinema.” He actually goes as far as to say, near the end, “There’s [now] worldwide entertainment, and there’s cinema.” Let’s avoid a knee-jerk reaction and ask, what does he mean by “cinema”? The first part of the statement isn’t controversial. The most die-hard Marvel fan should acknowledge that MCU movies are definitely “entertainment.” But why is it abrasive to read that they aren’t “cinema”? In his response to Scorsese on Howard Stern's radio show, Robert Downey, Jr. appealed, among other things, to the fact that these franchise films do play in theaters. Let's be clear: lots of things play in theaters, including all of those ads and trailers and cellphone warnings before the main show. Just because it plays in a cinema doesn't make it "cinema." Scorsese isn't talking about the space of cinema, he's talking about the spirit of cinema.

Scorsese and actor Andrew Garfield on the set of SILENCE

As for what "cinema" really is, Marty has answered that question. He says that cinema is, for him, “about revelation—aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation.” I must say, I love this idea that cinema should reveal. It should shed light. It should illuminate. It should clarify, even as it should complicate. Anyone who has seen Scorsese’s marvelous 2016 film Silence, centering around a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionary to Japan, should have a strong sense of this. Silence is revelation at many levels. The main character is tasked with revealing the Gospel to the Japanese. During the journey, he is confronted with himself and, in a striking moment, by Jesus in a moment of supreme self-revelation. The film as a whole avoids the hero worship (I hope you did a double-take at that phrase) into which many missionary stories fall, opting rather to reveal to the audience the painful limit at which a disciple of Christ seems to fail at his mission and, like Peter in the New Testament, deny his Master. When I saw Silence during its theatrical run, the movie revealed to me some of the darkest corners of my heart, those places where my faith isn’t just running on my own strength but actually becomes faith alone.

What Scorsese is saying, it seems to me, is that we should aim high. Movies should attempt to do more than provide mere spectacle, even if that spectacle is also carefully orchestrated to impact our emotions and create the impression of being socially relevant. Cinema should pierce into our perceptions and our emotions and our ideas. It should make us see things differently. It should perplex us and test us and challenge us. It should show us beauty, in part, by showing us ugliness. It should show us the light, in part, by showing us darkness.

This isn’t to say that movies can’t be fun, can’t be spectacular, can’t be centered around superheroes sometimes. (I believe that the 1978 Superman film is very suggestive about what it means to be human and what it means to need a savior.) I’m quite sure that Scorsese isn’t lamenting a single movie any more than he’s elevating a single movie as that ultimate standard. He’s, as he puts it, “fill[ed] with terrible sadness” that one kind of movie—franchise films—has become the primary viewing choice for seeing something on the big screen.

For an old white guy, Martin Scorsese knows better than most what cinematic diversity looks like, and he’s skeptical whether the ever-constant output of franchise films is supplying us with true diversity. I would like my students to know what a Western is outside of seeing Logan. I’d like for them to know what an art film is outside of seeing Joker. I’d like for them to know what women’s cinema is outside of seeing Captain Marvel. I'd like for them to know what African cinema is outside of Black Panther. The list could keep on going. There is a wealth of movies out there that can teach and reveal so much to us, and the current industry and landscape are not structured to show us that. They’re built to open our mouths to a steady diet of films based on intellectual properties, whether we want to call them “cinema” or not.

I admit that I became tired of (and mostly bailed on) superhero movies shortly after Iron Man. They weren’t doing it for me. About 5 years ago, a friend told me that Guardians of the Galaxy was different and I should check it out. I watched it and thought, it’s not that different. (Then I returned to watching Chris Pratt on Parks and Rec.) At the very least, please hear this one point that Marty is making: there’s a whole lot more out there than (1) what is contemporary and (2) what is associated with franchises and, for that matter, (3) what is made in our part of the world. It might look or sound weird, and it might be really different from what you’re used to. But it has at least the same powers of revelation—if not more—than franchise films. Expand your diet. Learn new ways of seeing beauty and truth. Demand more variety and diversity. Love great art.

PS: I recommend this interesting (and shorter) article by Liam Burke, “The Marvel Method: How Marvel Dominated Franchise Filmmaking”


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