A few weeks ago, legendary filmmaker, Martin Scorsese was in the news for being critical of Marvel films. The headlines read “Scorsese says ‘Marvel isn’t cinema'”, which prompted many on the internet, myself included, to read the comments, then respectfully disagreed. The topic was fodder for quoted tweet comebacks calling him an out of touch old man to go viral all over social media, but I tried not to give it too much attention. While I never had direct knowledge of his stance on the genre, I had always assumed they wouldn’t appeal to a person with his experience making movies. To me, it was a non-story. I had fully planned on letting the topic die out without much resistance from me. That is until a 3-year-old interview with Alan Moore with Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo began to surface.
In the interview, Moore revealed many specific criticisms of his of comic book culture. Alan Moore, for those of you who are not familiar with his work, is the author and creator of some of the most revered comic books ever published, including Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and my personal favorite comic book, Batman: The Killing Joke. There are few sources in the world who are a more relevant authority of comic books. The full quote is linked in the tweet below.
After reading his comments, I was compelled to revisit Scorsese’s New York Times Op-Ed on the matter. What was once something I had just considered background noise now emerges as a legitimate conversation worth having. Now we have one of the highest authorities on filmmaking and one of the highest authorities on comic books both coming out, separately, offering powerful criticisms. To be clear, I still disagree with both of them on the conclusions they have reached. I do not believe superhero culture is an embarrassment nor that it is not cinema. HOWEVER, each one presents valid points that house considerable merit.
What I appreciate most about these criticism is just how well thought-out they clearly are. As I said, both of these men are the heights of their respective profession, and in regards to their particular angles, they have provided considerably thought out reasonings for their positions.
Let us begin with Scorsese’s remarks. He believes his remarks were taken out of context and overblown to get ‘clicks’ online, which if we are being honest, is 100% what happened. Having said that, the reporting of his remarks do generally describe his conclusions accurately. He calls Marvel “theme park attractions” because they are more corporate projects designed to mass produce films that bring in revenue. The copy-and-paste nature of many of Marvel’s films is an undeniable quality of the franchise that has been the subject of plenty of scrutiny in the past. In fact, I find myself fully agreeing with him when he says “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. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”
Moore, on the other hand, seems more hostile. In the past, he has been outspoken about how he is displeased with how his works have been adapted to the big screen to the point where he has refused all royalties and credit for their production. I happen to be a big fan of the film “V for Vendetta”, but it is his right to be critical of how someone else represents his vision. Being critical may not be a new phenomenon, however his points dig deep. In particular, the comment that these films still propagate the fantasy of a dominant white race and the cultural stagnation resulting from their portrayal immediately left an impression with me. Although I sincerely doubt that the intentions of these modern filmmakers are that malicious, I cannot help but feel that there is still a noticeable amount of truth to what he says.
Think about the typical “poster boy” for each of the major franchises: Captain America and Superman. Both are usually portrayed as the perfect beings fighting some lesser being by using a self-righteous set of values. These characters are designed as propaganda for a superior race would be designed. And the more they are portrayed as “perfect”, the more that image of perfection is propagated. Again, I do not agree with the conclusion he reaches, but I do understand his reasoning.
More importantly, he is correct with regards to diversity in the genre. At the time of the interview, 2017, the only true big screen superhero portrayal was Wesley Snipes’ “Blade” trilogy. Studios’ failure to stray from the lowest common denominator in favor of a more realistic representation of the variety of backgrounds these characters was a highly debated and criticized element of the genre. Thankfully, since these comments were made, there has been strides of progress in the name of representation. “Black Panther” became a cultural phenomenon, Anthony Mackie is the new Captain America, “Captain Marvel”, and “Wonder Woman” proved that female lead comic book films can be both critically and commercially successful. These are good first steps but the trend must continue because we still have along way to go.
But the common theme that they both describe is that filmmakers do not have the ability to, whether it be because they choose not to or are not permitted to, stand up to corporate interests in the name of creativity or messaging. Both of them acknowledge that there are some exceptions to this rule, but more often than not, the constraints placed on the creative process truly limit the scope and depth of the stories we are given. And this is the pitfall the genre must be wary of. It is a real problem that can be legitimized by a few false steps. The more predictability, uniformity, and simplicity are financially rewarded, the quicker the decay of the genre will be. As Scorsese said, these films are the most popular films of their era, and their impact on the entirety of film extends beyond the boundaries of their individual runtimes. If telling quality stories are the goal of these studios, it is in the best interest of the genre to be experimental with their and actively strive to tell their stories in new ways.
They present their arguments and we must question if it is fair to say that the current state of comic book films isn’t cinema? Or that the older audience for these films is a sort of self-imposed maturation-stagnation in order to avoid facing the modern world and its problems? Or if the growing influence of the comic book genre is to the determent of other genres of film? On these fronts, I wholeheartedly believe they are misguided.
With regards to Scorsese, I think he is too rigid with his definition of cinema to only reflect his own personal experiences. To his credit, he does acknowledge how the definition is always changing when something new comes along and challenges preconceived notions. He mentions the works of Alfred Hitchcock used to have a similar element of being more of an event when they were released, and now they are some of the most beloved works of cinema in history. I can acknowledge his gripe with the general limitations put in place by a genre who’s primary purpose is to turn a profit, but I fully believe there is more than one way to create entertainment. And let us not pretend like the film industry is in any state of disarray. Ambitious studios such as A24 have given young, bright filmmakers the platform and opportunity to create big films to much success. Even as he opposes the formulaic distribution of comic book films, he should acknowledge the growing opportunities for creative filmmaking that are developing simultaneously.
As far as Moore goes, this feels like classic curmudgeon talk. I do not want to come off as dismissive, and I hope I have proven that I have given his words the appropriate amount of understanding. But who is he to dictate what people find enjoyable? Just because comic books were designed as an outlet for a younger audience does not mean it has no business appealing to adults. And to act like people, especially adults do not actively seek avenues of escapism as means of recreation seems disingenuous and even naïve. My cynical nature understands his perspective, but perhaps he should have more faith in the public to understand that this is fiction and can be better and grow with society, even if it is a bit behind the curve.
If you see the comments of these two men for what they are, you understand that they both possess a great deal of love for what they are criticizing. Moore may not really love those films, but the stories, he clearly holds them dearly. He does not want “good enough” for them, he wants the best they can be and won’t settle for anything less. Scorsese is pleading for the continued growth of film. He sees a potential issue and is speaking out against it, as anyone of us would do if we felt it was right. They are protective parents, which can sometimes let their good intentions be corrupted without realizing it. Agree or disagree with what they say, that is your purgative. We all just want society entertainment to be the best they can be.
I think it is possible to be right about somethings and wrong about others. It is my personal opinion that remakes are more dangerous to the entirety of films than franchises. When projects such as “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” gross over a billion dollars by presenting the exact same story with just a different coat of paint, then you should begin to fear for the integrity of storytelling. But it is still not my or anyone else’s place to tell someone what is acceptable for them to watch or find entertaining. I am willing to bet that their will be an unforeseen trend in the future that will push the boundaries of what we know and it will be met with a similar resistance from the old guard. Both sides of this debate should keep an open mind and hopefully film will evolve in the strongest way possible.