Finding the Nuance: On Scorsese, Coppola, and Marvel
Well, the battle of 2019 rages on. Despite the majority of people I know saying they are tired of talking about it, well, we still are. That is, the battle between Marvel and “cinema.” I put that in quotation marks because words like cinema and art are infamously difficult to pin down and define. Luckily, that is not what this article is trying to accomplish. I’m more interested in the strong reaction and black and white arguments that seem to be occurring, especially online. Of course, it should be noted that you will find the best and worst of humanity in the hellscape that is social media. I have already had my share of arguments about this that go absolutely nowhere on more than one social media platform. This is an attempt to add a little bit of nuance to this discussion without devolving into name-calling. Before we really get into this, I want to put my biases up front. I think Martin Scorsese is the greatest living American filmmaker. I believe that Francis Ford Coppola made four of the greatest films I have ever had the privilege of seeing. However, I have seen every single MCU film on opening weekend and enjoyed them all.
Now, despite the recent publicity, attacking the MCU is not new. It has been happening for years at this point. But let’s not get bogged down in too much history lest this article turn into a novel. This particular run began with Martin Scorsese being asked about Marvel movies and stating, “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema.” Ok, so this is really inflammatory and makes for one hell of a headline. But let’s keep reading. He goes on to define what he means. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” So, what he is doing here is defining what cinema is to him. Disagreement abounds whether that is what cinema is or if big budget spectacle can convey this kind of cinema, but we will come back to that. For now, let’s agree that he was asked for his opinion and he gave it.
Just as this was dying down a little bit, another acclaimed director, Francis Ford Coppola, has joined the fray. He apparently believes, amazingly, that Scorsese didn’t go far enough in his statements. “When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right, because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.” Alright, this is much harder to defend; this is definitely an attack, and seems to be made without much provocation.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the two sides and where they are coming from.
We begin with Scorsese and Coppola, the old guard. I have seen a disturbing lack of knowledge about their work from those most upset. Both of these directors rose to their greatest heights in direct response to the stagnation of the studio system. One could absolutely argue that Marvel/Disney/Lucasfilm are, in some ways, reminiscent of that same system. These men saw an opportunity to create art and challenge both themselves and audiences. From their perspective, it is easy to see how this new studio system would irk them.
So, let’s look at the other side. The MCU, of course, has not responded. Why should they? They’re the biggest thing going and have nothing to prove. The more disturbing pattern is the fandom response. If you log on to social media, as terrifying as that prospect is, get ready for a healthy dose of ageism, a focus on money, and a lack of film knowledge. Some of the immediate responses I personally saw included (with expletives): these old men only made one kind of movie, they are jealous because one Marvel movie made more money than all of their films combined, and several more unsavory comments.
One of the kinder reactions I have seen is that these directors shouldn’t be rude and that they could have prefaced their statements with “in my opinion.” Ok, let’s throw out the latter statement right away. If a reporter asks “Marty, what do you think of the MCU?” everything he says after that is, by definition, his opinion. So, just stop it. The rudeness, on the other hand is a more interesting conversation. Scorsese, in particular, may be challenging both the industry and fans towards what he feels is a better direction. After all, John Cassavetes challenged him directly by telling him Boxcar Bertha was him “spending a year making a piece of shit.” This challenge led directly to Scorsese making Mean Streets. Now, there are differences here. Scorsese is challenging an entire industry as opposed to an individual director. But again, it is important to remember the history of where he comes from.
So, where does that leave us? Who’s right? Frankly, no one is completely right and everyone is way too sensitive. Let me explain.
Scorsese and Coppola are wrong about these movies not being cinema, even by Scorsese’s definition. Many people who see these movies take lessons away from them. There is a personal, complex connection to this work. That is not to say that I think this is the best direction for film, as a whole, to go. Much has been made of the fact that Marvel only makes 2 to 3 films a year. But that’s not the problem. When people talk about Marvel movies, there are talking not only about the Disney machine, but also about all of the movies that other studios are producing to attempt to keep pace. Long gone are the days of making a few tentpole movies to fund the art pictures. Now, the vast majority of screens are taken up by event movies. Anything less than a billion dollars is a failure and there is no way to keep up. Smaller films, in many cases, are only shown in cities like Los Angeles or New York. In other cities, if you’re lucky, you’ll get one independent film for a few weeks. The rest are relegated to streaming. I do find it quite interesting that Marvel has a television type model (you can’t just jump in, you have to stay caught up), and this is what many of us think of when streaming comes to mind.
But there’s the other side, Marvel fans. The sensitivity on display is something that I can understand, but also seems way over the limit. I believe that much of this stems from the fact that comics didn’t used to be popular with the general public. Comics were the escapist fantasy of the terminally uncool. Well, I’m sorry, but it’s time to adjust. If you want Scorsese and Coppola to change with the times, you should look inward, as well. There is nothing in media more popular or as financially successful as comic book movies. When you’re at the top of the food chain, people are going to try to knock you off. Now, I don’t believe that this is purely jealousy but everyone can make their own decisions. I believe that it is healthy to question what is popular and why. The MCU has created one hell of a successful business model, but I do believe that this is exactly how their detractors view it. Disney and Marvel have figured out a formula that works very well. The movies are different enough to keep things interesting, but there is definitely a commonality between all of them that is plainly visible if you take a second look.
This comment, nor Scorsese or Coppola’s comments, can or should take away your enjoyment, connection, and love of the Marvel universe. Love what you love without shame. Now, do I think there is a difference between Apocalypse Now or Silence and Guardians of the Galaxy? Absolutely. One is an event movie meant to entertain. Yes, there are lessons to take away from it, but I also don’t think that this is its main goal. I would argue that entertainment is secondary for Apocalypse Now or Silence. And while we all go to movies for our own reasons, there is nothing wrong with entertainment. There is also nothing wrong with questioning the near monopoly that Disney has on available movie screens.
But here’s the real sticking point: Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola can talk until they are blue in the face about what cinema is and it doesn’t matter. There is only one thing that can give smaller films more screens. You. I’m not saying anyone should stop seeing Marvel movies. I certainly have no intention of stopping.
I do honestly believe that there is room for both. I will see the next MCU movie. But I will also make extra effort to see smaller films that Scorsese would call “cinema.” There are options out there. It takes work, but if the art form (and not only the entertainment) is of value to you, I urge you to vote with your ticket! To me, 2019 can be the year of Captain Marvel, which I loved. But it is also the year of Pain and Glory, Booksmart, Ad Astra, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco (and hopefully The Irishman).
So, all of you self-described cinephiles, watch what you want! Love it, talk about it, but also be aware of more than just what is on the majority of screens. There is an entire world of rebel filmmakers out there, much like Scorsese and Coppola in the ‘70s. We don’t need to cut anything out. If we support more movies, we can have it all. Event pictures and art films (and everything in between) can share the same space. Just get your tickets!