An old adage of mine is simple and goes something like this: “Are you being critical, or are you just an asshole?” And I recently added the follow-on caveat of: “And if so, are you one of those assholes who hates things just because they’re popular?”
Recently, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese came out against the wave of comic movies, citing Marvel in particular, as not being “cinema” (HERE). The legendary filmmaker went so far as to refer to the genre as being “theme parks”, as they (Marvel Movies) are not “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Wow. Those are some weighted and profound words. And If I were to be a touch catty, I would ask: was it cinema when he directed Jonah Hill to simulate jerking-off a prosthetic penis to (presented as a sex object) Margo Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street? You know, the same movie that opens with DiCaprio snorting cocaine off a hookers ass, enjoys a nice round “dwarf-bowling”, and flaunts Caligula levels of kinky sex.
And yes . . . I own this movie :)
Full disclosure, I like the MCU/comic genre of movies and Scorsese’s words rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t like all comic flicks, and I also like/love some of Scorsese’s movies (Gangs of New York being one of my all time favorite movies) . . . but not all of them.
So when (some of) the internet balked at Scorsese’s comments, he doubled down a few days later. (HERE). On the back of that, celebrities like Jennifer Aniston have purportedly claimed that Marvel movies (and I assume the genre) have diminished what is available in terms of acting projects. But hey, that Netflix rom-com murder mystery movie is getting a sequel, so good for her.
But what really struck me as interesting was the wave of vocal supporters for the Goodfellas director. Not because of what he said, the man has a right to his opinion. After all, he’s been been involved with bringing movies to the silver screen since 1959. He’s earned his opinion. (One which is not new) No, what struck me as odd was the vitriol at which some people railed against the Disney-owned Marvel. The venom they spewed was hateful, cruel, and barbaric.
Basically how everyone who is not a New England Patriots fan reacted when The Pat’s won their last Superbowl. … But seriously NE people, y’all are really freaking annoying. You know that right? You are the definition of Sore Winners. There’s a reason people don’t cheer for you.
As all this went on, pop-culture websites and YouTube channels did as they do, covered the nothing-burger in order to gain clicks and views. Some called the situation a case of old man yelling at clouds. Some said Scorsese was trolling, or that he was jealous of MCU’s success. And as I ingested these comments and views, I started to believe that this wasn’t just an old school movie maker attacking modern trends. I think there are two issues at play.
The first, and actually least important, is: The Natural Reaction to Popular Things.
I’ve always been interested in the phenomena of why people hate on popular things. What is it that makes us, as humans, balk against whatever is popular? I think we’ve all heard, or said, something akin to:
That’s not real music!
You call that art?
You’re so basic!
You eat what? Do you even know what good food is?
That show is so overrated!
The book was better!
But why do we do that over something subjective? What is it about things that are beloved by the populace, or at least perceived to be loved, that makes some people so angry? There is a term in psychology called normative social influence (HERE) that basically says that there is an effect due to inherent tribalism that makes people “go with the flow” even if they don’t like something. A communal sense of belonging. In other words, conformity. Another aspect is the mere-exposure effect (or familiarity principle) which as the name suggests, is the more one is exposed to a thing, the more comfortable and accepting they are of it.
Conversely, Rebellion in Group (HERE) is also natural. The thought that rebellion is a strategy of social action to overthrow the group's status quo or to adamantly oppose its revision. Beyond simple rebellion, is the iconoclast. Or, those who feel it is their imperative to tear down idols and to attack cherished beliefs or institutions.
You know . . . like assholes.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. The need to challenge the status quo is a necessity for change, good or bad, to occur. And such actions, leaders, and thinkers are a vital part of society. That being said, lifting something up doesn’t mean you have to push something down.
Another way of thinking about it is: sometimes you have to burn down the old to make way for the new. Conversely, some people just want to see the world burn.
When the MCU began with Iron Man, people were skeptical. As the movies grew and became interconnected, people smiled. As they grew further into overlapping properties and team-up movies, they broke bank records and people cheered. But as the juggernaut continued to dominate and grow, that’s when the caution flags started going up. Bitter words were spoken. And then tribalism reared its ugly head.
Looking back on Scorsese’s comments, I honestly don’t think folks are trying to argue that comic movies/MCU are “high art”. I think people were balking at the dismissive, pejorative manner in which Scorsese’s words came across. But, I don’t think his comments fall into the natural rebellion model--while the jabbering squawks of the MCU haters and trolls do. No, I think there is more to it. Something deeper.
This brings me to the second part: Fear of Change.
In 2017, at the MCM London Comic Con, Anthony Mackie, “Falcon” in the MCU, was interviewed on a panel. During the interview (HERE), I think he hit the nail on the head. He said: “People used to go see the Stallone movie. People used to go see the Schwarzenegger the movie. Now they go see “X-Men”. The evolution of the superhero has meant the death of the movie star. And that’s the fear now.” Further in the interview, Mackie admits that the cost of the theater experience has gone up, while home theater technology has gone down. Coupled with other forces, that creates a disinterest to going to the movies. Or, as some think-pieces have said, the death of the cinema. Many of which would like to lay the blame at feet of superhero movies.
Perhaps these factors were what Mr. Scorsese was getting at. The fear of a named franchise destroying the implied artistic standard? A model which has been prevalent since the beginnings of the superstore overtaking “Mom and Pop Shops”. I’ve briefly written about the subject before (HERE). I was warned when I started writing books that stand alone novels were nice, but people came back for the franchises. Recognition and familiarity of characters were what made people come back. And let’s be honest, short of James Bond or Star Wars, no one else has built a franchise in name and scope quite like the MCU.
When it comes to our preferred entertainment, and the perceived value they bring, the result is almost always the same. Some may see the work as less, while others might see it as more. Inspiration comes from many places. Often in the most unique and bizarre ways. Sure, the comic genre might be a CGI nightmare of spandex and punching to some, but others might see the struggle of a hero an be inspired.
So, long story short, are the MCU movies cinema? Well, in the film-studies major, self-professed prestige-piece aficionado, tiny fedora-wearing sense . . . likely not.
But, do they “convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”? For some, without a doubt. For others, no, they’re just fun. The level of which comes down to human subjectivity vice a standard metric.
So, I end this rambling pseudo-intellectual think piece with this, as I often do: like what you like, love (who) what you love, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. Those who try and shit on what you like, instead of just minding their own business and just liking what they like, are as I said earlier: assholes.