Over the past several weeks, an engaging discourse has emerged on the definition of “cinema” in the modern era, and at the center of it: the Marvel Cinematic Universe and whether or not the 22 movie pantheon (and counting) qualifies as such. The genesis of the conversation is Martin Scorsese—a likely unanimous first-ballot candidate for the hall-of-fame as one of the greatest auteurs and storytellers to ever grace the cinematic medium.
Recently, the filmmaker relayed a simple opinion and view that in his eyes, Marvel movies are not cinema. This spark ignited artists on both sides of the argument to share their own subjective thoughts, and the debate has now culminated in Scorsese writing a thorough explanation of his stance in the New York Times. The editorial response to the public backlash is unequivocally articulate, thorough, well-constructed, respectful, and considerate.
This is column attempts to serve as a rebuttal to Mr. Scorsese’s arguments.
I am a firm believer that the source of an opinion frames the message to a certain degree. This article is not about me, but it is important to provide some context regarding its author. First, I would never say that I have nearly the cinematic knowledge or experience as Mr. Scorsese. I certainly have fewer awards (i.e. zero). I have, however, served as a film critic for 15 years under this guiding principle—as a critic it is not my job to assess if a film is “good” or “bad,” but instead I attempt to serve as an educator. I feel my role is to inform the public about a film so that they can decide if they would like it. I attempt to take as an objective take as possible and ask: “did the film succeed at what it set out to do?” That is how I attempt to evaluate film.
Because Mr. Scorsese expressed his personal tastes, I feel inclined to share that yes, I am an unabashed fan of every Marvel film. I also love Clerks, Shutter Island, Paterson, and I am trying to make a strong argument that this year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco should be in strong consideration for Best Picture. I would call my film preferences passionately varied.
First, regardless of your stance on the matter, I encourage you to read Mr. Scorsese’s argument with an open mind. It is never prudent to take quotes out of context, but I believe a worthwhile summary of Mr. Scorsese’s commentary can be found in these two paragraphs:
For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.
It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.
These are the viewpoints I wish to explore further, using three recent examples from the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Avengers: Endgame.
In looking at Ryan Coogler’s multi-nominated Black Panther, there is a lot to consider when it comes to artistic vision and execution. Scorsese speaks of aesthetic revelation, and I believe Black Panther sets a fairly high standard in this category. First is the construction of Wakanda, bred out of the intersection of interpretation, modernization, and imagination. The artistic detail in the creation of an entire country, down to each individual street and window is a marvel in its own right. One can acknowledge that the medium has changed from molding miniatures to digital rendering, but I would argue that this makes the feat no less impressive. This sentiment was acknowledged and confirmed through the conference of the Academy Award for Best Production Design in 2019 to Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart.
As a continuation, Scorsese discusses how cinema is an art form that had to fight to find equal footing with other mediums, including music. By this corollary, one could argue that a film imbued with an artistic expression of song (or other visually creative achievements, such as costume design) also qualifies the product as cinema. With Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design given the absolutely stunning wardrobes she created that also told a story about the characters wearing them (see Ryan Coogler’s fabulous Notes on a Scene that breaks down the shapes and colors of several costumes). Furthermore, Ludwig Goransson won the Academy Award for Best Original Score through the creation of music that blends historically African sounds with both stirring ballads and heart-pumping staccato to accentuate dramatic moments of reflection and tense action.
Mr. Scorsese’s central point is that cinema is about characters and their paradoxical nature. It is with this argument that Black Panther can offer perhaps its firmest response, especially when examining the emotional journey of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and his complex relationships. Let’s examine two that are intertwined. The first, and most direct, is that with the central antagonist Erik Killmonger Stevens, a Wakandian outcast who firmly believes that his true people have neglected the outside world through ignorance, and as such, they are at least partially responsible for its plight. The second relationship concerns T’Challa’s father, T’Chaka (John Kani), and the discovery that his paternal hero made questionable decisions and these revelations make the young king question many things including both his legacy and the appropriate path for his leadership and policy.
The result of these interactions for T’Challa is evolution. Here, we have the protagonist thoughtfully listen and consider the argument of his enemy over the course the film and the outcome is a definable change in perspective and action. While T’Challa disputes the method to achieve Erik’s goals, he ultimately grows to agree on the outcome—that Wakanda should remain closed off from the world no longer and should leverage their resources to help those less fortunate. This also contradicts the teachings and policy of his father, a man he loved and trusted. T’Challa weighs a myriad of conflicting, and often radical viewpoints to reconcile his own self.
It would be fair to acknowledge that Captain Marvel does not push the boundaries artistically in terms of visual or audial execution the same way Black Panther did when considering production design, score, costumes, etc. However, Scorsese speaks of “confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted” and characters coming “…face to face with themselves” as central tenets of cinema. Captain Marvel contains both rather overtly.
Captain Marvel is a commentary on nationalism, deportation, and perceptions of refugees in the modern era. This is not thinly-veiled in the slightest. At the core of the story is Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), who has been raised and trained to believe the Skrulls are a cancerous threat to the world with their invasion tactics and motives. The audience is purposely led down this path as well through expert framing by directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. As the movie unfolds, slowly the revelation becomes clearer and clearer as the “twist” emerges—the Skrulls have been unfairly portrayed and their voice stifled by a larger, scared superpower (the Kree). The filmmakers here have found a poignant and entertaining way to offer commentary on a very real-life situation and human trapping many people fall into about prejudice and pre-conceived notions.
Let us also look more closely at the main character of Danvers. If there was a singular character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who chooses to define who they are in the face of others who attempt to consistently do it for them, it’s Captain Marvel. Danvers is told that her emotion is a weakness and her “lack of control of it” (whatever that means) is a hindrance to her full potential. I can, in no way as a man say I am able to truly empathize with this, but it is clear from the discourse that this issue has been systemic in terms of gender equality. And how does the movie end? With Danvers rejecting the outside narrative and telling the mentor who essentially brainwashed/gaslighted her: “I have nothing to prove to you.” It’s a very powerful message, especially to young women, about creating one’s own identity and not letting others define your limits.
This example may be the hardest sell for many people, but Avengers: Endgame does accomplish something rather special that I believe allows it to fit into Mr. Scorsese’s definition of cinema—emotional revelation and attachment. While there are several examples of this within Endgame, let us examine Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.).
Scorsese notes that some of the best films will be remembered and revered due to their performances, and not because of their effects or set pieces, which he admits in his examples don’t look as groundbreaking today as they likely did in the era when they first appeared on screen. Right now, Avengers: Endgame is shiny. The special effects are unlike any before it, and it is nearly impossible not to be in awe of some of the visual accomplishments. But I, and I think many would agree, that one day in the future even Endgame will look outdated and perhaps even dull by whatever new standard is set. So, let’s use Mr. Scorsese’s lens and consider what Iron Man does in this film when he isn’t firing repulsor blasts.
There are two paternal relationships Stark deals with. First is that with Howard Stark (John Slattery), his father who he’s been consistently shown to have issues with. In Iron Man 2 in exasperation, he claims: “He was cold, calculating, never told me he loved me, never even told me he liked me…” He has resentment and it manifests itself cyclically with his relationship with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) who clearly needs a loving, emotionally-open father figure. Tony is reluctant to fill that role. But in Endgame, Tony has his own revelation given an unintended interaction with his dad in the past right before he was about to be born (thanks, time travel!). Tony realizes that his father did the best he could, given the man he was, and did he indeed love him even if he wasn’t able to show it. This has a ripple effect. When Peter against all odds reappears, Tony’s face is unadulterated relief and joy. He then gives Peter the warmest possible embrace that means so much more than a hug, and the audience knows it.
And perhaps most importantly, throughout Endgame, Stark faces an impossible moral quandary with his newly established family. He has a wife. A doting daughter. Happiness. These things seemed completely uncharacteristic and perhaps unattainable when we first met him in Iron Man. He is given an opportunity to risk all of these things for others in a manner that would give him no personal gain. Ten years ago, this is not a mission Stark would have accepted. There’s an excellent exchange in The Avengers between Iron Man and Captain America where the latter says in summation of Stark: “The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.” Stark’s response: “I think I’d just cut the wire.” For those who know Endgame’s finale, this position is willingly reversed, signaling an incredibly complete character arc.
I would argue that these moments—the quiet ones between Downey, Slattery, Holland, and Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts, his wife) are what will be remembered from Endgame years from now. The fact that “I love you 3000” is a viral sensation is indicative that the emotional core of Marvel Cinematic Universe is strong and impactful. There is genuine heart to these sequences because of the incredible effort all of the filmmakers put into giving the characters depth and purpose, and how they were executed through the talented performances. People feel like they know them which gives their interactions and consequences meaning. I can personally attest that the death of Tony Stark left the majority of my theater with tears in their eyes. The fact that such a varied majority had that level of emotional connectivity to a character is incredibly difficult to achieve. With that type of measurable visceral response—isn’t that a strong indicator of cinema?
Conclusions and Concessions
As a true Marvel fan, I do want to sincerely thank Mr. Scorsese for taking the time for writing such an engaging piece. I mean this very truly—all art forms flourish when healthy, respectful conversations can be held and to say his viewpoint is worthwhile would be an understatement. I know I am expecting too much, but I hope all responses to his and other’s well-earned opinions can be respected and considered as part of the wonderfully diverse puzzle we call culture.
I would like to note something that Mr. Scorsese lobbies for with the second half of his article regarding the theatrical experience and slow decay of smaller features disappearing from the cinema. He’s not wrong. Arthouses showing independent films are in decline and smaller films definitely don’t benefit from ticket sales the way the blockbusters do. For budding filmmakers who believe their art is best experienced in a large room full of people simultaneously, those opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer. I absolutely concede that we as a culture should be doing more to support and bolster these creators. I wish I had a solution to this problem because I agree there are too many exceptional movies that never receive the positive recognition they deserve due to getting swallowed up by tentpole releases. While I also agree that it’s nice that streaming services are accommodating smaller films, it would be better if more theaters were able to also showcase them.
Thanks very much for reading this! I’d like to reiterate that these are simply my opinions for consideration, just like Mr. Scorsese’s. In the end, I think the goal is that we value and respect all artists, from Marvel to Blumhouse to Focus Features. But I will conclude with championing Mr. Scorsese’s inherent plea: go research those smaller films out there. Review what’s playing at your local arthouse and I bet you’ll find something there that sounds intriguing to you. And instead of saying “eh, I’ll wait for it on video,” get out there, buy some popcorn, and enjoy the film the way the artist intended. It’ll help ensure we continue to have something for everyone for years to come.
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