Liberals vs conservatives, atheists vs theists, and manual vs automatic drivers. These divides are arbitrary, pointless and born out of idiosyncratic global views. Yet, conquering all such great divides is the hostile conflict between the advocates and haters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Apostles of the MCU jack it off for its state-of-the-art visuals and long gestating character arcs, while the critics spit on it for the same reasons. The most famous critic is “Mr. Boomer” Martin Scorsese, who has famously condemned the films as not “good cinema”. This made me question the fact, what is good cinema?
I hold no specific opinion over the MCU. If I see a film which tickles my scrotum, I press ‘Like’. So, I will try to keep my opinions close to my chest. As of March 2020, the MCU is composed of 23 films, with Spiderman: Far from Home being the latest entry. Each film exists within an alternate universe explored from the microscopic (Ant-Man) to the interstellar (Guardians of the Galaxy) level. Of course, these films boast visual effects and production design that wank off to the Oscars each year, funded by budgets rivalling that of actual countries (Kiribati’s GDP: $184 million, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel budget: $175 million). However, the MCU possesses a quality that capital cannot purchase: meticulously crafted character arcs. Each member of the ‘Avengers’ (with the exception of Hawkeye) star in their own self-titled biopic. The motivations and personifications of each character are strikingly contrasted between the start and finish of each of their films. At the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger, the Captain stands as a blind patriot oiling the machine of war. Yet, at the end he represents a man beaten by the betrayal of his own government. These arcs exist not only intra-film, but also over the winding river of the universe timeline. As each character crosses the tracks of their fellow Avengers like figure skaters, Captain America soon indulges in his own self-interest, turning against the Avengers in Civil War. Tony Stark in Iron Man excretes douchebaggery like a Winklevoss twin, unphased by the gross mortality of his weapons industry. But as the film and series progresses, he betters himself, shutting down his weapons institution. This well-delivered arc climaxes in Civil War when the death of a single person he is indirectly responsible for sends him down an abyss of grief. These progressions are not forced, but evolve naturally like tension building in a lost marriage. Characters will scarcely express dialogue not consistent with the direction of their arc, nor unmotivated by the unfolding of events. The emotional realism of these characters may be an underlying factor as to why the franchise has been so successful with audiences. However, not everyone is a fan.
Martin Scorsese, director of undisputed classics like Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, has ruffled the feathers of the MCU peacock. His bitterness is not concerned with the character development nor set design. To the contrary, he acknowledges the production values which makes these pictures worthy of cinema release. His problem is the lack of mystery, revelation and art transcending quantum leaps the MCU takes. No risk is debated. After establishing a profitable rhythm in the series, each film released is equipped with very specific ammunition loaded into its magazine. Although no specific formula exists, the MCU is glazed in over-arching themes and characterization developments. The protagonists are typically social outcasts, with personalities ranging from light-hearted comedians (Tony Stark and Peter Quill) to military school rejects (Captain America and Black Widow). After a turn of events where they encounter a revelation within themselves or reality (Tony Stark discovering Guns Are Bad), they try to transform themselves to benefit society. Typically, the villains represent opposite personas to the protagonist, consisting of 10 minutes of dedicated screen time to establish their motivations, inner demons or childhood trauma. A variety of other tropes are peppered throughout the universe, but an honours dissertation would be needed to list them all. A personal issue I have with the films is the lack of realism, such as overuse of computer-generated imagery, bloodless violence and unrealized love relationships which never materialize into anything beyond the restrictions of PG film rating. Regardless, the formula works and risk is eliminated.
Any director hired for an MCU project has to abide by the rules the executive set. In consequence, the films do not belong to the artists but the studio. Despite the energy and artistry placed into them, they lack the direction of a single artist. The themes cannot digress beyond the handful juggled beyond within the series. Scorsese is an auteur to the highest credit. When one watches a credit of his filmography, they know they are watching a Scorsese film. Yet, the audience of an MCU picture do not care who lies behind the camera as long as their demands are met. Scorsese’s opinion is best summarized in his New York Times article “Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain”: in which he, well, says that the MCU is not cinema by any real metric. Not that they are necessarily bad, but not cinema. From the perspective of risk, the MCU is undoubtedly not cinema. However, this question turned in my head for some time. If the MCU is or is not cinema from an artistic standpoint, then what is?
Superficially, one may gesture that a masterpiece of cinema is one that breaks the norm, creating new tools or techniques to tell a story. Mad Max: Fury Road (love it or hate) uses fight scenes as conversation to drive the simple story, rather than conventional dialogue, allowing the action to become a character unto itself. The Dark Knight, considered Christopher Nolan’sauteur superhero movie, is remembered as merging urban crime into the superhero genre, relating more to Heat than Iron Man. These rule breaking films are considered by some to be the archetype of solid cinema. Yet, during the silent error of filmmaking, it was considered sacrilege to add in sound or colour. The landscape of cinema changes. Ten years from now, we may be using virtual reality headsets to watch movies. Would Alfred Hitchcockhave considered this cinema? Almost certainly not. But time passes. With each passing generation, a standard is established, broken, then reset. So, to claim that a franchise or blockbuster is not cinema is a nonsense, arbitrary statement that demands justification and refinement. For Scorsese to suggest that the MCU is not cinema is strange as hundreds of millions have gathered to the cinema to engage in their stories. Box office receipts do not lie.
Like music, each of us have our own taste in film. A middle-class man who rarely visits the cinema will likely not care for an art-house film. His demands may only be limited to car chases, one-liners and explosions. To him, Transformers may qualify as 2007’s Citizen Kane. A good movie is a film which instills emotions inside of you which you never knew existed, leaving impressions that last, teach a lesson. Good cinema can bridge the differences amongst people, who despite their differences can appreciate a good film. History has a way of reshaping perspective. Sorry, Scorsese, but on behalf of the mass audience who have cherished the effort of the MCU, it identifies as good cinema.