Hi, I’m Tyler Hummel!
You may remember me from such obscure backwater holes on the internet as Geeks Under Grace and GroupThink Productions! You may also remember me from your own Ethan Collins’s lovely shoutout a few months back when he joined in on my podcast!
As of the time of writing, I’m currently a marooned conservatarian writer between websites, panhandling on the internet for a new freelancing gig to while away the lonely hours in between my actual grownup job as an IT Technician in the progressive wasteland of the greater Chicago area. Lo and behold, the lovely people at TheEdBlog were kind enough to allow me access to their respectable platform to muse on and publish a few think pieces that my otherwise incredibly lenient editors would (wisely) never allow me to publish in a million years.
I don’t wish to bury the lead too quickly as I’m firmly determined to disabuse this privilege Ethan gave me. That said, Epstein didn’t kill himself. But as the great Jonah Goldberg would say, that’s not important right now. Lets cut to brass tacks on the most contentious issue plaguing the film discussion community online at the moment.
Is Martin Scorsese right about Marvel movies?
To be blunt, this is a dumb question. I say this answer knowing full well that I have respectable friends in my circles online who have staked out definite claims on this perspective, people whom I otherwise respect and care for as friends. I just think they’re wrong. Let’s consider the nature of this question. In the promotional rounds for Martin Scorsese’s newest film, The Irishman, he mentioned offhand that he’s not a fan of superhero movies and that he doesn’t consider them artistic or true “cinema.” At its face, that sounds unbearably dismissive. I’ve grown up with Marvel/superhero movies since I was a kid watching Sam Raimi’s Spiderman on DVD and Batman on VHS, and I readily defend them. As it stands, superhero movies are the most popular genre of the moment and there have been too many interesting, well made and solid works in the genre to say they aren’t fundamentally worthwhile and respectable.
The online debate surrounding these comments has only skyrocketed and taken on a life of its own in the past month as people on both sides of the “Marvel Question” have fiercely debated the legitimacy of Scorsese’s comments. Scorsese replied to the criticism he got with an opinion piece in The New York Times which lays out what he meant to say with his comments in what I perceived was a respectful and nuanced op-ed.
“Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri,” Scorsese said.
Scorsese’s point, for the most part, is parsing out the distinction between popular cinema and higher art in the medium of film. He’s not condemning Marvel movies so much as he’s stating he isn’t interested in them artistically. His only reason for making the comments was out of concern that the homogenization of the film industry was crowding out more personal, artistically driven films by similar voices like Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, which is an accurate statement. Most theaters won’t give equal footing to an arthouse film like Phantom Thread or Grand Budapest Hotel as they do with Avengers. There are plenty of reasons why, but there’s nothing wrong with Scorsese asking the film industry to leave a place for a unique artist to have space in the industry too.
All that said, his comments didn’t go over well.
I don’t mean to pick on Jacob specifically. He’s a friend, as our two Groupthink Podcast episodes together show. That said, half of Twitter is more or less saying the exact same thing. The other half of the internet is screaming just as loudly on the opposing side of this argument. People who are already predisposed to disliking Marvel/superhero movies jumped on the opportunity to beat superhero fans into the ground by saying that Scorsese’s comments were some kind of definitive call out against the genre, that he’s totally right and that superhero movies are empty and meaningless.
I’m just as inclined to disagree with this sentiment. Superhero movies are morality plays for family viewing. They aren’t necessarily deep or challenging if they’re being made by Disney as action movies, but that doesn’t disqualify them from anything for me or make them meaningless. Say what you will about Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Black Panther, these are all movies made by fierce creatives with ideas, values and an understanding of the world they’re trying to communicate through 24 frames-per-second. Even outside of the mainstream Disney movies, there are more artistic and deeper films in the genre like Super, Logan, Joker and Watchmen that have much more on their minds than mindless action.
As a fan of both superhero movies AND Martin Scorsese movies, I find this debate immensely tedious and exhausting. This entire disagreement should’ve faded instantly with the dismissal that people are allowed to like what they like. It’s not like Scorsese’s power as an influencer is so great that Disney or Warner Brothers is going to cancel movies at his word. Have no fear, for The Batman and Doctor Strange 2 will definitely be coming out on time even if Scorsese doesn’t get to make his adaptation of The Devil in the White City. Heck, I’ve met plenty of older movie fans who complain that “they don’t make movies like they used to anymore,” and they’ve never bothered me. My own grandfather barely thinks there’s been a good actor on screen since John Candy and John Wayne died. These comments have never bothered me even coming from my own family.
Personally, I stopped reading Marvel and DC comic books years ago when the nihilistic cycle of reading-bad-comics-so-I-can-understand-other-good-comics stopped being fulfilling to me. I can just go to Barnes and Noble and buy a book that would take me months to complete for the same price as a single comic. That said, I don’t dislike the medium. There are still comics I adore like Superman for All Seasons, Infinity Gauntlet and Daredevil: Born Again which I would reread any day. For others, the search for diamonds in the rough is worth the expense of weekly comic store runs. To each his own.
What of the fundamental question though? What even is cinema? Can your average superhero movie be considered a form of cinema?
This is actually a huge question that cuts a lot deeper than it should. Part of the problem with the ideas Scorsese is trying to communicate is that the nuances he’s trying to make between “amusement park” films and artistic cinema are that there really aren’t words in our lexicon to describe what he’s talking about.
Cinema has always suffered as an art form from the factor of expense. You need good cameras, good audio equipment, good writers and good actors in order to make movies that people want to watch. No amount of Dogma95/Harmony Korine, experimental filmmaking made on the cheap is ever going to substitute big-screen spectacle. You might be able to make a movie with an iPhone nowadays like Steven Soderbergh or Sean Baker, but without Hollywood money, almost nobody is capable of making a film “good” enough for people to go spend money on it in the theaters.
There’s a reason why most of the best films to survive over time are the movies that pair talent with money. Star Wars, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and The Godfather are some of the biggest films ever made because they paired the best filmmaking in the business with audience appeal. They gave the audience what they wanted AND were excellent films at the same time. You can make a great film for a fraction of the budget of movies like that, such as with Breathless, Seventh Seal, Citizen Kane, Solaris or The Deer Hunter and it’ll be well received, but you’re not going to make bank on a heady, challenging and deliberately paced movie, most of the time. That’s even truer today than it has been in the past, and it’s why Scorsese had to sell The Irishman to Netflix in the first place. Despite The Irishman being a masterpiece, Netflix were the only ones even willing to buy the movie. Alternatively, you can make a movie that’s as dumb as a rock, like Transformers, Jurassic World or Minions, and it’ll gross over $1 billion, because you can sell action movies and slapstick comedy across every international film market regardless of quality.
Conceptually, “art” is a hard thing to define. In the post-modern world, it’s easier than ever for different people to work on completely different intuitive definitions. Merriam-Webster defines art as “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation” while Google defines it as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Art can mean anything from a trade skill to a product that is created to capture the essence of an idea or concept in the world.
The problem with this is that there’s no distinction between these different types of movies in our lexicon. The only thing that Breathless and Transformers have in common is that they were both shot on film. One’s a heady, deconstructionist, French, crime thriller about identity, and the other is three hours of explosions. They’re totally different creatures entirely. Mind you, superhero films, for the most part, aren’t THAT bad qualitatively, but they’re definitely more on the marketable side of the spectrum than not. Scorsese is right to say that superhero films are a completely different kind of thing, but it’s not clear what that means. It certainly doesn’t mean that they’re all disreputable. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best studio films of the past decade, and it’s more than definitely artistic if we consider similar films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings to be cinema.
Credit where it’s due, James Gunn has been pretty evenhanded in regards to responding to the criticism of his chosen genre.
Heck, one of the things that makes Scorsese such a great filmmaker is that he’s able to effortlessly bridge the divides of popular cinema and artistic cinema with movies like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. There’s arguably nobody in the business better at making modern classics that will go to live on like he does. That’s partially why his comments hit as hard as they did. When Uwe Boll screams about superhero movies being trash on Letterboxd, nobody gives a crap. He’s terrible. Scorsese’s word means SOMETHING to us because we respect him.
Film is unquestionably an art form, but that doesn’t make every film artistic. Until someone official wants to come up with some official-sounding distinction between these two things, I’m forced to say that any film is a kind of art including superhero movies. There are plenty of nuanced conversations we can have about the decline in quality among certain franchises, but that’s less important than just agreeing what the terms we’re using actually mean. If great classic comedies/westerns/musical/science-fiction movies can be art, then certainly some comic book movies are art.
For goodness’ sake, Scorsese is the credited executive producer of Joker. Even if he just did that for a paycheck, he still has his name on a comic book movie that’s broadly considered one of the best in its entire genre.
The important thing is that the art we watch/read/play/interact with inspires us to be better people. If you get nothing but cheap catharsis out of the things you enjoy, I wouldn’t personally call that art so much as I would a form of pornography, but I’m not going to judge. Death Wish III is one of my favorite films ever made, and it might be one of the sleaziest, most senselessly violent films ever made. We all have our indiscretions.
Words mean things, and when they stop meaning things we lose our ability to communicate difficult concepts as a society.
I know this piece is coming at the tail end of this controversy, but in the off chance that Scorsese runs his mouth again, can we just NOT debate this again? In the grand scheme of things, it’s not an important discussion, and it’s slandering the legacy of a director who’s otherwise been an important defender of film. Let’s let one of the greatest artists of this century have his opinions, and we can be confident in ourselves that the things we value have meaning. We shouldn’t be letting movies that are designed to make us feel joy, excitement and empathy make us bitter.
Love you 3000!