Marvel: Cinematic masterpiece or soulless cash grab

Story by Gabe Stanton, Staff Writer

Doctor Strange. Guardians of the Galaxy. Infinity War. Endgame. They may be popular, but are these movies “real cinema?” Directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola say “no,” and I agree. 

In recent weeks, there has been an intense debate in the American film community over whether Marvel movies are “real cinema,” ever since Martin Scorsese, director of Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and Wolf of Wall Street, said in an interview with Empire magazine that “that’s not cinema … the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Since then, Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, has sided with Scorsese. Meanwhile, many actors, directors and producers involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have spoken out against Scorsese’s comments. Peter Ramsey, director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, hasn’t taken a side, declaring that Marvel movies are “fun and good.”

So what’s the big deal? Why are so many people up in arms over this comment? Scorsese didn’t say Marvel movies are bad, or that people shouldn’t watch them. He just said that they’re not art; they’re not “real cinema,” they’re “theme parks.” That description seems pretty apt to me; after all, what are Marvel movies, anyway? They’re fun forms of entertainment that give people a cheap thrill by showing them a bunch of their favorite characters and half a dozen exciting action scenes, but don’t really go any deeper. Sounds like a theme park to me.

I think that Scorsese is right for the most part. I understand the people that think Scorsese is being pretentious or demeaning superhero movies. But I don’t think Scorsese is saying superhero movies are bad, or that comic books aren’t art or that genre fiction is worse than literary fiction.

The problem is with Marvel. Marvel movies are designed to be fun, entertaining, and, most importantly, to get your money. I think people forget sometimes that Marvel is owned by Disney, and I highly doubt that Disney’s executives have any interest in making real cinema. They’re interested in making money. Some of their films succeed, and some of them don’t. But just because you cried when Tony Stark died doesn’t mean Endgame is a work of art. It’s still a cash grab made by Disney. And unless you want to claim that Chicken Little, Mulan II and Hannah Montana: The Movie are works of art, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Scorsese when he makes the point that the goal of these movies is to make money, not to create meaning.

The purpose of art should always be to create some sort of meaning; lots of artists profit off their work, but I don’t think Van Gogh was thinking about how much he could sell Sunflowers for when he painted it. And some of the “artistic decisions” Marvel makes are downright stupid. Hardly any other forms of entertainment do the things that the Marvel writers and directors seem to think are good ideas. I can read To Kill a Mockingbird and not have to worry that characters from other books will constantly show up and affect what happens to the main characters, the way Tony Stark does in Spider-Man: Homecoming. I can watch The Shining and not have to worry that I need to watch 20 other movies to figure out what’s going on, the way I do to understand the plot of Infinity War or Endgame. And finally, I can go see a play at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and not have to worry that the director will stop the actors from learning valuable information about their characters for fear that spoilers will leak, the way the Russo Brothers did for the actors in Endgame. These are brilliant marketing strategies, and they’ve clearly worked wonders for Marvel Studios. But these tactics cheapen the meaning each film creates and prevent them from being considered “art.”

On some level, it saddens me that people seem willing to settle for this. Trust me, you can enjoy Marvel movies. You can love Marvel movies. You can watch every Marvel movie that comes out on its premiere. You can be sad when your favorite characters die, and happy when they succeed. But by claiming that Marvel movies are art, that they’re real cinema, we’re saying that this is what movies should strive to be like. And is that really what we want to say? Do we really want film to become an enterprise, instead of a labor of love? I sure don’t.

Don’t want to listen to me? Fine. Listen to Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney.

“We have no obligation to make history,” Eisner said in an internal memo at Disney, in the ‘80s, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”