This October seems to be “aging directors lash out at superhero movies” month. Martin Scorsese, director of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino and others, fired the first volley during an interview to promote his latest film, The Irishman, which is – big surprise – a drama about gangsters, when he said:
“I tried, you know?” the director said when asked if he had seen Marvel’s movies. “But that’s not cinema.”
He continued: “Honestly, 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.”
My initial reaction to Martin Scorsese’s remarks was, “I could say the exact same thing about his films. I tried to watch them, I really tried, and I’ll never get the hours I spent sitting through Taxi Driver or Gangs of New York back. But I’m sorry, I just cannot connect with the kind of white dude arseholes who are the protagonists of Scorsese’s movies.” I may never have been a superhero, but I find Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and the rest of the gang much more relatable than anybody in Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy or Goodfellas or Casino.
Also, Scorsese and his ilk don’t have a monopoly on cinema. Scorsese movies are cinema, Marvel movies are cinema, Star Wars movies are cinema, Casablanca is cinema, shitty sequels that no one ever asked for like Hangover 3 and Police Academy 6 are cinema, so bad it’s funny junk like Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, Terminal Velocity or Beyond the Law are cinema (and some of the reviews for Beyond the Law are not nearly as bad as that movie deserves). The infamously inept Plan 9 From Outer Space is cinema. Even a hateful piece of Nazi propaganda shit like Jud Süß is still cinema. Many of these are not good cinema and some of them are extraordinarily bad cinema. Cinema is the medium, not a quality indicator. And quality is at least partly subjective anyway – see the positive reviews for Beyond the Law, which has been sitting on my personal “worst movies of all time” list for more than twenty years now. Though I seriously hope that there is no one out there who actually likes Jud Süß.
Scorsese later attempted to clarify his remarks and only succeeded in digging the hole even deeper. Apparently, Scorsese thinks that Marvel movies are amusement parks who are trying to invade movie theatres and that cinema owners should stop showing so many Marvel movies and show more “narrative movies”.
And we shouldn’t be invaded by it. So, that’s a big issue. We need the theater owners to step up for that to allow theaters to show more films that are narrative films. A narrative film can be one long take for three hours, you know. It doesn’t have to be a conventional beginning or end.
Scorsese contrasting superhero movies with narrative films is really rich considering that even the worst superhero movies still manage to tell coherent stories and that Marvel managed the feat of telling a serialised story over 23 films. Meanwhile in Scorsese’s films, things just randomly happen with no real regard for any rules of storytelling.
For example, in Taxi Driver (I told you I tried to watch his movies) I expected that the political candidate Robert De Niro’s character tries to assassinate would turn out to be connected to the child prostitution ring from which he tries to rescue a very young Jodie Foster, but those two threads never connect. But it was only when I sat through three hours or so of Gangs of New York, waiting for the climactic battle between Leonardo di Caprio and Daniel Day Lewis and their respective gangs, the battle the entire movie had been building towards, only for a battleship to show up, shell New York City and shoot all the combatants dead, that I realised that Scorsese cannot tell a story. The man has a great talent for visuals, but he cannot tell a satisfying story. Because no one sits through three hours of film that builds to a climactic battle, only for that climactic battle to be cut short by battleship ex machina. And indeed, the only Scorsese movies that tell satisfying stories are those where he has borrowed a story from elsewhere, e.g. Hugo, which is the only Scorsese film I ever enjoyed, or The Last Temptation of Christ where he borrowed from one of the most famous stories of all time, or The Departed, which won Scorsese an Oscar and borrows the plot from the vastly superior Infernal Affairs. That said, there is another Scorsese movie I kind of liked, namely his early attempt Boxcar Bertha. Okay, so it’s a typical late 1960s/early 1970s movie supposedly set during the 1930s, which looks nothing like the 1930s, but it’s entertaining enough. But even Boxcar Bertha has a weird and unsatisfying ending, where David Carradine is crucified against the side of a boxcar, because of reasons.
Francis Ford Coppola was the next to weigh in on superhero movies, when he said in an interview:
“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”
“I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again,” the 80-year-old filmmaker said.
“Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”
Mind you, Coppola is still talking about Marvel movies, when he is calling them despicable, not about Nazi propaganda movies or their Soviet or American equivalents, which truly are despicable. As for audiences watching the same movie over and over again, that’s rich coming from the director who made three Godfather movies and recut Apocalypse Now umpteen times and somehow managed to make the movie worse every time (and I actually liked Apocalypse Now, when I first saw it).
Ken Loach, British director of socially conscious working class dramas, also felt the need to weigh in on superhero movies in an interview with Sky News:
They’re made as commodities like hamburgers, and it’s not about communicating and it’s not about sharing our imagination.
It’s about making a commodity which will make a profit for a big corporation – they’re a cynical exercise.
They’re market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema. William Blake said ‘when money is discussed – art is impossible’.
Now Loach doesn’t really fit in with Coppola and Scorsese, since he’s from another country and another continent, though he came up at the same time and all three directors focus a lot on the plight of the overwhelming white, overwhelmingly male working class, though Ken Loach’s characters are usually less awful than Scorsese’s or Coppola’s. Also, I’m pretty sure that even if Ken Loach doesn’t care about making a profit, his producers do or he’d be out of a job.
Quite a lot of directors and actors affiliated with Marvel have weighed in by now, either with disappointment along the lines of “I like your movies and defended you against the haters about The Last Temptation of Christ, so why do you trash my movies without ever having seen them?” or with statements along the lines of “Well, they can say whatever they want and we can disagree.”
As I said above, taste is subjective and Scorsese, Coppola and Loach have every right not to like superhero movies, just as I have every right not to enjoy most of their movies. And if those directors had simply responded to the question how they feel about superhero movies with a simple, “Sorry, not my thing.” reply, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But they decided to be condescending about it and so the internet blew up.
Somewhere in this debate someone also pointed out that Scorsese and Coppola really shouldn’t complain about superhero movies being all the same, considering that they have both made the same gangster movie over and over again. Whereupon someone else pointed out that while Scorsese and Coppola had both made several movies about organised crime, all of those movies were completely different.
Now of course, there is a huge spectrum of superhero movies. Superhero movies range from the charming goofiness of Guardians of the Galaxy to the grimness of The Dark Knight and Logan, from the childlike sweetness of Shazam to the raunchiness of Deadpool, from small stories like Ant-Man to huge universe-shattering spectacles like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. Nor are gangster movies all the same. The gangster movies of the 1930s (which I quite like) are completely different from those of the 1970s and 1980s, just as The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino are all different from each other. However, if you don’t like superhero movies, all of them look the same and blur together into “this thing I don’t like”. And if you don’t like gangster movies, particularly the 1970s/80s auteur variety thereof, they all tend to blur together as well.
I don’t even exclude myself here. Now the “New Hollywood” era that lasted from approx. 1967 to 1980 and the equivalents in other countries such as the New German Cinema of roughly the same time is probably my most disliked movie era of all time. I’ve repeatedly tried to watch the highly regarded movies of that era, most notably as a budding teenaged cineast, and I inevitably disliked them. One or two movies might have been a fluke, but ten or twenty? Whatever it was that made critics praise those movies so highly, I just couldn’t see it. The protagonists were always arseholes who behaved abominably and became criminals because of reasons, they were inevitably played by unattractive men and they inevitably died at the end, usually shot down in a hail of bullets and a spray of Kryolan blood. There usually were women and some of them were even played by attractive actresses, but they played no real role except as the long suffering girlfriend/wife of the protagonist. Often, they died as well. The colour palettes were beige, washed out and ugly, supposedly historical movies looked nothing like the period they were allegedly set in. Even the entertainment movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s – the big Irving Allen disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno, the various dystopian science fiction movies of that era like Soylent Green or Rollerball, the German Johannes Mario Simmel adaptations, sappy romances like Love Story, action movies like The French Connection, Dirty Harry or Death Wish, musicals like Saturday Night Fever or horror movies like The Exorcist – were invitably ugly, depressing and dull with protagonists so unlikeable you wished they’d just hurry up and die already. Never mind that many of what are now regarded classics of the New Hollywood era – The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now – were genre films and often considered violent, disposable trash when they first came out.
Those movies often blur together, because the same few actors appeared in all of them – Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and if it was a dystopian SF film, Charlton Heston. The directors – Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino (whom I expected to weigh in, until I remembered that he was dead), William Friedkin, Brian de Palma – also blur together and I usually have to look up who made which movie, because I honestly cannot remember. After plenty of attempts to watch the so-called “New Hollywood” movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I eventually decided that some unknown brain virus must have infected the whole western world (because similar patterns can be observed in other countries) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, until it was cured when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (both of whom ironically started out as New Hollywood directors as did Sylvester Stallone) came along and finally made good movies again.
My adult self has a view that is a bit more nuanced, though I still don’t like the movies of the “New Hollywood” or the “New German Cinema” era and never will. My adult self can see that many of those movies, particularly those by Scorsese and Coppola, have a lot of visual flair. And there are movies from that era that I like quite a bit (The Graduate, American Graffiti, A Clockwork Orange, many of the dystopian SF movies, some Italian westerns, the Billy Jack movies and some of the cheap and trashy grindhouse and Blaxploitation movies of the time) and often liked even as a teen, only that I never realised that they played in the cinema alongside the movies I disliked so much. And even for many movies I don’t like, I can see what the appeal was once upon a time, because the action in 1970s movies was more dynamic than in earlier films, the violence was bloodier, the horror more visceral. Chase scenes like in French Connection, visceral horror like in The Exorcist or Carrie or blood baths like in Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch were not something that had been seen in movies before the late 1960s/early 1970s, though even by the 1980s, they had been eclipsed by the action and horror movies of that very action and horror heavy decade. As as so often, when you see the imitators first (or at least have heard of them, since I was too young to watch most of the 1980s action and horror movies in the theatre), the original pales in comparison.
Because movies do borrow from each other and techniques which first appeared in auteur movies later seeped into entertainment cinema and vice versa. Michael Ballhaus invented his iconic circling shot for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movie Martha, a lesser entry in the annals of the New German Cinema, and later deployed it again in After Hours by – yes, Martin Scorsese. However, the most iconic use of the Ballhaus circling shot – though not helmed by Ballhaus himself – in recent times is in Avengers, when the Avengers assemble for the first time to face down the Chitauri invasion. Joss Whedon seems to be a fan of the Ballhaus circling shot anyway, since it also appears in Serenity, though that scene isn’t available online.
As for the brain eating virus that infected the whole western world, that virus was simply television, more precisely colour television, since colour was the one thing that movies had that TV didn’t. For movie quality took a nosedive wherever television and particularly colour television reached a certain saturation point. This is why movie quality begins to decline in the US before it happened in Germany and elsewhere, because in the US TV reached its saturation point first. The end of the cinematic doldrums also happened at different times. The US begins to emerge from the doldrums by the mid 1970s, whereas in Germany they’d last throughout the 1980s. But it is a pattern that is observable throughout the western world and probably beyond as well. Indeed, when I asked my parents and other people who had been old enough to watch adult movies in the 1960s and 1970s just what possessed them to watch such awful movies, the answers were either “sex” (for softcore trash like the Schulmädchen-Report series) or “We didn’t watch those movies” (for pretty much everything else). For example, my Mom can recall watching Hitchcock, James Bond and Edgar Wallace movies as well as an endless stream of German Heimatfilme in the cinema, but she cannot recall watching any of the big name movies of the 1970s in the cinema or indeed anywhere at all. Because like many other people, my parents stopped going to the cinema at some point in the late 1960s and didn’t start going again, until I was old enough to be taken to Disney movies.
And as the numbers of theatregoers crashed and TV took over many of the bread and butter genres – westerns, cop dramas, musicals, family fare – young directors, often straight from film school, jumped in and filled the void. They were often given carte blanche and with hardly any strictures, they followed their personal visions and made whatever movies they liked. A handful of which were good, some of which were innovative and many of which were pretty bad. And the studios let those directors do whatever they wanted, as long as they made a profit. And with rapid inflation in the 1970s, which drove up ticket prices, they usually did. Until several of those movies grossly exceeded their budget (Apocalypse Now and most notably, Heaven’s Gate) and flopped, whereupon the studios took the reigns in hand again. Meanwhile, some of those young directors had hit by experimentation upon something that cinema could still do better than TV, namely the sort of spectacle (Star Wars, Jaws) you want to see on the big screen rather than on TV. And thus the blockbuster era began in the US.
So in short, the New Hollywood era was a transitional period where movies tried to find their role in a world increasingly saturated by television. A lot of experiments were tried, most failed, some were successful and others eventually led to something completely different than what their creators had envisioned, e.g. the action movies of the 1980s have their roots in semi-serious movies of the 1970s. Eventually, movies found their equilibrium again and the world moved on. However, the adoration for the New Hollywood movies among critics and self-proclaimed cineasts is still excessive, considering that the New Hollywood era only lasted a little over ten years and that a lot of the movies of that time have huge issues with regard to gender, race and violence. After all, a lot of New Hollywood movies are about conservative leaning white men violently destroying other white men as well as anything that is not a white man. The thing that horrified me most about Taxi Driver was the fountain of racist, sexist and homophobic remarks that came out of Robert De Niro’s mouth during his famous monologues. His character was clearly a horrible person and potentially murderous psychopath. Ditto for Don Vito Corleone and his family or the trio of soldiers from The Deer Hunter.
And I strongly suspect that part of the reason why we are seeing such a backlash against superhero movies now, led by directors who came up in a previous era, is because Scorsese, Coppola, Loach et all know that they’re long past their prime. All three of them were once innovators, but they have been making increasingly pale copies of the kind of movies that once made them famous for years now. The working class dramas of Ken Loach haven’t been new in a long time and in the era of Brexit I increasingly find that I don’t care what happens to those people. Martin Scorsese had become the butt of the joke that he’d never win an Oscar and when he finally won one, people wondered why he was still making movies. When the first trailers for The Irishman arrived, the most common reaction was, “Hasn’t he made that movie like three times already?” As for Coppola, the last movie he made that got any kind of attention was Bram Stoker’s Dracula back in 1992. The money is no longer flowing as freely either. Coppola’s magnum opus Megalopolis has been in development hell for years now and Scorsese had to go to Netflix to get The Irishman made.
Furthermore, as time passes the faults of the New Hollywood era are becoming increasingly apparent, as more and more people realise that the New Hollywood emperor has no clothes and never had any to begin with. Younger viewers and film students are no longer swallowing the dogma that those movies are great works of art and that anybody who says otherwise has no taste. Just as I didn’t swallow that dogma thirty years ago.
Because for all their flaws, today’s superhero movies are a lot more diverse in front and behind the camera, then the highly touted movies of the New Hollywood era, which were made by and for a very narrow slice of people. It’s no accident that directors, actors and characters of those movies are all white and male and either Italian-American or members of some other immigrant group (the characters in The Deer Hunter are all descendants of Russian immigrants). There are a lot of people who never saw themselves reflected in those movies – women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, people who are not American – and who likely never much cared for those movies either, because the big Scorsese or Coppola fanboys are mostly white dudes themselves.
Saladin Ahmed says it best in the following tweet:
and yes I guarantee that your True Cinema Auteur fave contributed to that garbage atmosphere????
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) October 24, 2019
Yes, superhero movies are still overwhelmingly white and male, but we get the occasional Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and Aquaman in front of the camera and the occasional Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi and Patty Jenkins behind the camera. As for why they are so popular at the moment, there are a lot of hot takes involving September 11, 2001, and people craving black and white morality and the general infantilisation of the US/the West. However, I think the answers are far simpler. For starters, the Marvel movies, which are the gold standard here, as well as the better examples from other studios are extremely well made and highly entertaining. Marvel movie always give you a good time and leave you feeling elated afterwards. Those movies also work, because they tap into decades of comic storytelling, distilling what made those stories so compelling to generations of readers and transferring it to a different medium (which many of the earlier pre-2000 superhero movies failed to do).
Superhero tales usually have a handful of core narratives which pop up over and over again. Marvel’s core stories are the story of the jerk with a heart of gold who must undergo an ordeal in the wilderness to learn that with great power comes great responsibility (Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange), the story of the hated outsider who nonetheless fights to protect a world who fears and hates them (Hulk, the X-Men, the Submariner and again Spider-Man), the story of the physically weak or disabled person who suddenly gains powers and uses them to make the world a better place (Captain America, Daredevil, Professor X), the story of the reformed villain who redeems themselves (Black Widow, Loki, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Rogue, Gamora, Nebula, Hawkeye in the comics) and the story of the band of lonely misfits who come together and become greater than the sum of their parts (Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Guardians of the Galaxy and every team book ever). Furthermore, the Marvel movies in particular have another core message that appears in every single movie, often explicitly stated in the dialogue, namely that it’s not the powers, the costume or the gadgets that makes the hero, but the person inside. It’s a message aimed at every single person in the audience that tells them, “You don’t need powers or a costume. You can be better. You can make a difference. You can be a hero.” Is it any wonder that we want to hear that message over and over again? Because considering the difficult times we live in, this is a message we need.
And now take a look at the messages that movies by Scorsese, Coppola, Loach, etc… convey. Their message is “Life is unfair and crap and you have no power.” Loach usually stops there, but Scorsese, Coppola and the rest of the New Hollywood bunch go one step further and add, “Because life is unfair anyway, you might as well stop following the rules and just take what you want and attack those who annoy you. Of course, you’ll probably get killed in the end, but did we mention that life is unfair?” And they honestly wonder why people no longer want to listen to that message over and over again?
Not that there aren’t plenty of issues with the current flood of superhero movies and the current era of cinema with its reliance on sequels, reboots and remakes in general. Disney’s market dominance is a problem, both with regard to their ability to silence or blackball creatives, though they eventually took James Gunn back, and with regard to their ability to just pull movies from the market and place them into their vault, as this article explains.
Now I am a comic fan of old and like superhero movies. And so the current golden age of superhero movies is a dream come true for me, where I finally get to see plenty of characters on the big screen that I never expected to see there, in well made movies with excellent actors, great production values and stories that capture what made the comics so compelling. However, I also realise that not everybody likes superhero movies and I know the pain of cinemas being full of some genre of movies you don’t like. After all, I felt the same during the glut of westerns (and anybody who hates superhero movies should remember that the glut of westerns lasted from the silent era into the 1970s, i.e. almost fifty years), the glut of Vietnam war movies in the 1980s (and WWII movies in the 1960s), the glut of gangster movies in the 1970s/80s (and the 1930s) or the glut of romantic comedies in the 1990s. Oddly enough, however, I never hear the usual suspects complaining about too many westerns or war movies or gangster movies, though romantic comedies, Star Wars knock-off space operas and even the mini-trend of YA novel adpatations approx. ten years ago all got dinged. Gee, I wonder why that is.
That said, the range of movies in the cinemas has become more narrow and yes, the focus on tentpoles and blockbusters is to blame for this. However, what’s being squeezed out are not the Oscar-baits and arthouse movies. Those still get made, though they may have to go to Netflix for financing. And Netflix will make sure that those movies are long enough in the theatres to be eligible for Oscars and other awards. Martin Scorsese will likely nab an Oscar nomination for The Irishman, though he probably won’t win. However, what is being squeezed out is the middle range of movies, the bread and butter entertainment stuff, that rarely broke box office records, but still made enough money to be profitable. What’s missing are the romantic comedies, the serial killer thrillers, the gritty cop dramas, the action films, the relationship and family dramas, the teen comedies, the soap operatic romances, the horror movies, the kiddie films that are not Disney, the science fiction movies that are not part of a franchise. There still are movies like that being made, but much fewer than there used to be. And many of them sink without a trace. And that is a pity, because enjoyable as Marvel movies are, there only are about two or three of them every year, plus maybe four or five other superhero movies (mostly DC based, but also non-Marvel movies about Marvel characters and the occasional independent), half of which will be bad, as well as a handful of non-superhero blockbusters (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Pixar/Disney kiddie movies, Harry Potter tie-ins, etc…), half of which will also be bad. That leaves a lot of room for other films.
But the fault here lies not with superhero movies, but with a filmmaking climate that is almost exclusively focussed on blockbusters and tentpoles on the one hand and awards bait on the other and ignores the middle ground. And the ones suffering are not the Scorseses, Coppolas and Loaches. After all, their place in cinema history is assured. No, the Scorseses, Coppolas and Loaches of the future are the ones suffering, because with the whole middle ground of movies breaking away, they never even get a chance. But the solution is not fewer superhero movies, but more other movies and a greater variety of them.