If You’ve Only Seen One Marvel Movie, You Haven’t Seen Them All
The words of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola saying that Marvel movies aren’t cinema hit a little close to home for me. As someone who absolutely loves movies- and absolutely loves Marvel movies- it felt like a personal attack against the things I enjoy most. And their words, frankly, sounded like two directors who just didn’t get it.
Admittedly, I’m not quite as mad as I was when I first wrote about their comments- it helps that both directors have attempted to “explain” what they meant (Scorsese here, and Coppola here). But even in their explanations, it still sounds like they don’t know what they are talking about.
And that’s mostly because they don’t know what they are talking about. Scorsese said it himself, that he “tried to watch a few of them.” Coppola says, “I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again, which is the Marvel movies. A thing that has no risk to it.” And I’m sorry, but if you’ve only seen one Marvel movie- or “a few of them”- you haven’t seen them all.
Now, it’s fine if these movies aren’t your thing. That’s fine. I personally don’t enjoy gangster or mob movies- ironic, as that’s what both Scorsese and Coppola are most famous for. I’m not here to convince either of these fine directors (and I mean that; Scorsese’s Hugo is, to this day, my very favorite movie) that they need to sit down and watch 20 plus movies (like either of them are going to read this, anyway).
What I want to talk about today is whether or not Marvel movies are all one and the same, whether or not they are cinema. Whether they are art. And, granted, art is subjective. But cinema is not.
To determine whether they are cinema, let’s use the definition that Scorsese himself wrote: “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.”
Marvel movies definitely deliver on this definition. They bring the unexpected in each of their films, which is, frankly, astounding at 22 movies into a franchise. But each movie brings us something- many things- that we’ve never seen before, very much enlarging the sense of what is possible in the art form.
Marvel movies aren’t the same movie over and over again. Sure, all Marvel movies are superhero flicks. But for the most part, they are entirely different from one another. Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America movies are on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum. Hell, even each Captain America movie is uniquely different from the next. Thor: Ragnarok is massively different from previous Thor flicks.
Marvel movies encompass multiple genres, from science fiction to comedy to horror, as the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness promises. They say there’s a Marvel formula, but the films themselves feel anything but formulaic.
And the superhero genre as a whole has become something much more than what it used to be. Back in the early 2000’s, superhero movies were just that: action adventures involving people with powers. But the MCU- as well as others- have turned that static description into something fluid, something that adapts. Captain America: First Avenger was a war story. Winter Soldier a spy thriller. Spider-Man: Homecoming deals with a high-schooler trying to cope with much bigger things than school life, and trying to balance his responsibility to do the right thing with being a teenager. Guardians of the Galaxy is about social misfits and outcasts coming together to become something more.
But at the heart of every Marvel movie is the characters. “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.” Scorsese said this about cinema, but how does it not also apply to Marvel movies?
Scorsese says Marvel movies aren’t “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Marvel movies are all about the characters at the heart of the story. Sure, there’s spectacle. There’s some grand damn spectacle and CG work to be sure. But the story is driven by the characters. I mean, just look at Tony Stark. More than any other character in the MCU- and in most of the movie franchises I’ve seen- he conveys emotional, psychological experiences to us, very human reactions to very marvelous (see what I did there) events.
The genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist started as just that: a self-centered, egotistical man who cared for no one more than himself. And over the course of 9 movies, we see him grow. We see him learn. He confronts the unimaginable. He experiences PTSD. He becomes a mentor. He looses the damn kid. And he makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the people he loves. And that’s just Iron Man.
What about Peter Parker, with his emotional journey to find his place in this universe after losing Tony? What about T’Challa’s struggle as a new king dealing with the sins of his father? Or the tragedy of Thor, who has lost more than most in this series, and bears the weight of losing half of all life in the universe because he didn’t go for the head?
These stories are Shakespearean. Kevin Smith has called them our mythology. These are the modern day Greek heroes (or Norse… sorry, Thor). Sure, they are wrapped in explosions and colorful CGI (and lots of innovation, mind you). But the heart of these movies- and the reason we are still paying to see them 22 movies in- is the characters.
I don’t go see an Iron Man movie because I want to see Iron Man. I go because of Tony Stark. I go because of the person the hero is, not what the hero is doing. I go because I’m invested in these people- super though they might be- because they are relatable, because they are real and human, even when they are CG and a talking raccoon. If that’s not cinema, I don’t know what the hell it is.
Scorsese also says, however, that “many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk.”
There’s that phrase again. “Nothing at risk.” Both Scorsese and Coppola have said it. Marvel movies don’t have risk.
But they do risk everything, time and time again, both on and off the screen. Endgame alone clearly shows that risk that the characters face. Just watch the final minutes of the fight with Thanos, as all the heroes try and fail to keep Thanos from the Gauntlet. If there was no risk, then why are Tony, Vision, and Natasha dead? Why is Gamora (dead)? Or Loki, or Odin, or Frigga?
But that risk isn’t just to the characters. Behind the scenes, Marvel hires talented- but usually untested- directors to make these major blockbusters. Joss Whedon is a major name in science fiction, but when Marvel hired him to make their biggest movie at the time, The Avengers, he had only ever directed one movie- the follow up to his short-lived series Firefly. James Gunn and Taika Watiti had only made indie comedies before introducing the Guardians of the Galaxy and revitalizing Thor, respectively. The Russo’s, who helped define Captain America and who brought the first 22 movies to an epic conclusion, had only really done television prior to Winter Soldier. Not taking risks would have been hiring the biggest, safest names in Hollywood to make their movies- the likes of Spielberg and, well, Scorsese. But Marvel takes huge risks on exceptional, less well known directors who they believe can add their own voice to the MCU formula, even if they haven’t made a major blockbuster before. Marvel is striving for uniqueness, not sameness.
They also take risks with the cast. Outside of Robert Downey Jr. and some of the side characters and villains, the MCU’s roster of heroes is mostly made up of relatively unknown actors. They are household names today, but before they stared in the MCU, people like Tom Holland, Dave Bautista, and the Chris’ (Evans, Hemsworth, and Pratt) weren’t widely known, and definitely weren’t known for playing these types of characters. But Marvel built a franchise around these actors, and definitely took risks by casting unknowns who could bring the character to life rather than playing it safe with A-List actors like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt (or Matt Damon, but he was, technically, in Ragnarok).
The long and short of it is this, guys: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. If you don’t want to watch these movies, if they aren’t your cup of tea, that’s alright. No shame in admitting what you don’t like. But don’t talk about these movies like you know what they are- and what they aren’t. Because if you’ve only seen one Marvel movie- or only a few- you damn sure haven’t seen them all.