Friday, November 22, 2019

Marvel Cinematic Universe is Cinema Pt. 1: Is the MCU Cinema?

Part 1: Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Cinema?

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. 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.”

-Martin Scorsese in a 2019 interview with Empire magazine.

“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, Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

-Francis Ford Coppola through Yahoo! News

These are quotes from two esteemed and respected filmmakers who have been known for making some of the greatest films ever made and were prevalent during a time in cinema when American movies were more about real people in real situations rather than escapist, big-budget films they were rebelling against. Then in 1975, a movie called Jaws came out and ushered in the new era of American cinema that would be the blockbusters with another film called Star Wars released two years later would prove that there is a shitload of money to be made with films. Though Scorsese and Coppola would still have life following the era of the blockbusters with the former still making viable films while the latter has focused on more personal and less commercially-based films. Their opinions on the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has definitely garnered a polarizing response from other filmmakers, film buffs, actors, moviegoers, and many others.

While Scorsese, Coppola, and a few other filmmakers have every right to state their opinion on the state of cinema. When it comes to the films of the MCU, they’re absolutely wrong about their place in cinema. In fact, if they really think about the films they grew up on as well as the kind of movies they were inspired by. Those are the same movies that some of the films of the MCU were inspired by as well including the movies that Scorsese and Coppola made. It might not be in all of the films of the MCU but it is clear that the people who made these didn’t draw their inspirations just on comic books alone. They also went to cinema for help in not just making these films about superheroes fighting bad guys but also to make them engaging enough for audiences to care about them and relate to them. It’s easy to forget that many of these characters are created by writers including the late, great Stan Lee used their imagination and their own experiences as human beings to create these stories. What they would spawn are these stories that went from the hands of readers in comic books to become adventures on the big screen.

While Marvel would have a rough start having their ideas presented on the big screen, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that kicked things off for Marvel as it would feature a young producer in Kevin Feige working as an associate producer under the guidance of Richard Donner. In the 2000s, films based on comic characters such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, the Punisher, Daredevil, Elektra, and the Incredible Hulk would be made to varying degrees of success as well as some failures. In 2005, Marvel Entertainment decided to create an idea based on a film version of the Avengers yet there were issues over who owned the film rights to characters and such for things to happen as Marvel decided to make their own films with distribution from Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios since the latter owned the film rights to the Incredible Hulk.

In 2007, Kevin Feige was named studio chief of Marvel after the departure of its then studio chief Avi Arad whom some felt was responsible for the disappointing reaction to Spider-Man 3. Feige’s role would be the reason why Marvel became successful as he redefined the role of the film producer that hasn’t happened since the likes of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli in his role for supervising the James Bond film franchise. Like Broccoli before him, Feige took a big risk in 2007 by accepting a massive loan and put $140 million to create a film with director Jon Favreau about a superhero that a lot of comic book fans know about yet not many outside of comics know. Adding to the risk was having an acclaimed yet troubled actor in Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role just years after he had found sobriety and was stepping away from his own dark troubles only to play a character who was known for being irresponsible and reckless.

When it premiered on April 30, 2008 just three days before it would be shown to American audiences, Iron Man would arrive to the world in a year that would later showcase another groundbreaking superhero film in The Dark Knight from Warner Brothers, DC Comics, and filmmaker Christopher Nolan that would become a standard bearer for superhero films to come. While The Dark Knight would be the superhero film of that year, Iron Man would be successful as it would lay the ground work for what is to come through a series of films that would include a different take on the Incredible Hulk story following its disappointing 2003 film version as well as a sequel to Iron Man and films that would make formal introductions to Thor and Captain America.

It would all culminate in May of 2012 when a film version of the Avengers that would also feature characters such as Black Widow, Loki, Nick Fury, and Hawkeye be part of something big and this plan to bring all of these heroes together suddenly happened and the result was a cinematic event for the ages. The Avengers grossed more than $1.5 billion as it wasn’t just about how much money it made but it was also a game-changer for better or for worse where it can be understandable why filmmakers like Scorsese and Coppola are critical of the MCU. After all, studios in Hollywood are there to make money and do whatever they can to make a shitload of money. From a cynical point of view, movies are to make money so they can put more money on films so those movies can make money.

Warner Brothers and DC Films created their own cinematic universe with the DC Extended Universe in trying to create a multitude of franchises for superheroes in Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and many others with mixed results as some films have done well while others have completely missed the mark. The problem with why the DCEU had struggle to succeed and compete with the MCU is that it’s run by a group of people who have to answer to Warner Brothers and it’s a relationship that’s been troubled though the successes for films for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and most recently Shazam have helped the DCEU get back on its feet.

Then there’s Universal Studios and other studios that tried to create their own cinematic universe as the former made the big mistake of announcing a cinematic universe that would combine their famed movie monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and many others into a cinematic universe known as the Dark Universe. Instead, their big-budget remake of The Mummy with Tom Cruise bombed just as they made the announcement for this cinematic universe that included a photo of Cruise with Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, and Sofia Boutella that was obvious photoshopped just made things even worse as its plans are now in limbo.

It does play into this air of cynicism about films as people do get tired of watching the same old shit to the point that it becomes parody or just lifeless. It does give them time to find other things yet the films of the MCU doesn’t cater to everyone. There’s nothing wrong with not liking these films about superheroes or films that are emphasized on big budgets and such. I can understand why Scorsese isn’t into it. Not everyone can like everything. There’s nothing wrong with that but you can’t dismiss these kinds of films as toys or products as there’s a lot of what the films of MCU has done for cinema. It’s not just about the money they made but rather the connection it has towards its audience.

It’s no accident that a film like Black Panther would be successful financially but that’s not why it was so successful. The film was about an African king who is a superhero who lives in a fictional country in the middle of Africa that wasn’t colonized by others as they created technology far more advanced than the rest of the world as one of the king’s duties is to protect the secrets of his homeland. To an audience who had never seen a film about someone who looks like them be presented on the big screen with that massive budget and was helmed by an African-American filmmaker in Ryan Coogler and with an ensemble cast that is largely African-American or of African-decent. It was a big deal for a film like that to come around as black audiences didn’t have a lot of movies about themselves nor were there superhero movies that they could relate to.

A film like Black Panther was an event as it allowed a black audience to not only connect with their African roots but also the idea of what Africa could’ve been if it hadn’t been exploited or colonized by other countries. It wasn’t just the titular character that audiences gravitated to but also the women as Black Panther/T’Challa has a royal guard in the Dora Milaje that is an army of women who are total bad-asses that can hold their own and actually have a say in things. Its success with audiences as well as being well received by film critics and anyone else who love film is proof of how much a superhero film can connect with its audience at a time when one of the leaders of the world spouts hateful rhetoric towards African-Americans.

The film was made by an African-American filmmaker who came from an independent film background as did other films of the MCU. Scorsese does make a valid point in his op-ed for the New York Times about its impact but also the fact that it takes away the spotlight from smaller films by up-and-coming filmmakers or independent filmmakers. Movie theaters and multiplexes are there to show movies but they have to show big movies to make money as it’s a business decision. Still, the movie chains and multiplexes do need to give moviegoers an alternative from big blockbuster films and studio-based films as a way to allow audiences to see something else. Even it means having them save gas money instead of having to make people spend some money and drive 20-30 minutes away from their house just to see a film that an audience of a few people would want to see.

Yet, it’s easy to forget that some of the filmmakers who contributed to the films of the MCU weren’t filmmakers that were nurtured by studios as some of them had to come from nowhere to get to where they are now. Coogler, Jon Favreau, Taika Waititi, Jon Watts, and the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were people who worked outside of Hollywood and came from different backgrounds. Joe and Anthony Russo also came from similar independent film backgrounds but honed their craft as storytellers through television. James Gunn wrote screenplays and ideas for the low-budget independent studio Troma Entertainment. The upcoming films of the MCU for its next phase will be helmed by filmmakers who definitely aren’t Hollywood filmmakers and a couple of them are women in Cate Shortland and Chloe Zhao while Destin Daniel Cretton is a Hawaiian filmmaker of Japanese-American descent is about to direct a film that will feature an Asian protagonist.

While Scott Derrickson and Peyton Reed are filmmakers with different backgrounds that have managed to make films for big Hollywood studios, their contributions to the MCU have given them more to do also take some risks as filmmakers. It’s credit to Feige’s role as a producer to find talent to make these films come to life but also allow them to infuse their own ideas to at least have the films standout on their own. It’s not just the filmmakers who deserve credit for getting these films brought to life but also the screenwriters who took the time to actually read the source material and put their own spin as Feige was able to get a bunch of people from totally different backgrounds to be involved and give the directors something to work with.

Diversity is a key strength to why the MCU have become successful as it’s not just in the characters and actors who play them but also in the people involved in making the films. While the first phase of films of the MCU featured superheroes that were predominantly white and male with the exception of Black Widow who is a woman. They were brought together by an African-American securities director though the character of Nick Fury was actually white in the comics. Other changes that included Thor’s friend Heimdall being portrayed by a British-African actor in Idris Elba instead of his original portrayal in the comics as a white man as these changes were made to broaden the horizons of the story and allow actors to put a new spin on those characters.

Towards the end of the Infinity Saga of the MCU, there’s superheroes with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds as it is among the reasons why these films appealed to a wide audience. Ant-Man/Scott Lang’s best friend is a Mexican-American ex-convict trying to create a securities business with Lang and other friends as Luis maybe a comic relief but he’s managed to do a lot of things to help Lang, Hope Van Dyne/Wasp, and others without the usage of superpowers. Peter Parker’s best friend Ned is Asian who is also a comic relief but is also good at hacking and helps Parker in trying to be Spider-Man as Parker’s classmates are all kids of different backgrounds whether they’re Hispanic, Asian, African-American, Jewish, and Muslim. A cynic would say that it’s diversity to make everyone feel inclusive but that is false as it’s more of a reflection of a world that is changing and how people are trying to be kinder to one another. To audiences including children, to see that there’s people who look like them that can actually make a small difference might actually mean a lot to them given the fact that the world can be a cruel place.

One major criticism Scorsese had in his op-ed in the New York Times about the MCU is his claim that the films lack any real risks. This is a criticism where Scorsese’s argument has a lot of faults though his idea of risks is more akin towards technical ideas or anything that changes the idea of cinema. What the MCU is doing is different in terms of risks as it more relates to the genre that they’re based on. While they do have filmmakers like Kenneth Branagh, Taika Waititi, James Gunn, and the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who have developed a style of their own or find ways to instill their own vision or themes into the movies they put for the MCU. They do add a touch of their own ideas that at least make them stand out from other superhero films but also give audiences something different.

Through these auteurs, the MCU is given the chance to explore new ideas and themes that have been touched upon in superhero films but take steps further to understand what is going on. Even if it means delving into dark territory that not a lot of mainstream films wanted to touch upon. There was also some kind of flirtation for films to go into themes relating to nihilism as the first film of the superhero genre to tackle that is The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan that was the second film of his Dark Knight Trilogy that re-introduced audiences to Batman. In that film, Batman would face off against the Joker who would wreak havoc on Gotham and challenge Batman into this discussion about ugliness of humanity believing that people can be corrupted into doing something awful. The film was released a few months after Iron Man as it not only raised the bar for the superhero genre but also brought in new stakes for what superhero films would explore.

It would take the films of the MCU some time to explore themes that a lot of superhero films wouldn’t dare delve into starting with Captain America: The Winter Soldier as it explores modernism and corruption where its protagonist learns that the organization he’s working for has been infiltrated by an enemy force he thought he destroyed during World War II. Instead, Steve Rogers realizes that the world he lived in during the 1940s has changed severely yet begins to gain a sense of doubt and distrust on what he’s really fighting for as he would cling on to the few allies he would have in the superspy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Nick Fury, and a fellow soldier in Sam Wilson/Falcon. Yet, new face of Hydra in the Winter Soldier is unveiled to be his best friend Bucky Barnes as it would force him to confront Barnes but also let Barnes beat him ferociously to have Barnes regain the humanity he had lost through the experiments of Hydra. In many ways, The Winter Soldier is really a political thriller as the duo of Joe and Anthony Russo would ground the film more on settings in the streets and not emphasize too much on dazzling visual effects. Instead, it’s about suspense, conversations, and characters trying to understand a world that is corrupt.

Another strength of the MCU in its approach to creating films one-by-one and developing them slowly, with some road bumps along the way, is the chance to create these arcs for some of its central characters. Steve Rogers starts off as an idealist young man wanting to serve his country and then come to terms with the flaws of his idealism and later take responsibility for the fact that he never told Tony Stark that Stark’s parents was killed by Barnes under the orders of Hydra. Stark’s arc as this weapons manufacturer tech genius into being a hero of his own and later become selfless and deal with the responsibility of his own actions. Thor’s arc started off as this prince on a planet whose desire for glory and war would cast him out of his planet as he would later be humbled by arriving on Earth and then come to terms about whether he wants to be king in his home planet only to reluctantly accept the role once his planet is threatened. Then he would endure tremendous loss in his family, friends, and his home planet and then deal with failure.

It’s these arcs as well as the journey of these other characters that makes those films appealing as the filmmakers aren’t afraid to make them flawed. That is one of defining traits of humanity as it is something they would endure when they all come together to face Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame as those two films really push the boundaries of what a superhero film could be. Notably in its antagonist Thanos who believes that an entire universe can be saved by collecting six infinity stones and with a gauntlet. He could wipe out half of the population with the snap of his finger and bring balance to the universe. Thanos’ action in Infinity War showcases the sacrifice he had to make to succeed in his mission but he is also someone that understands the idea of loss as he had lost his own planet.

The defeat for the Avengers was devastating as they didn’t just lose friends, colleagues, and good people who fought with them but also family. The opening scene in Endgame showcases a simple moment in which Clint Barton/Hawkeye is teaching his daughter how to use a bow-and-arrow while his wife is preparing lunch for a family picnic and their sons playing catch. Then in one instance, Barton’s life is shattered when his family suddenly disappears as it sets the tone for the entire film as the opening title card doesn’t appear until 15 minutes into the film and five minutes later members of the Avengers and other allies confront Thanos and realize what he had just done. The film fades to black until text appears that says “five years later” as for a film of that genre, it is an unusual way to open a film like that and to open it in such a bleak note. If that isn’t a risk in terms of narrative of massive mainstream film like that, then what is a risk?

Thus now leads to the ultimate question about these 23 feature-length films that has grossed nearly $23 billion in the box office with a critical reception averaging a total of 85% from Rotten Tomatoes as well as being well-received by audiences. Are the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe cinema?


While the films of the MCU aren’t exactly trying to reinvent the wheel or create new cinematic language. They’re also trying not to be these overly-serious films that demand to be important. Not every filmmaker wants to be Bela Tarr or Adam McKay. Cinema can be about anything just as long as it says something to the audience. It can be about a cowboy shooting a gun right at the audience. A tramp trying to fix nuts and bolts. A woman wearing red ballet shoes dancing for a show. A man with a gun and an American girl on the run in France. A bomber pilot riding on a bomb as it’s going down on a military base in the Soviet Union. A half-Chinese/half-Canadian stoner smoking a big joint with this cool Chicano. A boy wishing he was big only to be in a 35-year old man’s body as he plays Chopsticks with the boss of a toy company on a big piano. Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets in bikinis holding machine guns and killing a bunch of bad guys. A robot climbing on a spaceship to get the robot that he’s fallen in love with.

They can be B-movies, softcore porn flicks, action films, westerns, fantasy, dystopian-comedies, romantic comedies, sci-fi, pretentious art films, grindhouse, kung-fu, low-budget indies, or anything just as long as it has something to say or can give an audience characters that they can relate to or care about. The films of the MCU have done that and so far are doing a hell of a job in at least putting asses in the seats and then some. If films about people who are just trying to make the universe a better place can bring all sorts of people together and have a good time. Then that is cinema. It’s not fucking rocket science. Cinema is about watching a story on a giant screen, a TV, a laptop, or a phone and share that story with someone else.

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Infinity Saga: Phase One: Iron Man - The Incredible Hulk - Iron Man 2 - Thor - Captain America: The First Avenger - The Avengers

Phase Two: Iron Man 3 - Thor: The Dark World - Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Guardians of the Galaxy - The Avengers: Age of Ultron - Ant-Man

Phase Three: Captain America: Civil War - Doctor Strange - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - Spider-Man: Homecoming - Thor: Ragnarok - Black Panther - Avengers: Infinity War - Ant-Man and the Wasp - Captain Marvel - Avengers: Endgame - Spider-Man: Far from Home

Post-Infinity Saga: Phase Four: Black Widow (2021 film) - Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – (Eternals) – (Spider-Man: No Way Home) – (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) – (Thor: Love and Thunder) – (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) - (The Marvels) – (Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania) – (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) – (Fantastic Four)

MCU is Cinema: Pt. 2Pt. 3Pt. 4 – (Part 5) – (Part 6) – (Part 7)

Related: The MCU: 10 Reasons It Rules the World

From other bloggers: In Defense of the Theme Park Movies - K&M Commentary: Scorsese, Marvel, and the Meaning of Cinema

© thevoid99 2019


Brittani Burnham said...

Excellent piece. I really hope this trend of journalists asking older directors what they think of comic book movies dies off soon. It reminds me of all those kids who grew up reading comics only to be laughed at by other people who don't consider them real books. It's pretentious and wrong.

Chris said...

Very thorough article and a balanced defence of Marvel. You’re right Black Panther did something new as a black ensemble superhero movie, and in the last few years filmmakers have pushed the bar for what a superhero film can be.
Scorsese’s criticism of MCU as ”not cinema” was condescending and doesn’t hold up if he didn’t watch them. But Scorsese is right arthouse and auteur films are getting pushed out of theaters and only playing in select cities or places like netflix.
Joker (2019) sort of bridged the gap between the arthouse and mainstream audience and we will see more superhero arthouse films since it made a billion $.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-Thank you. I agree with you on the way people view comic books as I think it's just ignorance. Comic books have a lot to offer as I do think of them as literature. Just on a smaller scale that is continuous and with different writers who would find something new to bring to a character or a storyline.

@Chris-Thank you. I wanted to be fair to Scorsese though I do feel he is wrong about a few things towards the MCU. If it isn't for him, that's OK. I just think he's just being a bit ignorant about its merits. Especially as a lot of the filmmakers of those films in the MCU do cite him as an influence and his comments do hurt them unfairly.

SJHoneywell said...

I find Scorsese's weighing in on this frustrating for so many reasons. I love Scorsese's movies and probably will continue to love them for the rest of my life. He's added a huge chunk of vocabulary to the cinematic world, and there's no way to deny that.

But he's wrong. Of course the MCU is cinema. Not all movies need to be deadly serious or ask critical societal questions. Cinema can be inspiring and invigorating as much as they can be thought-provoking. A movie like (for instance) Cinema Paradiso is absolutely cinema, but it's not a movie that asked hard questions or challenged the audience. It told a beautiful story and told it well, and ended on such a perfect love note to cinema in general that it remains (for me) one of the high points of my last ten years of blogging.

And beyond that, while the MCU films aren't exploring Bergman territory, they were risking a great deal. As you mention above, a film like Black Panther was risky in a lot of respects and it was clearly a risk worth taking. Representation, like it or not, matters, and we're seeing that over and over again in large part because of movies in the MCU.

I'm reminded of the kerfuffle that happened when Roger Ebert, having never played a video game, declared that they could never be considered art. It's a hidebound opinion, and one that is unfortunate when it comes from someone who should be able to see beyond the narrow confines he proscribed onto the topic.

I'll always love Scorsese (and Coppola), but they are wrong. I'd seen and loved movies from both of them for years, but it was seeing Iron Man in the theater that made me want to start blogging movies the first time.

Ultimately, these are movies that have a huge effect on the audience. Okay, we don't go sit in a bar afterwards and talk about the issues they raised like we might with Do the Right Thing or Spotlight. But if you walk out of the theater and don't feel uplifted and happy just to be alive...are you really even watching?

thevoid99 said...

@SJHoneywell-You get it and I'm glad you see things in a bigger way. That's the thing that I love going to the cinema. I watch a movie, depending on its subject matter, and I have to feel something unless it was a bad movie.

Ebert was wrong about video games. It is art. It's art in the form of playing something. Plus, I love video games. I don't play them a lot but I like them.

keith71_98 said...

Brilliant stuff. It really is frustrating when people take stances like Scorsese did. The Ebert comparison is a really good one. Ebert spoke out of ignorance and personal preference. I feel Scorsese is doing that here.

thevoid99 said...

@keith71_98-Exactly. I wanted to be fair to Scorsese though I do think he is wrong. I would wonder about the generation of filmmakers before Scorsese thought of him when he was around in his prime. They might've been dismissive of him. Imagine if someone like Vincente Minnelli or John Ford saw a few of his films in the 70s and thought they're shit. How would Marty feel about that?