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Are Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola Right About Marvel? (Column)

If you want to shoot holes in the comments that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola made recently about Marvel movies (Scorsese: “That’s not cinema”; Coppola: “Martin was being kind when he said it wasn’t cinema. He didn’t say it was despicable, which is what I say”), then go right ahead, because they’ve practically handed you the gun and the bullets. The most obvious bullet is the one that automatically damns you in this day and age: These guys are old (Scorsese is about to turn 77, Coppola is now 80), and you could argue that their grand objection to the blockbuster films of today boils down to the fact that the world is no longer the world they grew up in, or the one that existed when they were at their creative apex as filmmakers, so they’re unhappy about it.

The whole “It’s not the way it was in the good old days!” song and dance, which I’m personally quite familiar with (since my set-in-his-ways father did it every day), is one that we tend to think of as just another cranky version of “Get off my lawn!” And the public discourse today overflows with it. America, in case you hadn’t heard, is going down the drain, and it’s all the fault of … the millennials! The Trump voters! The corporations who control everything! The Internet! The fake news! The video games! The greedy corrupt Hollywood that elevated fantasy over reality! Please, God, bring it back to the way it used to be!

Much of the knee-jerk condemnation of the Scorsese v Marvel crusade, as expressed on social media, has come down to a visceral rejection of the-damning-of-the-new-by-those-who-are-old. Beyond that, though, the Scorsese argument that Marvel movies aren’t cinema is riddled with irony, if not flat-out contradiction, when you take a closer look at the messenger.

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Scorsese, who has always been a high priest of cinema, decided several years ago to make his magnum opus gangster movie at Netflix. When “The Irishman” is released in November, it will be seen, for the most part, not in the movie theaters that Scorsese (and a lot of us) still regard as holy temples of art, but at home, on your big or not-so-big TV screen. If you randomly pose the question, “Which of these two situations represents a greater threat to the future of cinema: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ opening on 4,662 screens, or ‘The Irishman’ opening on hardly any screens at all?,” you could make the case that “The Irishman,” precisely because it’s such a good movie, represents the selling out of cinema. At the very least, it makes Scorsese, at this moment, a less-than-perfect messenger for the notion that cinema is the great force he’s upholding.

And, of course, there’s another king-size irony: the fact that Scorsese and Coppola came up as part of a generation — more than a generation, a movement, a kind of revolutionary vanguard of film directors — that took over Hollywood in the early ’70s, and in the top echelon of those directors were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who changed the world (not just the world of movies, but the world, period) by ushering in a new kind of narcotic escapist pop fantasy. Can a Marvel movie be a work of cinema? I’ll address that in a moment, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Scorsese are Coppola are right — that it’s not. Then I’d like to ask both of them a question: Is “Raiders of the Lost Ark” a work of cinema? Are the first two “Star Wars” movies works of cinema? (Is “The Phantom Menace”? Kidding!) If these two directors are so down on what Hollywood became, are they willing to trace that Hollywood, of all-zap-pow-all-the-time, back to the Hollywood that was forged in the ’70s by their comrades-in-arms? Whatever your feelings about Marvel culture, it didn’t come out of nowhere.

And here’s the ultimate bullet. Since most of us would say that certain Marvel movies are good movies, isn’t it sheer carping to declare that they aren’t “cinema?” What is cinema, anyway? If we use the word to mean a transporting and enveloping motion-picture experience, shared in a theater with hundreds of other people, then saying that a Marvel movie isn’t cinema can sound like the height of perversity. To a great many people, a Marvel movie is the very essence of cinema. You could say that the entire kerfuffle comes down to an issue of semantics: What movie is or is not “cinema,” and who gets to decide?

But here’s why I think that Scorsese and Coppola are actually right — and why in their high-minded and disgruntled what’s-the-world-coming-to? way, the two are doing American movie culture an incredible service. The way I see it, they’ve planted this issue at the center of the conversation, staking their credibility on an argument that radically challenges the status quo. And instead of carping about them, we should all take a big pause and listen to what they’re saying. Because this isn’t really about putting down Marvel movies. It’s about asking what, in the future, we want our popular culture to be.

Over the years, I’ve written positive reviews of more than my share of Marvel films. This year alone, I liked at least one (“Captain Marvel”) that most critics didn’t, and at least one (“Dark Phoenix”) that most critics thought was beyond abysmal. I stand by both opinions, so mock me if you will, but I am no Marvel basher. I think that the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the greatest Marvel movie, and close to a work of art.

Yet here’s why I agree, in spirit, with Scorsese and Coppola (and with Ken Loach and Fernando Meirelles, the two other directors who’ve since chimed in on this issue). What, deep in its bones, does the word “cinema” mean? If it’s merely a synonym for “motion-picture spectacle,” then obviously the two are wrong. (If “Avengers: Endgame” isn’t a spectacle, I don’t know what is.) But that’s not actually what cinema means. Scorsese said that a Marvel movie “isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” On a literal level, you could say that he’s wrong (the hero of “Guardians of the Galaxy” tries to do those things), but what he’s really speaking about comes down to a different word. The word is mystery.

The trouble with our blockbuster movie culture, and not just Marvel movies, is that there’s no mystery to it. None at all. It’s all on the surface; what you see is what you get. Whereas cinema, as it has stood for 100 years, represents a realm in which stories vibrate with an emotional and psychological reality that transcends the design of the film we’re watching. Cinema is about what happens, in a movie, right in front of you, but it’s also about what happens between the lines. It’s about a place where what the film brings to the audience is met by what the audience brings to the film — a sacred zone of spirit and empathy, where the identification you feel with a character takes you to someplace unknown.

Marvel movies, in their eye-popping and often quite enthralling way, have the quality of being finite. There’s no hidden layers to anything that happens in them. They scarcely pretend to have those layers — not the way a movie like “La La Land” or “The Social Network” or “12 Years a Slave” or “Lady Bird” does. Or the way that “Joker,” the anti-comic-book comic-book movie, does. To point this out doesn’t need to be a put-down. But Scorsese and Coppola are asking something elemental: Do we want a movie culture where everything is programmed and scannable, with no hidden levels, so that movies no longer reflect the mystery in ourselves? Some might say, “We do!” But I would say be careful what you wish for. Instead of rising up to damn what Scorsese and Coppola have said, maybe we should spend a few moments considering why they said it. Are Marvel movies cinema? We’ll be a healthier culture if we let the debate begin.

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