The Despicable Invasion of Cinema? A Defence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

“Film is pop art. It is not whether it’s auteur cinema or not; that’s a false distinction. Cinema is cinema.”Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker who embraces what cinema is, and what cinema can achieve. He understands, through the synergetic style of his films and by his sentiment above, that the discourse surrounding the artistry of the Hollywood blockbuster is fruitless, if not completely worn-out.

Over the past few months, questions have been raised regarding the artistic credibility of comic-book movies, no less so than by Martin Scorsese. When asked if he had seen any superhero movies, he replied with “that’s not cinema”, going on to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has “invaded” cinema.

Such comments inspired Francis Ford Coppola, another master of cinema, to voice similar concerns. More vehemently, he called Marvel movies “despicable”, devoid of the ability to evoke inspiration, enlightenment, or engagement from its audiences. This then encouraged Ken Loach, mostly known for his kitchen-sink British dramas, to argue that Kevin Feige’s movies have “nothing to do with the art of cinema.” At least Pedro Almodovar, who pleads for Marvel movies to explore sexuality in superheroes, has something constructive to say without resorting to petty name-calling.

Dorothy Arzner building dedication ceremony, Los Angeles, USA - 01 Mar 2018
Francis Ford Coppola

No one can question the ubiquity of Disney’s monolithic superhero franchise. The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) single-handedly created the cinematic universe; a sphere where big-budget, A-list led movies exist within a shared community, with each movie tying into the next.

With such ubiquity breeds a toxic discourse, bolstered by the prevalence of social media and its militant keyboard warriors aiming to discredit the hard work and meticulousness of the artists contributing to said cinematic universe. But Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ken Loach are not keyboard warriors: they are esteemed filmmakers, each helping mould the history of cinema as we know it. They should know better.

It is ironic, from Scorsese and Coppola at least, to share this snobby attitude, or perhaps they have forgotten how their fellow Movie Brats entered the Hollywood system. Did fans during the 1970s voice their distaste towards the emergence of the Hollywood blockbuster, a landmark in American cinema that laid the foundations on which the MCU has erected its success upon?

A simple millennial like myself will never know, although I doubt angry moviegoers were penning endless streams of hate-mail to their local newspapers. And a millennial, I am (or is it a snowflake? I’m unsure). When Jon Favreau’s Iron Man hit theatres in 2008, I was just twelve-years-old. Seeing my beloved superheroes light up the big screen, like many other fans, helped shape a love for cinema that teens during the 70s would have felt the same for the likes of Spielberg’s Jaws or Lucas’ Star Wars.

The MCU, and other likeminded superhero franchises, has become a gateway for fans to appreciate the craft of filmmaking. Behind-the-scenes footage, director commentaries, and cast and crew interviews are jam-packed into the bonus features of all Blu-ray copies of these movies, allowing eager fans to learn and become enlightened by the overwhelming beauty of cinema; its craft and its collaborative effort.

Scorsese and co.’s doomsday rhetoric, one that declares the apparent death of cinema, is tiresome. It bears no weight, nor does it even truly matter. As moviegoers, who spend our hard-earned cash on going to the pictures (or on a monthly Netflix subscription) we should be able to love what we love without worrying about whether we are wasting our time on artless fluff.

Chris Evans as Captain America in Avengers: Endgame (2019)

It is a question of adaptability: to love, or at least appreciate, both sides of the cinematic spectrum. Yes, we can love the films that are designed to make us think; the films that make a statement on broader socio-political concerns, in Loach’s case. But that is not to say that we cannot also love the films that are made to entertain, those that release us from the uncertainty of our existence for 120-odd minutes of cathartic release. Escapism, sometimes, is just as important as intellectual engagement. Nobody knows this more than Scorsese or Coppola.

If Villeneuve is right, and cinema is cinema, then one will find it difficult to understand the enmity shown towards the current cinematic climate. For every MCU movie, there is an art-house gem to be discovered amidst the chaos of tent-pole marketing and water-cooler discussion. There is no evidence to suggest that both forms of the same medium, the artistic and the spectacular, cannot live in peaceful harmony. As Avengers: Endgame smashes box-office records in 2019, small-budget treasures such as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse are being met with universal critical acclamation.

So find the films that challenge you. But also find those that entertain you. There is plenty of space for both.

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