Does dubbing an interconnected franchise of superhero movies the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" necessarily make those movies "cinema?" The Old Guard of Hollywood doesn't seem to think so.
Acclaimed directors––nay, auteurs––Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Departed) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) have both recently come out to express disdain for Marvel's cookie-cutter action fare.
"I don't see them. I tried, you know? But that's not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them...is theme parks. It isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being," said Scorsese during an interview with Empire Magazine.
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Coppola went a step further: "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."
Naturally, their comments sparked a backlash from a number of prominent Marvel directors, including Taika Waititi (Thor Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit) and James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Slither). Most of these directors grew up admiring Scorsese's and Coppola's work, so their disparaging comments must sting. But are Scorsese and Coppola telling a painful truth about Marvel's cinematic status, or is this simply a case of two old, once-prominent directors lashing out against the pop culture of a new era?
To answer that, first we need to unpack a fundamental question: What is cinema?
Per the dictionary, "cinema" is roughly interchangeable with "motion picture" and "movie." So, in technical terms, every movie that comes out, no matter how visionary or generic, is "cinema."
But let's not allow terminology to get in the way of communication. When Scorsese and Coppola say "cinema," what they really mean is "high art." To them, "cinema" is the lofty ideal of movies as a medium for conveying human experience and emotion. For a movie to be "cinema," it needs to have something to say, and its reason for existing must be greater than just "profit."
In essence, this is just the age old "high art vs. low art" argument that has raged amongst artists since the 18th century. High art is complex, mature, deep, layered, and subtle, specifically intended for intelligent people capable of understanding its intricacies. Low art, on the other hand, is dumb media geared for the lowest common denominator: the unwashed masses. Or, at least that's what directors like Scorsese and Coppola tell themselves to stratify their own work from the likes of everything else.
Even as someone who majored in film and can easily wax poetic about why most DC movies are absolute poop that nobody should enjoy, I've always found the high art/low art dichotomy incredibly elitist. Different movies impact different people in different ways, and there's absolutely no reason that a serious crime drama is necessarily more important or artistic or even real (at least in an emotional capacity) than a larger-than-life superhero brawl. Take, for instance, film essayist Lindsay Ellis' thoughtful breakdown of Guardian of the Galaxy 2 and its themes about coping with the loss of one's parents. If the criteria for "cinema," according to Martin Scorsese, is a movie's ability to convey emotional experiences, then Ellis' connection to Guardians 2 after the loss of her own parent proves that Marvel movies can easily pass the litmus test.
Actual poop.Warner Bros./DC
I won't argue that every movie in the MCU is great, or even good. Many of them do feel generic and repetitive. I'd be lying if I said I still got excited for midnight premieres like I did when the first few came out and couldn't contain my hype for actually seeing Captain America on a big screen. But anyone who says that big budget superhero movies are incapable of conveying real human emotion is, quite frankly, speaking out of their ass.
The biggest problem is that, per Scorsese's own admission, he doesn't actually watch Marvel movies. And while it's fine not to watch a genre of movies you don't enjoy, it's incredibly arrogant to suggest that, without even watching a specific movie, you can speak to its themes and potential emotional resonance.
But even if every Marvel movie really was exactly the same, and even if every last one of them had no greater purpose or meaning than superhumans punching other superhumans, who's to say that's not cinema? Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, in spite of their great talent in the medium, are not the arbiters of what is and isn't "cinema." Nobody is.