Koslofsky’s Corner: What are we going to do about the Marvel hegemony?

November 22, 2019

Martin Scorsese is one of our greatest living filmmakers. How many years has this guy been making classics? Turns out, he’s also one of our sharpest critics. In an Op-Ed for The New York Times, Scorsese clarified some of his recent criticism of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). My disdain/jealousy of Scorsese’s ability to make striking movies and do my job aside, I’ve reprinted some of his powerful essay here. The fact is, Scorsese can make his argument better than I can: 

“They [the Marvel movies] seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema. […] What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”

As if this wasn’t enough, the man continued: “They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption. […] Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever.”

He’s right. I hate it.

Scorsese doesn’t have to enjoy the Marvel movies to make a very valuable point about their impact. It’s a point that’s hard for me to hear, because the truth is, I love the Marvel movies. I was one of the millions who sat, popcorn bucket in hand, at a Thursday premiere showing of “Avengers: Endgame.” By the time it left theaters, I’d gone back to that three-hour masterpiece/monstrosity—twice. One of the key movie-going experiences of my nerdy upbringing was watching the first “Iron Man” back in 2008. 

When Scorsese says these films are “audience-tested,” again, he’s right. I would know—I’m one of the pleased. The corporate minds at Disney seem to know exactly what we, their dutiful customers want, some blend of comedy, spectacle and character. They’re built to be eaten up, and aside from a few exceptions (your “Infinity Wars” and “Thor: The Dark Worlds”), I’m a happy consumer.

And yet, for as much as I like—nay, love—a lot of these movies, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore their cost. I’m not talking about the $15 tickets I keep forking over so I can watch Captain America pick up Thor’s hammer, I’m talking about the cost to independent theaters and film.

I grew up in Champaign-Urbana (C-U), a small town two hours south of Chicago. Scorsese’s Op-Ed was published less than a week after the Art Theater, C-U’s local, independent cinema, permanently closed after more than a century of business.

The Art Theater was never going to play “Captain Marvel” or a Spider-Man sequel. But it’s where I went to see “Birdman” and “Whiplash” and “Sorry to Bother You” and “Suspiria” and dozens of other smaller, significant motion pictures. It’s where a young Roger Ebert—perhaps the greatest film critic of all time—watched “Citizen Kane” for the first time, as well as countless, brilliant foreign films of the ’50s and ’60s. In 1991, Ebert listed the Art Theater as his favorite theater outside of Chicago. I daresay it was my favorite theater in the world. I sort of can’t believe it’s gone; I’ll miss it.

When I watched “Endgame,” I was elated. This was the culmination of 11 years of storytelling, a full-sized comic book splash page brought to life. I felt like a 10-year-old again, and I stand by every word of the extremely positive review I published back in May. But is this faux-childhood joy a worthy price to pay for losing an established institution? The biggest movies are going to keep getting bigger, costing more and more to make. Executives will expect these big movies to make more and more money. And the little movies, the ones set on planet earth, won’t have a space. The center cannot hold—or rather, it’s already broken. Just look up what’s showing at the Art Theater.

So what should I do? What should we do? Do I abandon the MCU, or pretend it doesn’t matter to me? While a lot of people don’t find much meaning in whether or not the purple alien with the weird chin will collect all the super gems I, like the rest of Marvel’s enormous audience, do. I want to see where the Marvel personas I’ve come to care about will go next, and I like seeing them all assembled. You get out of these movies what you put in (the irony is that nobody knows this better than Marty—his latest, “The Irishman,” functions under a similar logic). For a long time, I thought the blockbusters and the tiny movies could coexist. Nowadays, that doesn’t seem so likely.

Scorsese ends his piece on a note of despair. “For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.” Again, as much as I hate it, I agree with him.

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