Marty vs Marvel: the Flaw in the Argument

Listen Marty, some friends of ours—not me—are concerned about what you’ve been saying recently. They’re very concerned. The guys at Marvel have asked me to tell you… ‘it is what it is’.

[Apologies to those who haven’t yet seen The Irishman.]

After Martin Scorsese doubled-down on his comments about Marvel films not being cinema in an article in The New York Times, Marvel boss Kevin Feige hit back – seems he’s going to keep on making superhero movies. It wasn’t that long ago that Spielberg started a row suggesting that Netflix films aren’t cinema – clearly the nature of cinema is in dispute right now. Simplified, Spielberg’s argument was that it isn’t cinema if it isn’t made for the big screen. Scorsese’s premise is that it isn’t cinema if it doesn’t have a soul. And for Scorsese, Marvel films are as soulless as theme park rides. Does he have a point? Is Marvel cinema?

Scorsese argues for cinema as an art form. I agree with him there, and I’d say that he’s one of the greatest living proponents of that art. He claims that cinema is about “revelation – aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual”. Okay, I’d struggle to make a case for Marvel films giving any such revelations, so by this definition alone I guess he’s right. He also claims cinema is about “complex, contradictory characters”. Here I’d take issue: what is Tony Stark, in Iron Man, but a walking contradiction – a playboy billionaire arms dealer who fights for truth and justice? Or Stephen Strange – an arrogant neurosurgeon who is confronted with mystical powers? I’d argue that even the minor Marvel characters are often well-drawn, like Korg and many other characters in Thor: Ragnarok and both Guardians of the Galaxy films.

Korg says hello

Scorsese then —I believe— goes on to undermine his own argument: he makes a lot of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. He recognises the set-pieces of that film but claims that they would be nothing without “the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.” There are no painful emotions at the centre of North by Northwest – it’s about maintaining the cover of a secret agent and retrieving some microfilm. Yes, Roger Thornhill (Grant’s character) is a cocky adman who enters a bewildering Kafkaesque world, where everyone believes him to be someone he’s not. But confusion is a mental state, not an emotional one. He has an arc, of sorts, where he goes from being flippant, self-serving and doing nothing for society, to someone who puts his life on the line for the greater good. Like Tony Stark… but less so.

What about revelation – how does North by Northwest score? I’m not entirely clear what Scorsese means by aesthetic revelation, but I doubt there’s any in this Hitchcock film. Emotional or spiritual revelation? If he was talking about Vertigo, certainly. North by Northwest – really not.

In fact I believe that North by Northwest doesn’t only fail to support Scorsese’s argument: it disproves it. Hitch’s masterpiece—and it is a masterpiece—is a grand entertainment. It is a wonderful experience as you watch it, with its intrigue, jeopardy, thrills and breathless Bernard Hermann score… it’s almost like a theme park ride. I don’t believe that art and entertainment are mutually exclusive, but I’d say that with that film Hitchcock was aiming more to entertain than to enlighten. (Plus it doesn’t make any sense: if you want kill someone luring them out into the middle of the desert is a good start, but turning up in a car and shooting them, or even beating them to death with baseball bats as in Scorsese’s Casino, is your logical next step. Finding a crop-dusting plane, fitting it with a machine gun then strafing the guy, is not a good idea. You’re just going to crash into a handy gas truck and blow up. It may be an iconic scene of American cinema, but it is also baloney.)

Leo G. Carroll… but as the Professor or Mr Waverley?

Indeed you could argue that Marvel films and their ilk are the direct descendants of North by Northwest. Since the dawn of CGI, Hollywood filmmakers have delighted in setting scenes in and around national monuments, and arguably the progenitor of that idea was the Mount Rushmore sequence conceived by Hitchcock (okay, he didn’t actually blow-up Mount Rushmore). North by Northwest was also a direct inspiration for The Man from U.N.C.L.E series, even featuring actor Leo G. Carroll from Hitchcock’s film playing a near-identical intelligence chief. And that series fed into or at least shared a lot of the Spy-fi tropes – the gadgets and secret bases – of the Marvel comics and later films.

All this said, Scorsese wasn’t wholly wrong when he accused Marvel films of containing no revelation. But the same is surely true of the Rambo films of the 80s (possibly excepting the first), the Simpson-Bruckheimer films of the 90s; the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was actually based on a pre-existing theme park ride. And then there are the Bond movies. Why has Scorsese been silent about those?

I think the answer is in Marty’s New York Times article, and I think it’s what he’s actually been talking about all along. It’s about market dominance. No matter how well made and entertaining Marvel films are—and I do believe that they are—they are undoubtedly taking over the multiplexes in way that are not healthy. They are the Google or Amazon of the big screen. Their success has snowballed so far that they now can crush anything in their path. Ironically the same is also true of Netflix for the small screen, and Netflix has just released a film by [checks notes] Martin Scorsese. The problem with late-model capitalism is that the major players are so dominant, one just can’t avoid being involved with them on some level.

So what can we do to take back control of our cinemas?

Dunno.

To be fair, Scorsese doesn’t have an answer either. However, I’d argue that whatever the solution, the problem doesn’t lie with the films themselves – they are wittier, smarter, better written and better acted than most of the big action movies that came before them. They may not plumb the depths of the human soul in any great degree, but they are quintessentially cinematic and, I would argue, showcase cinema’s power to entertain.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2019

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

Thanks to Philip Wolff

2 thoughts on “Marty vs Marvel: the Flaw in the Argument

  1. Another fun and thought-provoking read. I particularly appreciated the injection of baloney in this one. It’s a term which is far too rarely invoked in film criticism (or sandwiches) these days and really tickled me for some reason, hearing it (in my head) pronounced with a British accent. Thanks Guy.

  2. Hey Guy – I’ve really enjoyed you last two blog posts. Absolutely nailed it! Seems like you’ve been gone too long. Look forward to more of your well written, insightful missives. What a great word missives is!

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