Marvel Movies: In a Class by Themselves

In which I alienate Marvel fans, Joss Whedon fans, and of course Phish fans…

lasttemptationofchrist
Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that’s like totally not any better than Iron Man 2, I mean come on…

For those of you who’ve been living in a vibranium mine for the last few weeks, Martin Scorsese recently disparaged Marvel movies, such as Black PantherAvengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil WarGuardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: Colon Avenger, as not only substandard films, but as not cinema at all.  They are comparable to theme park rides, he said, and not really meaningful as art. This was followed by a predictable backlash on Twitter, which I’m sure Scorsese reads assiduously, in which multiple nobodies with blue checkmarks next to their names politely informed Martin Scorsese that he didn’t know what he was talking about as far as what constitutes cinema.

michaelcoreleone
Let’s be honest. Thor is basically Michael Corleone. They’re like, the same.

This was followed by a remark from Francis Ford Coppola, best known as the uncle of one of the guys from Face/Off, who said that his friend Martin Scorsese hadn’t gone far enough. Marvel Movies, such as Avengers: Infinity War (which really should have been called Avengers: Audi War), Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. IIThor: RagnarokDoctor Strange, and Avengers: Colon Rescue are “despicable,” and that “Martin was being kind” when comparing them to theme park rides. This was followed by a predictable backlash on Twitter, which I’m sure Coppola reads assiduously in between checking his vineyards, in which multiple nobodies with blue checkmarks next to their names politely informed Francis Ford Coppola, director of Patton, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now that he didn’t know what he was talking about as far as what constitutes good cinema.

I thought this couldn’t get any better. Watching people on Twitter try to lecture two of the greatest filmmakers ever about what makes a good movie is just funny, and it shows just how silly the internet has become. I don’t think it says anything about changes in tastes over the generations, because people have always liked bad movies and defended them. Scorsese could have said this about Batman and Robin, but something tells me he wouldn’t have bothered, because superhero movies were not the unstoppable juggernaut then that they are today. People have always liked these kinds of movies, but as I’ll explain at length, superhero movies, especially Tim Burton’s Batman, used to be art. Now they’re not.

Before I go into that, however, let’s review how the situation got even more comical. I’m seriously waiting for Stanley Kubrick to rise from the dead, finally do an interview, and get lambasted by Twitter critics.

The next logical, or next most comical step, was for someone in the film industry to weigh in on the side of the Twitter critics who were laughably lecturing legends of filmmaking, as if these great artists actually care what some guy with a BA in media studies thinks. Of course, that person was Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation, who owns Star Wars, Marvel, The Muppets, Winnie the Pooh, and your mom. Iger’s comment, instead of just defending Marvel Movies as what Disney Does Best™, which is make fun movies for kids, was one of the stupidest things I’ve heard from someone who runs a company that makes movies.

Disney makes a lot of other things like toys, hotels, cruise ships, theme parks, and wildlife refuges, but all those things feed off of their movies. I would expect such a person to have a high appreciation for the art of filmmaking. But then I would be wrong, because that’s not how someone becomes a CEO. People become CEOs by cleverly knowing how to shift money to the right people, some of whom ought to have good taste, but pretty often don’t.

Pardon the suspense. Iger’s comment was:

You’re telling me Ryan Coogler making Black Panther is doing something that is somehow or another less than what Marty Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola have ever done on any one of their movies? Like, come on. Yeah, I said it. (quoted on Slashfilm)

Yeah, you said it, Bob. And the answer to the question is “Actually, yes.” Actually yes it is a lesser thing for Ryan Coogler, a great young filmmaker, to make Black Panther, than it would be for him to make anything comparable to The Godfather or The Last Temptation of Christ. I liked Black Panther, and from watching it and Coogler’s excellent behind-the-scenes explanations of how he made it, it’s clear he’s a good (if not great) filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing.  But the movie he was hired to make was Black Panther, a movie about a guy in a catsuit. He did an excellent job, and he made things meaningful and impactful within that story (the story he was paid a lot of money to make by the most epically huge monolith in the entertainment industry), but that story is still fundamentally about a cool guy in a catsuit.

Iger was trying to defend Coogler, James Gunn, Kevin Feige and company, and he did his job (which, again, is to get money to those people so they will keep him as CEO), but the comparison he drew was completely false. Coogler, Gunn, and Taika Waititi may indeed be great filmmakers (as shown by other movies they’ve made), but when they are hobbled by the material they are presenting, the product is going to be something lesser indeed than The Outsiders or Goodfellas.

Why? It’s the source material, the story. Why is the underlying material so important to the overall quality of a film, and what is the problem with Marvel as the underlying idea? If not the underlying material, then the problem may lie with execution (by which I mean Joss Whedon), but both of these issues come down to taste.

To figure out exactly what the problem is let’s compare the MCU movies and their underlying sources to several levels of “seriousness,” “maturity,” or “taste.” It is very hard to define exactly what these things are, but I think I came close when I discussed the difference between Metallica and Megadeth. There’s an element of skill, but more importantly there’s an element of believability and sincerity, mostly in knowing that what you’re watching, hearing, or reading is not a parody or a cheap attempt at getting across particular themes.

To look at the first category, let’s remember it’s not as easy as saying it’s a matter of maturity, because kids’ movies have (or used to have) very deep themes that dealt with difficult aspects of life, things for which there are no simple answers. For example, The Dark Crystal, which is just a bunch of muppets (literally, not derisively), is an intense movie that was made for kids. Similarly, The Lion King although it’s a fun romp through Africa with talking animals, is a pretty serious movie about themes of loss, responsibility, loyalty, jealousy, family relations, and how power corrupts. And hyenas. So movies that employ cartoon talking animals or puppets to get across serious themes are on one level.

On another level, higher up, are movies that have source material or inspiration that is, in one sense, still inherently childish, in that it feeds off childish daydreams or nightmares. Batman (1989) and Star Wars (1977; whose “source material” was Flash Gordon and the space operas of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett) fall into this category. You can still contend that these movies are made for twelve year-olds, especially boys (who we uncharitably assume are unsophisticated). But the employment of the “source material,” you’ll notice in these movies is inherently archetypal.

Batman appears as a believable crime-fighter in a dingy, well lived-in city. But the movie is not about how cool Batman is. The movie is about figuring out who Batman is at a fundamental human level. This is why I contend The Dark Knight, although it’s sort of about the same thing, is not as good a movie, because it’s unclear that’s the point, and it’s covered over with extended action sequences and technology that don’t relate to this point. Notice that the use of Batman’s tech, which was always a fundamental part of the character, is minimal in Batman (1989), because it’s not the point. Batman has all kinds of cool gadgets, surveillance equipment, the Batmobile, the Batwing, and so on, but there is no “Q scene,” like there is in every James Bond movie or in Black Panther. This keeps the focus on who Batman really is. Not “is he Bruce Wayne?” but what drives him.

Similarly Star Wars (1977) keeps the focus on the archetypal nature of power, good and evil, free will versus determinism, and internal conflict (does power corrupt?), especially in the sequels The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. And it does all this deep archetypal ruminating while still providing a damn good show. Same for Batman. Movies at this level are good films and good movies. They are art. I would also include here Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Ghostbusters, TRONConan the Barbarian (1982), Krull, Dune (as much as the execution was terrible), WillowThe Princess Bride, and Beverly Hill Cop (1984).

Crucially, movies at this level often only have one leap in believability. As long as you accept that Gotham City or Middle Earth or Beverly Hills exists (or could exist), then the rest of the story is completely acceptable. The way Batman was portrayed in Batman (1989) was just as believable as Axel Foley.

The next level up is the level of Scorsese and Coppola, where we are still dealing with archetypal questions and mostly in a completely believable context. These are often true stories or stories that very well might be true. There’s no need for a guy dressed up as a bat at this level because the archetypal figures are presented as relatable human beings: a successful, dominant father, an impulsive brother, enemies with machine guns. The Godfather could be true, and the presentation of it was so well done that (I think) most people would be shocked to find out real mafiosi are actually petty criminals with shitty taste in clothing (as in Goodfellas). The Godfather was so convincing, in other words, that most people who never meet a cosa nostra think that’s really what they’re really like. The Godfather is the costra nostra, and Gone With The Wind is the Civil War. At least in the minds of moviegoers, i.e. most Americans.

Look at a deep archetypal movie like Dances with Wolves, about a man who is so desperate for a solid identity that he changes everything he thinks he knows about himself, to the point where he says “There never really was a John Dunbar.”  That makes me cry. It’s beautiful. It’s essential that this story was told on a grand scale, a huge epic that takes a man all the way across a continent and puts him alone in the middle of it, uninhabited in the beautiful spaces of North America, where he can get in touch with the nature outside him, and inside him. Note that there’s no hallucinatory or dream sequence  in Dances with Wolves, as there are in so many modern movies.  There is, instead, a completely believable scene of a midnight buffalo stampede and the ensuing hunt. There’s John Dunbar falling in love with Stands with Fist, learning the Lakota language and slowly becoming Dances with Wolves.

Also note I’m not talking about genre: there are horror movies, scifi movies, comedies, and romances among all these categories. I’m talking about good movies.

So compare good movies at these three levels with Black Panther, the best of all the MCU movies, IMNSHBHQO. As I watched the movie for the second time, I really became convinced that the filmmaker and screenwriter knew what they were doing. I was sitting there thinking “Wow, this is just like King Lear,” at least in terms of the conflicts presented and the themes being put forward. I was really blown away that everything about how the conflict was developed was in Aristotle’s Poetics (which I was reading at the time). On top of that the acting was fantastic (for the most part; some of the accents were a little over-wrought). Chad Boseman is a great actor. I’ve seen his others movies. Michael B. Jordan and Andy Serkis are also great actors. I’m not messing with you here. The problem was that as I was watching Black Panther, I was honestly kind of sad.

And I was sad because it was all going to waste to present a fake story. It’s a caricature. It’s the same way I felt about Harry Potter: here’s an excellent set of characters having fun adventures, and some deep questions that lack simple answers, but it’s a joke. Harry Potter is a parody of fantasy. Black Panther is a caricature of crime drama. The point of the movie, as shown by the reliance on technology and the extended action sequences is “Look at this cool guy in a catsuit.” Every aspect of the movie, including the conflict between T’Chaka and Killmonger, Killmonger’s backstory, the conflict within Wakanda, even the conflict within T’Chaka, and all the beautiful ceremony and culture presented, is bait to keep you checking out the awesome vibranium technology.

Worse than that, it’s an advertisement for the MCU and Marvel Comics (and Audi, for crying out loud), most readily revealed in the moments when a recurring MCU character walks onscreen.  That guy from SHIELD (or was it the CIA?) is not properly introduced in the South Korean casino, leaving the parents in the audience scratching their heads if they haven’t watched all the previous Marvel movies, leading them to go get those movies so they don’t have to deal with that uncertainty. 

It’s not a proper story.

It’s insincere.

What makes a story sincere is not whether it has short people avoiding goblins, or nerds fighting ghosts, or a guy dressed up as a bat, as opposed to Italian Americans building a crime empire. It’s respect for the audience and making sure the story is relatable and believable on a human level. Even stories about creatures who don’t exist manage to do this (Willow, for example, is a completely sincere film; so is friggin’ Dragonslayer). Marvel movies, on the other hand, have a sort of split personality: they don’t take themselves seriously at all, to the point of almost mocking the audience’s ability to believe anything in the story. But then they take themselves way too seriously, after having built this foundation of complete un-believability.

The greatest crime of believability, according to Blake Snyder, is called “Double Mumbo Jumbo” and its employment is inherent in the idea behind a story, i.e. the source material (whether that’s a comic book, a novel, or the core idea of an original screenplay). As I said, we can accept Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring if we can accept Middle Earth. We can get into Star Wars (1977) as long as we accept that there’s a galaxy far, far away. We can get into Metropolis as long as we accept that there’s a future where people are living on top of each other. We can get into The Godfather as long as we accept that there are, in this world, people who would give someone “an offer he can’t refuse.” These are cheap sacrifices, usually laid out in the first minute of a film, mostly in diaogue, but sometimes in voice-over or supertitles, much to Bob McKee’s horror.

Double Mumbo-Jumbo occurs when we have to take another leap on top of that first sacrifice in our worldview. Example: not only do we live in a world where wizards walk among regular people (as in Harry Potter), but aliens are landing. This really strains credulity, to the point where people just go “Oh yeah?” and tune out. Additional things can be introduced at length and with good enough build-up, but most of the time it’s not necessary to bother. If core idea of a story is a simple enough leap for an audience to accept, e.g. there really were dragons in Medieval Europe (something believable enough to occur in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, btw), then its consequences will be as well.

So what’s the problem with Marvel Movies? Quintuple-dodeca Mumbo Jumbo. Asking the audience to believe that anything is possible. I was confused as hell watching Thor:Ragnarok because I couldn’t figure out what the relationship to the real world was. I just didn’t buy it. Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t just ask us to believe in something like Norse Gods. It asks us to believe they use technology, that there’s also Dr. Stephen Strange, the Avengers, Loki and Thanos in the same universe as Manic Panic Jeff Goldblum (who was the most believable character). That’s what comic books offer: a parody of reality in which anything is possible with the right glowing devices and the right amount of gamma rays.

Note how different this is from Lord of the Rings. If you know me, then the whole time you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking this is pretty damn smug from someone who writes about sorcerers and dragons having oral sex in labyrinths made of skulls. If you’re thinking that, I would challenge you to read modern fantasy fiction, which is, for the most part, not of the parodic sort that belongs next to Marvel movies. The Black Witch Chronicles by Laurie Forest, as just one example, is part of a large subgenre of YA fantasy highly influenced by Harry Potter. The difference is it’s not a parody. It’s not “Hey kids, wizards are real!” It’s a story about a young woman discovering who she is, the nature of right and wrong, questioning accepted wisdom, and eventually fighting for what’s right. In a fictional world. It’s not a joke; it’s a story where the author kindly invites you in and says “this is a world where magic is real; other than that you’ll recognize these characters as human (even when they aren’t).” That’s what hooked me about The Wheel of Time. The characters are human, even when they are ogiers, or Myrddraals, or Aes Sedai of the Red Ajah.

That’s why I go back to the source material. Comic books ask far too much of mature readers, who have figured out what is real what is not. Because of that, I can’t take them seriously. I remember being twelve and having a gang with my friends and not really understanding that we couldn’t quite be Batman. But I grew up. My own oldest son, at thirteen-and-a-half, has moved on (thank God) from Marvel Movies to David Mamet, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. We should all grow up a little bit and understand that even if we enjoy Marvel movies or the Star Wars prequels or Ice Pirates they are still not art. The stretch of believability required by comics basically invalidates whatever artistic statements they could have made, because the storyteller has to strain so much to get the reader or viewer to accept something new every few pages (just look at how much dialogue is devoted to exposition in comic books as opposed to in Star Wars; the only explicit exposition in Batman (1989) is done through a flashback).

Even Kenneth Branagh couldn’t make art with a Marvel movie, even though he could with Cinderella. So there you go, Bob. There’s a difference. A difference in taste.

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