Friday, November 8, 2019

In Defense of Theme Park Movies

In an interview with Empire magazine, and his op-ed with The New York Times, director Martin Scorsese mentioned disliking the superhero genre and comparing Marvel movies to theme parks. His answer sparked a debate about what qualifies as true cinema and what doesn't. As a fan of both comic book movies and traditional film genres, I wanted to touch on why I disagree and both agree.

As one of the initial directors of the 1970s who defined his own style and welcomed a new source of dramatic exploration, Scorsese has been cemented as one of many godfathers of cinema. While Scorsese’s work has cemented himself in cinema history, neither him nor comic book movies are entirely flawless.

When it comes to formula, both have a regulated pattern in their cast of characters and story. The former uses a staple of actors - Pacino, De Niro, Pesci, and DiCaprio – at his disposal as the story usually revolves around the identity of the traditional white male. I don't bring this up in a disparaging way as there's plenty of other directors who have their own technique and format - Christopher Nolan’s manipulation of time; Kathryn Bigelow’s examination of corruption and the military; David Fincher’s immersion into bleak hellscapes. Every director becomes known for their aesthetic and contribution whether they deviate wholly from their patterns or not. But Scorcese's comparison of separating comic book movies' formula from real movies doesn't exclude the fact that independent filmmakers have their own penchant of storytelling and style.

Meanwhile, comic book movies rarely deviate from its three act structure – origin of hero and villain in the first, test of wills in the second, a big CGI battle in the last. Under the umbrella of a major studio like Marvel, FOX, DC, or Sony, different directors fall into the fold of this overall copy and paste formula. You can tell where a superhero movie is going to tread, but sometimes directors break out on their own to create distinctly versatile of the genre – Christopher Nolan’s Batman, Tim Miller’s Deadpool, James Mangold’s Logan, Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rothman Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. With hard work and originality, the most successful superhero films are often approached as if they're not the typical superhero movies we've been digesting since the 1990s.

Where both Scorsese’s films and comic book movies differ the most is representation. While Scorsese works with the African Heritage Project to preserve African American films, his on-screen reputation is less than diverse. He hasn’t featured a person of color in a prominent role throughout his film career (and usually people of color are described disparagingly) while women fare only slightly better if the story calls for it - Sharon Stone in Casino, Vera Farmiga in The Departed, and Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street. While the editing, cinematography, and pacing of his films differ in approach, they all have the classic and familiar Marty touch.

In contrast, there’s a relevant symbiosis between the comic book fandom and the creators that’s lacking in traditional film-making. Most movie goers – excluding incels – want to see more than the typical white guy on-screen and newer voices behind the camera. Marvel, and other studios like it and smaller, have become even more inclusive with characters ranging in ethnicity, genders, and (soon) sexuality of LGBTQ superheroes. The wave more or less began with T’Challa and Eric Killmonger in Black Panther - the latter which centered on African and African-American characters challenging the traditions of their own  culture, colonialism, racism, American culture, and much more. To DC’s credit, they also gave Wonder Woman who her own feature film after a series of multi-studios failures with other female superheroes, and Aquaman, which starred its first Polynesian actor and character in a worldwide franchise. The risk of which that some movies might never get made if it wasn't for the directors pushing their vision (Tim Miller's Deadpool took eleven years to make while Sony's Spider-Man Into The Spiderverse took eight). Black Panther, a movie most comic book fans believed would never see the light of day, ended up being the first superhero movie of its kind to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and win for Best Original Score, Costume Design and Production Design.

Where Scorsese hasn’t made an imprint on-screen yet, Marvel is trailing its own path that other creators are following. While the financial risk that Marvel actually loses money on a major film versus a first time filmmaker is zero to none, there is a risk of backlash from movie goers over the ever-changing landscape of who wears a cape and who doesn’t. In a world seething with racism and misogyny, the risks that actors take to helm major franchises forces them to confront the very real dangers of threats from trolls and entitled fans – John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars (though the movies aren't comic book related, two of three stars were bullied to the point of removing themselves from social media), and Brie Larson as Captain Marvel - search YouTube, and there is a video analyzing her every move, it's almost suffocating. While the powers-that-be behind studios and white men (excluding Rian Johnson) don't nearly endure the same amount of harassment from fans, diversity continues to be at the forefront of Marvel's future. Diversity is not an easy venture to take on, and for better or worse, it remains a relative risk that individual artists and a studio as a whole take in order to tell stories they believe in.

As someone who isn’t an insider of the film industry, but tries to remain up-to-date of the changes going on behind-the-scenes, I initially assumed Scorsese’s criticism of comic book movies stemmed from Disney’s ever-expanding appetite to rule the film industry after absorbing Fox. The effects of which we're starting to see from movies being placed in their vault, projects getting cancelled, and Marvel leaning on Disney+ to make the MCU include more characters and stories (and make the Mouse more money).

To an extent, Scorsese expounds about the availability of big franchises versus smaller flicks. While it can’t be denied that remakes and reboots are more common than ever before, this year's biggest films didn’t stop the trajectory of other movies from being made and finding relevant success – Parasite, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, Jojo Rabbit, etc. In our current culture of hype-and-forget-about-it-two-seconds later, if a movie doesn't resonate with audiences it's not going to pick up steam. The smaller films we hear about are usually the ones people are passionate about - the crowd might be on a smaller scale than Marvel but word-of-mouth is surprisingly relevant because of social media.

As Scorsese thanked Netflix for making The Irishman the way he envisioned, it’s ironic that his release of the film coincides with the drastically changing structure of how we consume entertainment nowadays – cable television is in competition against subscription services; YouTube offers endless streaming of everything else you can imagine and thensome; theaters are fighting for exclusivity rights against streaming services. The decline of interest in going to the movies rests just as much on the quality of what the studios are making, what piques our interest, what is available and when, as much as it does the privilege of actually being able to go to the theaters with the price of admission, snacks, etc. being what it is today.

Underneath Scorsese’s criticism of comic book movies and the very real changes of the film industry, he believes that true cinema means to make the movie goer reflect and examine who they are; for an emotional and psychological response to be sparked within the viewer to think about their own journey and place in the world. While comic book movies don't have this effect on him, this is exactly the core of what comic book movies offer.

As much as the superhero genre might blur together formula-wise, the stories both on the page and on-screen deliver rich characters that resonate with movie goers of all ages. Comic books have been at the forefront of helping readers adjust to the world around them and also revolt against a society that’s invested in its own best interests since the 1930s. Stan Lee, and subsequent creators, used capes and superpowers to address assault, racism, capitalism, fascism, grief, cancer, sexism, misogyny, PSTD, and so much more. While these themes aren’t existential deep dives in many superhero movies as much as they can be across thousands of comic panels, the traces of their existence and influence cannot be denied or ignored.

The truth of the matter is when we see Superman or Captain America fight against injustice, we feel compelled to follow in their footsteps long after we leave the movie theater. The characters themselves are expressions of art, and turned into more forms of art like - yes, fan fiction, fan art, film analysis, and videos. From little kids in hospitals fighting terminal illnesses to women who have survived rape or lawyers using Spiderman to teach law and order (watch the documentary Geek and You Shall Find), there’s much more to the characters we see on screen than big special effects (although those are pretty incredible too - human beings actually made this?).

More than that, comic stories are rooted in escapism as much as it is symbolism for real-world perspectives– in Avengers: Endgame, each of the original Avengers represent the different stages of grief; Venom duels against his personalities of self in Venom; Carol Danvers defies toxic masculinity in a quest for identity in Captain Marvel. Even as far back as Tim Burton's Batman Returns did the film explore sexism and the underprivileged versus wealth and entitlement between Selina Kyle and Oswald Cobblepot versus Bruce Wayne and Max Schreck. Our reactions to The Joker's disassembly of Gotham in The Dark Knight to Tony’s death, Thor's depression, or Steve and Peggy's reunion in Avengers: Endgame is no less valid than our fascination with Travis Bickle's downward spiral in Taxi Driver or devious allure of Jordan Belfort's greed in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Every form of creative expression served up to the masses receives its fair share of criticism from masters or general public about whether or not a “thing” is truly art. It’s only a matter of time that criticism from a master would come to Marvel movies which pleases the masses. Comic books and graphic novels have been fighting this battle against “real literature” since they debuted. These days, most art will be considered in terms of deserving a whole tomato or rotten one, a Netflix oriented thumbs up or thumbs down, and probably not earn the varied and deeply deserved discussion if its truly art or not. In part, we can thank Marty for giving us time to think about Marvel / DC / in a new way, but also be the ones to say: your loss, dude.

As much as I love comic book, action flicks, and franchises, I also love to watch a movie where I don’t have to think about the next sequel or reboot or remake. All genres help me unwind to a certain extent, as well as let me think about the choices that a director, screenwriter, costume designer, production designer, and actors make, or about my own life and the world around me. The beauty of art in any form relies, in many ways, by how accessible it is to everybody to watch and enjoy, and to cut off certain genres or forms to hold onto tradition doesn’t allow a lot of room for growth and exploration. The best way to learn from others is to step outside of my comfort zone, and unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be an overall risk Scorsese will try to attempt again.

While Marty’s orchestration as a director behind the camera for The Irishman goes viral on twitter, where people give him the moniker of maestro, my mind wonders about the equally important orchestration of the Portals scene in Avengers: Endgame. The actors in costumes behind a green-screen and rubble managing to turn an imploded upper New York countryside into the largest superhero battlefield ever assembled. How audiences hooted and hollered for three hours about characters they’ve been following for ten years, and that the culmination of Marvel’s vision twenty-two movies ago didn’t happen by wishful thinking, but through the tirelessly effort of cast and crew and movie goers who wanted something more than what we've been getting.

In thinking of Marvel movies, and even Superman, Aquaman, and X-Men, and watching them with popcorn and soda just trying to escape, laugh, cry, be enlightened for a few hours, theme park movies sometimes offer an experience that lasts a lifetime. And it's one I'll buckle my seat up and hold on for the ride.

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