Superhero movies may not be cinema, but low-brow entertainment usually has the last laugh

Iconic director Martin Scorsese is entitled to his opinions about Marvel movies – but that doesn’t mean they won’t have a cultural impact

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Are superhero movies cinema? That’s the question setting the internet alight following comments by veteran director Martin Scorsese, when he called into question the artistic integrity of the films currently dominating the box office.

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“I tried, you know?” the director told Empire magazine when asked if he had seen movie’s in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. “But that’s not cinema.”

“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Reams of discussion have since been written about whether Scorsese is right or wrong by hordes of fans, critics, or even other directors (including Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, who said he was “saddened” by the comments) – and it’s definitely easy to see why people are upset.

When films like Black Panther can make political and emotional points, inspire real-world movements and pick up Oscar nominations, can we deny them the classification of the artier, more down-to-earth movies that share those achievements? And if a sci-fi film like Ad Astra is cinema, or a comic-book movie like Joker is cinema, where on the scale does a film tip over from a mere “theme park attraction” into something worthy of consideration?

But then again, perhaps this is the wrong discussion to be having. To be frank, no-one can question Scorsese’s contribution to cinema, and that his work has added more to the canon of popular culture than the Marvel movies have. If nothing else, he’s been making movies a lot longer – and even if he was just a private citizen with no background in the arts, he’d have the right to his own opinions about what he does and doesn’t like.

The bigger question, for me, is whether his opinions really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things – because I have a sneaking suspicion that in years to come, time and nostalgia will elevate the Marvel movies more than a single director’s good opinion ever could. Yesterday’s trash turns into today’s classics, after all.

Black Panther
Marvel Studios 2018

Historically, entertainment for the masses has always been looked down upon, only to emerge as a key part of the record of human culture in the years and centuries since.

Once upon a time, the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights were so lowbrow as to be classed in the same bracket as methodical animal torture like bear-baiting.

Today, performances of those same plays are regarded as one of the most sophisticated forms of entertainment – so sophisticated, in fact, that new mass-appeal adaptations like of those plays like Netflix’s The King end up having to simplify and rewrite the dialogue and storylines (in that case, of Shakespeare’s Henriad series of plays) for a modern audience.

Charles Dickens, too, was a more mainstream, popular author than many of his literary rivals, and that’s at least partially why his works survived and thrived while others didn’t. Were they “literature” at the time of release? The point could have been argued at the time – but today they are, just as some future society might one day have no trouble classing the adventures of Iron Man, Captain America et al as true cinema.

Martin Scorcese (Getty)
Martin Scorsese (Getty)

Look, I’m not saying Avengers: Endgame is Romeo & Juliet, or David Copperfield – but the old cliché stating that Shakespeare or Dickens would probably today be writing for EastEnders holds true. Generally speaking, the mass entertainment of one era has often been just popular enough to survive to a future where tastes are different, or less rarified, and then be lauded for the artistic merit that it was once denied.

If any form of entertainment currently dominates popular consciousness, it’s the Marvel movies. And while it’s impossible to predict what the future holds, it may be that Marvel just has to play the long game to get the artistic recognition it’s sometimes denied.

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So who knows? Maybe the kids of the year 2330 will be just as reluctant to crack open an aged Blu-Ray of Captain Marvel as schoolchildren today would be to pick apart Two Gentlemen of Verona with a red pen. Time makes tedious homework of us all.