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Critic v Critic: The Great Scorsese-MCU Debate

The biggest movie news these days has nothing to do with Skywalkers or satirical Nazis.

It’s two of Hollywood’s most talented directors taking direct aim at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. Martin Scorses says MCU fare isn’t “cinema.”

Fellow auteur Francis Ford Coppola rushed to his colleague’s side, calling MCU films “despicable.”

This critic is on Team MCU. Rob Motto, a film critic and writer whose work can be found at his web site as well as Letterboxd , thinks Scorsese and Coppola stand on the right side of movie history. 

Let the debate begin:

HiT: Legendary directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola aren’t fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fine. They’ve taken their opinions to a new, wholly unfair level that sparked a nationwide debate.

It’s an elitist one-two punch that deserves to be called out.

What is “cinema?” Why would anyone, let alone two of Hollywood’s brightest stars, suggest only select films qualify? We go to the movies for escapism, and that escapism comes packaged in any number of forms. Superhero movies fit certain gene specifications.

So do horror, science fiction and kiddie movies. Are they all “cinema,” by the Scorsese standard? Movies like “Friday the 13th Part Fill in the Blank” may be exploitative and trashy, but would you describe the original “Halloween” that way? It’s iconic, impeccably crafted and has stood the test of time. It’s still a slasher movie, though. What say you, Marty?

More importantly, the best MCU movies transcend the directors’ haughty labels. “Captain America: Civil War” explored government overreach. “Black Panther” grappled with cultural isolation, among many other issues. The original “Iron Man,” the movie that started the despicable ball rolling, tapped the moral quandaries around selling weapons of war.

Iron Man (2008) - Cave Battle Scene (3/9) | Movieclips

Scorsese and Coppola miss the days when artful, deliberate stories free of CGI magic ruled Hollywood. Those stories now thrive on the small screen, for the most part. Blasting the movies that give millions joy today in theaters is the wrong way to mourn that cultural shift.

Rob Motto: When I think about the words of acclaimed directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, it isn’t elitism that comes to mind, it’s principled craftsmanship. These are two directors who have been working for over fifty years and have seen the landscape of movies change from what they were in the 60’s to the franchise laden fare of today.

They are more than entitled to their opinion on Marvel movies which are the current box office behemoth seemingly unstoppable in its ability to put butts in seats and keep attention spans young to old.

The problem lies in further examination, what make up these international hero stories that span the globe and illicit green lights from producers? An overly formulaic story structure that is utterly predictable, bland characters that are safe and spout platitudes, predictable baddies, the heroes winning the day, massive areas of cities are wiped out yet there’s no sense that life is being lost.

What these Marvel movies feel like are war time propaganda, championing the heroes who defeat evil in the most reductive and obvious of ways. What these two legendary directors are speaking against is the mass takeover of the cinema by children’s entertainment, Disney will own 40% of the box office this year.

When Scorsese says MCU films aren’t “cinema” he’s talking about the aims of the artist in the craft of filmmaking. I don’t believe that the Marvel movies involve the same kind of filmmaking that Scorsese is referencing here.

Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Visual Literacy

Sure there’s a camera and all the other equipment, but it’s mostly on a massive green screen, and the computer generated image artists are more directors of the film than any hired gun.

There is no individual viewpoint to these films, they are structured as cold, mechanical, and beyond formulaic which offers no deeper understanding it its storytelling or form. Sure, it’s escapism you say. And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with turning off for a couple of hours or even if that’s what you love and you want to indulge, please do.

I think cinema can be just about anything, but what it can’t be is a computer program that spits out gobs of information that is supposed to take the place of an art form. These movies are constantly alternating between action scenes and exposition scenes and there’s very little past that.

The points you bring up about the best Marvel movies is a bit curious because “Civil War” was a complete missed opportunity. Having read the comic book series I know how great that film could have been, the true conversation our nation never had about freedom vs security after 9/11.

This was a golden opportunity for Captain America to face down the government and tell them that individual freedom and liberty were more important that the feeling of being safe. A brilliant and proud plot line was not used and instead they use it to bring every Marvel hero out of the woodwork for a giant fight that has no resonance, power, and lacks cinematic punch.

It “explored” government overreach, yeah as a convenient way to create conflict, they took what was available in the story and cut around the most interesting parts. Black Panther succeeded in showing a brand new place, Wakanda, in a brilliant way but it ended up being mired by the CGI that haunts these films. 

What Scorsese and Coppola are criticizing is the lack of art in these films, the lack of craftsmanship, the building of a genuine atmosphere, mood, tone, and environment for the movie to breath and exist in. Marvel movies are weightless, airless, they seemingly have no life in them. They perform as dead objects.

Scorsese and Coppola have made some of the greatest films of all time, have lifted others up so that their films could get made, Scorsese started the world cinema project, Coppola has done tremendous works with his production company to give voices to people who wouldn’t have had one otherwise.

The last thing they are is jealous or envious of the success Marvel has because what they are is anathema to the directors. They would never make movies that way, they love it too much, they understand why the art form needs preserving, why risks still have to be taken. That the best art is about something profound and the elevation of popcorn movies above everything else will have dire consequences.

HiT: I wonder if Scorsese or Coppola have actually sat down and watched the movies in question. Scorsese says he ‘tried.” I suspect he didn’t try too hard.

I don’t want to go down the ‘critiquing’ rabbit hole here. I loathed “Captain Marvel” while some cheered it on. That’s fine. And both Scorsese and Coppola have made their share of clunkers (remember “Jack?”). The duo don’t understand the artistry behind CGI filmmaking. They assume the directors just hand over large chunks of the film to the digital artists and say, “let me know when you’re done!”

Well, if you’ve seen dreck like “The Last Witch Hunter” you know how it all falls apart in the wrong hands. Compare that to “Lord of the Rings,” where Peter Jackson masterfully sculpted grand characters and visuals with his CGI tool kit.

The same applies to MCU features, such as the spellbinding “Doctor Strange,” a classic tale of moral redemption. CGI is a new tool for directors to master. It’s only as good, or bad, as the storytellers accessing them.

Just ask George Lucas.

The People vs George Lucas - Official Teaser Trailer 1 (HD)

The Marvel movies often excel at creating atmosphere, and tone, and pure dread. Look at “Avengers: Infinity War.” The opening sequence is a portrait of pure malevolence, partly created by the stories that preceded it. It might be a better critique to say the films work well only as part of a larger framework. That, too, is a nod toward modern storytelling taking a page out of how TV seasons evolve in the 21st century.

The modern comic book movie can be as dark as “Taxi Driver” (“Joker”), as frothy as the best comedies (“Thor: Ragnorak”) or explore strange new cultures with connections to our own world (“Black Panther”).

Scorsese and Coppola deny all this, when the answers are right in front of them. And what would they say to the countless movie goers who wept at Iron Man’s death in “Avengers: Endgame?”

Were they not genuinely moved, and shaken, by Robert Downey, Jr.’s work over a string of movies? Theme park rides can’t duplicate that.

Motto: Yeah, both directors have had their fair share of duds, to the point where it wasn’t known if Scorsese would make a comeback at the end of the ’80s. I would disagree with your point about not understanding the artistry behind CGI filmmaking because it all depends how well done the CGI is and what the needs of the film are.

Scorsese just got done using a form of CGI for the de-aging process in “The Irishman” which took forever but has some astonishing results which we’ll see more and more of as it becomes the norm.

The Irishman | Official Trailer | Netflix

As you point out there are some truly magical applications for CGI to enhance and deepen the world created by the artists who make them come alive, however I would not put Marvel movies in that boat. I can always tell there’s a green screen at play, I can always see the cracks and the tape that hold it all together.

Maybe it’s because Marvel fails to give a voice to individual visionaries with big ideas and subversive solutions, it is after all owned by Disney and they are in the business of family oriented movies. So I would agree that it all comes down to the artists and how they choose to utilize CGI, and I wish Marvel would allow that creative freedom. I can allow the exception like James Gunn or Taika Waititi, but by and large they are uniform looking.

I haven’t seen all of the movies in the Marvel canon, but I’ve seen my fair share (18/23). And I would say that the element most missing from these movies is atmosphere and tone. This is tied to its lack of visual style which bad CGI is partly to blame, a lack of distinct visual style and aesthetic is another.

They’re uniform, and I get that it’s very intentional being part of a series, but it does nothing to enhance or create a tangible environment for characters to develop.

If Marvel is truly borrowing from television I think that makes Scorsese’s point even more poignant. If they’re episodic serials with an over-reliance on expositional dialogue and fails to follow the classic rule of “show don’t tell,” then maybe they aren’t very cinematic.

The episodic nature limits the creativity needed for cinema.

Comic book movies can be incredibly varied and diverse, but we are specifically talking about Marvel. All of my personal favorite comic book movies or adaptations reside in the DC universe and while there have been some absolute stinkers, those movies resonate on a human level with all of the elements I feel are missing from the Marvel side of things. They don’t feel like corporate products, simply existing to sell merchandise.

Marvel Plot Points That Were Ruined By Merch

The work done by both Scorsese and Coppola to further film education and film preservation over the course of the last 40 years is only part of their legacy. They have put it all on the line to bring their dreams to moviegoers because it means everything to them. Making some of the truly great films of the 20th century and their insight matters even if it is biased and from a different generation.

They’re not saying people can’t enjoy Marvel, it’s just not the art form that all the clamoring and die hard fans want it to be. It’s about information, and cinema is about image. Aesthetic. The key element of cinema is missing from Marvel movies.

You can follow Rob Motto on Twitter @Rob_Motto

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