There’s a group of people out there that absolutely hate superhero movies. Martin Scorsese went as far to say that Marvel movies are not real cinema. Ever since he said this, the superhero movie haters have only become louder. Their disdain for spandex clad spectacle was emboldened by the words of one of the greatest directors of all time agreeing with them. Now, I’m not here to convince you that if you don’t like superhero movies then you’re wrong. That would be ridiculous. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and if superheroes just aren’t your thing then that’s perfectly valid. The problem is that there’s a section, a very loud section, of people who not only don’t like superhero films, but think that they are actively destroying the art of film. That is also ridiculous.
I like Martin Scorsese and I like his films. He’s directed some of the greatest movies of all time and if he doesn’t like superhero movies then more power to him. He can have his Fellini and I can have my Feige. Now I’m in no way suggesting that Marvel movies are as good as Fellini movies but I know which ones I would rather watch on a Sunday afternoon. What I start to have problems with is when someone says that Marvel movies (or superhero movies in general) are not real cinema. Hundreds of people worked very hard and gave their best effort to make those movies and saying they aren’t real cinema is a bit of an insult to everyone on the crew. The other problem I have with it is, well, what the hell is real cinema in the first place. This is the movie equivalent of arguing whether a painting of squiggly lines that’s priced at three million dollars is actually art. And if Martin Scorsese doesn’t think Marvel films are real cinema because they’re bad, does that mean Scorsese’s own film Boxcar Bertha isn’t real cinema?
Every time a Marvel movie, (and to a lesser extent a DC movie) or now TV series comes out it’s only a matter of time before the snobs come out of their caves to tell everyone on Twitter something along the lines of “if you think this is good please go watch more movies”. Why should we Twitter film snob who probably knows less about movies than a film school dropout? I’ve seen Citizen Kane, now I want to watch Chris Evans throw a shield. Now of course Citizen Kane is a better movie than any Marvel movie but it’s nowhere near as entertaining because that’s what a superhero movie’s main objective is. To entertain.
There’s a word for the type of film that superhero movies are. Spectacle Films. Movies that value the spectacle of what’s on screen more than the narrative. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a narrative, just that it’s not as important as a cool thing happening to wow the audience. Spectacle films are not a new concept, in fact they are as old as cinema itself. The very first “films” didn’t have sound and they didn’t really have a story, they were just to dazzle an audience with this new technology. Once movies started to be made for real, (not just factory workers leaving the building), with actors and plots, the very earliest of these films were spectacle.
The 1903 film The Great Train Robbery is very important to film history and I’m sure it’s shown in almost every film school. The story is about, you guessed it, a train robbery. Except that’s all it really is, there’s no great themes to ponder or artistic cinematography to look at. It’s a cool train robbery, meant to entertain an audience and that’s it. If you’ve ever met a film snob I’m sure you’ve of heard of A Trip to the Moon another film that I’m sure is taught in every film school in existence. It’s about a group of astronomers who fly to the moon, get chased around by aliens and then go back to earth. It came out in 1902 and features some cool effects for the time. If you made that movie today with the exact same story but with modern technology and a Marvel budget, you would get a movie that people claim isn’t real cinema.
Nobody claims that Buster Keaton ruined cinema but he was making the same type of movies as Marvel does now. Keaton films were comedic films filled with jaw dropping stunt work with a story whose function was to coherently tie all the gags together. People flocking to see the latest Buster Keaton film to laugh at the slapstick and be in awe of the stunts is no different than people flocking to see Iron Man make quips and shoot lasers out of his hands.
Marvel movies are no different than the spectacle films that have been getting made since film as a medium was invented. They might actually be better than those old spectacle films that these film snobs revere. Sure A Trip to the Moon was made in 1902 in black and white and is therefore a brilliant masterpiece but Guardians of the Galaxy has actual characters with names and personalities that people can relate to and empathize with. If having an emotional reaction to something doesn’t make it art than I don’t know what does.
So no, Marvel films are not ruining cinema anymore than Buster Keaton was ruining it when he was standing below collapsing houses. Narrative films are still getting made and people are still seeing them. They might not be seeing them in cinema but they’re being seen. In fact it’s become easier than ever to become exposed to huge variety of different films. Indie films in particular are more visible than they’ve ever been. Cinema isn’t going anywhere no matter how many spandex heroes are around. Just because something is full of special effects doesn’t mean it’s any less of a film. So film snobs, next time a superhero movie comes out, please just shut up and let the rest of us be entertained by the spectacle the same way you’re entertained by the Lumière Brothers.