by Paul Moomjean
Cinema, in many ways, is both a projection of our current ethos and a vessel to look at our past and where our future is going. In the 1950s the heroes were found in westerns. Lone gunmen traveling vast and empty dusty canvases in pursuit of evil doers. In a post-Hitler world with the Cold War raging, Americans wanted to see men of valor. Today, it’s the men and women birthed from comic books. So, when the film director icon Martin Scorsese came out belittling the Marvel films, what he seemed to miss is that these films aren’t popular because they’re easy to watch. It’s because in today’s world, they help everyday people deal with the problems we all face, because in fact, the problems are hard, and the solutions are few.
Scorsese recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed why he doesn’t see these films as equals to his films. “I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.”
The “theme park” analogy is a very condescending remark, and I believe a jab at Disney, who owns the majority of the Marvel properties. He went on to define what type of films are actual cinema to him.
“Cinema [is] about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
Scorsese primarily has made anti-hero films, whether it’s the unlikable loners of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, the violent mobsters in Goodfellas or Casino, or the hustlers of The Color of Money or The Wolf of Wall Street. He is a great filmmaker, but his films tend to look at the darker underbelly of society, whereas the films he’s criticizing look to the stars for a brighter day.
With so much tragedy flooding our society, whether it be natural disasters or school shootings, Americans need hope to survive. Over the past decade one such cathartic experience to bring us that hope has been the superhero film. Marvel and DC Comics have provided us with a series of films where good triumphs over evil and all that was taken from us becomes restored in the end. Whether it’s Batman defeating the forces against Gotham City or the Avengers taking on Thanos, the most popular films of our modern era have been the superhero films.
Maybe this is because we don’t want to watch movies about sadness and loneliness anymore. Maybe we need heroes. Maybe people are speaking with their wallets saying, we don’t want to see anti-heroes; we want real heroes.
Since 2008 with both Iron Man and The Dark Knight, audiences seem to want to find order in the chaos. Not just chaos filmed in an orderly manner.
It is no coincidence that superhero films became popular after the George W. Bush presidency in 2008. In fact, it was President Barack Obama’s mantra of “hope and change” that resonated with people. When Iron Man saved the day and Batman took on the villains that summer, it was a cry for what we so desired: heroes.
Geoffrey Canada, a popular advocator for better public schools, talked about why we love superhero films in the documentary Waiting for “Superman”: “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. I was like, ‘what do you mean he’s not real.’ And she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real and I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”
Scorsese is right that we need other types of art to help us understand our world, but we also need films of that classic western aka American spirit; films that preach good versus evil, with the greatest twist in the all of cinema, that we will be saved in the end.