Superhero Movies as Moral Obligation

For what I’m sure is now years—possibly decades—a debate has raged between the proletarian defenders of $400 million-budget megablockbuster superhero films and the bourgeois hipster film buff crowd, who seem to irrationally believe that it might be nice to see something else this weekend for a change.

Recently, Martin Scorsese, director of such cult obscura as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, took to the pages of the New York Times to observe that he’d had a lot of trouble securing financing to make his latest three-hour-plus gangster opus, The Irishman, while the Ant-Man flicks continue emerging from Hollywood’s bowels at an astonishing pace. He was defending himself after being widely and derisively quoted from a long an interesting interview about The Irishman saying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of interconnected action flicks are “not cinema,” a statement with the virtue of being obviously true.

“Cinema” is the kind of vaunted term a guy like Marty would probably apply to the work of Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky; I doubt you could even argue persuasively that he believes all of his own movies are cinema—The Age of Innocence and The Last Temptation of Christ, perhaps, but not Shutter Island or Hugo. Because it is what interests Scorsese, even those films are about cinema—disorienting nuthouse flicks like Shock Corridor in the first case and the hand-colored special-effects extravaganzas of George Milies in the second—but they are purer entertainments.

The Marvel movies are soap operas, which is not a cinematic form. They are episodic storytelling about thin characters, starring beautiful actors and actresses, and, due to economic constraints, a vast meta-series of films that will not end until the stories’ Lovecraftian parent company, Disney, has squeezed every last cent from them. Then they will enter Valhalla, which is to say syndication.

There’s nothing wrong with them, per se—I’ve seen them all, in fact I think I’ve seen them all a couple of times—but the entries that are as good as a real movie are the exceptions, not the rules. Thor: Ragnarok is probably the best of the lot, though there are some good bits in Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and The Avengers, too. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a children’s movie adapted from the same suite of intellectual property, which exists outside the MCU’s shared world, is actually goddamn delightful. Even the Ant-Man and Captain Marvel flicks, which are obviously made on the cheap—almost insultingly so—are perfectly fine. 

But they are a fundamentally different kind of work than Scorsese’s, in which the director is the primary voice. In all but the most extraordinary Marvel movies, the real invention and creation is on the part of the producer, Kevin Feige, who has designed these movies’ most interesting feature, namely that they interlock with, continue, and expand on one another in entertaining ways.

Feige’s response to Scorsese was to defend the films as art qua art, though, which he did not do with much success. “We did Civil War. We had our two most popular characters get into a very serious theological and physical altercation [Did I miss this? did it happen out of the frame?]. We killed half of our characters at the end of a movie [Right, but nobody believed they would stay dead for even a minute, marketing antics notwithstanding]. I think it’s fun for us to take our success and use it to take risks [What risks? There are no risks at all being taken in these films with the exception of Thor: Ragnarok thumbing its nose at racist fanboys!] and go in different places [Where, for god’s sake?].”

Recently Ben Schwartz, a film writer with bylines in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, more eloquently made the argument in favor of Feige’s project in Neal Pollack’s Book and Film Globe: “The [Marvel Cinematic Universe] MCU is impossible to assess as auteurism, it has to be assessed in macro terms, not micro,” he declared. Schwartz writes:

In 2008, MCU began making post-9/11 movies about America in Iron Man, when billionaire arms designer Tony Stark has his own anti-terrorist weapons turned on him in Afghanistan and comes back questioning his (i.e., our) presence there. That was followed by The Avengers’ Bin Laden moment, and then Ragnarok and Black Panther, moving the conversation to colonialism and why anyone would ever want to visit violence and vengeance on a western power.  You know, Why They Hate Us?

If I told you a Jewish Maori filmmaker from a commonwealth nation, New Zealand, had made a movie about the exploitation of indigenous people by a Caucasian superpower (and a member of that superpower’s royal family spent most of the movie experiencing life as a slave) – would you guess that’s Ragnarok, or a movie from Scorsese’s world cinema project?  Taika Waititi, of course, directed Ragnarok, and just used his and Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel franchise clout to make his Jojo Rabbit.

As well-put as this is, it is a very annoying argument from my perspective, for two reasons. First and most obvious, it is of course possible to make a movie on important themes with the best of intentions toward history and politics that sucks, and is contemptible and stupid. In fact not only is it theoretically possible for a person do this, it has been done often—more often, I would say, than it has been done skillfully. Narrative filmmaking and Nietzsche’s The Will to Power are trying to accomplish different things, for which Nietzsche, anyway, was grateful. For anyone “to say, ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy,” the German nihilist observed in that text. “[I]f he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.”

The second quality that makes this argument annoying is that it tempts the respondent to address the various moral positions adopted for the sake of expediency by the Walt Disney Corporation, and they are hardly above reproach. Note for example Disney’s protracted obeisance before the Chinese government, for which it produces entirely different cuts of its films in exchange for financing support, even as Chinese rulers enslave millions of ethnic Muslims in camps where infanticide and forced sterlization have been reported. Observe CEO Bob Iger’s initial presence on Donald Trump’s business council. Take a look at the company’s rancid history of theft from artists it claims to venerate, from Osamu Tezuka to Wally Wood, and its shameless exploitation of antiblack racism in films like Dumbo and The Song of the South. Perhaps hiring an extremely gifted Jewish Maori filmmaker to make a movie that earned four times the gross domestic product of the Marshall Islands is not all that significant an act of selflessness when stacked up against the company’s sins, past and present. Perhaps there are even other ways to make profitable popcorn movies to fund your pet projects, though in truth goal of the Disney project—which is to say the meta-meta project of which the Marvel films are but a single universe in its multiverse—seems to be to close those avenues. 

Disney currently owns The Muppets, the Pixar animation studio, the rights to distribute English-language dubs of most of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the Marvel Entertainment combine, the Star Wars franchise, and sundry other smaller former competitors, and after a few years, they all start to resemble each other, like a dog starts to look like its owner.

Why is it so important that I not just enjoy these movies occasionally, in the way I might an amusement-park ride or one of the old Lethal Weapon of Die Hard flicks, but ceremonially affirm their heavy-handed symbology’s profound value to the world’s oppressed? Has anyone asked the world’s oppressed what they think of these movies, or for that matter of Wesley Snipes’s singlehanded expansion of black agency in his landmark role as Eric Brooks in Latino director Guillermo del Toro’s seminal Blade II? I kid, sort of, but Blade II is just as good as the best MCU movies and black audiences loved and still love that film and its predecessor, and Snipes in them. I don’t remember New Line telling them they were morally obliged to do so in the same way these audiences were urged to shell out for Black Panther so that more films like it would be made. This sort of cynicism about representational starvation among minority moviegoers hardly feels like a progressive statement.

More to the point, Scorsese has certainly never made this argument about his own films, or indeed any films, even those he has personally helped to preserve, renew, and screen through his nonprofit organization the World Cinema Project. Which I daresay advances the goal of minority enfranchisement a fucking sight better than the sight of the ethnically diverse millionaires of Avengers: Infinity War.

Scorsese is practically amoral in his mission statement on the company website. The World Cinema Project is interested in “representing the rich diversity of world cinema” and teaching “young people—over 10 million to date—about film language and history,” he says, not in presenting a particular depiction of any of these people.

Perhaps that is because a genuine diversity of cinema—that is, of kinds of films and ways of understanding the peculiar grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of a young and exciting art form—cannot possibly be the purview of a single megacorporation, no matter how devoted that megacorporation may be to hoovering up the legal rights to distribute the world’s great art and then bowdlerizing it to suit the current political climate in whatever region seems most profitable this weekend.

Nor can it be the purview of a single race, nationality, or class. Scorsese’s curation of films that emerged from completely different cultural circumstances, however obviously more enlightened than Disney’s, also expresses a perspective. All institutional efforts to expand the arts do—that is why a healthy art form needs as broad a plurality of institutions as possible. Scorsese embraces that. The shareholders of the Disney corporation do not.

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