Yelling at clouds, pointless nostalgia, and blind spots
A lot of people have linked to the comments by people like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and so forth denigrating the modern superhero movie as not being “real cinema”, not being narrative, having more in common with an amusement park ride than a “proper movie” and so forth. And many other people have posted counter arguments, but most of the counter arguments I was thinking were being a bit too timid in their defense. And then Cora Buhlert weighed in: Old Directors Yell at Clouds – Pardon, Superheroes. And she nailed it:
My initial reaction to Martin Scorsese’s remarks was, “I could say the exact same thing about his films. I tried to watch them, I really tried, and I’ll never get the hours I spent sitting through Taxi Driver or Gangs of New York back. But I’m sorry, I just cannot connect with the kind of white dude arseholes who are the protagonists of Scorsese’s movies.” I may never have been a superhero, but I find Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and the rest of the gang much more relatable than anybody in Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy or Goodfellas or Casino.
I mean, really, it’s quite rich for a guy like Scorsese to accuse any other filmmaker of not being able to create a narrative. I had immediately gone to Gangs of New York myself as the perfect example of the kind of failed storytelling usually defended with “but that’s what happens in real life!” The difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. That’s what narrative actually means: making sense out of events by tying them to a thread of meaning. Gangs of New York (and every other Scorsese film I’ve sat through) set up all sorts of narrative threads, places metaphorical guns on mantlepieces, that are simply ignored or forgotten in an ending that can be boiled down to: “Life is unfair and meaningless and you, the audience, are stupid for not realizing it.”
Buhlert makes some other points that I was thinking while reading the various screeds:
Because for all their flaws, today’s superhero movies are a lot more diverse in front and behind the camera, then the highly touted movies of the New Hollywood era, which were made by and for a very narrow slice of people. It’s no accident that directors, actors and characters of those movies are all white and male and either Italian-American or members of some other immigrant group (the characters in The Deer Hunter are all descendants of Russian immigrants). There are a lot of people who never saw themselves reflected in those movies – women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, people who are not American – and who likely never much cared for those movies either, because the big Scorsese or Coppola fanboys are mostly white dudes themselves.
Not all superhero movies are diverse. I mean, I was hardly the first person to point out that several of the franchises featured blond-haired, blue-eyed protagonists who were playing by and white actor named Chris, for goodness sake! But just as one example, the best Captain America comics (And the movie moments) have been the ones created by writers who never forget that inside that supersoldier body, deep down, Steve Rogers is still the not-able-bodied asthmatic kid who understands what it means to be powerless and to be bullied, and who has the empathy and hope necessary to fight for the powerless.
Now I am a comic fan of old and like superhero movies. And so the current golden age of superhero movies is a dream come true for me, where I finally get to see plenty of characters on the big screen that I never expected to see there, in well made movies with excellent actors, great production values and stories that capture what made the comics so compelling. However, I also realise that not everybody likes superhero movies and I know the pain of cinemas being full of some genre of movies you don’t like. After all, I felt the same during the glut of westerns (and anybody who hates superhero movies should remember that the glut of westerns lasted from the silent era into the 1970s, i.e. almost fifty years), the glut of Vietnam war movies in the 1980s (and WWII movies in the 1960s), the glut of gangster movies in the 1970s/80s (and the 1930s) or the glut of romantic comedies in the 1990s. Oddly enough, however, I never hear the usual suspects complaining about too many westerns or war movies or gangster movies, though romantic comedies, Star Wars knock-off space operas and even the mini-trend of YA novel adpatations approx. ten years ago all got dinged. Gee, I wonder why that is.
It’s another example of that phenomenon that I called “applause from the wrong crowd.” Movies that are aimed at that narrow slice of cishet, white, male, able-bodied people are “proper cinema” and anyone in the audience who isn’t a member of that demographic is expected to watch with quiet admiration. We’re not supposed to expect to see our own stories on the screen. We’re not supposed to expect to see our issues addressed in the tales on screen. And if somehow something slips through that does include us, or tell our stories, we’re not supposed to cheer it loudly and enthusiastically.
If I keep going, I’m just going to devolve into ranting on my own. Buhlert makes a lot of other good points about the kinds of stories that superhero comics and films tackle well, the kinds of movies that are being squeezed out by the current focus on blockbusters, and other topics along the way. You should really go read the whole thing.