If you’re reading this, you know what’s happened to film culture, and the things promised in the headline are just the tip of the iceberg. A few months back, someone asked Pedro Almodovar, director of daring art like The Skin I Live In, Bad Education, and Talk To Her, what he thought about comic book movies and he said correctly that they weren’t sexy enough. Then they asked Martin Scorsese, director of Taxi Driver, Bringing Out The Dead, Silence, and The Aviator, who said the recent crop of comic book movies weren’t to his taste, and that they reminded him of theme park rides more than cinema.
Naturally, people took umbrage with their critiques, including directors James Gunn, Joss Whedon, and Kevin Smith, who all argued that because they had spent a lot of time and money reading comic books or turning them into movies, these movies had to have legitimacy. This is a bit like arguing that a car runs well because you bought it. Gunn later took to Instagram to explain how back in the day people like his father also said that Westerns or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were not up to snuff, as if that somehow leveled the playing field and made Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 art.
As if that wasn’t enough, a journalist rang up Francis Ford Coppola, a man who hasn’t been able to scare up a dime from Hollywood in over 20 years (despite directing some of the consensus-best motion pictures of all time), to bother him about the issue. Not surprisingly, Coppola came to the defense of Scorsese, a man with whom whom he once shared a commentary track on the 1940 Alexander Korda-produced Thief of Baghdad, and said that these movies were not cinema and, in fact, “despicable.”
The same cadre of people who have bought houses with Disney money once again fell over themselves trying to say that movies like Avengers: Endgame were simply misunderstood. So, by the time someone asked Ken Loach, a two-time Palme d’Or winner who has sacrificed the best years of his life making movies about the struggles of the working class and who certainly had better things to do with his time than talk comics, the argument had reached a pointless and infuriating fever pitch.
You may be wondering one or two things by this time. Why, for instance, do we keep asking directors in their 70s and 80s what they think of movies in which men in tactical gear fight space aliens? Why don’t these old directors enjoy these movies about people in tactical gear fighting space aliens? How has this dialogue managed to take up so much of our lives? The answers are both simple and complicated.
Comic book movies, no matter which juggernaut, billionaire-run label you like better, are unfortunately here to stay. I say unfortunately not because I want them to go away, but because they have conclusively eaten box office space that used to be open to, oh, anything else. Romantic comedies, historical epics, bizarro independent films, the kind of gross-out comedies Todd Phillips claims you can’t make anymore because you’ll get arrested if you tell a dick joke, all of that used to co-exist. Now? Critics sweat bullets hoping something like The Farewell or Parasite does well because it may promise that movies that haven’t been approved by Disney, focus-grouped a dozen times, overseen by branding specialists, and lit and performed identically may indeed return to screens more than a few times a year. Because right now, the most interesting movies play New York or LA for a week or two or they go right to Netflix. In fact, most original movies will never see the inside of a movie theatre because Disney (who own Marvel) and Time Warner (who own DC) now monopolize movie theatre screens.
If you think I’m overreacting, that’s fine. You’ve probably stopped reading or are planning to really hand me my ass in the comment section I won’t be reading, but do yourself this kindness before you assume I’m simply crying wolf. I want you to look at a list of movies released between the year 2000 and the year 2008 — before Iron Man. Yeah, a lot of garbage was released, but there was a healthy diet of actual movies to go with it. A lot of our oxygen was hijacked by the Lord of the Rings movies or the Star Wars prequels, but there was also a Wes Anderson movie or two, singularly wrongheaded stabs at adult filmmaking like I Heart Huckabees or Garden State, and genuine oddities like Monkeybone, Memento, Josie & The Pussycats, Freddy Got Fingered, and Bad Santa. Somewhere in there, Gore Verbinski becomes a mega-force in the American mainstream, Peter Hyams flames out, Ben Stiller makes trillion dollar high-concept comedies, there are 48 forgettable movies about the toll of the Iraq War, horror movies have large budgets, and Wolfgang Peterson is employed. In short, a ton of different things gets money. Now? If critics constantly seem surprised movies don’t suck, look at what’s playing at a theatre near you.
Box office figures supplanted critical reception completely sometime around 2013. It doesn’t matter what critics say anymore. We’ve become Quixotic madmen trying to either keep up with a discourse that’s left us behind (gestures at self) or begging an indifferent and unreachable public to take a chance on a micro budget, avant-garde short by a black woman living in Georgia trying like hell to raise money for her first feature (look up Iyabo Kwayana, you won’t regret it). Anymore consensus is only useful if it flatters the mainstream. Notorious critic Armond White gets dragged every time he ruins the perfect Rotten Tomatoes score of whatever movie people like that week. Instead, he should get dragged for the time he accused the grieving Parkland parents of being crisis actors. That the public can only muster their anger when he says Get Out isn’t good is indicative of what we’ve narrowed our understanding of a movie and criticism to include. If a movie doesn’t have a 100% score on an insulting and reductive aggregate like Rotten Tomatoes, the complaint isn’t even that some people might not be tempted to see the film. No, the issue is the perception of or pretense towards perfection. If Armond White, of all goddamned people, doesn’t like some shiny object, then we can’t show it off to the world like Steve Jobs debuting a phone that will stop working in two years.
You can see why Coppola and Scorsese might be a little upset, even without factoring in that this narrowing, this turning all movies into tentpoles (there were 60 American films this year that were either sequels, prequels, remakes, or adaptations of graphic novels) has made it impossible for them to even get something as middlebrow as The Rainmaker made today. Comic book movies all perform the same function on their audience. You may love or hate, say, Neil Jordan’s Greta or indeed Scorsese’s The Irishman when it hits Netflix next month, but you cannot say that their intentions are the same as any other movie you’ll watch that week. (Tell me the functional difference between the messaging behind Spiderman: Homecoming and Ant-Man. I dare you.) Furthermore, these movies are hideously compromised as entertainment. The US military gives equipment to and uses the characters from Marvel movies to recruit young people to join the service. They see something like Captain Marvel as a good advertisement for the Air Force. That’s all the proof I need that these movies are, in fact, quite harmful forces in culture, even without everything above, but because I care about what Captain Marvel is destroying, I wrote all the stuff above.
It’s not even like Coppola and Scorsese are ethically un-compromised, either. Coppola borrowed a bunch of the Filipino military to make Apocalypse Now while they were in the middle of a horrendous suppression campaign, and Scorsese let a mob enforcer re-enact a murder he committed on screen in Casino. The thing is, though? Those are movies that question everything in them, including their own megalomania as directors. Apocalypse Now is a movie about war as a fundamentally insane force, inextricable from the human condition and yet unthinkable. It also criticizes attempts to explain it, aware of its sheer scale. Veterans like R. Lee Ermey hated it because it made GIs look like drugged out maniacs. Casino and Goodfellas are about the same thing, basically, about the charismatic monstrousness of organized crime and the way it subsumed every life it touched.
To put all this into a more useful context, let me shoehorn Kevin Passmore’s work Fascism: A Short Introduction from Oxford University Press. To me, Coppola and Scorsese “subject their own assumptions, and those of their colleagues, to systematic criticism, and they try, if not always successfully, to uncover unacknowledged prejudices in their work. A proper scholarly method is intrinsically anti-fascist in that it treats skeptically what fascists regard as beyond criticism. Academic inquiry accepts that its insights depend on perspective, that other perspectives will be possible, and that their answers will always be superseded. This necessary mutual criticism can only happen in a democratic environment.” Another helpful shorthand we should remember is that the first step on the road to fascism is that an idea cannot be criticized. What happens to all those critics who give your object a perfect score? What was the point of their writing the nice review to begin with, if all you needed were a hundred people to write what you already believed?
Am I making myself conspicuous? What does Scorsese, whose work has been relegated to a few weeks in an arthouse theatre and an unceremonious release on Netflix, just slightly better treatment than the movie The Tall Girl received, owe comic book movies? What does Coppola, who had to finance his last three movies with money he made selling wine because Hollywood won’t give him the time of day despite directing The Godfather trilogy, owe comic book movies and their overly sensitive purveyors? The deeply offensive thing here is that guys like Gunn and Philips owe their entire playbook to people like Scorsese. Without Mean Streets, there’s no Guardians of the Galaxy, without Taxi Driver, no Joker. And yet it isn’t enough for them. It’s never enough. We must only talk about these movies — and positively. We must all spend money to see them so they can continue being made. We must never, ever review them negatively, for that might crack their utterly meaningless Rotten Tomatoes score.
It’s not enough that there’s one in theaters every three weeks, with kajillion dollar ad campaigns online and on billboards. It’s not enough that everywhere you go, someone will ask if you if you watched whatever the newest insufferable thing is. It’s not enough that critics have to review these movies anew as if they aren’t written, lit, directed, costumed, production designed, art directed, and sanitized in exactly the same fashion. It isn’t enough that they’re being used to trick people into joining the Air Force and we have to just pretend they’re art instead of nefarious, fascist instruments. None of it is ever enough. James Gunn’s Instagram post complaining that his father said that Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey were both boring? He misses the fundamental point of his own story. James Gunn’s father had enough art that he didn’t need to watch sci-fi to feel like he was living his best life. That, it seems, is unthinkable today. You must watch and then respect the comic book movie, or you will be sat in a chair like Alex DeLarge while men (always men) explain to you why you’re wrong to dissent. James Gunn is now making Star Wars, for all intents and purposes, and his symbolic father figures still won’t watch it. What did he think was going to happen?
Something else bothers me about this idea that because some people didn’t like Westerns, that means all people need to like something now, or that someday we’ll live in a world where everyone agrees that Suicide Squad and the Sistine Chapel are of equal worth. Critics today? Plenty of them also like The Searchers or Day of the Outlaw or whatever old movie you want to throw down as having been similarly misunderstood in its time. Are Marvel fans watching these movies, too? Have they done anything to examine the cinematic history that laid the groundwork for their new favorite movies? Because Scorsese has. He’s financed restorations of obscure arthouse and classic Hollywood alike. He re-introduced the world to landmarks of Polish cinema because he wanted to. And he’s spent more time talking about Westerns than anyone currently using them as a cudgel against Scorsese’s attitude.
Westerns have been dealt with and sifted through by a cultural apparatus still hard at work right now. There weren’t 58 movies identical to The Searchers that pushed Written On The Wind to home video without a theatrical window. Fans of John Wayne didn’t throw tantrums when he didn’t get an Oscar for Rio Lobo. And just in case it needs to be heard once again, for the people in the back, critics made Westerns legitimate, not the will of the people. Your dad may love The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but he didn’t make it a “classic.” Thoughtful examination of its mise-en-scene did; writers who said this film above all other Spaghetti Westerns did. If you reduce critical opinion to a score, you’re depriving yourself of ways of seeing, and you’re helping turn film into product, graded like meat, and made to give you the same exact feeling every time.
I am not merely over the era of the blockbuster comic book movie, and its absolutely terrible effect on what people understand criticism to be, I am over the insistence that I have to have an opinion about a slew of movies made with complete indifference to my experience. I want to be able to tell my figurative son, James Gunn, that I saw his movie when it was called Batman Begins, and it was boring then, too, and then get on with my day. But I can’t, because my day consists of seeing take after take after take on this same subject and the movies aren’t even worth it. And I’m a professional film critic. This is my job.
Can you imagine how Coppola feels? He just wanted to make art that criticized every institution and impulse to which we laid claim, and we did this to him. We turned him into an interchangeable and wholly expected breaking development of a 24-hour news cycle about movies so dull I wouldn’t show them to children. Scorsese made Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Coppola made Rumble Fish. Almodovar made Pain and Glory. Ken Loach made Land & Freedom. These movies reward repeat viewings and close readings. They’re carefully designed, color graded, costumed, written and directed because their makers wanted us to have real, meaningful art. Some of them, they gave away their souls to do so for us. What have DC and Marvel given us? Recruitment ads, children’s toys, and the guarantee that this wretched, endless discourse will never end.