Cinema in the age of the superhero blockbuster

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t part of the hordes of people who talked about “Avengers: Endgame” online for weeks, saw the memes and cried once the final end credits flashed on the big screen. It was a communal event, a shared catharsis. It’s a collective sigh when a sad scene takes place or when it feels like everyone in the room is holding their breath and hoping that, for god’s sake, the relatable protagonist makes it through the end. It’s what makes moviegoers want to stand in a ridiculously long line and create a blacklist for friends who have already seen the film to avoid any form of spoilers. Marvel films are incredibly emotional and personal to many, that much can be agreed upon. So it comes as no surprise that when Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese, while doing press for his new movie “The Irishman,” claimed Marvel films are not real cinema, that this comment was met with more than just a little outrage. He has since come out with an article further explaining what he meant by that statement, but it has not extinguished the ongoing dumpster fire blazing on film discussion boards as people scramble to find out who’s right: the Marvel fans or the real “cinephiles.” 

The issue that I don’t think most people understand is that there are two separate ideas that are being conflated. These separate points are the definition of “real cinema,” and the ramifications of big studios, like Marvel, overcrowding the box office. That being said, I do think Marvel films are real cinema since artistic choices are being made throughout each film and the storytelling is captivating until the end. If you want decent character growth, look no further than Tony Stark’s development throughout the “Iron Man” movies and into “The Avengers.” The billionaire philanthropist is challenged and is transformed into a man willing to make sacrifices for those he loves. Still, I don’t think that labeling Marvel films as real cinema is all that important in the larger conversation of filmmaking in this era. All the more important is recognizing that the superhero movie has changed the landscape of moviegoing in general.

Discussions about the nature of cinema is oftentimes altered into a discussion about what cinema should be and what it should look like, due to the historical legacy of white Hollywood. The definition of cinema has historically been seen through a white perspective. It’s an ongoing issue that has been challenged through movements such as #OscarsSoWhite, which continues to be a prominent talking point when award season rolls around each year. The vast majority of high-profile executives, producers and directors are white men. This has an impact on the types of stories that get told, essentially governing who gets to decide what cinema should be at the big studio level. This history factors into the culture of these studios, namely their lack of diversity.

The point is, these men were in power so they had the final say on what type of art could be made and, in effect, what type of people got to see themselves represented on the screen. That concept of power in the movie industry is what underlies some filmmakers’ issues with Marvel as a company, not the creators and the other hundreds of hardworking people that put in the necessary effort to make something that we can all talk about on Reddit. When you have a huge company that formulaically pumps out these superhero films, it sets a new precedent for the types of movies people are willing to pay money for. If companies think that original stand-alone pieces aren’t going to make money, they aren’t going to receive funding and innovative movies aren’t going to get made. 

We’re finally starting to see some form of intersectionality in the industry with more people of color, women and LGBTQ creators finally getting a chance to push storytelling through distinct perspectives. These are the real films that consumers miss out on when they choose to disregard them in favor of the newest Hollywood blockbuster. The extreme focus on profitability and appeal to the masses is what characterizes these big budget movies. The model of these blockbusters promotes likability over an original script wherein they are constantly screen testing and researching what the mass audience would like. It means catering to everyone, rather than pushing artistic lines, so they can get more bodies in the theater. You’re not going to see new artistic advances if all companies care about is the final dollar. 

Some people are pointing to streaming services as the place for original films to be made, but magic is lost when you can’t see films in the theater. The sense of a communal movie experience is lost in online streaming. By supporting the small artists with the understandably overpriced $15 ticket, you support an environment that is hospitable to a greater diversity of art. Perhaps a Netflix-owned theater could exist sometime in the future, but for now, it would do no harm to pay attention to what we all decide to spend our money on. Give a chance to the smaller films. 

You’d be surprised by how many great writers and directors are creating new and interesting cinema. Lulu Wang directed and wrote one of the most complex and heartwarming films I’ve ever seen with “The Farewell.”  “Roma,” which was directed by Alfonso Curon, deserved all the hype that it got on film Twitter. Greta Gerwig encapsulated every argument you’ve ever had with your mom and romanticism for greener pastures in a way that was refreshing and new with her debut film “Lady Bird”. With that in mind I can say that both smaller films and Marvel films are cinema — they’re a story on a screen. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the impact corporations have on dictating what movies will have the space to be shown in theaters.

Facebook Comments