Last month, acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese likened the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to the movie equivalent of a theme park and immediately afterward, several news sites scrambled to publish statements regarding his quote. Scorsese is one of the best directors in film history, but not all of his movies have been financially successful. Meanwhile, the MCU is now the highest grossing film franchise in history. The more central conflict between these two asks whether it is more important to make art or money. That said, when analyzing cinema strictly as a visual art form, the MCU should not be considered real cinema: it should be seen as a business.
To be clear, the movies comprising the MCU are not bad movies; they simply play to sensibilities that Martin Scorsese does not deem cinematic or artistic in what is inherently an artistic medium. The most memorable part of “Captain America: Civil War,” for instance, is the end battle between Captain America and Iron Man. Those who enjoyed the movie might point to the scene in which Iron Man shoots his blasters at Captain America’s shield when discussing the most iconic shot, but this fight can really be distilled as a misunderstanding between the two. It contains no depth and says nothing essential about either character. Compare that image to the iconic opening image of one of Scorsese’s favorite films: “2001: A Space Odyssey;” the shot of the moon, Earth and the sun aligned while “Also Sprach Zarathustra” plays gorgeously in the background. There’s a depth and grandiosity to this image, and the way it is shot provokes reflection on how small humanity is compared to the rest of the solar system. In fact, that image is replicated a few times in the movie to include the monolith as a symbol of human evolution. One might interpret the shot as a plea for humanity to evolve, which returns to the central theme of “2001.” The depths of this one repeated image provokes more thought than “Captain America: Civil War” in its entirety.
That is not to say the movies in the MCU cannot discuss complex topics; they absolutely can, but it is clearly not their priority. In “Avengers: Infinity War,” there is a recurring theme of sacrifice to see one’s objective realized through Thanos and Scarlet Witch. The former willingly gives up a loved one for a greater purpose, while the latter initially refuses to do so. By the end of the film, however, there is nothing to be said for either of those sacrifices: Thanos may end up somewhat conflicted, but he accomplishes everything he sought to accomplish, and Scarlet Witch loses everything. The message conveyed by the struggles of these two appears to suggest that one should be willing to sacrifice anything for one’s goals, but both of them end up with opposing results, despite ultimately making the same choices. In this scenario, Thanos could realize a plan that requires the sacrifice of a loved one must be flawed, and develop into a better character.
That said, “Infinity War” ends in the most appropriate position for a sequel because sequels and monetization are actually what Disney is interested in. As intellectual property of the Disney corporation and due to the mass amount of money these movies make, greater turns to the business side have become noticeable. Captain America’s uniform, for instance, has been redesigned nine times, while Iron Man has shown 50 different kinds of armor. In fact, the emotional payoff and the beginning of the third act in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” includes a scene of Peter Parker meticulously designing a new suit for himself, for a total of four suits shown throughout the franchise. Of course, all of these redesigns have been merchandised. The most apparent and most glaring proof shows in the newest Spider-Man deal, which allows Disney to take a smaller cut of the film profit as long as they keep the merchandising rights. While this deal may have been made when merchandising could be unpredictable, in 2013 Disney had reportedly made $41 billion off merchandising alone.
None of this should be surprising. After all, Disney owns Disneyland, the very kind of theme park Scorsese would likely use to describe the MCU. To act as if these movies are cinematic brilliance in the same way one would describe “Citizen Kane” or “The Dark Knight” is ludicrous. Again, that is not to say they are bad by any means. Rather, viewers must acknowledge them for what they are: fun, safe popcorn movies that play to business and fan interests.