True Believers

(Over-)Thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it’s “cinema,” or if it’s something even more relevant to the 21st century

Hey, did everybody catch the latest episode of WandaVision. It was pretty rad. The feeling of a TV-series-long homage to “It’s a Good Life” was stronger than ever, with the added depth of being invested in the characters to make it super sinister. My favorite gag in the whole episode was how they called back to the various ways TV series have tried to hide an actor’s pregnancy over the years: putting them in big coats, standing behind counters, holding a bowl of fruit.

While I was reading back over my gushing about WandaVision, a few things stood out: first was that I seriously need an editor.

Second is that I referred to Paul Bettany as “Jennifer Connelly’s husband,” which could come across as a weird dig against him out of nowhere, but I really intended it as a dig against his agent. Or probably more accurately, the byzantine union rules that resulted in his getting top billing over Elizabeth Olsen. Because that doesn’t seem fair at all. Bettany himself, on the other hand, seems pretty cool.

But third was how I put in a dig against Martin Scorsese for saying that “Marvel movies aren’t ‘cinema.'” This was a quote that I’d heard a while ago, back when the internet was trying to gin it up into a controversy, but at the time I just rolled my eyes and moved on. Last week I realized that if I’m going to keep referencing it, I should probably look it up and see what he actually said.

And I was disappointed. I’d expected it disagree entirely, but I figured that coming from a filmmaker with Scorsese’s stature, it would be a well-thought-out and multi-layered argument. Instead, it’s just the same old “high art vs low art” gate-keeping that fans of “genre fiction” have been used to seeing for decades. It uses a narrow definition of “cinema” that is just flexible enough to include the stuff that Scorsese likes, it conflates subject matter with artistic merit, and it goes on to conflate artistic merit with financing, production, distribution, and exhibition. And it should come as little surprise that it frames the predominance of “franchise pictures” as the death of the auteur-driven film model in which he became world-famous and widely respected.

Now, I’m not even going to pretend that I’m not hugely biased. Obviously, I’m a big fan of the MCU. And even though I was (briefly) a film student, I never managed to develop the appropriate level of reverence for Mr. Scorsese’s work. I haven’t actually seen that many of his movies, to be honest; the subject matter rarely interests me. But the ones I have seen have all come across as permeated with a dour sense of self-importance. Essentially, they feel to me like productions from people who are extremely invested in making “cinema,” while at the same time believing that they’re scrappy independents challenging the status quo.

Still, I’m not that interested in being some random film school drop-out on the internet trying to take Martin Scorsese down a peg. I’ve actually started writing this blog post four separate times now, starting over each time once I realized it was devolving into a point-by-point rebuttal of that New York Times essay. Which is needless for many reasons, not the least of which is that I can all but guarantee that I’ve already spent more time trying to respond to the essay than Scorsese spent writing it.

(Okay, but there was one petty thing: I did actually giggle when I read: “Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again.” It’s undeniably true that the MCU movies have all coalesced in my brain into a vague, homogenous mass of car crashes and three-point landings and CGI, but I think that’s more or less irrelevant, for reasons I’ll get into. It just seemed like a very odd criticism coming from someone whose own work has run the gamut all the way from movies about white Italian men in New York City to movies about white Irish men in New York City).

I realized that I’m not all that interested in responding to the essay itself, but there are still a couple of ideas swirling around there that I can’t get out of my head. I believe that the MCU isn’t actually “cinema,” definitely not in Scorsese’s gate-keeping definition, but also in that it isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before.

Reading that essay helped me figure out the cognitive dissonance I’ve been dragging around for years: how can I be so wary and dismissive of aggressively focus-grouped, committee-generated, Corporate Entertainment Product; but still go apeshit for these “franchise pictures” like the MCU and Star Wars? Other than simply saying “I contain multitudes,” and leaving it at that?

The Marvel Crowd-Pleasing Universe

It never would’ve occurred to me to compare Alfred Hitchcock movies to Marvel movies, but Scorsese does exactly that. Here’s the only part of his essay that I agree with entirely:

Every new Hitchcock picture was an event. To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching “Rear Window” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself, and it was electrifying.

That’s a great sentence, and it perfectly describes my vivid memories of watching Rear Window for the first time, in a theater packed full of a couple hundred other beginning Cinema Studies students. The moment when Raymond Burr first takes notice of the audience is absolutely electrifying, and I’d swear to this day that it made every person in the room gasp.

The way Rear Window works is, literally, Cinema Studies 101, from the raising of the blinds underneath the opening credits, to the would you just look at how beautiful she is close-ups of Grace Kelly, to the climax. But Scorsese — in what seems like an attempt to shoehorn Hitchcock into a restrictive definition of what qualifies as “cinema” that even he isn’t entirely convinced of — immediately sets about trying to undermine that. He dismisses everything that makes Hitchcock movies masterpieces as little more than crowd-pleasing gimmickry.

Martin Scorsese pulls the camera back in from implicating the audience, to suggesting that the real impact of the moment comes not from Raymond Burr confronting us in the audience, but from Lars Thorwald noticing LB Jeffries and triggering the third act. He insists that Hitchcock’s movies still resonate with us decades later because we’re so invested in the characters and their stories.

(He undermines his argument more than a little bit by talking about North By Northwest and the emotional state of “Cary Grant’s character.” Even though so much of that mistaken-identity story hinges on the character’s identity as Roger Thornhill. But again: I’m skeptical that Scorsese was overly invested in this essay).

I don’t love every Hitchcock movie1Sorry, Frenzy, but the masterpieces I enjoy enough that I’ve deliberately avoided learning much about how they were made, how Hitchcock thought of them, or many details about his attitude and approach to filmmaking. I’m superstitiously afraid that it’ll lessen my enjoyment of them. So based entirely on the films themselves, his appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and his often darkly hilarious trailers for the films based on his TV persona, I’ve got a vivid, possibly imaginary, impression of his process. And it’d be tough to call Hitchcock “populist.” But I do get the sense that he was driven not out of a need for personal expression, but out of a desire to create experiences for audiences.

They work by innately understanding the audience’s expectations, and then building on them, twisting them, or subverting them. Over the years, I’ve seen excerpts from interviews with Scorsese and with Thelma Schoonmaker, the editor who worked closely with Scorsese on several of his films, that mention similar audience-focused techniques: holding on shots uncomfortably long, for instance. So it’s kind of a bummer to see them recast as audience manipulation instead of audience engagement.

You might be better able to understand why Scorsese’s essay set me off when I point out that not only do I believe he misrepresents the real reason Hitchcock’s masterpieces resonate with audiences, but he also dismissively over-simplifies theme parks. So I felt doubly attacked. He mentions that Strangers on a Train has a climax set on a merry-go-round, seemingly without questioning why that was done. He also seems to ignore the last 60 years of theme park history, which literally started as a side project of a movie studio to experiment with new ways of applying cinematic techniques to interactive experiences.2And which has grown to be a multi-billion dollar industry, making it baffling to me how anyone in the entertainment business could be so dismissive of it. Instead, Scorsese mentions it as a throw-away reference, using “theme park” as a synonym for “cheap thrills.”

Without even searching, I stumbled on a clip from an interview with Alfred Hitchcock on the Dick Cavett show, in which Hitchcock happily compares his works to pre-Disney amusement park attractions like haunted houses and roller coasters.3Unrelated: Has Paul Bethany ever played Dick Cavett? It was all I could see during that whole clip. Hitchcock talks about filmmaking not just in terms of understanding audiences, but being obligated to audiences. The film’s primary purpose isn’t to create art (although that did unquestionably happen as a side effect). The film exists to create experiences. He mentions a sequence in one of his movies that angered audiences, and he talks about it not like a case of masterful manipulation and subversion of expectations, but as a mistake. He says he’d neglected to consider what audiences “need.”

So much of the “cognitive dissonance” that a film snob like me feels when we have to acknowledge that we love the MCU comes from growing up in an era that brought both Martin Scorsese and Star Wars. We’ve been more or less trained to respect movies that are driven by a primary filmmaker, independent of a large studio, and focused on creating cinematic art. And we’ve been similarly conditioned to have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that seems to be the product of a large studio, driven by marketing or commercial success, or which unabashedly plays to the audience.

I feel like I have to point out that that environment somehow congealed into Michael Bay’s Transformers, a series which is simultaneously acknowledged as the realization of the “vision” of a single filmmaker, and is also an insultingly crass and commercial appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen

It’s also resulted in the Fast and the Furious series, which is… dire. Over the years, I’ve had several people tell me that they’re a ton of fun and that they’re better than I’d think, and I have to say, “I’m genuinely glad you’re able to enjoy them.” I’ve tried a few times, but haven’t managed to found anything fun in them apart from The Rock’s unapologetic scenery-chewing.

That’s the series that I imagine when I hear Scorsese’s phrase “franchise pictures.” But I’ve never been entirely sure of why the Marvel Cinematic Universe is decidedly not that, and is so much better, even though they seem to have so much in common.

The MCU isn’t being subtle about what it’s doing. Even if you didn’t get it the moment Nick Fury appeared during the credits of Iron Man, we’ve been barraged by a near-constant stream of movies over a decade that should have made it clear by now. Still, I’ve been mostly satisfied with the simplified explanation: they’re doing cinematic interpretations of the stories in Marvel Comics, with a shared continuity among dozens of action movies that are all at least a little better than they need to be. But I’ve never put that much thought into how unique and unprecedented and achievement it is.

They’re not exactly “cinema,” because few of them work as stand-alone movies, and even the ones that do stand alone are given more weight by their shared continuity. I think Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Black Panther are all, objectively, excellent movies. But they wouldn’t have had nearly as much impact if they hadn’t been part of the MCU. Most of them happily exist as episodic installments. There are flourishes in style or plot developments — this is the one that is a sci-fi comedy! This is the one that feels like a 1970s spy thriller! This is the one where Spider-Man shows up at the airport fight! — but in most cases, I’d be completely unable to tell you which events happened in which movie.

But it’s not like episodic television, either. (I’d go so far as to say that even Daredevil and Jessica Jones don’t feel like episodic television to me). Even with all the hours’ worth of installments at this point, the movies still don’t have the same luxury of time as a television series. They’re character-driven but still can’t afford to let the characters just rest and hang out. (Unless they’re all getting shawarma together). In fact, when they do try to include moments like that, it just feels weird. The whole scene in Age of Ultron in which the characters are competing to lift Thor’s hammer is the kind of scene that adds a little depth and personality to the characters, but it feels oddly like dead weight in a movie that’s otherwise committed to driving the franchise forward with no “wasted” scenes. The banter during the battle scene at the start of the movie feels like it manages to do more heavy-lifting4No pun intended in terms of character development, and it feels more natural.

Finally, the movies in the MCU aren’t quite like filmed interpretations of the comics, because they don’t work the same way as the comics. There’s an elaborate, confusing continuity in the MCU at this point, but the continuity of super-hero comics is on an entirely different level.5Even Marvel and DC’s attempts to streamline continuity and provide a jumping-on point for new fans, the Ultimates series that gave us the Samuel L Jackson version of Nick Fury, become completely impenetrable to newcomers after a year or so. Comic books, or at least super-hero comics, have a storytelling style that I wouldn’t call “episodic” so much as “iterative.”

They need to run indefinitely, like sitcoms, but they can’t just reset everything back to normal at the end of each installment, like sitcoms do, because that would kill any feeling of forward momentum. So instead, they work more like soap operas do: each installment tells basically the same story, with variations. In the Marvel super-hero comics — or at least ones from the era that the MCU “phase one” has been re-creating — that story is usually: good guys get together, beat each other up because of a misunderstanding, find the bad guy, then team up to beat up the bad guy. Cliff-hangers lead to the next installment, and any variations introduced along the way get picked up and built upon in the future installments. The end result is something that feels like it continues indefinitely in both directions: not only does this story have no defined endpoint, but it’s also been going on for longer than most of us have been alive.

The movies are most obviously different in that they have to be accessible to mainstream movie-going audiences. So characters get origin stories — but the origin stories aren’t fetishized to the degree that DC does with Superman and Batman — that are streamlined, recombined, and reconstituted until they’re reduced to their most essential elements. But I think a less obvious difference is that the movies are generally all building on stories that have come before, so they have the advantage of knowing which elements ended up being defining moments in each story. It’s what makes it possible for this to be an indefinitely ongoing series that still has installments with a beginning, middle, and end. Even the ones that are obviously setting up for a sequel.

Franchise Pictures

While I’m at it, it’s not like other “franchise pictures,” either. I’ve always thought of it as being most like Star Wars, but Star Wars is really more about building a fantasy universe than it is about telling character stories. The characters are interesting, but they’re also fighting for attention alongside the spaceships, aliens, planets, and millennia of made-up lore.

The Marvel movies are almost entirely about the characters. Not in terms of deep character development, but as the center of focus of every story. It’s not just an homage to the comic books that they’ve named every installment after either a character or a team. I think it’s kind of interesting that Star Wars in its post-Disney-acquistion, post-MCU phase seems to be putting its focus on characters like The Mandalorian, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan Kenobi more than events or time periods like The Clone Wars.

If anything, the closest analog to the MCU would be the James Bond movies. They’re also an indefinitely-running series of installments re-interpreting the same main character. The biggest difference is that they’re a lot less interested in a huge, shared continuity. There are recurring characters and plot developments, but they’re more like a franchise series than a shared, over-arching story. (And in my opinion, trying to treat it like an ongoing story, as they did with the last couple of Daniel Craig installments, is where they lost me).

Assemble

At the risk of sounding fanboy-ish, I really do believe that they’ve ended something that uniquely combines the best aspects of all three of its “source mediums.”

Each installment is an event. Even the televised versions, but especially so with the movies. They’re designed to be watched in a darkened theater with a hundred or so other people, all caught up in the same experience. The animated Marvel logo now gets cheers from the audience, just like the Lucasfilm logo before a Star Wars installment, or the looking-through-a-gun-scope sequence at the start of Bond movie credits. You’ll hear comics fans in the audience acknowledge when the movie makes a reference to some bit of lore, even if you don’t recognize it yourself. And when an especially powerful moment happens, like the Thanos snap, or Captain America’s elevator fight, or “I am Iron Man,” you feel the electricity in the crowd.

It’s also episodic and inter-connected, not just in the style of television series but of comic books. The “solo” series act like mini-franchises with their own sequels, and culminating in team-up installments with the Avengers title. This results in all the shared references and callbacks — noticing changes in the opening Marvel logo, spotting the Stan Lee cameos, waiting for the post-credits sequences to act as cliffhangers for the next installment.

And as with the comics, they reward fans for being invested in the continuity. They’re all designed to be accessible to those of us who haven’t read the source comics and have no particular affinity for the characters outside the movies, but they’re also full of references and callbacks that will reward Marvel true believers for recognizing them. That encourages all the spin-off nerd discussions as fans try to reconcile the MCU with what they know from the comics, and speculate on what’s going to happen next.

So Money and You Don’t Even Know It

All of that stuff gets at an idea of how it’s bigger and more complex than any other attempt at a long-running franchise that’s preceded it. But it doesn’t explain why I think it’s really special. Or more precisely: why I’m so eager to defend something that could be so easily dismissed as a soul-less, corporate, attempt to crank out mass-market entertainment product.

It’s not just because I’m a nerd. I’ll acknowledge that 99% of why I’m so in love with the reason I’m so enamored of recent Star Wars projects is almost entirely due to nostalgia. The best ones, like The Force Awakens and The Mandalorian have felt like filmmakers with the backing of a huge budget trying to recreate precisely how I felt as a pre-teen obsessed with everything Star Wars.

But I’ve got no particular love for the Marvel comics. I was a DC fan — and hoo-boy, have the decades not been generous to DC fans. Almost everything I know about Marvel comics is from the various animated (or barely animated) incarnations on TV. The rest is from generalized nerd cultural diffusion. You don’t go to as many comic book conventions as I have without knowing a little something about Scarlet Witch.

The reason why I think the MCU is spectacular (and amazing, and mighty, and even Web of) is simply that it’s much better than it needs to be.

In other words, the opposite of what Martin Scorsese objects to. If these are just supposed to be huge money-makers for Disney corporate, they’re trying way, way too hard. They could just be taking the Fast and the Furious approach, combining spectacular stunts with batshit-crazy stabs at continuity, and still be making billions of dollars. Even with all of the complaints of “super-hero fatigue,” the MCU installments are making a fortune.

Instead, I get the sense that these are being made by people completely aware of all the obligations of a blockbuster franchise, but who still deeply love the source material. Or if not that, they’re personally invested in making good movies.

Part of that is the aspect that’s always been my favorite part of the MCU: the fact that they don’t just seem to be assigning installments to “hot” directors, but working to create an environment where filmmakers can bring their unique spin to a franchise.

I’ve said before that Iron Man feels to me like an action movie merged with a romantic comedy, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s an action movie made with the mindset of a very specific romantic comedy. I know that Jon Favreau didn’t direct Swingers, but I’m pretty sure he was one of the principal creators of it. You don’t get the MCU without Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark, and I don’t think you get that version of Tony Stark without Vince Vaughn’s character in Swingers. It — along with the chemistry between him and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts6Who, no matter what your opinion of the actress is, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for that character 7And for the record, I still like Gwyneth Paltrow a lot, for being so eager to make fun of herself — is precisely the spark the movie needs: a character who’d be completely insufferably obnoxious in real life, but is just charming enough to be fascinating. Favreau’s got a reputation now for being able to make something good out of what could otherwise be thankless, corporate-driven franchise projects. But I can’t watch Iron Man without the sense that it’s at least somewhat a personal project.

And all of the “solo titles” are like that, to one degree or another: Kenneth Branagh on Thor, Joe Johnston on Captain America: The First Avenger, Ryan Coogler on Black Panther, James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy, Taika Waititi on Thor: Ragnarok once they realized the Shakespearean approach wasn’t working. Even the first two Avengers movies, which have the most action-movie-franchise obligations, still manage to feel 100% like Joss Whedon movies. Right down to the double-fake-out in Age of Ultron, setting up the Whedon gimmick of killing off a beloved character and then killing off a different character.

It doesn’t always work, as with Edgar Wright on Ant-Man, or with whatever was going on with Iron-Man 3. But they’ve had more hits than misses, and more often than not, they feel like audience-focused franchise installments that still let individual filmmakers bring their own unique contributions.

Like I said before, if you asked me to recount the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I’d stare blankly for a few seconds before shouting “hey, look over there!” and then running out of the room. But I don’t believe that the movie is really intended to function like that. If you asked me to recount the story of the MCU version of Captain America’s entire storyline, I think I could do a decent job of it. It’s the story of the whole character that’s more important than any individual installment.

But if you asked me to describe Captain America: The Winter Solider, I’d say that it’s the one that feels like a 1970s Cold War spy thriller, right down to including Robert Redford. It feels like an extended stylistic reference that places it not just in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the universe of cinema as a whole.

Excelsior!

My first exposure to the MCU was at a WonderCon in San Francisco. I’d ducked into the big, dark exhibit hall where they’d spend the day having Hollywood types conduct somewhat awkward panel discussions before launching into the latest trailer for their nerd-focused or nerd-adjacent project. I came in right as they were building up for one of the first public screenings of an Iron Man trailer. The room was packed full of people, and everyone seemed preternaturally hyped for it.

The trailer seemed to be more or less what I would’ve expected — metal suit, repulsor rays, explosions, three-point super-hero landings. But the crowd went absolutely apeshit over it.

Like I mentioned earlier, I was a DC guy, so I didn’t get why everyone was so excited for it. (And if I remember correctly, this was before there was even a hint of an extended Marvel universe, because nobody had yet seen the post-credits scene). I mean, I’d seen the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, and all the X-Men movies up to that point, so I knew that Marvel characters could make for good movies. But… were people really that hyped for Iron Man, of all things? I just didn’t get it.

Fast forward to a year or so ago. I was taking a ride share to the airport. I’m usually not talking to strangers anyway, and it always feels a little awkward to be riding in a strangers’ car, so I tend to avoid conversations. But for whatever reason, our small talk on this ride brought up Avengers: Infinity War. And we started excitedly talking about our favorite parts of the movie, and what we thought was going to happen next. Not in the long-winded way I’m doing here, or like a pop-culture blogger trying to place the Avengers in the context of our modern-day mythology, but like when I was a kid, excitedly talking to my friend about the latest Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie.

And then he started talking about watching the movies with his kids, and how great it was to be seeing them enjoying the same characters he’d loved when he was their age. It felt like I was finally a member of some club, which extended past the limits of a single filmmaker and an audience, but encompassed millions of people, and was spread out across multiple media, with the potential to go on indefinitely. In that moment, the question of whether it was “cinema” seemed completely irrelevant. ‘Nuff said!