What the Marvel-vs-Auteur Debate Is Really About

     October 24, 2019

marvel-vs-directors

Over the past several weeks, there have been a series of stories where acclaimed auteur directors are asked about Marvel movies and the directors say something negative about those films. Martin Scorsese compared Marvel films to “theme parks”; Francis Ford Coppola called them “despicable”; Ken Loach said they’re a “cynical exercise”; Pedro Almodovar called them sexless and “neutered”; Fernando Meirelles said he wasn’t interested in them, but also added that it doesn’t mean the movies are bad. Naturally, people who had worked with Marvel then came to the defense of these movies, with Guardians of the Galaxy filmmaker James Gunn saying that Marvel movies are simply today’s gangster/cowboys/out space adventures, and Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau simply noting that directors like Scorsese and Coppola are his heroes and free to express their opinions.

The fact that this debate has been going on for weeks has been tedious to some who complain that these directors shouldn’t be asked about Marvel movies in the first place. However, the reasoning for the question is both valid and obvious. It’s a valid question because these are directors who are esteemed in their industry and the industry really values superhero movies right now. And it’s obvious why these stories keep getting covered because it’s a simple-to-manufacture conflict between fanboys and cinephiles, even though those groups easily overlap. But what Marvel fans want and what these directors are expressing goes a bit deeper than whether or not a certain group of movies are liked or disliked.

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Image via Marvel Studios

First, let’s begin with the frequent coverage. As a writer and editor for Collider, I make absolutely no apologies for it. If every single acclaimed director gets asked about their opinions on Marvel movies, we will cover those quotes because people are interested in reading them, their clicks mean revenue, and I like paying my mortgage. The question is not out of bounds, it is not offensive, and it hits to the heart of a very real conflict about what kinds of movies are getting made, getting seen, and who gets to make them. This debate may not interest you personally, but the good news is you can easily sit it out and read literally anything else on the Internet. But my traffic reports tell me that people do care about this conflict, so I’m going to keep covering it because A) I think it’s interesting; and B) I like money.

But I will note that I think the “conflict” here is not only manufactured, but wrongheaded. The conflict is based on an outdated slobs-vs-snobs scenario with fanboys as the slobs who like only the most popular entertainment and the snobs being the directors/cinephiles who believe that only movies from the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, et al. have value. That’s a false choice because there are plenty of people who like Marvel movies who also like Goodfellas and Apocalypse Now, and obviously these famed directors haven’t seen every Marvel movie and may end up liking some more than others. For them, “Marvel movie” is a catch-all term for “biggest blockbusters.” I doubt Scorsese is a massive fan of the new photoreal The Lion King, but the question is never phrased as, “How do you feel about all these live-action Disney remakes?” because it’s just easier to say, “Marvel movies.” So already, the conflict is misrepresenting the separate groups and what these groups are saying.

I don’t think Marvel fans are cross because Scorsese, Coppola, et al. dislike Marvel movies. Plenty of people don’t like Marvel movies, and that really shouldn’t matter right now. Marvel movies, and the superhero genre as a whole, are dominating Hollywood right now. Less than two decades ago, getting a superhero movie made was an uphill battle. Now the genre is changing and diversifying and getting rewarded at the box office by easily crossing $1 billion worldwide. A character like Black Panther, who was unknown by the mainstream ten years ago, is now the lead character in a movie that received seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture. By any standard of popularity, superheroes are mainstream now. But being mainstream isn’t the same as being respected, and I think what these Marvel fans still crave is legitimacy.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The newfound popularity of the superhero genre in the mainstream has put its followers in an awkward position of acceptance but without gravitas. They want the one thing that money can’t buy, and that’s respectability, which is hard to get when these movies are made for children. Granted, they’re also made for a broad audience, but they’re made for children because children (or rather, children’s parents) buy toys and bedsheets and trips to Disneyland and so forth. But just because something can be consumed by children, that doesn’t mean it’s inherently childish. As we’ve seen with movies like Black Panther and The Dark Knight, it’s possible to use superhero films as vehicles for substantive topics just as gangster movies and westerns also evolved to become vehicles for such topics. But as long as fans feel defensive over needing to be taken seriously (hence a movie like Joker, which acts serious but isn’t really about anything), the media (e.g. folks like me) can take advantage of that insecurity and exploit it for clicks. Martin Scorsese, one of the most celebrated directors of all time with over 40 years of experience in the film industry who is still cranking out great work, doesn’t think what you like even qualifies as cinema. The mature thing to do is to just shrug and say, “his loss,” but fans crave the respectability he can bestow, so he has to be dismissed outright as just not getting it.

But what Scorsese and his fellow directors “aren’t getting” isn’t Marvel movies. I’m 99% sure that all the directors who have come out against Marvel movies haven’t seen every single one, because a lot of people don’t see every single Marvel movie. When Almodovar calls superhero movies sexless, chances are he hasn’t seen Batman Returns. But the genre is largely sexless (as a lot of American blockbusters are), so that’s where he gets his critique. He doesn’t have to qualify every statement with its exceptions because his point and the point of his peers isn’t about the merits and flaws of superhero movies, but of the Hollywood system. Marvel movies are just the most obvious representation of that system right now.

What’s getting to Scorsese, Coppola, and the other auteurs is that Hollywood doesn’t want to make their movies. Martin Scorsese is one of the most venerated directors out there, and yet no studio would risk footing the bill for The Irishman until Netflix came along with its bottomless pit of money. If Scorsese told Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, “I want to direct Ant-Man 3,” I’m sure Feige would have no problem with it, although he would probably be a bit confused. But Scorsese doesn’t want to do that, and that’s a problem because the current marketplace has no room for the movies that Scorsese and his peers want to make.

The current Hollywood business model as it stands is a donut hole. On one end you’ve got studios like A24 and Fox Searchlight that can fund smaller movies that cost about $5-25 million. They won’t make a billion worldwide, but you can get a nice little return on investment from Midsommar and The Favourite and what have you. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got franchise IP that’s far more expensive and a much larger gamble, but also offers a higher return on investment. Avengers: Endgame costs around $350 million, but it gets you $2.7 billion worldwide plus all the merchandise and other ancillary revenue streams.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

But where does that leave a filmmaker who wants to make a $60 million movie for adults that’s not based on pre-existing IP? Even Joker director Todd Phillips admitted that he wanted to make a character study, but the only way to do it was under the guise of a comic book movie. And that’s really where the consternation is coming from with these directors. Scorsese doesn’t really care one way or the other if you like Marvel movies. His primary concern is how to make his next movie in a marketplace that has plenty of room for Marvel, but no room for him despite his sterling career. The business, as it stands now, has squeezed out guys like Scorsese and Coppola who could make what they wanted in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but now everything is about IP or it’s about small independent pictures that can’t finance their visions. Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t care about the finer points of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He cares that he has five Oscars, directed some of the most important movies of all-time, and his latest picture opened in 16 theaters. You don’t have to weep for Coppola, but it’s important to understand where he and his peers are coming from.

That’s why a debate over who likes or dislikes Marvel movies is beside the point because it’s not about personal preference and it’s not about specific Marvel films. It’s about the business as it stands now, and it’s a business that’s rapidly changing in ways that no one can predict. Twenty years ago, the superhero genre was pretty much dead, and in twenty years, it may be dormant again. But in this moment, it represents Hollywood’s power and what movies the major studios are willing to make as well as what they’re not willing to make. Choosing a side between Marvel movies or auteur directors accomplishes nothing because this is simply the state of the industry; being Team Marvel or Team Scorsese signals nothing beyond personal preference, and honestly, a fairly narrow preference at that. The discussion we’re having when we ask these auteurs about Marvel movies isn’t about what they like; it’s about where the industry is headed and if it still has room for them. That’s the question we need to explore, not whether or not Martin Scorsese has seen Black Panther.

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