By Sasha Simic
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Culture Clash: Superheroes are cinema too

This article is over 4 years, 8 months old
Issue 451

Three giants of cinema have come out against the phenomenally successful series of superhero films produced by Marvel.

In early October Martin Scorsese argued Marvel films were “not cinema” and were more theme parks than films. Shortly after Francis Ford Coppola called Marvel films “despicable”.

Most recently the great socialist film director Ken Loach declared superhero films “boring”, “nothing to do with cinema” and a “cynical exercise” to make profits for big corporations.

There have been 23 films produced by the Marvel Studio since 2007 which have grossed over $22.5 billion worldwide. Six of the top 20 highest grossing films of all time are Marvel superhero films. Avengers: Endgame (2019) became the first film in history to take more than $1 billion at the box-office on its opening weekend.

Popularity is no measure of quality but, equally, just because something is popular is no reason to condemn it.

Are Scorsese and co dismissing Marvel films because they are so popular? I think it’s a reasonable conclusion given none of the three specifically identify what it is about these films they dislike. There is more than a whiff of elitism about their rejection of what they clearly see as lowbrow culture.

It seems to me that all three auteurs are mistaken to attack Marvel films in generalities. A film should be criticised firstly on its specific merits and shortfalls.

Coppola, for example, exposes his ignorance of Marvel films when he says, “I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again.”

But audiences don’t go to Marvel films to see the same movies “over and over again”. It’s lazy criticism to see all films featuring superheroes as identical.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is a decent political thriller which is completely different from the sci-fi based comedy of Ant-Man (2015). Thor: The Dark World (2013) was a dour drama which flopped. Thor: Ragnarok (2017), a comedy-drama featuring the same superhero, was popular with audiences and critics.

It’s not genre which determines the quality of a work, it’s the execution. It was Coppola after all who made two cinematic masterpieces out of Mario Puzo’s very bad pulp novel The Godfather.

I admire Ken Loach’s work very much. But it’s unfair of him to condemn Marvel films because they make profits for big corporations. That’s the tragedy of all cultural production under capitalism. To attack Marvel films because they make money for Disney and for the former CEO of Marvel, the Trump-supporting Isaac Perlmutter, is highly selective at best.

None of this is to say Marvel’s films are beyond ideological or artistic criticism. But they deserve credit when credit is due.

Audiences aren’t stupid. They respond to good work. Some Marvel films speak to mass audiences in a way our three auteurs can only dream about.

The reception around Black Panther (2018) for example was far more interesting than the film itself.

In a period marked by resurgent racism, audiences welcomed a mainstream film that featured beautiful and intelligent black people with power and agency.

Black Panther grossed $400 million in the US and $704 million worldwide in its first two weeks.

When the film opened in the US it played before what media analysis company ComScore described as an “especially diverse audience”. The proportion of African-Americans in the audience of an average mainstream film in the US is 15 percent.

Black Panther’s opening weekend audience was 33 percent African-American, 37 percent Caucasian, 18 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian and women represented 45 percent of Black Panther’s audience.

New York-based market researcher Frederick Joseph was so excited at the prospect of a film featuring a black superhero with a majority black cast made by a largely black crew that he launched the Black Panther Challenge GoFundMe campaign. It raised over $40,000 in the US and $800,000 internationally to allow black children to watch Black Panther for free. Joseph said, “I began the Black Panther Challenge to [ensure] that our children get to see themselves as heroes, too.”

There’s a lot to criticise about Black Panther, especially its depiction of revolutionaries and revolution. But the quality of the film is not the main issue. In Trump’s America the film was used by members of the Electoral Justice Project to register black voters. In Africa the film was used to open up a debate about Afrofuturism and traditional culture.

It’s a pity such initiatives were inspired by a film about the filthy-rich monarch of an imaginary absolutist state, but that only highlights how few mainstream films featuring people of colour in leading roles there are.

I saw Black Panther in London’s East End. As the credits rolled up, one middle aged black man got to his feet to shout “Wakanda forever!” He clearly didn’t find the film “boring” or a “theme park” and there was nothing “despicable” about his enjoyment of the film.

Film is film. There is room for Loach’s brilliant social dramas, Scorsese and Coppola’s gangsters and for superheroes too.

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