Famed filmmaker Martin Scorsese sparked controversy in 2019 when he referred to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films as “not cinema.” He went on to say, “I’ve tried to watch a few of them and they’re not for me, they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema” (1). Since then, other filmmakers such as Quinten Tarantino and Francis Ford Coppola have joined Scorsese in his concerns about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and franchises like it. Tarantino stated, “There is a ‘war for movies’ taking place between ‘original’ film-making and blockbuster ‘commercial product’” (2). Coppola even went as far as to say the Marvel films are “despicable” (2). So, what is really going on here? Are superhero movies—specifically MCU movies—ruining the art of cinema?
I have been interested in this phenomenon for a while now, but it is hard to articulate what is specifically happening. It started out as a general feeling that I had about the more recent films I had seen that I couldn’t put my finger on. It felt like films had shifted focus from the individual film to a focus on a broader image of the intellectual property. In the past, there have been film series, but now it seems that every film must be a part of a cinematic universe. This can be seen in "Venom: Let There Be Carnage." At the end of the film, Venom and Eddie are transported to another universe. This other universe is what we as viewers know of as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The previous "Venom" film was a standalone story, but now it is being roped into a larger universe. This effect will be seen on an even larger scale with the upcoming "Spiderman: No Way Home." This film will attempt to bring together all the other "Spiderman" films and incorporate them into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are rumors of a DC film about "The Flash" that will attempt to do something similar.
There is a sense of finality and conclusion that doesn’t exist in the cinematic universe style of filmmaking. There is a finite amount of media to consume, and there is a clear main character and overarching story. A cinematic universe contains stories within a shared universe that are interconnected. However, they are not all part of the same story arc. There is no main character. Iron Man is the main character of his trilogy of films within the MCU, but there is no main character of the MCU. You can have a series of films with several sequels, but that does not necessarily make it a cinematic universe.
Despite claims of franchise fatigue, “franchises are more popular than ever. The top box-office titles are almost all franchise movies and they’re setting record after record” (3). British film analyst Charles Gant stated, “It is true that in North America this summer (2018) the number of films based on original intellectual property is disappointingly few” (4). Cultural theorist Mark Fisher says that “the focus of movie studios on sequels, IP, remakes and other types of franchises is not a matter of deliberate economic strategy, but the inevitable outcome of our neoliberal and postmodern world” (3). Editor for "Screen International" Jeremy Kay said, “There is little appetite for risk at the studios, and while there are always exceptions, it’s extremely hard for independents to cut through the cacophony of mainstream cinema and compete” (4).
Director of "Avengers: Endgame" Joe Russo says, “The idea that cinema is dumbing down is patronizing nonsense,” (4). Obviously, Russo isn’t going to trash talk his own films, but his films are obviously capturing the imaginations of the audience. An article from the Guardian offers a rebuttal to Scorsese’s comments stating, “An interconnected storytelling feat like this has never been attempted or accomplished on this level before, and initially the scale of that ambition made this as daringly experimental as any indie project” (5).
I think Scorsese’s comments are a bit harsh. There is merit in the MCU films, and I’m sure the films have inspired young filmmakers to learn about the art. However, I do share his concerns about the transmedia franchise aspects overshadowing the art of film. Another concern I have is the over-saturation of the genre of superhero movies. I, like many others, grew up with the Tobey Maguire "Spiderman" movies and "The Dark Knight" trilogy and still regard them as some of my favorite movies of all time. However, I worry that the superhero genre is going to overstay its welcome. I think we should at least take a break from the genre before things go south. Similar to how the “Western” was popular in the 1960s, but then the industry shifted focus with the release of "Star Wars" in 1977.
Personally, I have been disinterested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the release of "Avengers: Endgame." For me, that’s where the story should’ve ended. How will the MCU end? Is there even a plan for ending the universe? The longer you drag out the series, the more risk there is of it fizzling out into a forgettable ending. George Lucas said in a 2015 interview that there’s a general "lack of imagination" and "fear of creativity” in the industry (6). I kind of have to agree with this. The endless sequels and remakes leave me wondering when somebody is going to make the next "Star Wars" or the next "Harry Potter" or the next "Lord of the Rings." It’s up to the next generation of filmmakers to bring new ideas to the table.