As you may have heard, Martin Scorsese, the guy who’s made at least one movie most people like, unholstered a critical pistol and is taking aim at Marvel movies. Depending on where you sit, these bullets have either bounced off Captain America’s shield or have critically wounded the Avengers. But, what no one is talking about is what these movies mean for the only demographic that really matters in the world of superheroes: families. As a guy who loves indie movies and complaining about things, I agree with Martin Scorsese. But as a dad who cares about stuff kids like, I think he’s also wrong.
When I was a kid, it took about a year and change for a cool movie to show up on the shelves of the local video store, and, even longer for it to hit HBO, Cinemax, or Showtime. From Michael Keaton’s 1989 Batman to Ghostbusters II, to some of those ’90s Star Trek movies, waiting for that blockbuster you loved to be something you could watch in your living room was excruciating and frustrating. These days, thankfully, kids don’t have that problem anymore. If they missed Avengers: Endgame in the theater this spring, it’s already available to rent and will be streaming “for free” on Disney+ in November. For families that bond over these kinds of movies (which arguably, includes the Harry Potter movies and Star Wars, too) we’re living in a time that is pretty great. If we want to watch one of these movies as a family, at home, the convenience and sheer volume of these films are amazing. And, you know what? The movies are pretty fun, too.
In his latest screed against Marvel movies and the current Hollywood machine, Scorcese is right about everything he says about Marvel movies. But, he failed to factor families into his argument. In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Scorsese defended his controversial comments about Marvel movies and basically said that his concern is that the movies aren’t really cinematic art because they don’t take any chances. Further, he’s worried (correctly) that the preponderance of these kinds of movies has created a movie marketplace that his hostile to more artistic films. TLDR: Marvel killed the art-house movie and the future of arty movies is looking bleak.
As a guy who literally wishes for a new Wes Anderson movie every single day, I get what Scorsese is saying here. If we’re talking about adult moviegoers, there’s literally nothing wrong with his argument. When he writes: “If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course, they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing,” I find myself nodding along, and raising my fist in anger. Of course, he’s right! These kind of movies aren’t really real cinema and they are probably dumbing everyone down.
But, wait a minute. Does Scorsese think Ant-Man and the Wasp was made for adults? I mean, I know adults go to these movies but are these movies for adults? I think if you search your feelings, Skywalker-style, you’ll find the answer is a big no. Marvel movies and their ilk, are, like Christopher Reeve’s Superman before them, essentially, family entertainment. These movies are designed for parents to watch them with 7- to 15-year-olds. The accusation that the films are like “theme parks” is accurate. But, if you have kids who love these movies, that’s completely fine.
Part the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is actually fairly innovative. Unlike say, Tim Burton’s Batman or Nolan’s The Dark Knight, or even the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman films, the Marvel movies do something that was almost never successful with these kinds of films before: They basically play every single comic book trope straight. While Burton was thumbing his nose at comic-book fans in ’89, and Nolan was making huge statements about the economy, the movies in the MCU are mostly just about Thor swinging a hammer and Iron Man being a badass. This, intrinsically, is actually something that never happened in mainstream movies before now, and honestly, probably only previously existed in the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s. The difference now? Marvel has a lot more money than Buster Crabbe ever did. Scorsese says that’s a problem, and in terms of his industry, I’m inclined to believe him. But, as a parent, it’s also not my problem.
Yes, there are armies of people out there ready to go toe-to-toe with Scorsese and prove that the Marvel movies are “real” cinema and do have artistic merit. But that’s kind of a waste of time, and intellectually dishonest. If you’re smart, you know that Marvel movies aren’t the same kind of good as an art-house movie. You shouldn’t want the same thing from Thor: Ragnorok that you do from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or Scorsese’s upcoming flick, The Irishman, which, by the way, every single guy I know is very excited to see.
These same guys are fathers who take their kids to Marvel movies. We can whoop and holler at Dad Bod Thor and then get pumped for the new Noah Baumbach at the same time. We don’t have to worry too much about which ones are “real cinema” and which ones aren’t. And if Marty is worried that debate is necessary to preserve the dignity of his profession, that’s fine. If he’s worried that arty movies will only end-up on streaming services, I’m going to say something very unpopular: That might be okay and it also won’t be permanent.
When I was a child, my father and other disciplines of ’70s rock were complaining about the death of vinyl records. And, in the ’90s, it’s true, vinyl records were killed. But, then, they came back. Yes, it’s a specialty market now, and mostly weirdoes like me —and rappers like Big Boi — force our kids only to listen to vinyl records, the point still stands. The medium didn’t disappear, it just changed. My guess, the same thing will be true for art-house movies being shown in actual art house cinemas. In the ’90s it was impossible to see the comeback of vinyl records in the early 2010s. And for Martin Scorsese, it’s impossible to see a world in which Marvel doesn’t dominate the movie-theater-going landscape.
Why? For tired parents who just watch want to watch movies any way we can get them, none of this seems super concerning. Scorsese also doesn’t present us with a choice. Because if someone said that, in an effort to save the culture, they were coming to take our Marvel movies away, and give us a bunch of thoughtful mobster movies instead, dads everywhere would have the same response: I hear you. I’m sorry. But our kids are not gonna go for that.