I’ll let you in on an uncomfortable secret, gentle reader: while the life-long comic geek in me is thrilled (often against his better judgment) by the credible appearance of super-heroes in shows and movies, the snooty movie critic in me thinks that…well…they all too often just aren’t very good.
I mean, they tend get the surface stuff right. The popcorn stuff (and no, I don’t mean that in any dismissive way). Costumes and heli-carriers and the like. Most of it looks great. Music is suitably loud and awesome and swells in all the right places. But once you get past the surface glitter of special effects and beautiful people, what’s left tends to be bland pablum. Movie-making on auto-pilot.
In advance of the release of his movie The Irishman in July 2019, Martin Scorcese sat with Empire magazine for an article about his life and work. Buried down near the bottom of the otherwise routine retrospective was this quote about the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”Empire, July 11 2019
And holy shit, Geek World lost its collective fucking mind.
Murders have gone unpunished, empires been overthrown, and entire civilizations vanished beneath the waves in violent cataclysm that elicited less foaming at the mouth outrage than Scorcese’s comments about Marvel movies to Empire. Because nothing — and I mean nothing — agitates a certain kind of fan’s sensibilities more than the suggestion that his favorite comic book movie somehow isn’t the equal of Citizen Kane or Vertigo or Taxi Driver.
It led to a great deal of uninformed silliness with irate Twitter warriors whose knowledge of film begins with Batman and ends with Captain America coming out of the woodwork to deride Scorcese as alternately out of touch, jealous of Marvel Studios’ success, a gatekeeping racist / misogynist, and an intellectually and creatively stunted hack who’s only ever made gangster movies.The Passion of the Christ, Age of Innocence, Kundun, Hugo, and Silence would argue otherwise, but sure…gangsters.
But here’s the thing, and I say this as someone who’s read thousands upon thousands of comics, who’s seen the MCU’s every last entry and likely read all its source material, and who’s devoted an unwisely and embarrassingly large percentage of his mortal existence to stories about super-heroes:
Martin Scorcese’s got a point.
Scorcese concedes outright that Marvel movies are often well-made by talented professionals giving it their all, and that’s true. There’s no reason to doubt the commitment to excellence felt by the caretakers of the MCU, from its producers to its directors to its actors. It’s also true, however, that the movies and shows of the MCU are by neccesity commercial ventures first and foremost. They cost a lot of money to make. The kind of money that carries genuine risk for a studio’s financial well-being. WandaVision cost nearly $25 million an episode, making it easily the most expensive television show ever made on a per episode basis. As of this writing, of the ten most expensive movies ever made, adjusted for inflation, fully half of them are super-hero movies, and three of those are MCU movies. When and where art for art’s sake exists in the MCU, it’s at the very least constrained by the obligation to make money.
Lots of money.
And money by and large gets made in popular culture by aggressively occupying a comforting PG-13 middle ground, where we have the appearance of challenge, high stakes, and danger without much in the way of actual challenge, high stakes, or danger. I can’t think of a single franchise tent-pole sequel — Harry Potter, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, the MCU, the DCEU — that doesn’t adhere to this model. And hey, those ten most expensive movies ever made, adjusted for inflation? Eight of them were franchise sequels of the very sort I just listed.The two outliers were Titanic and a Disney animated film, Tangled.
We know damn good and well that the likes of Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and Jack Sparrow and Captain America and Batman aren’t in any real danger. They’re zillion dollar properties who need to stay alive and in one piece for another sequel. There’s nothing wrong with this — indeed, the comforting routine of it seems to be an intrinsic part of the appeal for most people — and I’ve little objection to people being entertained with no higher aspiration than entertainment for its own sake. Nothing wrong with entertainment.
So…what do Martin Scorcese and all these semantic acrobatics have to do with WandaVision?
I’ll tell you: the best and most successful of the MCU movies and shows are the best and most successful precisely because they attempt to break out of this middle ground routine. In short, the closer they come to being what Scorcese calls ‘the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,’ the better they are.
The things that stand out to me about WandaVision — the elements that push it towards being something special — aren’t things that really have much to do with super-heroes. I don’t much care about Jimmy Woo’s magic tricks, or Darcy’s snappy one-liners, or Monica’s glowing eyes. I could go the rest of my natural born life without seeing anything like another Vision vs. Vision CGI puppet fight, full of noise and property damage and little else.
WandaVision‘s quality doesn’t lie in how it emulates the well-worn path of the 23 MCU movies that came before it, but in how it defies that formula and occasionally dares to embrace something altogether different. It’s in Wanda’s grief, in her sad farewell to the Vision, and in the way the Scarlet Witch wins the battle, thereby ensuring that Wanda Maximoff loses the war.
What stands out are the little moments of truth and revelation.
The quiet stuff.
The human stuff.
The Scorcese cinema stuff.
We’ll continue exploring some of these same themes in future editions of Opposite of Cool. Feel free to leave any opinions and questions in the comments.
Next up: Falcon and the Winter Soldier!