While it’s no secret that comic book films have been the frontrunners of modern-day cinema, topping Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997) for the highest box-office records: they’re not without their share of critics. And as the lines of what is considered ‘cinema’ are deliberated, we see a conflict arise as to whether these comic book films have a place among other nominations at The Oscars.
Previously, comic book films have beat-out other nominees at the Oscars. Black Panther (2019) won in 2019 for Best Production, Costume Design and Music (original score), DCEU’s Joker (2020) was awarded the Best Actor and Best Music (original score) in 2020, and famously, Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor in 2009 for his role as the Joker in The Dark Night (2009). The MCU has also been nominated 10 times for Best Visual Effects, with other nominated categories including: Best Sound Editing Iron Man (2008) and Makeup and Hairstyling Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
So while there is no doubt that the films themselves have been received favourably for their skill, critics argue that these comic book films do not belong alongside the films typically associated with The Oscars.
Most notable of these critics is Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese. His comments during an interview to Empire magazine caused a huge stir within both sides of the argument. Scorsese described the Marvel films as “closer to theme parks” which was the most controversial of his opinions given and, which he further backs in his opinion piece in The New York Times saying “I’ve tried to watch a few of them and they’re not for me…in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.”
So we can look to the definition of ‘cinema’ which Merriam Webster defines as: the art or technique of making motion pictures. But the ‘artsy’ film elite – Scorsese included – would most likely relate the meaning of ‘film’ closer to the definition of ‘art’ which reads: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.
So if we unpack all that he relates his ‘cinema’ as it compares to the Marvel films or comic book films as a whole: we can see that much of it is actually alike.
If we start with imagination, well, I’m sure anyone could agree: it takes a great deal of creativity to come up with some of the storylines and characters featured in comic books – read Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) where a half-man half celestial being is partnered with a green alien assassin, a blue killing machine, a genius talking racoon and a sentient tree, all of which is set to a soundtrack of 70s/80s chart toppers. Skill we’ve covered, as to have even a nomination for an Oscar in any category requires a great deal of talent. Lastly and most important to the defence of comic book films at The Oscars, is beauty.
Scorsese goes on to mention some of his directorial colleagues: Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow and Wes Anderson, all of whom have undeniably contributed to the art of cinema, so, how can films where most of the plotlines involve fighting off some type of alien be labelled as ‘artistic’?
Well, perhaps we’ve reached the impasse because it is true that the CGI of the MCU and DCEU cannot live up to the set design and mise-en scene created by the typical ‘artsy’ director. However, the films themselves can contain visuals unlike no other genre around. The use of the CGI is masterful and often leads to graphics so beyond-world that it leaves audiences stunned by their technicolour and graphics. So the argument will continue as to whether these films satisfy the creative needs of ‘art’ in cinema.
But you see, any film that can have arguably millions of its audience members sobbing – multiple times in one film might I add – should have its praises sung for its ability to tell a beautiful story. I am referring here to Marvel’s Avengers Endgame (2019) and Avengers Infinity War (2018) films, for these are the two films that brought movie goers to their knees with their hard-hitting plot twists. Sure, most of the characters are wearing over-done spandex suits and wave around pretend weapons to defeat green-screen villains, but it’s the intricate storylines of the characters, many of which have evolved over 11 years, that had audiences across the world so emotional.
The dramatic climaxes of the plotline that follow the emotional punches of character development might be what Scorsese is referring to when he describes them as ‘theme parks’. They are fantastical and over-done, often ridiculous and outlandish but I think what is most important when it comes to praising films, is how does it impact the audience.
For one, these comic book films have attracted huge amounts of people to theatres and streaming services, something that Scorsese’s artsy crew have fallen behind in. There are of course many reasons behind this, namely funding and production value but what is truly astounding is how much audiences care for these stories brought to life from the pages of comic books. I myself have never once read a comic book but still sob multiple times over in numerous Marvel films and I believe there is credit due to the creators of those films for that.
Because nowadays, comic book films have surpassed the laughably childish Adam West’s Batman of the 1960s. They bring Academy Award winning actors, directors and creators together and have changed the face of cinema with the magnitude of how loved they are by audiences.
They have characters growing and acknowledging their flaws, which as Scorsese states “cinema was about characters – the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves” and I think there may be no better example of a character in a film that has done exactly that than the man who started the MCU and arguably comic book film franchise success as a whole, than Tony Stark.
Image by Eury Escudero via Unsplash