Scorsese, Coppola's superhero comments not a case of sour grapes

The two directors have spoken out against Marvel movies. We should listen to them

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

The Marvel Universe is under fire, and it's not Thanos who's trying to stamp out Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest of their pals. 

This time, their foe is film giant Martin Scorsese. And he brought backup. 

This combination photo shows Francis Ford Coppola, left, and Martin Scorsese. The directors have commented on the rise of the superhero film and its outsized place in our film culture.

Scorsese made waves earlier this month when he dismissed the Marvel movies, which have grossed some 70 bajillion dollars over the last decade-plus, as "theme parks." "It isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being," sniffed the director. 

Shots fired. Then Francis Ford Coppola backed him up, tossing gasoline on the fire by adding, "Martin was kind when he said it's not cinema. He didn't say it's despicable, which I just say it is." 

Welcome to the Smackdown Hotel. In this corner, we have the most powerful form of entertainment today, a 900-pound behemoth that has swallowed up Hollywood whole and changed the movie industry as we know it.

And in the other corner, we have two titans of cinema, who in the 1970s helped redefine the language of filmmaking with classics such as "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver" and "The Godfather."

Their comments caused a firestorm on the internet — firestorms, to be fair, are the lifeblood of the internet — and had moviegoers choosing sides.

Others weighed in: English director Ken Loach agreed with Scorsese and Coppola, comparing the Marvel films to "hamburgers," while Disney CEO Bob Iger called the directors' remarks "disrespectful."  

But Scorsese, Coppola and their ilk cannot be dismissed by simply posting the Grandpa Simpson "old man yells at cloud" meme. Scorsese and Coppola know cinema as well as anybody, and while they're a combined 157 years old — Coppola is 80, Scorsese turns 77 next month — this isn't merely a case of two old guys complaining about what the kids today are watching.

Superhero and comic book movies — the Marvel films were singled out, but let's go ahead and assume Scorsese was referring to anything where a character wears a cape — are cinema insofar as they're movies that are projected in theaters while audiences watch them and scarf down popcorn, but they're not cinema as Scorsese and Coppola know or understand it. And this, to project a bit, worries them. 

Not because they're bitter or losing jobs. Scorsese can make whatever he wants, as evidenced by "The Irishman," his three-and-a-half hour gangster epic that arrives on Netflix next month and cost a reported $140 million. (Coppola, for his part, rarely makes films anymore, having worked only sporadically since his commercial burnout in the 1990s.) 

Rather, they mention it because they care about the art form and what they see being done to it. It's like the way you want former presidents to speak out against Donald Trump: they're experts in the field, they don't like what they're seeing, and they're worried this could become the norm going forward. 

What they're not accounting for is the eventual evolution of the genre. They're talking about what superhero films are today, and in their modern form, they're still somewhat in their infancy. Gangster films, on which Scorsese and Coppola made their bones, were once clear-cut tales of good and evil, and it took time for the genre to evolve and for artists like themselves to come along and elevate them to the level of high art. The hope is one day that happens with superhero films as well. 

Furthermore, the flat, outright dismissal of all Marvel fare isn't entirely fair. There have been valuable side effects to their success — "Black Panther" gave underrepresented audiences a hero to look up to on screen, "Thor: Ragnarok" gave Taika Waititi the clout to make "Jojo Rabbit," the "Guardians of the Galaxy" soundtrack exposed a few more people to the sublime beauty of the Five Stairsteps' "O-o-h Child" — even if, for the most part, the films themselves haven't been important or notable pieces of art. They're moneymaking machines. 

And because they're moneymaking machines, they're not going away anytime soon, no matter who says what about them. Marvel fans may cry foul at Scorsese and Coppola's comments, but their anger is misplaced. Marvel already won.

The success of those films, however, is having a debilitating effect on the industry, and that's not just Scorsese and Coppola talking. As franchises and blockbusters eat up more and more screens, smaller films, personal tales and stories about real life are having a harder time finding their audiences, which in turn makes it harder for them to get made.

Theme parks are fun, hamburgers taste good, but you don't want them every single day. Scorsese and Coppola are standing up for their beloved cinema as a whole, before superheroes are all that's left of it. And if that makes them the bad guys, so be it.