Sorry Marty, but Captain America is daring, serious art | Helen OHara

Marvels blockbusters have been condemned by Scorsese and Coppola, but they can be just as complex as any arthouse creation

Marvel movies are not just cinema; theyre good cinema. At the end of Marvel Studios 2018 hit Black Panther, there is a moment that unfailingly reduces audiences to a stunned silence. The films villain, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B Jordan) is carried, dying, by its eponymous hero (Chadwick Boseman) to a high ridge to watch the sun set. Bitter and in pain, he refuses medical treatment and says: Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.

In a big Hollywood movie, a superhero movie no less, he delivers a stinging rebuke to those who would overlook the history of racial injustice. It may come from a villain, but the line echoes in our heros actions afterwards, as he opens his hi-tech African nations borders to help the oppressed.

Its a moment that Ive been reminded of in recent weeks after the director of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese, described Marvels popular superhero movies as theme parks and said that the films were not the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being. The director of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, then described Marvels output as despicable, while British director Ken Loach dismissed the movies as a marketing exercise. This discussion led by extraordinary film-making talents and grounded in serious concerns about the place for independence of thought in the modern studio system is a valuable one. But the fact is that Marvel makes some of the most thoughtful and nuanced blockbusters in Hollywood right now.

Superhero comic books were one of the original, innovative art forms of the 20th century, and in the last two decades Hollywood has seriously begun to capture the essence of whats special about them. Marvel and its competitors can now capture the visual dazzle, the interwoven narratives and the impossible powers of the original books. But after decades of visual-effects blockbusters and franchise filmmaking, its hard to point to any one thing these films do that is wholly new or outrageous; only the scale of Marvels success has made it a whipping boy.

To date, Marvel has made 23 films over 11 years, a meta-franchise (the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU) that enfolds several sub-franchises (Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers and so on). 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.

Michael B Jordan as Erik Killmonger, left, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Photograph: Marvel Studios

While the MCU movies are all described as superhero films, there are characters in them, such as Black Widow, with no special powers beyond intelligence or training, and films that more closely resemble space opera or thrillers in genre, so that each film does feel distinct and fresh. Nor are they uniformly gung-ho or mindless. Captain America: Civil War offers a neat parallel to the start of the last Iraq war in its discussion of unilateral versus collective action, and depicts a devastating internecine conflict between the series heroes in which no one is entirely wrong or right. Thor: Ragnarok has anti-colonialist undercurrents, but also a gladiatorial battle between a Norse space god and a giant green rage monster. This year, the last act of Captain Marvel made a feminist statement as compelling as that in Cannes breakout Portrait of a Lady on Fire, even if the rest of the film traded lyricism for action.

Their interlinked nature has allowed several Marvel films to reach downbeat endings that other studio bosses would reject outright. The aforementioned Civil War finishes with almost every character beaten and miserable; Avengers: Infinity War sees half the population of the universe dissolve into thin air. The films invite not only geeky dissection of comic-book references but also serious discussions about morality, relationships and why, for example, a brainwashed assassin is not technically guilty of murder.

Some claim that Marvels vision of (mostly) good and evil is inherently reductive, but that seems wrong. Why is the thrill of watching gangsters transgress social norms more valuable than the thrill of watching a decent guy super-punch Nazis? A lack of morality is not, in itself, a virtue. Our current political mess is fuelled by leaders who encourage us to believe that there is no such thing as good or evil, that no one is sincere. In the howling void of cynicism they create, they can tell people whatever lies they want and have them treated as weightily as the truth.

Marvel films acknowledge, surprisingly often, that goodness is not easy and that the right thing is not always obvious, but it is still worth striving for. Why would we reject that message? With Scorsese-like gangsters running global superpowers and Loachian misery a fact of everyday life for ballooning numbers of people, escapism with substance is nothing to sniff at.

Helen OHara is a film journalist

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