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.