It’s the superhero battle of the year — depending on who your superheroes are.
If they’re legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, the dust-up in the past few weeks over what constitutes “cinema” — an argument that in this case basically boils down to “Taxi Driver” versus “Joker” — might be an easy one in which to choose sides. For one thing, “Joker” wouldn’t even exist without the 1976 Scorsese classic from which it swipes its apocalyptic setting, alienated tone, delusional antihero, and many other particulars. But, as always, the conversation gets more tangled the deeper you go.
To recap: In an interview with Empire magazine earlier this month, the revered director of “Goodfellas” and other modern-day classics was asked if he followed the “Avengers” saga and similar franchises. “I tried, you know?” Scorsese responded, “But that’s not cinema.” He allowed that such movies might be “well made,” with actors “trying the best they can,” but that they’re basically “theme parks.”
“It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” Scorsese said. To which an army of fans and the creators of said franchise films shouted “Poppycock!” (I’m paraphrasing.) Directors like James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) toed the line between venerating St. Marty and begging to differ, tweeting, “I was outraged when people picketed The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen the film. I’m saddened that he’s now judging my films in the same way.”
Then, after two weeks of impassioned social media debate, ’70s movie godhead Francis Ford Coppola waded into the fray. The “Godfather” director told a group of French journalists, “When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. . . . . Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”
Oh, my. Other world-class filmmakers chipped in, if only because reporters started asking them about it. Britain’s legendary Ken Loach, a multiple Palm d’Or winner at Cannes, called Marvel films “commodities . . . like hamburgers.” Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” the upcoming “The Two Popes”) admitted, “I watched a ‘Spider-Man’ eight years ago and that was it.” Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar was reported to have said that Marvel movies can “eat my entire [expletive],” but that turned out to be a hoax. (What he did once say was that the superheroes should be having more sex.)
Against these acknowledged masters of their art raged a horde of . . . well, regular moviegoers who not only are entertained by such box-office behemoths as the “Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Batman,” and “Spider-Man” cycles but find in them genuine meaning, morals, and philosophical resonance. And against them raged a lot of cultural gatekeepers imagining what Kubrick or Hitchcock might have had to say about “Suicide Squad,” and imagining it wouldn’t be pretty.
The whole argument seems fairly specious, especially when we’re in the middle of a constitutional crisis. But it’s also quite relevant to the ways we amuse ourselves, distract ourselves, tell ourselves stories about the human experience. Are superhero movies cinema? Not if you believe that cinema is defined by flesh-and-blood characters having flesh-and-blood interactions rather than heavily digitized fantasy escapism with the actors green-screened in. The Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (“Zama”) has said she was approached by Marvel to direct a “Black Widow” movie but was told “don’t worry about the action scenes, we’ll take care of that” — proof, for some, that these films aren’t films at all but programs cooked up in the belly of a corporate supercomputer.
And the argument that franchise movies have to be important because they make ridiculous amounts of money doesn’t wash, not in an industry that has wholly ceded the multiplexes to action-oriented series, sequels, and remakes based on intellectual properties owned by the studios themselves. Such movies make money because they’re what’s there; the midrange comedies, romances, dramas, and mysteries have been chased out of the marketplace and taken up residence in independent art houses or on video-on-demand. Now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and controls 30 percent of the market, don’t expect the chokehold to ease up.
Devotees of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC version of same see those movies as having metaphorical relevance to issues of today, and they’re not wrong. I don’t think “Joker” is a very good movie but I’ll admit it’s trying to put its big, blobby thumb on a host of pertinent discontents. I like that idiosyncratic filmmakers like Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi”), Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) have been handed the keys to the franchise roller coaster. And if it takes HBO’s “Watchmen” to teach white America about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, fine by me. What’s at issue here, however, is something different, and that’s the homogenization of a narrative art form.
I’ve been watching movies for about a half-century now, and it’s clearer than ever to me that they fall into one of three baskets: Art, Craft, and Product. There’s a good deal of Venn overlap between the first two, but, basically, art is less interested in the comfort of the viewer than the truth of the experience and craft is more interested in the aesthetic and organic pleasure of the ride — the high that can come from skilled artisans working together at the top of their game. “Alien” (1979) to me is great craft; “Chinatown” (1974) is great art. A great work of cinematic art (see 2016’s “Moonlight”) is almost always well crafted; a great work of cinematic craft (see last year’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse”) doesn’t have to be art. (But it can be: see 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.”)
What’s product? Failed craft — a movie that has a market imperative to fill and doesn’t much care how it gets there. True, the better franchise movies are evidence of massed armies of craftsmanship, including all those faceless soldiers pushing pixels for international FX companies. But the worst know that canonical references and snarky one-liners are all it takes to make undemanding fans happy.
Art wants to say something, often something impossible to articulate in words. Craft wants to be something. Product wants to make something, and that something is money. Undergirding this whole silly-yet-not debate is the fact that the needs of the third category work at cross-purposes to the first, if not actively neutering it. Product is inherently safe. Art is inherently not. In the end, that’s precisely the difference between “Taxi Driver” and “Joker,” despite the latter’s studied “dangerousness.”
Art and craft once had a place in America’s movie theaters — especially in the 1960s and ’70s, when Coppola and Scorsese got started. (On the other hand, let’s not forget that both Coppola and Scorsese made drive-in product — “Dementia 13” (1963) and “Boxcar Bertha” (1972), respectively — for B-movie king Roger Corman.) These days Coppola, who directed what a lot of people consider the greatest movie of all time, has to fund his own films with wine-making profits. And Scorsese made his most recent gangland epic — “The Irishman,” which some early viewers are calling one of his finest, most morally ambiguous films and a slam-dunk best-picture contender — for Netflix, which will ship it quickly to the small screen.
The battle, in other words, may be over. Theme parks rule the multiplexes, and some of the rides are terrific — maybe even meaningful. But cinema as it has been practiced for over a century is becoming harder and harder to find in an actual cinema.