When asked about his thoughts on Marvel films at a promotional event for his movie The Irishman late last month, famed director Martin Scorsese described the films as “theme parks” rather than cinematic works. He claimed that the films aren’t “in the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Scorsese is not the first to have this viewpoint on the films, and he most likely won’t be the last, but the question of the matter is whether he is right. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), as they make up a majority of the Marvel films released and are also what I believe Scorsese was referring to when he said Marvel movies are “invading cinema.”
The MCU is a carefully woven narrative that has spanned 23 movies over more than a decade. As someone who has been a fan for the past 11 years and has literally grown up watching these movies, Scorsese’s assertion that these films “do not convey emotional, psychological experiences,” could not be further from the truth. While people like to comment on superhero films for their use of green screen, grand stunts, and explosions, those elements aren’t the only factors that keep fans coming back movie after movie. It’s the characters. Their development, their vulnerability, and, to use Scorsese’s word, their experiences.
We can look at the MCU’s two largest characters as examples: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Over the course of the three Iron Man movies, viewers see Tony’s transition from a billionaire weapons manufacturer to a hero, and the audience follows the character as he experiences an event that leaves him battling severe PTSD and anxiety. We watch him grapple with morality and the effects that his life saving creation (the Iron Man suit and subsequent persona) has on his own life, the lives of those he loves, and the world. Similarly, the Captain America trilogy follows Steve Rogers, whose entire aspiration in life was enlisting and fighting for his country, as he finally becomes a soldier. More importantly, the films show what happens when he is separated from all that he knows and loses his fulfilled dream, waking up 70 years later in a foreign world. The audience sees him struggling to find his place in a new era and what it means to fight for his country in a role that is far removed from his days as a soldier. Despite their larger than life events, these films are grounded in real, human journeys that are relatable to audiences.
Moreover, the exaggerated and fantastical settings that the movies take place in allow the film makers to explore “regular” problems from a new perspective. This is relevant now more than ever with movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel—the first minority-led and solo female MCU movies respectively. These films showcase the experiences of people that are commonly under-represented in the genre, and reflect the troubles they face in a new way. Black Panther, for example, on abasic level, looks at what an African nation could achieve without colonization, while Captain Marvel depicts the issue of how countries treat and perceive refugees. For decades, comic books have used their stories to illustrate poignant issues in society, offering different perspectives on topics and sparking relevant discussions. As the MCU expands, it also grows in the number of perspectives it draws from and the realities it portrays.
When Infinity War came out in 2018, a major point of frustration for viewers was the fact they had to watch the preceding 18 movies to understand the overall arc. Compared to film makers like Scorsese (who has never done a sequel), this number of films is a rarity. But it’s the decade of movies that affords viewers a connection with these characters in a way that has not been seen or replicated in film. It allows the films to portray a universe that is as diverse and problematic as our own, while also giving viewers hope for what is possible in cinema.
In the end, the MCU is cinema, and the films are successful cinematic works because they not only possess the very things that Scorsese believes they lack, but possess them in abundance.