I don’t agree with Ken Loach about much – especially on his vitriolic and prejudiced politics – but his comments this week on the Marvel franchise are absolutely correct.
“They’re made as commodities like hamburgers,” he told a Sky news interviewer. “It’s not about communicating and it’s not about sharing our imagination.” They were “boring” and “cynical,” he added.
He is not alone in thinking this – venerable filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola both used interviews recently to criticise the Marvel franchise. They were “theme park, amusement park, comic book films,” Scorsese said, and “not cinema”. Ford Coppola followed suit: “I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is”.
Recently, on a transatlantic flight, I sat next to a fellow passenger who was, like me, looking through the United Airlines film selection – I opted for They shall not grow old directed by Peter Jackson. Admittedly, at first, I wondered whether I had made the right choice. The carnage of the First World War daubed in the essential colours of conflict – ghastly browns and reds. Perhaps, my neighbour was queasy, or might find it an odd choice to “chill out to” as we sailed over the Atlantic, I reflected.
But no, about half an hour into the film, I noted that my neighbour was absolutely engrossed with his screen – he was watching the final battle scene of Avengers: Endgame (the highest grossing film of all-time).
After about fifteen minutes, my neighbour rewound the film a bit so he could watch it through again. Nothing wrong with that I suppose. Then he did it again. And again. And again. A couple of hours in, I realised that he must have watched it about a dozen times. It was then that I counted five other passengers all watching the same Avengers: Endgame battle sequence.
Why are superhero films so popular? There is an element of spectacle – it’s good sport after all. At the cinema where I saw Avengers: Endgame, the whole audience clapped and cheered at the end of the film’s climactic scene, a truly “epic” piling up of flesh and exploded matter until (spoiler alert) as usual the good guy manages to whack the bad guy and it’s all over.
Pier Paolo Pasolini once called cinema “the sacred language of reality”. Well, Marvel surely ain’t that.
Marvel films, in their repetitive story lines and formulaic visual language, tap into a rich vein of so-called “commercial” cinema. The industrialist Henry Ford founded a Motion Picture Department in 1913, which had a then considerable $600,000 annual budget, and churned out films at roughly a rate of once a week. The films were widely distributed across the Americas and they were among the most watched silent films of the day. They championed “Fordist” working practices – the rhythms of the assembly line, forging an ever more seamless relationship between man and machine. Classics include the 1914 film How Henry Ford Makes 1,000 Cars a Day.
Loach, Scorsese and Coppola are of course engaging in their own commercially savvy gambit. By selling their own vision of cinema as cinema as opposed to “the other lot” they are making quite a crass claim about the intrinsic truth value of their own art – the other guy might be interested in the big bucks; I, however, seek out truth, enlightenment etc – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right about Marvel, the ultimate Fordist fantasy.