So Martin Scorsese goes out and says that Marvel movies are “theme park movies” and then Francis Ford Coppola follows up by calling them “despicable”… Much hate coming from these legendary figures of cinema, responsible for such greats as Goodfellas and The Godfather.
You can understand where they’re coming from, because they have spent their lives pushing for cinema to be a true art form with something messages and themes embedded in their craft. In comparison, Marvel movies such as The Avengers are primarily made to drive merchandising sales to the important and lucrative 12-45 years old demographic.
But does that make them any less important to culture? I say no. The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have their place in storytelling culture (along with the auteur films) because they have a positive influence over our kids that is desperately needed in this day and age.
A modern version of legends and fairy tales
When I was growing up, I was obsessed with the Arthurian legends – Arthur’s relationship with his sword Excalibur, and Lancelot’s relationship with Arthur’s wife Guinevere. These stories were great to inspire grand adventures in my head, and also some life lessons about loyalty and your best friend’s wife.
I don’t know why, but it doesn’t seem as if the Arthurian legends are as popular with kids anymore. You can’t blame the Marvel movies either, because they faded out of popularity long before movies like Guy Ritchie’s and Antoine Fuqua’s attempts to make Arthur cool again failed. Likewise, a Greek friend of mine tells me that he’s not familiar with the Greek myths like Achilles and Hector because he didn’t grow up with them despite being brought up in Greece.
So the MCU movies have come to fill this void left by the absence of ancient legends. It sucks that kids are not exposed to the old classic stories, but at the same time they still need legends to look up, to guide their social development.
Whether it’s Arthur and his sword or Captain America and his shield, what they represent is great to fuel the imagination of children (and adults) with the wonders of storytelling. Society needs stories like these to drive and inspire us. The exact form they take is irrelevant, so long as they are present and fulfill the human need for grandeur.
A lot of film reviewers will always favor the classics, and will take any opportunity to insert the phrase “French New Wave” into their writing. Being aware of the classics and their influence on modern cinema is great, but to automatically discredit modern popcorn cinema is a little snobby. It’s the same with children’s books, and if this philosophy was applied to music we’d forever be listening to Mozart, and Michael Buble covers classic jazz tunes volume XXXVII.
So give the kids their superheroes! I’m confident that some day, they will grow up and their love for these stories will push them to look for more, and from here they’ll discover the original stories that inspired the Marvel superheroes. But for now, it’s good that they have Cap and Iron Man.
If for no other reason, look at the other franchises available for kids like LOL Dolls and Shopkins. These toys don’t even pretend to have a shallow story; the Shopkins cartoon is just a series of punchlines loosely strung together.
A consistent inspiration for serving the greater good
I get it: many MCU films are rehashed versions of each other, recycling similar epic shots and grandiose orchestral soundtracks. Structurally, Doctor Strange is like a beat for beat remake of Iron Man 1, with magic replacing technology.
But I’ll argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good that we have a consistent source of inspirational heroism and straight-laced good guys. Captain America is always out to do the right thing. Iron Man’s quest is to protect the world from harm. Thor is the most ridiculously desirable man in the Nine Realms, lusted after by men and women, yet he’s committed to the one partner.
We live in a pretty sad time now. The news is always full of depressing news, world leaders treat women and working class people like objects, and pop music is all about getting drunk and getting what’s yours.
Even videogames and movies are trending towards R-rated antiheroes.
Which is why it’s important to have heroes to look up to, who display the qualities we want our children to aspire towards.
Real life is full of gray areas and a simple black and white perspective in stories might be simplistic, but our children don’t have to be exposed to the complexities of real life yet. Right now, it’s enough for them to want to be “the good guy”.
Girls can kick ass
There is one particular shot in Avengers: Endgame that had a lot of haters up in arms. It basically assembled all the female superheroes in one sweeping epic shot, and together they charged to cut a path through Thanos’ armies. Admittedly, it was a little contrived, but I still felt it was awesome to watch.
I was really interested to see how my 6 year-old daughter would react to this particular shot. Would she jump to her feet and cheer? Would she stare with mouth open and a sparkle in her eyes?
When the time came, there was zero reaction from her.
I asked her if she noticed anything commonalities between the heroes in this shot, and even played the shot again for her.
“Erm… They work together as a team?”
“They all have super powers?”
She had grown up with all these MCU movies where gender was such a non-issue, so it has become a common concept for her that females can be dominant and powerful. In the case of Captain Marvel, a female can also be the most powerful of them all.
And this is an agenda that the MCU has been pushing for a long time. I don’t care if the objective was to poach merchandising revenue away from Barbie and LOL Dolls – the end result is still a substantial cast of characters that convey the concept that females are not just foils or damsels to be saved.
Martin Scorsese cannot make the claim that any of his films have been headlined by a woman. Coppola has Peggy Sue Got Married, but that’s one film in 57 years of his career.
On that note, I can’t wait for Valkyrie to get her own spin-off movie where she hooks up with Queen Elsa.
They make parenting easier
There are so many MCU movies at this point and they’ve done a ton of stuff on screen. What that means is we have plenty of supporting evidence to teach kids a range of different lessons.
Maybe this doesn’t do much for the art of cinema, but it does so much for my mental well-being!
When my son didn’t want to take showers, I showed him Iron Man’s armor tear-down sequence from the beginning of Avengers, where robot arms take off bits of his armor as he walks into Stark Tower.
Now shower time is that walk into Stark Tower (aka the shower), and I just make machine noises as I take off his clothes and diaper.
Kids don’t like to brush their teeth. Making them do so can be a nightly hassle that leads to fights.
But they do like Spider-Man, and if you Google Spider-Man brushing teeth, guess what you find?
Eating in a tidy manner
My son has this habit of pinching bits of food and eating them in small pieces. That leaves a lot of crumbs all over the table and floor.
So I showed him the post-credits scene from Avengers where they’re eating Shawarma, where you distinctly see Thor picking up his entire sandwich to take a big proper bite. And now I can tell him to eat like Thor.
Dealing with grief
My grandmother passed away recently. I wasn’t sure how to explain this to them. How do you tell a child that you’re feeling a little hollow inside? That something has gone missing but you should try to remember them in a good way?
Luckily there is Infinity War and Endgame to help you.
Cinema is storytelling, and Marvel tells stories
Has Kevin Fiege and his team at Marvel Studios contributed to cinema as much as Scorsese and Coppola have? Maybe not, but it’s all relative and these guys have set a really high standard. But you can’t downplay what Marvel contributed though, because there is a wealth of good stories in there to inspire kids and grown ups. It’s just camouflaged under merchandise and blockbuster explosions.