Is Quentin Tarantino just the latest in a long line of auteur film-makers to get roundly pummelled by Twitter for daring to question the enduring hegemony of superhero movies at the global box office? That’s the story you might think you’re reading judging from various reports this week, including this piece in the Hollywood Reporter.
“I don’t love them,” Tarantino told Tom Segura’s 2 Bears, 1 Cave podcast when asked about superhero movies. “No, I don’t. I don’t hate them. But I don’t love them. I mean, look, I used to collect Marvel comics like crazy when I was a kid. There’s an aspect that if these movies were coming out when I was in my 20s, I would totally be fucking happy and totally love them. [But] they wouldn’t be the only movies being made, they would be those movies amongst other movies. I’m almost 60 so I’m not quite as excited about them.
“My only axe to grind is they’re the only things that seem to be made,” Tarantino continued. “And they’re the only things that seem to generate any kind of excitement amongst a fanbase or even for the studio making them … So it’s just the fact that they are the entire representation of this era of movies right now. There’s not really much room for anything else. That’s my problem. It’s a problem of representation.”
“Part of the Marvel-isation of Hollywood is you have all these actors who have become famous playing these characters,” he added. “But they’re not movie stars, right? Captain America is the star. Thor is the star. I’m not the first person to say that. I think that’s been said a zillion times, but it’s these franchise characters [that] become a star.
“Back in 2005, if an actor stars in a movie that does as good as the Marvel movies do, then that guy’s an absolute star. It means people dig him or her and they like them and want to see them in stuff. Sandra Bullock is in Speed and everyone thought she’s amazing in it. Everyone fell in love with her … They were excited by Sandra Bullock and wanted to see her in something else. That’s not the case now. We want to see that guy [keep] playing Wolverine or whatever.”
Regular readers of this column will recall we have (sort of) been here before, when Martin Scorsese sparked the original anti-Marvel furore with comments made during his Bafta David Lean lecture in October 2019. The venerable director described cinema as having become like “amusement parks” thanks to an overabundance of superhero movies. He then went further in an interview with Empire, opining: “The value of a film that’s like a theme park film, for example, the Marvel-type pictures, where the theatres become amusement parks, that’s a different experience … it’s not cinema, it’s something else.”
Francis Ford Coppola later followed up with comments made to journalists in Lyon after his acceptance of the Prix Lumière for contribution to cinema.
“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,” said the director of Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy. “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.”
Tarantino’s comments have drawn particular ire from the star of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Simu Liu, who wrote on Twitter: “If the only gatekeepers to movie stardom came from Tarantino and Scorsese, I would never have had the opportunity to lead a $400m-plus movie. I am in awe of their filmmaking genius. They are transcendent auteurs. But they don’t get to point their nose at me or anyone. No movie studio is or ever will be perfect. But I’m proud to work with one that has made sustained efforts to improve diversity onscreen by creating heroes that empower and inspire people of all communities everywhere. I loved the golden age too … but it was white as hell.”
Liu has a point of course, and yet I think the majority of commenters on the farrago have rather missed Tarantino’s. The Pulp Fiction director isn’t suggesting that Marvel regulars are not movie stars because they lack presence or the required thespian nous. He’s lamenting a lost era in which cineastes went to see the latest Cary Grant or Tom Cruise movie, rather than the new Thor or Iron Man flick.
Tarantino has always been drawn to a magnetic screen presence. It’s why he’s revived the careers of so many Hollywood stars, from John Travolta to Daryl Hannah and the late David Carradine. He wants us to recognise, with a shudder of delight, the once and future famous face before us, now reimagined through a filter of gorgeously choreographed, blood-soaked drama, and with six times as many perfectly concocted lines as they ever had in the movies we once knew them for.
Remarking that Marvel actors are not really movie stars is an almost stereotypically Tarantino-esque thing to say. He is lamenting the very loss of a system that has given him so much, for the film-maker is nothing if not a supremely talented magpie, half-inching all the best bits from the cinema of yore, and reconfiguring them in a manner so stylish and insouciant that the result often improves upon the original.
Yet in the superhero milieu, there is nothing for him to grab hold off, nothing to steal, because the stars here are the comic book characters that fans have known and loved for decades, not those who portray them.
Future Tarantinos, then, may struggle a bit. The rest of us (and Marvel) will probably get by just fine.