Why Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, et al. are right about Marvel movies

Quentin Tarantino has become the latest respected filmmaker to earn brickbats for his less-than-positive comments on movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or rather in this particular case, their impact on the theatrical business. While speaking to Tom Segura on his podcast, Tarantino, in his usual blunt manner, said, “I don’t love them. 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 twenties, I would totally be f***ing 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.”

He added, “My only axe to grind is they’re the only things that seem to be made. And they’re the only things that seem to generate any kind of excitement amongst a fan base 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.”

What is the impact of MCU?

Owned by Disney, Marvel Studios’ giant spandex filmic empire, shortened to MCU, spans 30 movies and almost $1 billion per movie in worldwide box office receipts ($27.982 billion in returns at the time of writing). That’s a lot of money, and it has allowed theatrical chains to also fill their coffers. One might almost assume that MCU is a force for good for cinema halls. In one aspect it is, yeah. These movies do lure millions of moviegoers to theatres. 

But MCU’s meteoric rise to the top of Hollywood has come at a cost of smaller movies. Well, smaller is maybe not the correct word. Try movies not related to any existing franchise or recognisable IP (intellectual property). The reason there has been an influx of films in franchises like Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Fast & Furious, and so on is that at the moment, and this is a sort of generalisation, these are the movies that work and justify their $200 to $250 (typically) price tags. Shelling out over $200 million on original movies, even if such movies come from names like Martin Scorsese, is no longer viable — something even Netflix, a streaming service, learned to its sorrow. ‘The Irishman’, released in 2019, reportedly cost $250 million, with marketing and promotions costs included.

While at the moment, it is still the biggest streaming service by far with 220.7 million subscribers (Amazon’s Prime Video is a distant second with 175 million subscribers), Netflix lost almost a million subscribers between April and July this year. It could have lost more, had it not been for ‘Stranger Things’, a show that winds up with its upcoming season.

How did the Marvel vs cinema debate begin in the first place?

It was Marty himself who, certainly without meaning to, kicked off the whole shebang over Marvel vs Cinema in 2019. While speaking to Empire magazine, he said, “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

After Scorsese, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola (who was blunter, called Marvel movies “despicable”), Jane Campion, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Bong Joon-Ho, among others have aired their grievances against the MCU movies or their domination of the cinematic landscape that has come at a cost of original films.

Is there truth to the opinion of these filmmakers?

This debate of Marvel being pitted against cinema (or “real” cinema) has proved incredibly resilient and nobody appears to come to a consensus as to whether MCU movies are really detrimental to cinema as a whole or not. It is not as if MCU movies are bad. But the problem, as Tarantino said, is all we seem to see are superhero movies. Of course, that is not true. Studios like A24 continue to champion indie fare. But it does appear that way due to the sheer amount of money being poured into the development, production, post-production, marketing, promotion, and finally release of superhero films. And such money ends up being worthwhile because they do have a huge audience around the world, and if they are good enough, will recoup all that money.

So to briefly answer the question, yes. MCU movies are greatly entertaining, are mostly written well, feature decent performances, is action-packed and family-friendly, but they are also shallow in terms of cinematic experience and go by a definite formula (put in a few jokes, one-liners, CGI final battle, and so on). In short, they are not challenging enough for the discerning movie buff. All that would have been fine, but the fact that they so comprehensively dominate the business in terms of marketing and pop culture footprint makes sure that there are fewer and fewer people wanting to see original films. And thus, fewer and fewer people are willing to venture out and make non-superhero and non-franchise movies. And that, dear readers, is a problem.

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