The other night, I was struck by the strong desire to watch a comfort movie. I default to films from the Star Wars, DC, or Marvel franchises—as these are the stories I grew up alongside. The movie of choice this past weekend was Matt Reeves’ The Batman. From the cinematography to the acting to the score, I believe it is one of the greatest movies of all time. The Batman showed that superhero movies could be “real movies.” But why do I write “real movies” in quotes? Well, through my expert film knowledge as a recently declared film minor, I can say that among the film buff community, superhero movies tend to be looked down upon.
I’m here to offer another view.
In 2019, beloved director Martin Scorsese made a statement where he said, “I don’t think [Marvel movies are] cinema,” sparking backlash from all over the internet. A month later, he wrote an article for The New York Times explaining his controversial remark. He wrote, “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”
While he brings up an interesting point, I would argue Scorsese is a little too close-minded. Yes, superhero movies are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, but so is every story ever told. I’m not walking into an action movie with the hopes of seeing John Wick hug the guy that—SPOILERS—killed his dog. And I’m not tuning into Hallmark to see Jason Statham blow up a building. When I walk into a drama, I expect to feel catharsis. When I walk into an action movie, I expect to witness badassery, for lack of a better noun.
Scorsese writes that “cinema was about revelation—aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
To this, I assert that these types of characters are a part of superhero movies such as Batman or Spider-Man—both main characters (along with hundreds of other superheroes) are walking “paradoxes.” When they face these tests to their character and moral code we, the audience, see that maybe Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker—people whose aliases look ordinary—are the real heroes. This duality gives the characters an added element of mystery and intrigue.
It’s the fun of these stories that comes from this paradox. When I walk into a Batman movie, because it has a specific set of demands it must satisfy, I can essentially write the story. I know Batman is going to fall in love with Catwoman because of the 80-plus years of lore. I know Spider-Man’s villains are going to discover his identity, leaving him to ask the age-old question: Is the real me Peter or Spider-Man? But in the same fashion, I know a Scorsese movie will have a bunch of classic rock needle-drops, where money and privilege go hand-in-hand, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, or Joe Pesci will take the stage—it’s the fun of the Scorsese lore. So, what makes his directive decisions so much different from Marvel or DC’s?
If Martin Scorsese argued that superhero movies weren’t cinema because they used too much CGI, essentially making them a video game, then maybe I could get behind his stance. But he didn’t. If he argued that they weren’t real cinema because they are a franchise, then maybe I would get behind his stance. But he didn’t. In fact, he even said that “in the films of Alfred Hitchcock—I suppose you could say that Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or that he was our franchise. Every new Hitchcock picture was an event … and ‘Psycho,’ which I saw at a midnight show on its opening day, was an experience I will never forget. People went to be surprised and thrilled, and they weren’t disappointed.”
What makes that experience different from me going to see a new Batman movie? Similar to Scorsese going to Psycho, I go to Batman wanting to see how the writers and directors will subvert my expectations in their handling of the lore.
Scorsese argues that superhero movies lack real stakes, but he misunderstands where the stakes lie in a superhero movie. Almost always the hero will win because the titular character has to fulfill his or her glorified reputation. But, the victory is usually at the cost of something personal. Just like Scorsese’s movies, superhero movies are character-driven. Part of cinema is storytelling. Scorsese knows this, but he overlooks it in the superhero genre because he doesn’t view the appreciation of the lore as the real beauty in these films—the same appreciation movie-goers see when they watch a Hitchcock or Scorsese film.