Sorry Scorsese, But Superhero Movies Are Art

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I recently saw “Joker,” the controversial film detailing the origin of comicdom’s best-known villain. The movie was both engrossing and exhausting. I can’t remember the last time I witnesses an audience so stunned that it exited the theater in perfect silence. Though afterward I pondered many issues “Joker” raised, I never wondered whether the film counted as actual cinema.

Yet according to two of the greatest directors of all time, that’s the question I’m supposed to be asking.

“That’s not cinema,” says Martin Scorsese. His target is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but by extension he is describing superhero movies generally, and perhaps the larger world of sci-fi, horror, apocalypse, and fantasy that rakes in the big-screen money nowadays. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

His longtime friend Francis Ford Coppola essentially agrees: “Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.” Marvel, says Coppola, just makes “the same movie over and over again.” Why isn’t it cinema? Because from cinema, “we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”

Certainly the success of superhero movies renders them fair subjects of criticism. To borrow from George Eliot’s attack on Charles Dickens, they are “not entitled to the protection of insignificance.” And the opinions of heavyweights like Coppola and Scorsese deserve weighty consideration.

Yet one wonders why exactly we must travel this bumpy road again. Back in 2012, noted horror director David Cronenberg called superhero movies “adolescent.” As for those lavishing praise on Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies, Cronenberg declared “I don’t think they know what the f— they’re talking about.”

We see the same vituperation in other fields of art. One need only recall the late literary critic Harold Bloom’s vehement denunciation of Stephen King upon the occasion of the latter’s receipt of an award from the National Book Foundation in 2003. Perhaps King is seen as the literary equivalent of superhero movies. A cottage industry of critics lobs attacks his way with some regularity.

One way to look at such contretemps as these is that we simply see artists trying to police the boundaries of their craft. This artists have done since time immemorial — and since time immemorial, the answer has been the same. As Leo Tolstoy noted in his monograph “What is Art?” the task of classification creates serious risks: “If we exclude from the domain of art all that to which the critics of various schools themselves deny the title, there is scarcely any art left.”

 But I suspect that there’s more going on here. The media reports have not quite found the right frame. Coppola, for instance, isn’t new to this battle. Properly understood, his attack isn’t really on any particular movies. It’s on the executives who decide which films get the green light. A few years ago, in a wide-ranging interview with the journalist Aristan Anderson, Coppola identified true art with risk. Commercialism was the enemy: “You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that hasn’t been made before; they will throw you out because they want the same film that works, that makes money.”

The true distinction Coppola is drawing is between projects that earn out and projects that don’t. He would prefer a system in which films could be made without regard to their prospects for commercial success. To be an artist is, in this sense, to create something new.

That’s where the risk comes in.

By this logic, the filmmaker who submits to the studio’s demands for “the same film that works” might be successful, but is not an artist. The claim is familiar across genres. John Updike famously dismissed the writer who writes for money as “a vulgarity.” The idea is that if the artist creates art for money, then the driving force of creation is something other than the artist’s own creative imagination. Having the wrong motivation makes art less pure.

I’m not so sure. The 19th century Shakespearean scholar Horace Howard Furness stated flatly that the Bard wrote “Titus Andronicus,” his first tragedy, for the money. Donatello’s bronze David, one of the great sculptures in history, was likely created at the behest of banker Cosimo de’ Medici. The exquisite string quartets that make up Beethoven’s Opus 18 were commissioned by Prince Lobkowitz of Bohemia. Yet no one will deny the status of any of these as art.

This doesn’t mean we can’t draw distinctions. We simply have to be careful about how. The fact that a painting isn’t good enough to hang on a museum wall need not deny its status as art. The art in the museum is just better.

This brings us back to “Joker.” It’s hard to deny that the film (to borrow Scorsese’s definition) concerns “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” It’s this very quality that has led some critics to complain that the viewer is “almost tricked into” sympathizing with an essentially monstrous character who “could be taken as an avatar for the incel movement.” But generating empathy for a foreign and even offensive point of view isn’t a trick; it’s part of what art is supposed to do. It’s when we make the mistake of judging quality by whether a work affirms the worldview we held before experiencing it that we really do wind up seeing, as Coppola said, “the same movie over and over again.”

One can find virtue in multiple forms. I consider François Truffaut’s masterpiece “Day for Night” one of the greatest films ever made.  I am second to no one in my admiration for “The Godfather.” (And if you ever want to play “Godfather” trivia, I will spot you two points and still win.) But I also consider “Joker” to be serious, thoughtful filmmaking, and “Black Panther” to be a magnificent artistic achievement.

No, I’m not saying that any superhero movie belongs in the pantheon of greatest-ever-made. But I still think they’re cinema and can be very fine cinema indeed. Maybe I’m a lowbrow. Sue me.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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