Old-Fogey Hollywood Directors Have Always Hated the Next Wave
In 1979, Francis Coppola met in San Francisco with Frank Capra, then 82. Apocalypse Now was finally in theaters, a box office hit and clearly headed for the Oscars. Coppola hoped to bring Capra aboard to co-produce 1987’s Tucker, his movie about indie auto manufacturer Preston Tucker. Capra mainly used the meeting to trash Apocalypse Now, which he saw as anti-American. “I never saw such a piece of junk in my life,” he told Coppola. He also refused to have anything to do with Tucker because he felt Coppola’s portrayal of the Detroit auto industry collectively crushing an indie upstart rival was impossible under American capitalism.
Apocalypse Now is just about my favorite movie. I would say it is objectively good. But I was sad to find out that it’s garbage, according to Frank Capra, and objectively bad. Onto the trash heap it goes. When the gods of cinema speak, you don’t talk back. At least, that’s what came to mind over the last few weeks as Martin Scorsese called out Marvel as “not cinema.” When he did, Francis Coppola added that he thought Marvel made the same movie over and over again, which he found “despicable.” Ken Loach agreed: “They’re a market exercise, and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”
Scorsese is 76, Coppola, 80, and Loach, 83, men with legendary cinematic careers behind them. Their lives reach back to World War 2 and, for the latter two, the Great Depression. They grew up in an adult world, before boomer youth culture dominated most every field of entertainment. Scorsese followed up his initial comments in the Times, writing that for him and his contemporaries, Marvel’s massive, alienating presence represents a generational moment:
“But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri. For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, 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 … And that was the key for us: it was an art form. There was some debate about that at the time …”
Yes, that is a how a 76-yr-old cinematic genius might remember it, as “some debate.” But that debate was a generational moment for the old guard of that day, too. In 1969, when John Ford, 74, was asked if he had seen that year’s X-Rated Best Picture winner, Midnight Cowboy, Ford responded, “No! Especially not that. I don’t like porn – these easy liberal movies. A lot of junk.” Like Scorsese, who does not actually see the Marvel movies he dislikes, Ford found Midnight Cowboy to be objectively bad. So why bother?
Orson Welles, when he was about 70, dismissed The Godfather as pure cheese. “The classy gangster is a Hollywood invention,” he told Henry Jaglom “All this code of honor, and all that shit … pure invention.” Scorsese caught it, too. When Sergio Leone (a bit younger than the others) saw King of Comedy at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, Leone told Scorsese, “Martin, that’s your most mature film.” “I don’t know if it was his way of saying he didn’t like it,” Scorsese said years later. Either way, it certainly sounds like Leone dissing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and everything else Scorsese had done to that point as kids’ stuff.
A Director Directs
To recap: Apocalypse Now is “junk”; Midnight Cowboy lib porn, The Godfather bogus, and Scorsese never made a good movie until King of Comedy. Please, save your laughably bad replies, your hot takes that (lol) “No, actually, The Godfather is good.” The gods of cinema have spoken, and you are …?
You might say their goals in filmmaking were as far from Scorsese’s as Earth to Alpha Centauri. “There’s a word that’s lurking within the Op-Ed, one that Scorsese doesn’t use but that might as well be emblazoned in the headline with a cruel irony,” wrote The New Yorker’s Richard Brody in an admiring response to Scorsese. “The word is ‘auteur,’ signifying the idea of the director as an artist.”
He’s right. Scorsese’s generation of filmmakers and critics did loosely adapt French auteurist criticism, making it solely about directors, as their standard for film. As Scorsese said in the Times, his generation venerated filmmakers they liked as kids, those which the Hollywood establishment and gatekeeper critics often did not: Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Ford’s westerns over his Oscar-winners, Samuel Fuller, Jerry Lewis. For many, if a directorial personality or motifs could be identified – Hitchcock blondes, Ford vistas, Hawks’ chill professionals – you had identified an artist. The movie did not have to be about anything, say anything, have any literary qualities, for them auterism was a style over substance debate.
The old guard hated it. Hitchcock? “He was very smart,” Billy Wilder told Cameron Crowe, “because the husband says to the wife and the kids, ‘Hey there’s a new Hitchcock picture–that means there’s gonna be suspense, and rah-rah-rah, there’s gonna be one corpse, or more corpses, and then a super-solution. Let’s go to that!’ He did that very well.”
When you put it that way, Hitchcock sounds “despicable.” “Howard Hawks,” Orson Welles sneered, “The so-called greatest director ever. Hawks is number one, and the rest ate scraps from the table.” “Yeah, Bringing Up Baby,” chimed in Henry Jaglom. “Yes, the greatest picture ever made,” Welles snorted. “I recently saw what I’ve always been told was Jack [Ford’s] greatest picture, and it’s terrible. The Searchers.”
“Howard Hawks was a wonderful director, but he was not the greatest director Hollywood ever knew. The guys with the cigarette ashes on them ignored our greatest directors and humiliated George Stevens, Willie Wyler, Billy Wilder,” Mike Nichols once said of the film giants whose critical stock crashed when New Hollywood arrived. “The tragedy of Willie and Stevens and Fred Zinnemann, these were great men, but they just weren’t part of the froggy conspiracy.”
Welles and Ford agreed the director was the driving creative force of their films, but to what end? What was it about? To them, auteurism had freed this new generation from being adults. It must have been fun selling William Wyler on Jerry Lewis. You know, like Adam McKay trying to sell Scorsese on Ragnarok. Today, that old guard has faded away. Scorsese’s generation of filmmakers and likeminded critics remade the aesthetic by which we measure most great movies, valuing most highly a director’s vision, the directors’ craft, the personal film, big or small, as our standard. That debate Scorsese mentioned? He won. The result is a film culture that values Bringing Up Baby over The Diary of Anne Frank.
It’s Not Easy Being Scorsese
In Scorsese’s Times piece, he talks about the real issue, which is not his personal tastes, but that movie studios focus so heavily on IPs (intellectual properties), i.e., subject matter for movies with a proven audience. It’s why you see so many franchises, biopics, or book and TV-to-screen adaptions. Studios made Bohemian Rhapsody for the same reason they made Aquaman–fans show up.
Marvel is not the cause of that, it’s the result of an ongoing decades-long economic shift in the movie industry. Scorsese left out that franchises are not the cinema’s only problem. Critics may roll their eyes at filmgoers passing up Paul Thomas Anderson for Magneto, but when people stay home for David Simon or Phoebe Waller-Bridges, what can they say? For about seventy years, from 1927’s The Jazz Singer introducing talkies until The Sopranos aired in 1999, America’s greatest playwrights, dramatists, and satirists had no national medium of their own to compete with cinema.
Until 1999, with few exceptions, TV censored and dumbed itself down beyond belief. Auteurs treated writers like annoying temps. Then in 1999, the writers were set free on cable TV. The mid-range-budget film drama did not disappear from cinemas solely because of franchises. Like newsreels, cartoon shorts, travelogues, and two-reel comedies, it disappeared because TV does it better. David Chase does gangsters just as well as Martin Scorsese.
Is it worse than ever for filmmakers now? Probably, people say so, I don’t know how you measure it. But I know in 1976, it took Robert De Niro coming off a massive hit like Godfather II and winning an Oscar for him to get Scorsese even a micro-budget to shoot Taxi Driver. And this was in the golden age of New Hollywood. 40 years later, it took franchise stars Adam Driver (Star Wars) and Andrew Garfield (Spider-Man) to get 2016’s Silence made. It’s never been easy for Scorsese, Marvel or not.
Are We Kids, Or What?
That’s the real problem filmmakers face. But what Scorsese said that really stirred all this up is that Marvel isn’t cinema. Not just that he doesn’t like the movies, but that they’re basically infomercials for Disney theme parks. True, Marvel is the antithesis of auteurism. It’s producer-, not director-, driven (Kevin Feige); directors rarely write the scripts and Marvel co-directs or at least choreographed its big action set pieces. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a fealty to both its comics source material and the intra-film continuity of its own multi-picture franchise, not any auteur’s idiosyncratic vision. Directors, it appears, are mainly there to work with actors to make tonally consistent light character comedies out of massive action films across a slate of about two-dozen interconnected movies.
Feige’s methods are nothing new. They are comparable to the classic movie studio unit producers, Arthur Freed, Pandro S. Berman, David O. Selznick, Irving Thalberg, Hal Roach–producers who oversaw and produced an often stylistically consistent movie output no single auteur could possibly manage on their own. Freed’s directors rarely wrote or choreographed their movies. Directors are not the only people with cinematic visions. David O. Selznick’s memos reveal a fabulist as much as Hitchcock’s notebooks. Are Marvel films full of revealing auteurist quirks, tics, and fetishes? No, but like Selznick or Freed, Marvel has a house style: visually, in its action sequences, its pervading comic tone, and a rather consistent worldview.
Marvel lets you know this right away–they don’t allow the auteur vanity credits that decorate the lamest of bro comedies and sixth-film-in-the-franchise horror films, credits that signal to auteurist critics that an artist is at work. Marvel’s brand consistency is a huge selling point for its fans. “Despicable,” Coppola calls it. Me, I see Marvel as one big movie, one giant multi-movie narrative, he sees 23 carbon copies.
But that’s not new. 2012’s The Avengers was a watershed moment for this argument about Marvel’s bankable sameness, its predictability. It arrived after Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and some could no longer stomach Marvel’s box office dominance or its Xeroxed aesthetic. The Avengers caused AO Scott’s famous meltdown review in The New York Times, for which both the late media critic David Carr and Samuel Jackson roasted him, and Scott in turn, wrote an entire book about the necessity of criticism in the arts to answer Carr.
The Guardian’s J. Hoberman and others picked up on something else in The Avengers. It was a 9/11 movie. A few years earlier, Hollywood responded to 9/11 just as you’d expect, with top Oscar-bait. It trusted our epochal national tragedy to some great filmmakers. Oliver Stone made World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass United 93, and Stephen Daldry Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Auteur cinema, Max von Sydow and casts full of gravitas actors, a best-selling award-winning book adapted, and lots of psychology and emotional revelations (i.e., cinema) … and nobody showed up.
Then The Avengers came out, and so did the audience, and America’s resounding cinematic response to Bin Laden and al-Qaeda was … the Hulk? Hoberman cites a theater of New Yorkers loudly booing a United 93 trailer. But Marvel’s 9/11? “It’s complete mayhem,” said Hoberman, “and, reader, I confess that I enjoyed every minute of this ear-splitting, brain-jarring, inordinately protracted cataclysm–even though something similar, if on a far smaller scale, occurred a bit more than 10 years ago, six blocks from my home.”
The third act of The Avengers is the attack on New York, even led by an evil religious tyrant, the Norse god, Loki. Marvel recreates all the nightmare imagery endlessly burned into our brains every 9/11 – the collapsing buildings, the walls of dust, the screaming people running for their lives. And the Avengers can’t stop it. They save some lives, kill lots of bad aliens, and finally figure out the comic book flaw that is in every supervillain’s plan to destroy the world – rah-rah-rah, Billy Wilder would say, the super-solution – but clearly, thousands and thousands die, just like 9/11.
Stop rolling your eyes, that’s not some over-reaching fan boy who saw that. Richard Brody also called The Avengers a “a post-9/11 revenge fantasy that takes place against the backdrop of unpopular foreign wars.” Adam Serwer in Mother Jones (mostly) agreed with him. But, revenge, that’s a hard argument to make. The Hulk does not kill Loki. In 2011, President Obama got us revenge. Once the US located Bin Laden, Obama ordered him assassinated in his home and his body dumped in the ocean in an unmarked grave, gangster-style. No trial, no Nuremburg, no Hague, no Eichmann in Jerusalem moment for us, just Bin Laden looking up like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas before he gets that bullet to the head and says, “Oh no …”
There’s not a lot of daylight between Obama’s clean hit and President Trump crowing about Baghdadi: “He died like a dog!” That’s what revenge looks like. In The Avengers, the Hulk comically thrashes the indestructible Loki, Marvel’s Bin Laden (if we’re still going with Hoberman, Serwer, and Brody – send your hot take complaints to them, please), into the floor seemingly a hundred times before saying, “Puny god.”
The Avengers plays this as a joke, because the Hulk doesn’t kill Loki. But why not? Voldemort dies, the Joker dies (over and over again), the Wicked Witch of the West dies, Hans Gruber tumbles off that Nakatomi building. That’s the classic bad guy out. We love savoring a villain’s “Nooooooooooo …” as they die their slow-motion deaths for us. Nope, Marvel gives us Loki in handcuffs, taken off to Viking jail. And that’s really what makes The Avengers a kids’ comic book movie, isn’t it? It puts forth this fantasy of justice that has very little to do with modern American life. It’s a Capra moment in the Age of Scorsese.
There is something audaciously, hilariously boneheaded about dropping the Hulk on Ground Zero. 3000 people did die that day. But after those other three 9/11 granite movie monuments, it’s liberatingly fun. But, seriously, is this how we talk about 9/11 and our post-attack response in our cinema – with the Hulk? There’s a line Scorsese likes to quote from The Sweet Smell of Success, and it certainly fits the Marvel Age: “Are we kids, or what?”
Sometimes in film, it’s better to make popcorn movies out of tragedy. Ford did it with World War 2 in Fort Apache, Hawks did it with red paranoia in The Thing, and The Avengers answers Bin Laden’s death with … the Hulk. And to be fair to Hollywood, the grown-ups in the room did come back with more to say. But given Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), the Hulk’s comical “puny god” moment looks remarkably more insightful about not losing ourselves in vengeance, which Eastwood and Bigelow argue is definitely worth it, no matter what the cost.
We had been fighting 11 years in Afghanistan when The Avengers came out. The Iraq War had only been over seven months. It was the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden’s death. “Ethan, don’t let the boys waste their lives in vengeance!” Olive Carey begs John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. “Promise me, Ethan!” He doesn’t. Ethan does think it’s worth it to spend one’s life in permanent war, no matter what the cost to the boys. But Ford sees Ethan Edwards as a psychotic. Today he’s the norm, which is why The Avengers preserving their own humanity is a welcome surprise.
Yes, I’d call that cinema, as much as Fort Apache or The Thing. There’s a point of view there you can’t translate to a Disney spreadsheet. I don’t know how you’d make a theme park out of that, but that was a moment I was not expecting in an American movie.
New Rules: Some Marvel Movies are Actually Important
MCU’s goal is pretty specific: adapting the work of (mainly) Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, whose narrative model was, and remains, telling multiple stories over dozens of monthly titles, within one giant continuity. Part of adapting their comics faithfully also means acknowledging that they, say, always saw Black Panther as an anti-colonialist superhero. It’s about the Thing’s isolating Judaism among his WASP teammates. It’s Kirby funneling his World War 2 PTSD though Bruce Banner. For some people, this genre will always look impossibly stupid, it will always signal “moron,” and they should see other movies, because it’s never going to get any better for them.
You can’t honestly talk about Marvel without those subtexts. In 2008, MCU began making post-9/11 movies about America in Iron Man, when billionaire arms designer Tony Stark has his own anti-terrorist weapons turned on him in Afghanistan and comes back questioning his (i.e., our) presence there. That was followed by The Avengers’ Bin Laden moment, and then Ragnarok and Black Panther, moving the conversation to colonialism and why anyone would ever want to visit violence and vengeance on a western power. You know, Why They Hate Us?
If I told you a Jewish Maori filmmaker from a commonwealth nation, New Zealand, had made a movie about the exploitation of indigenous people by a Caucasian superpower (and a member of that superpower’s royal family spent most of the movie experiencing life as a slave) – would you guess that’s Ragnarok, or a movie from Scorsese’s world cinema project? Taika Waititi, of course, directed Ragnarok, and just used his and Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel franchise clout to make his Jojo Rabbit.
That’s a rare conversation to be having in American film these days, one that’s been there from the first Feige movie. A long time ago, people decided that they needed a new way to look at film, and they focused on directors. The MCU is impossible to assess as auteurism, it has to be assessed in macro terms, not micro. When you embrace a critical ideology that says the director is the defining voice of the movie, but you are confronted with a cinematic project that no single director could possibly achieve, it does not mean those Marvel movies don’t count. It means you need to finally hit pause on Vertigo and come up with some new rules.