He’s always around somewhere!
I was born in the 60s
This may seem like a digression, but it’s actually a core component here. I was a precocious reader born in the 60s, one of more tumultuous periods of generation gapdom. There were stories in all the papers and magazines I (precociously) read about the “generation gap”. About how the adults running the country and corporations and police departments didn’t understand the young, dirty, long-haired peacniks, and why was that so, and how come we can’t all just get along?
I also happened to grow up loving musicals. Disney cartoon musicals of course, but for whatever reason Broadway musicals as well—Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Gypsy, and whatever was being played on TV. One of those was Bye Bye Birdie, which was about (Hey!)…the generation gap. In the 50s. And so was Grease to an extent.
As I got a little older—not much, but into my teens and 20s—I learned this was not a new phenomenon. At all. That young folks had been pissing off older folks for a long time. Not just in politics, but in the sciences! And in the arts, too! Physicists had called Einstein a fool and worse with his theory of relativity! Quantum mechanics was called insanity! Germ theory was called nonsense and Pasteur a quack! My beloved Monet, whose art I adored, had been scorned by the realists. I even learned that Socrates had uttered the Greek equivalent to “What’s the matter with kid’s these days? Why can’t they be like Albert?”
The bottom line was I realized that that French dude had been right when he said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. It all comes back ’round when it comes to people complaining about new stuff, it seemed to me, even when I was pretty young. So I’ve always had a somewhat jaundiced eye when it came to Famous Old White Dudes proclaiming Wisdom about New Stuff.
Right now, there’s a plethora of comic book-related stuff in our entertainment media. While this delights me, as I am both a science fiction and comic book fan, I know it is driving a lot of more serious literary people bats. I get that. I can empathize. In the 70s and early 80s, it was a dry friggin’ period for my sort, to put it mildly. Comic books were (and still largely are!) look down on as completely unserious literature. Science fiction films were few and far between. Comic book-based films were basically unheard-of, and those that did come out were of marginal quality. It was a wasteland for my type of geek. Now it’s a damn geek golden age, and you can bet I’m enjoying it.
But one person’s Golden Age is another’s wasteland, and for every episode of The Expanse and WandaVision and Upload on TV, every release of Avengers: Endgame and sequel of Deadpool to the theaters, someone is outraged and angry that that amounts to a zero-sum loss to “more important” TV shows and films that “should” be seeing the light of day.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I’m sure angry Paleolithic hunter-gatherer grumpy old men 20,000 years ago yelled at teens squatting in caves painting bulls and pigs on the walls. “Get out there and gather berries with Aunt Grung and hunt boar with Uncle Alley Oop! Stop wasting time on that drivel!” I think it must be a chemical released into our limbic systems at a certain age or something. It certainly seems to have been released into Martin Scorsese’s.
Before the world fell apart last March, Scorsese said, “I don’t think they’re cinema. I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.”
Scorsese—being a legend—has had his comments analyzed to death. The above-linked article talks about people’s fears of all movies becoming comic book films, which is in my opinion absolutely absurd. They’ve defended the quality and variety of MCU films; they’ve talked about how people want more spectacle these days given how they can get any kind of entertainment they want at home; blah blah blah. My though is much simpler: Scorsese’s just become a grumpy old man, is all, and comic book movies are new.
Back in the day, Scorsese was the Young Turk, exploding onto the scene with the transgressive Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Outraging audiences with Goodfellas, a film without an actual hero, where gangsters were the “good guys,” but no one was actually relatable. He took a genre—gangster films, something that went back nearly to the beginning of cinema as an art form—and turned it on its ear and inside out. He was the one everyone was talking about. And now when he releases The Irishman, it gets treated with the respect a new release by James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon or Charles Dickens would. The gangster genre has been legitimized and transformed by Scorsese and others (including Francis Ford-Coppola, who also chimed in against comic book films). They’re mainstream now.
Comic book films of this type and scope are new. Their language is still evolving, still being defined. A number of very talented directors have taken shots at expanding the vocabulary of comic book films—Christopher Nolan, of course, but also James Gunn, Zack Snyder, Robert Rodriguez (especially in Sin City), Taika Waititi, & others—and many more will continue. Westerns didn’t go overnight from Cowboys chasin’ Injuns straight to Unforgiven and Little Big Man; there was a long period of development in between while talented actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, composers, and thousands of others turned their attention to the genre. The same thing is true of gangster films. Would 2001: A Space Odyssey have happened if there hadn’t been Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, and hell even the Big Bug films of the 50s first?
Yes, I acknowledge the Republic serials of the past, with Flash Gordon and the Superman movies and so on. Those are foundational, and certainly in the DNA of many directors currently working (Spielberg and Lucas have acknowledged this overtly). But the vast breadth and scale of comic book films is completely different from “Hang George on a wire”. As is the comedy of Waititi, or the involuted storytelling of Christopher Nolan. This is a New Thing, and it’s evolving. And Grumpy Old Man Scorsese doesn’t like it. C’est la même chose. He doesn’t have to, he doesn’t have to watch, and that’s perfectly okay.
What’s not okay is for him to dismiss an entire genre just because he’s grumpy. Like literary folks dismissing genre novels out of pure snobbery because they have (heaven save us!) plots and romance/science fiction/mystery/fantasy components. Genre is just as valid as officially-sanctioned lit-such-chure, and comic book films just as valid as a Scorsese gangster opus. And while it may take time for the Goodfellas or Godfather of the comic book films to emerge (though some say The Dark Knight might be an example), I’m confident it will.
So let’s leave Scorsese, and Coppola (who deconstructed war movies with Apocalypse Now FFS!), and whoever else has achieved Grumpy Old Man Yells at Cloud status, and leave today’s directors to do what they’re doing, and enjoy it. Let’s watch what they’re doing with WandaVision, because it looks fascinating. Let’s watch the amazing female characters of The Expanse and be damn grateful for them and push for more. Let’s revel in Elliot (nee Ellen) Page’s portrayal of Vanya in The Umbrella Academy, a trans actor starring in a TV show! Let’s enjoy the MCU films, and the other comic book films, and watch as the genre gets built, and (inevitably) destroyed, and deconstructed, and revivified. Because it all comes around again.
And don’t let the Grump Old Men get you down. Even when they’re famous legends.