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If comic-book movies aren’t emotional and psychological cinema, why are we crying?

WHAT’S IN A NAME: Like it or don’t, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) and Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) are key players on the biggest stages of our time - superhero movies.
Martin Scorsese said superhero movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t convey emotional, psychological experiences. Not everyone agrees.
(Kirsten Ulve / For The Times)

Last awards season, “Black Panther” became the first comic-book movie to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture. Since then, “Avengers: Endgame” has become the highest-grossing film of all time and one of the best-reviewed movies of 2019. Todd Phillips’ recently released “Joker” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and broke its share of box office records. Have comic-book movies finally arrived on the red carpet?

More like the rug’s being pulled from under them again. And Martin Scorsese has fibers under his fingernails.

Despite consistently sporting sterling scores on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Marvel Cinematic Universe movies rarely appear on critics’ top 10 lists and have never received Oscar nominations for direction, acting or writing. They remain outside that golden embrace, despite the exquisitely detailed filmmaking of, say, Ryan Coogler’s “Panther” or the taut, ‘70s paranoia of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Millions and millions around the world are emotionally connected to these movies, yet film titan Scorsese calls them “not cinema” — even those he hasn’t actually seen.

Is it the tights?

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Scorsese, in his comments to Empire, summed up the ingrained bias when he said, “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. … It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” He doubled down at a London Film Festival press conference: “It’s not cinema, it’s something else, we shouldn’t be invaded by it, so that is a big issue and we need the theater owners to step up to allow theaters to show films that are narrative films.”

Resentment at studios’ tentpole strategies, increasingly leaving adult dramas to indies and streaming services, may be in part responsible for the refusal to include massive-grossing comic-book movies in awards conversations. But “Avengers: Infinity War” didn’t prevent “The Farewell” or “Jojo Rabbit” or even Scorsese’s “The Irishman” from being made. In fact, Taika Waititi’s success with MCU entry “Thor: Ragnarok” likely enabled his Oscar-contending “Jojo” to be greenlit.

Scorsese’s ire may be due in part to major exhibitors such as AMC and Regal refusing to show his 3 1/2-hour Netflix-backed “Irishman,” but that isn’t because MCU films have elbowed it out; it’s part of the ongoing dispute between theater owners and streaming services over windows of exclusivity.

But he’s not alone in his dismissal of the genre. Contemporary Francis Ford Coppola, after receiving the Prix Lumière in Lyon, told journalists he thought Scorsese was “right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”

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The director of “The Godfather” and “Captain EO” added: “Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Andrea Letamendi, associate director of mental health training, intervention and response at UCLA, sees more in the best of these films than these giants of cinema do.

Superhero films are giving us a way to practice and explore really important emotional processes that we may not be able to examine in our everyday lives.
Andrea Letamendi

“Superhero films are giving us a way to practice and explore really important emotional processes that we may not be able to examine in our everyday lives. In ‘Endgame,’ the more fantastical, the better, because that gives us the supportive safety net to be open and vulnerable and curious about these things,” she says.

“Not to pat ourselves on the back,” says Christopher Markus, co-writer (with Stephen McFeely) of six MCU movies including the three-hour “Endgame,” “but we snuck an hourlong movie about loss and grief into the [start of the] biggest movie of all time. That’s a lot of people who sat with that issue in their heads for an hour.”

He says of villain Thanos’ cataclysmic action, “We wanted the Snap to be as profound as we could make it. The way to do that was to have all the characters sit with the impact, the unfixability of it, rather than scrambling around. We were interested in seeing what happens to these people whose sole purpose in life is solving problems, faced with a problem they did not solve.”

Markus and McFeely point out their slug lines don’t read, “Iron Man” or “Captain America”; they’re “Tony” or “Steve.” Even when the characters are wearing nanotech armor or wrapped in a flag, the writers are thinking from the point of view of the human beings within.

“We didn’t sit down and say, ‘It’s the five stages of grief,’ but they sort of do go through it. Thor is really depressed. Cap has accepted it. Clint’s anger is off the rails … we give people real arcs, hopefully,” McFeely says.

Anthony Mackie plays the Falcon in many MCU entries. He says whenever he has a movie come out, he sneaks into theaters to experience them with audiences, which he has done three times for “Endgame.”

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“When Iron Man died, people were weeping. If that’s not a human, emotional experience, I don’t know what is,” he said. “There’s a connection to these characters. People invest 100%.”

Clinical psychologist Letamendi agrees. ”It’s a truly sophisticated portrayal. … How different characters cope with that loss really matters in terms of how we relate to them and how we might relate to our own losses.

“The term for that is ‘parasocial relationships’ — non-delusional emotional connections with fictional characters. I know Tony Stark isn’t real, but I’ve formed a long-lasting relationship with his character, so when we see him go through these difficult changes: the adversity, his self-doubt and, ultimately, his death, this is, in our world, difficult to deal with. The grief, the confusion, sometimes the anger — those feelings are real. I think there’s some value to that.

A movie like ‘Endgame’ has such an important place in our social/emotional learning because we’re practicing important, and deeply felt, responses.
Andrea Letamendi

“If we can work through some of those emotions, it actually makes us more emotionally intelligent. A movie like ‘Endgame’ has such an important place in our social/emotional learning because we’re practicing important, and deeply felt, responses.”

It’s not just “Endgame” that takes “conveying emotional, psychological experiences” seriously, she said.

“ ‘Iron Man 3’ is one of the more groundbreaking comic-book films in its direct portrayal of alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder. Showing this superhero have a decline in functioning, isolate himself, reject relationships — being drawn toward maladaptive coping like drinking and listening to his anger and avoiding the realness of the threat he’s facing — I think that’s a very relatable experience.”

Letamendi has likened the time-travel McGuffin in “Endgame” to the psychotherapeutic technique called “narrative reconstruction.”

“Sometimes it’s important to look back to the thread that winds up our history and what parts of that difficult and traumatic experience could be revisited, and even reinterpreted, so it fits with our sense of self. To see Thor go back, who has completely lost his way and detached from his sense of self, if he restores a part of his essential relationships — especially ones that remind him of what his core values are and what his purpose is — that’s extraordinarily healing.”

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Scoffing at films based on genre ignores that labels can be applied to most any film. Is “The Silence of the Lambs” just a serial-killer movie? “Annie Hall” merely a romantic comedy? The presence of tights shouldn’t disqualify Olivier’s “Hamlet.” There are plenty of gods and monsters in the classics.

If genre scares you, “You can’t watch ‘The Godfather.’ That’s ‘just a mob movie’ … Genres are just delivery devices,” McFeely notes.

Director, writer and painter Waititi agrees. “It’s kind of a form of ignorance to say comic-books and graphic novels aren’t art. They have life-changing stories and are full of emotion. They’re cinematic. [Filmmakers] steal frames, splash pages, from comic books all the time because those are real artists.”

No one is comparing “Ant-Man” to “Citizen Kane.” However, as “Dr. Strange” director Scott Derrickson recently tweeted, “Nobody should dismiss movies they haven’t seen.” And he was just one of the filmmakers taking umbrage to Scorsese’s remarks.

After all, who couldn’t find five or 10 in their personal list of questionable best-picture winners that aren’t better than “Black Panther,” “Winter Soldier” or “Endgame?”

“To prejudice yourself against genre is to shutter yourself against a wide variety of things,” Markus says. “Genre, in a way, softens you up to receive human stories.”


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