Directors who don’t like comic book movies, being asked whether they want to make comic book movies: something’s got to give.

As we can attest, getting older isn’t easy. As well as having to contend with seeing youth permanently recede into the rear-view mirror, there’s the little things to deal with too. For example, thanks to the stereotypical and reductive nature of television, older folks are expected to don oversized spectacles, irrespective of need, not to mention having Werthers’ Originals in their pockets at all times. That’s a big responsibility.

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Also, thanks to the stereotypical and reductive nature of real life, they’re constantly getting drawn into online generation wars and being blamed for the downfall of civilisation by Gen Y trolls. Nope, it can’t be easy at all.

In the case of film directors in the senior phase of their career, what makes life even more difficult is the tendency of the film press to stick a microphone in their face every five minutes and demand their thoughts on superhero movies, a cultural phenomenon that, it’s fair to say, is aimed largely – but not exclusively – in the direction of the young. According to legendary former comic book scribe, all-round literary genius and sometimes-wizard, Alan Moore, the western world’s obsession with superhero tales is steadily infantilising us. Believe that or not, it’s true that the films skew towards a younger audience, and as the average age of a Marvel film director edges ever downwards, you can say the same thing about those making the movies too.

It’s been a couple of years since Martin Scorsese broke cover with Empire magazine to denounce Marvel movies as ‘theme parks’ – in response to a question – claiming that they were ‘not cinema’. The legendary director’s motives for doing so? Could it have been a craftily-delivered dose of Trojan Horse snark, disguised within the “I tried, you know?”  façade of someone claiming they really wished they got it? Or perhaps Scorsese genuinely does wish he could engage with Marvel’s output, and was lamenting his own inability to engage with the films: perhaps a distressing thought for any filmmaker of his ilk, who once surfed the crest of the cultural zeitgeist, only to find themselves now trailing the wave, tossed around confusingly in its backwash.

Who knows? More importantly, Scorsese’s words lit a fuse that detonated with deafening force, cutting through the internet’s endless noise to become the cultural conversation of that particular week. What’s more, it sparked a new internet sport too: repeatedly poke esteemed filmmakers about their distaste or disinterest in the superhero genre until they lash out with a headline-grabbing quote.

It’s become something of a game, much like bear-baiting in the Middle Ages, where hordes of annoying dogs would snap at a bear, until the noble creature lost its shit and kicked off. Instead of bear-baiting, we of course have click-baiting, but it’s the same principle, more or less, with venerable filmmakers wishing to discuss their work instead fielding repeated questions about whether they’d make a Marvel movie. They say something unkind, or even something neutrally diplomatic and lo, the internet has its next headline.

The Last Duel Ridley Scott

Hands up, I’m as guilty as the next person for finding some of these stories interesting. When Ridley Scott lashed out at superhero movies recently, he was already on something of a roll, having blamed the recent box office failure of The Last Duel on millennials and cell phones. Given more airtime, we’re sure he was about to point to the involvement a shadowy sharpshooter glimpsed atop a grassy knoll in downtown Dallas, Texas, as well, but who knows?

That’s the interesting thing about directors ranting about the detrimental effects of the superhero movie on cinema: if we know the mechanics behind this system, this process designed to elicit a click-friendly quote for a click-hungry news outlet, then the directors definitely know how the game works. And yet they still choose to play… and that’s what’s really interesting.

It can be tempting to simply dismiss the pointed comments of Scott and company with a roll of the eyes and a glib retort in the meme-friendly vein of “okay, boomer”, but like most memes, that would be only add to the sort of reductive exchanges that have come to dominate discussions about superhero films… and if you ask me, that’s the real crux of the problem. Sure, Scott’s comments about The Last Duel’s box-office failure were off-base, with Disney’s failure to adequately market the film forming a key element in a far more complex mosaic, involving issues such as corporate homogenisation, the ongoing effects of a certain pandemic, not to mention irresponsible stewardship (from many quarters) of an artform that’s still in its relative infancy.

These are all factors that should be considered in a conversation about Marvel movies too, but whether there’s an appetite and an audience for that conversation, or whether Ridley Scott even wishes to debate it, is lost in a race-to-the-bottom, soundbite-friendly blame game that seems to have sucked some of our more distinguished directors into its ugly vortex.

Take Scott’s recent comments on the superhero genre whilst on the press tour for House of Gucci: “almost always, the best films are driven by the characters, and we’ll come to superheroes after this if you want, because I’ll crush it. I’ll fucking crush it. They’re fucking boring as shit.”

Beyond an unflattering comparison with his own, self-professed “superhero” films (Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner) the filmmaker had little to say, beyond seeming keen to charge into the fray with an expletive-laden response.

Whilst I largely wouldn’t disagree with his perspective, it’s the manner of its delivery that is found wanting. After all, like Scorsese, Scott is one of our most esteemed working filmmakers, a living legend who if he wanted to has the cache to follow Scorsese in making high-budget, interesting cinema outside of the traditional studio system. Liberated from the purse strings of Disney and co, no longer forced to bite the hand that feeds, you’d imagine these auteurs might want to stoke a meaningful, no-holds barred debate about the impact of superhero films on cinema today. But instead, they often opt to trade in provocative and reductive barbs, such as “they’re theme parks”, or “they’re fucking boring as shit.”

Martin Scorsese

Whilst the whole circus has more than a whiff of ‘Old Man Yells at Cloud’, that delicious dig at old age from The Simpsons, it’s really no laughing matter… or at least, it’s not simply a laughing matter (because it can be rather funny sometimes). The film press, and the organisations that platform film journalism, have to bear some responsibility here as well: after all, the oversimplified depictions of a complicated subject presented by the media often has the short-form smack of a social media spat about it.

Are platforms like the BBC and Netflix, indeed the entire spectrum of film journalism, doing enough to create the kinds of spaces where we can have a proper grown-up conversation, accessible to all, about the current state of cinema?

It’s not like you have to look that hard to find the interesting voices: Joanna Hogg’s initial thoughts on superhero films, following Scorsese’s, were cogent, well-articulated and thought provoking. The aforementioned Alan Moore might be known for bashing the genre at any opportunity these days, but at least he frames his arguments in a fashion that is both fascinating and illuminating. Of course, not every filmmaker can possess the eloquence of a Joanna Hogg or Alan Moore. Like it or not, rants are part of some directors’ shtick, as evidenced by Ridley Scott’s recent response to a journalist’s opinion that The Last Duel looked more realistic than the Scott-directed Kingdom Of Heaven or Robin Hood: “Sir, fuck you. Fuck you. Thank you very much. Fuck you. Go fuck yourself, sir. Go on,”

Whilst it’s unrealistic to expect a Shakespearean sense of expression from every filmmaker asked about a superhero movie, it does seem like we’re long past the point where the answers, and therefore the questions that precede them, need to change. To have an aim of sparking an adult conversation free from the damaging effects of elitism and the equally limiting reductionism of social media. Surely, the aim of sparking a clickbait free-conversation, free from soundbites, snobbery and maybe even a barrage of F-bombs might just be the ticket.

Otherwise, our interactions with these legendary cabal of filmmakers might be enduring their grumpy responses to ‘the superhero question’, before watching them being smothered in an avalanche of internet vitriol… and we probably all expect, and deserve, a bit more than that.

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