Over the past months, there’s been no shortage of discussion on the artistic and cultural merit of superhero movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in particular. Having watched fans (and MCU actors and execs) aggressively defend these enormously successful films’ good names against the negative opinions of completely unqualified “directors” like Martin Scorsese, knowing that any public figure who just says they don’t like these kind of movies is up for at least a short stay in the lower circles of outcry hell, the end of 2019 seems like as good a time as any to reflect back on how exactly we ended up in this situation.
An essay by Alex Pappademas, published as part of Medium’s ongoing collection of articles reflecting on the past decade, does a great job of summarizing how comic book movies gained cultural ascendancy and why, just maybe, the attitude of the genre’s biggest fans should worry us. Tracking “superhero culture’s evolution from nerd culture to monoculture,” Pappademas explains how unlikely it used to seem that the “interconnectedness” of Marvel comics could translate to the screen with such incredible results and end up fostering fans who, in their furious reaction to Scorsese’s criticisms, created “a seismic shift in the way pop-genre entertainment’s partisans talk about it.”
Pappademas writes that, while “there have always been people who will tell you that arty things are stupid, that liking them is pretentious, and that preferring arty things to mass-market entertainment is a symptom of elitism,” what’s unique to the present day is that, as shown by MCU defenders’ claim that their favorite movies are truly emotionally and intellectually engaging, “the people making these arguments against the supposed privileging of a certain type of arty thing are doing it without rejecting the notion that movies should aspire to fulfill an audience’s need for profundity.”
“The reason all this should worry you, even if you have zero investment in superhero movies or their relative position vis-a-vis film culture as a whole,” Pappademas writes, “is that the response to Scorsese is a populist groundswell in service of the status quo, of corporations, and of power.” The effects of this, he explains, is that we’ve somehow arrived at a time where the most financially successful films of the era are defended not by paid professionals, but by “a volunteer army of PR freelancers for the biggest media companies in the world.”
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