[Disclaimer: This is an essay I wrote for my American Cinema module at University, I’m sharing it here because I’m particularly proud of it and some people have shown interest! Thanks if you read it!]
Essay Question: “That’s not cinema,” Martin Scorsese has said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Using Marvel as a case study, to what extent do ‘blockbuster’ or ‘high concept’ films convey the complexities of emotion and ‘structures of sympathy’ (Smith, 2000)?
When Martin Scorsese made the aforementioned comments, initially in Empire magazine’s October issue, the internet blew up a storm, with swarms of blogs and articles taking a side in what would come to be known as the ‘Marvel versus Scorsese’ debate. Film fans across all of social media were divided when the legendary auteur famed for classics such as Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver, stated that “the closest I can think of them …is theme parks” (De Semlyen, N. 2019) when asked his opinion on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). He continued, “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” (ibid). Similarly, in a 2018 interview with The Film Stage, controversy arose when actor Ethan Hawke said:
Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. (O’Connor, 2018)
This raises an important and timely argument, in that films featuring superheroes, or “people in tights with metal coming out of their hands,” (ibid) are in a class of film separate from ‘real’ film — or ‘cinema.’ But what causes this distinction? Other than the costuming of the characters, it could be a difference in budget, amount of special effects, marketing or distribution that contribute to this divide.
This discussion raises another crucial question: who gets to decide what is and is not cinema? In his Vulture essay responding to the discourse, Bilge Ebiri said that Marvel movies “haven’t really expanded our capacity for feeling” (2019). If what defines ‘cinema’ is the ability to evoke an emotional response from audiences, to move them or captivate them, then who is to say characters in capes and masks cannot do that? Furthermore, if audiences learn to empathise with characters onscreen outside of their own worlds, is that not to expand one’s capacity for feeling? This debate, however, is certainly not new; theorist Herbert Gans suggested that “Popular film and television shows are often dismissed as shallow and frivolous with the assertion that ‘popular culture,’ or at least the part of it transmitted by the mass media, tends to “go in one eye and out the other”” (1999: 33). Gans’ assertion is largely accurate, and I would further elaborate that, when we consider Murray Smith’s “structures of sympathy,” — that “we conceive of characters as integral, discrete, textual constructs” (2000: 40) — Marvel films and other “high concept” (Wyatt, 1997) blockbusters can certainly evoke a strong emotive response from audiences. In an essay responding to Scorsese’s comments, prominent film theorist David Bordwell considered his outlook through the theoretical paradigms of film authorship and realism in order to understand how Scorsese interprets ‘cinema’ and the film experience. Overlooking high concept (ibid), Bordwell frames Scorsese’s interpretation in line with the art versus cinema debate. However, as this essay will explore, it appears fallacious to do so, as Bordwell himself further observes, “admirers of Marvel and DC …can say that they find them as emotional, revelatory and inspiring as anything he [Scorsese] finds in Bergman or Sam Fuller” (Bordwell, 2019). In this essay, I will explore how the MCU engages with the “human” experience and how emotion is conveyed through an analysis of the characters, themes and forms of storytelling, using both “structures of sympathy” and additional narrative theories.
Identity, the Human Experience, and Structures of Sympathy
The MCU is filled with conflict, both within its stories and its characters. Equally, what its characters broadly embody thematically often poses oppositions within the specific narrative. Iron Man and Captain America are the two central pillars of the MCU cosmology and, whilst the former represents development, innovation and experimentation, the latter embodies themes that “explore a sense of disillusionment with these modernistic attitudes” (Dryden, 2019). When applying structures of sympathy, it could be argued that these thematic oppositions aid viewers in the first stage of “recognition” (Smith, 2000), that is, being how spectators construct characters. What follows is “alignment,” (ibid) for which I will use Iron Man as a specific example to ascertain how the MCU gives “visual and aural information about characters” (ibid) in order to convey the human experience.
Self-proclaimed “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) heralded the beginning of the MCU in 2008’s Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau). The film marked a significant shift in the tone of superhero films. Up until then, audiences were used to inherently “good” heroes on screen, with other-worldly powers such as Superman, Spider-man and the X-Men. Tony Stark, however, is neither an entirely good person nor does he possess any special powers. McSweeney called him “one of the most self-aware of the new millennial superheroes that recognises the absurdity of what he calls the “terrible privilege’ of their situation”” (2018: 117). A wealthy weapons manufacturer for the U.S. military, Stark is arrogant, selfish and oblivious to the greater effects his work has on the world, and yet, he is a fan favourite amongst audiences. Furthermore, this hero does not hide; he does not change clothes in a phone booth so as not to reveal his true identity, nor does he wear a mask and put on a faux low voice to fight crime in the dead of night. In fact, at the end of Iron Man, four words changed the superhero film genre for good. In the final scene of the film, Stark is taking part in a press conference in order to put to bed rumours about the mysterious metal man. Choosing to ignore the cards given to him containing a carefully constructed alibi, he does the exact opposite. We see our hero in a static midshot, contemplating his next words very carefully. He says, “You know what? Here’s the truth,” as the camera slowly moves closer to his face in a tracking shot — as though closer to that truth — until it fills the frame (fig. 1).
He continues, “I am Iron Man.” What follows is an eruption of sound, including the scrambling questions of the press and a music cue of a rock guitar score by Ramin Djawadi. As this music begins, a glance to the camera from Stark accompanies the cut to credits. For decades before this, a superhero was a caped silhouette standing tall — an unreachable God-like figure. In just these four words, the MCU tore down this pre-conception and made its heroes both flawed and accessible. Smith characterises “alignment” as “the process by which spectators are placed in relation to characters in terms of access to their actions and to what they know and feel” (2000: 41). In which case, I would infer that Stark’s knowing glance to the audience offers a specific insight, as though letting them know there is a future ahead — one in which he becomes a new type of hero. If we are to take “access to the character” (ibid) in a literal sense, it can be argued that the viewer has access to Stark on a macro scale,considering he stars in nine of the — currently — 23 films in the MCU continuity. Spending a large amount of time with a character unequivocally provides room for a compelling and emotionally gripping journey to take place over the course of varying stories and conflicts.
“Allegiance,” the final structure of sympathy (Smith, 2000), pertains to the “moral and ideological evaluation of characters by the spectator.” In response to this, I would argue that Stark is a rich and layered character that offers audiences a myriad of opportunity for moral evaluation, both introspectively for audiences and within the character himself. “Stark’s anxiety manifests itself as a need to be in complete control” (Thomas, 2019). Here I suggest that over the eleven-year span of Iron Man’s character journey on screen, audiences have been able to identify with him through his experiences of anxiety, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt. Smith explains that, “Fictions prompt us to enrich our “quasi-experience”, that is, our efforts to grasp, through mental hypotheses, situations, persons, and values which are alien to us” (2000). Moreover, the narrative structure of the text is “the force that generates recognition, alignment, and allegiance — the basic components of the structure of sympathy” (ibid). With this in mind, I would posit that not only does the character of Tony Stark (and equally the MCU franchise as a whole) take the nuances of identity and trauma and blow them into large-scale galactic proportions to the excitement of audiences, but also offers the emotional narrative pillars of a decade long story arc. Looking back at the four keywords I mentioned previously, “I am Iron Man,” there are three moments across the MCU where Stark uses them — his journey is effectively anchored by these declarations (Dryden 2019). The first of which, in Iron Man, is an affirmation of his identity in the face of uncertainty; the second, in Iron Man 3 (2013, dir. Shane Black) is in voice over, a private acceptance of himself on the cusp of change shared only with the viewer; and the last, in Avengers: Endgame (2019, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo), a defiant declaration as he faces his death.
Narratively, it can no doubt be argued that to maximise the emotional reward of each of these moments one must follow the journey across all of the films. Henry Jenkins suggested that “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world-building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work” (2008: 116). This is certainly accurate when concerning the MCU, and for audience members, that existing relationship with the characters is a key factor in the resulting insurmountable feeling during Tony’s final words. Jenkins’ continued that, “The world is bigger than the film, bigger than even the franchise — since fan speculations and elaborations also expand the world in a variety of directions” (ibid). I would further argue that this fan involvement informs audience response. To develop and explore the world of a film outside of the cinema with fellow cinemagoers can only deepen attachment to characters and stories, meaning that the emotional response is stronger in each subsequent instalment, and thus the film experience heightened.
Narrative, Oppositions, and the Politics of Heroism
In the post-9/11 climate, in which superhero films became more popular than ever, it was important that the hero persona was embodied in such a way that they are seen to be “all-American” idealised and perfect people who save the day and never fail. However, the MCU chooses to challenge this, and thus offers an intelligent film experience to audiences. Johannes Schlegel and Frank Habermann propose that “Due to the fact that superheroes have been perpetually subject to revisionism, they become symptomatic signifiers of contemporary consciousness and thus can serve as embodiments of specific needs in a given time” (2011: 33–4). There have been countless critical analyses written detailing how the superhero genre was a reaction to 9/11, giving audiences a hope to latch on to in an increasingly fearful social climate. Terence McSweeney accurately states that the films of this time, “reimagine a crisis-filled era through the comforting and nostalgic prism of a largely reactionary genre” (2018: 19). However, since the MCU began in 2008, they have begun to break this mould. Spanning over 23 films, the genre appears to no longer serve this narrative, instead telling stories that explore other worlds and seamlessly adopt traits of various genres to offer layered narratives that challenge audiences. Just as society grows and changes, so must its heroes, “The level of complexity of the hero’s character, his moral viewpoint, is altered as society alters” states Jeffrey S. Land and Patrick Trimble, “But as the society becomes better educated and more aware of those ambiguities, the mythic character must reflect the awareness of those ambiguities in some way” (1988: 169). Around the halfway point of the decade spanning MCU continuity, in Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo), this begins to ring true.
Carter and Dodds claim that “in order to secure justice or otherwise, the superhero is required because s/he is able to operate beyond the law and this is made possible, in part, because they are tolerated, even encouraged, by grateful city authorities and/or national governments,” (2014). Looking back over the years, this statement is largely true of the genre as a whole. It was a previously unspoken taboo that heroes are not responsible for the destruction they leave behind when they save the world, citizens should be thankful — the evil is stopped. Even more so that they are essentially vigilantes who act outside the law. However, in Captain America: Civil War, and equally Spider-man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), the MCU directly confronts these notions. When considering Claude Lévi-Strauss’ binary oppositions (1955), in which two concepts oppose in meaning and fundamentally organise and structure the narrative, it could be said that superheroes stories are classic tales of good versus evil. However, Bordwell states “…closer analysis of the comic-book films can give us better grounds to argue about whether their characters exhibit the “contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures” Scorsese champions” (2019). To assist this analysis, I will use Civil War to exemplify how the MCU dismantles the perceived binary oppositions of heroes and offers a myriad of paradoxes and contradictions within its characters, to the effect of heightened allegiance in accordance to Smith’s “structures of sympathy” (2000).
Following the Battle of New York and the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2014), the team are forced to face the terrible destruction they leave in their wake. Assembled in a conference room, the Avengers are confronted with footage from their various world-saving outings by the Secretary of State (William Hurt) who asks them, “What would you call a group of US-based enhanced individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned about what they leave behind?” Up until now, audiences wouldn’t think to question the inherent “goodness” of characters like Superman or Wonder Woman, but the MCU “offers a rare critique” (McSweeney, 2018) of the actions we’ve come to expect from them. The Secretary continues, “For the past four years you’ve operated with unlimited power and no supervision. That’s an arrangement the governments of the world can no longer tolerate, and I think we have the solution.” It is here that he hands the Avengers the Sokovia Accords. Approved by 117 countries, the accords state the team will no longer be a private organisation, instead, they are to operate under the supervision of a United Nations panel, only when (and if) deemed necessary. For a film about a group of superheroes, it is no doubt jarring to audiences to be presented with the idea of a government team operating under orders, rather than the vigilantes we’ve come to know. The effect this has is a distinct grounding in reality; if enhanced individuals were real, this is likely how governments would react — in fear. The entirety of Civil War offers a striking sense of realism, with a muted colour palette and overarching political influence. Specifically so in the scene in which the Accords are revealed: the heroes are assembled around a conference table (fig. 2), all in black or dark clothing such as t-shirts, jumpers and trousers — there is nothing heroic about them in this moment. They are positioned in front of a government official, standing above them, in charge, as though they have no power in this room. This positioning, and even the simple act of placing the Avengers base in New York, Costello argues, “creates a closer link between the world of the superheroes and the world of the readers” (2009: 11).
The film presents a thoughtful assessment of the accountability of heroes, in a social and political climate where a generation of people have begun to demand the same of their leaders and people of influence; it is certainly effective to explore Civil War as a reaction to that. As McSweeney understands, “…viewing the turbulent political and social climate of the new millennial decades through the prism of the superhero genre, and in so doing present us with a materialisation of ideological discourse intrinsic to the period” (2018: 16). This discourse is essential to the ideas proposed in Civil War and, in the lead up to the film’s release, viewers were encouraged to take sides. Debating whether or not to sign the Sokovia Accords, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man don’t quite see eye to eye. The binary opposition of good versus evil, which audiences have come to expect, is instead replaced by the opposition of two of the Avengers themselves; two “heroes.” An opposition which subsequently tears the team apart. Further subverting expectations, specifically Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory in which he argues that in most Hollywood movies the conflict will be resolved by the end (1969), Civil War ends with the Avengers completely fractured. The disequilibrium is not reversed but worsened.
In Bordwell’s essay, he explains, “When Scorsese speaks of these films [the MCU] shying away from risk, I suspect he’d include the avoidance of narrative risk. In fantasy and science-fiction, nobody need really die” (2019). If we are to characterise “narrative risk” in genre films as permanent death or destruction, I would posit that in Civil War, each of the Avengers is left with a dismantled sense of identity. The team is broken in half and Captain America no longer has a shield, resulting in a metaphorical death of his persona — now he is just Steve Rogers. Moreover, in Avengers: Infinity War (2018, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo), the film, in fact, ends with the death of exactly half of our heroes. Thanos, the villain, wins. Applying Todorov’s narrative theory, Thanos achieves his equilibrium, this is a direct reversal of audience expectations in that the “bad guy” wins. If we then reconsider this within the lens of “structures of sympathy”; audiences now have a deep understanding and attachment to these characters and the overwhelming effect is that of great loss, further proving that the MCU is as capable of conveying complex emotions as much as “Bresson or Bergman” (O’Connor, 2018)
Following the astounding loss that shook audiences in Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame (2019, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo) began with an hour of reflection. In terms of typical film structure, it is important to note that, for Endgame’s entire first act, there is no villain; no antagonist to imbue the plot with any momentum, only the characters and their dismantled identities. It is, at this moment, no longer about the development of conflict but rather the all-encompassing grief in the world that Thanos left behind. The subsequent building of the time machine is then not defined as the preparation for “a battle of good versus evil, but instead as an emotional opportunity” (Dryden 2019). The film itself acts as a victory lap for the Avengers; audiences know this is the final film in the decade-spanning story, and by revisiting key moments in the continuity the filmmakers are essentially offering fans a chance to say goodbye as they watch the characters do the same. This allows for thoughtful character moments in which each of our heroes confront trauma head-on and find their peace. Dryden suggests the Avengers are made to “painfully build a new narrative, in order to organize a new identity that can manage the trauma” (2019). I would further this, suggesting that by managing the individual trauma our heroes come to the end of their arcs — both Iron Man and Captain America effectively die in Endgame, but they do so as fully- grown characters who have completed narrative journeys. As Dryden infers, “Every character ends thematically evolved from where they begin, acting as a narrative reward for their willingness to rebuild themselves” (ibid). Considering again Smith’s structure of sympathy, narrative acts as the “ultimate organizer of the text … the force that generates the basic components of sympathy” (2000: 35). In applying this lens to Avengers: Endgame, I would argue that by arranging the narrative in such a way that audiences revisit key emotional pull points in a character’s story — specifically when they know they are watching the end of said story — audiences are vulnerable to a complex and layered emotional response, as they are completely aligned with the characters as both fans and spectators.
To conclude, Scorsese’s assertion that the MCU is not the cinema of conveying “emotional psychological experiences,” (De Semlyen, 2019) appears to simply overlook the fact that, upon closer analysis, there are deep layers of sympathy and human experience to be found in these films. The narrative structure of the franchise alone allows audiences to inform their own response through exploration of other medias, as Adam Richter posits, the MCU “is not only cinematic, but a multimodal, interconnected fictional universe that consists of feature films, television series, short films and tie-in comic books” (2016). This agency offered to viewers to further explore the lives of beloved characters serves to encourage their recognition, alignment, and allegiance in accordance to Smith’s “structures of sympathy” (2000). By applying these three distinct stages of emotional response, we are able to ascertain that the parasocial relationships between spectator and character offer both narrative reward and emotional, psychological experiences. This is exemplified when we look at the flawed and accessible identities of the MCU heroes in comparison to the specific rigid definition of the word “superhero,” — which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “a benevolent fictional character with superhuman powers” — that audiences had become used to. The MCU uses larger-than-life characters to examine real human feeling and present post-modern analysis, such as critical looks at the War on Terror in Iron Man and the political impacts of vigilantism in Civil War. I would agree with Bordwell that Scorsese’s comments were “simply a roundabout statement of personal taste” (2019), however, it is no doubt important to explore the reasons behind this antithetical assumption — as to dismiss an entire genre as lacking in emotion is to also dismiss the audience it has had significant effect on.
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- Iron Man | United States, 2008, dir. Jon Favreau
- Iron Man 3 | United States, 2013, dir. Shane Black
- Avengers: Age of Ultron | United States, 2015, dir. Joss Whedon
- Captain America: Civil War | United States, 2016, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo
- Avengers: Infinity War | United States, 2018, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo
- Avengers: Endgame | United States, 2019, dir. Anthony and Joe Russo
- Figure 1: Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (2008, dir. Jon Favreau)
- Figure 2: From left to right — Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans,Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, dir. Joss Whedon)