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As is the nature of film franchise releases, Film Twitter discourse is often painfully cyclical. Likewise, it’s not surprising that the Great Martin Scorsese-Marvel War of 2019 is being rehashed once again on social media. This time, however, it’s thanks to Spiderman: No Way Home star Tom Holland, who gave a belated rebuttal to the Oscar-winning director’s statement that superhero films “aren’t cinema” in an Empire magazine interview a couple of years ago.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about the latest Spiderman sequel’s Oscar chances in light of its record-breaking box office numbers and critical acclaim, Holland defended the film’s place alongside “prestige” films that typically receive Oscars attention, like much of Scorsese’s filmography.
“You can ask [Martin] Scorsese, ‘Would you want to make a Marvel movie?’ But he doesn’t know what it’s like because he’s never made one,” said Holland. “I’ve made Marvel movies and I’ve also made movies that have been in the conversation in the world of the Oscars, and the only difference, really, is one is much more expensive than the other. But the way I break down the character, the way the director etches out the arc of the story and characters—it’s all the same, just done on a different scale. So I do think they’re real art.”
He continued: “When you’re making these films, you know that good or bad, millions of people will see them, whereas when you’re making a small indie film, if it’s not very good no one will watch it, so it comes with different levels of pressure. I mean, you can also ask Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr. or Scarlett Johansson—people who have made the kinds of movies that are ‘Oscar-worthy’ and also made superhero movies—and they will tell you that they’re the same, just on a different scale. And there’s less Spandex in ‘Oscar movies.’”
Holland is certainly not alone in what he thinks Oscar movies should be allowed to be. Film critics and awards-show obsessives have long bemoaned the exclusion of comedy, horror and action films (and their performances) in the Oscars’ major categories in favor of more serious, dramatic fare like period pieces and biopics. And recent calls for diversifying the makeup of the Academy and its nominees have included the argument that the ceremony doesn’t represent the tastes of moviegoers beyond older, white men in the industry looking out for their own interests.
However, Holland reducing the qualitative differences between low-budget indies and Marvel films to a matter of money is to overlook how that money is earned and made available. Furthermore, this framing ignores the intense, profit-driven process of making the latter, which are, as Scorsese pointed out in a New York Times op-ed explaining his remarks, “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.” The use of these measures to ensure Disney’s bottom line is a well-known fact that directors have gone on record about but also just a standard practice in the making of studio-backed films.
Holland also noticeably conflates the experience of acting in these types of films, mentioning his older colleagues, with making them. While it seems like common knowledge that independent filmmakers have more creative freedom and aren’t as burdened by the restraints of the marketplace, this is understandably a topic Holland would have a blind spot in (or simply not want to discuss too deeply, in the interest of his career).
While Holland doesn’t verbalize this outright, his words seem to hinge on a widely touted belief on the internet that expanding the definition of “Oscar movies” to include the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which routinely occupies technical categories and has won several Oscars for Black Panther, is a progressive move simply because it represents a wider demographic of moviegoers’ tastes, including underrepresented groups.
This is some potent trickery by Marvel, which has spent the last three years lauding itself as a pioneer of diversity in the blockbuster world, notably with the release of 2018’s Black Panther and 2019’s Captain Marvel, after years of pressure from audiences. (Meanwhile, film franchises like The Matrix and Fast & Furious were casting people of color decades prior, but I digress). Consequently, they’ve been able to convince some fans into thinking they’re doing a public good and transforming Hollywood by hiring actors of color and telling diverse stories while simultaneously controlling the market and limiting the cinematic imaginations of young audiences, who fall in love with film via the one-dimensional characters, colorless dialogue, and predictable three-act structure of the modern superhero movie.
Marvel fans also fail to realize that, while the studio has helped the careers of some actors and directors of color, this doesn’t make up for the barriers they’ve created for up-and-coming filmmakers, including those from marginalized groups, to get their movies greenlit. Scorsese has spoken numerous times about the difficulty of getting his latest feature The Irishman made, forcing him to turn to Netflix and subsequently limiting the film’s time in theaters. So one can only imagine the scant opportunities for people from marginalized groups without Scorsese’s resume in the current market, beyond what current and former filmmakers from said communities have already told us about their experiences.
However, Scorsese has been repeatedly misrepresented by the comic-book fan community online and by certain actors and filmmakers as just another old, white, establishment gatekeeper looking down on the cinematic tastes of younger, more diverse audiences and impeding the “evolution” of the medium. One could only come to this ill-informed conclusion by simply looking at the racial and gender makeup of Scorsese’s filmography, which overwhelmingly but not solely features white, male characters, and comparing it with Marvel’s more (recently) inclusive world. Meanwhile, his reputation as a promoter of international film, founding the World Cinema Project to preserve and restore neglected foreign films and boost the profiles of international filmmakers, and co-launching the similar African Film Heritage Project, is well documented for anyone interested in doing a cursory Google search.
While one can only hope that this tired discourse is on its last legs, this probably won’t be the final soundbite we get from a celebrity about the alleged plight of being in the most successful franchise in movie history and how the older generation is inhibiting their rights to saturate even more of the culture. Until then, Disney and its employees can wipe their tears with their billions of dollars, and Scorsese will continue making excellent movies.