The wheel of discourse turns and yet again we’re talking about the fact that Martin Scorsese doesn’t like superhero movies. This salvo began because James Gunn suggested Scorsese’s comments, mostly in 2019, that Marvel movies aren’t cinema was just to drum up marketing for the latter’s movie The Irishman.
But the thing is that Scorsese is somewhat right; although superhero movies may appear on film they are structurally much closer to a ride than they are to a movie. And this has to do with the nature of movement in cinema compared to that in a ride. In Cinema 1: The Movement Image Deleuze does his thing where he comes up behind another theorist and presents them with their child only monstrous to Bergson and composes a defense of cinema from Bergson’s critique of the same. In it, he refers to cinema as producing an immediate movement-image. This is to say that cinema is not a static image to which movement is added but rather the movement is intrinsic to the cinematic image. So we can start by positioning cinema principally as being an image of movement or of change. As Deleuze says, “the shot would then stop being a spatial category and become a temporal one.” Deleuze describes a cartoon in specific as no longer constituting, “a pose or a completed figure, but a description of a figure which is always being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course.” He continues to talk about how the privileging of specific instants such as in the work of Eisenstein doesn’t take away from this favoring of movement and change over the static pose as the structure of the cinematic image.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that Eisenstein’s concept of collision likely derived at least in part from Kuleshov’s early work on montage as Eisenstein was briefly a pupil of Kuleshov. And of course montage is all about the ability to create change through the juxtaposition of images against each other. There is a thread running through these early directors and film theorists which demonstrates that cinema is ultimately the artform of transformation. Cinema doesn’t capture a pose as a photograph or a painting does but rather the movement that a subject undertakes, the changes a subject undergoes. Deleuze ties movement explicitly to change, “each time there is a translation of parts in space, there is also a qualitative change in a whole.” He later presents Bergson’s conclusion that, “if the whole is not giveable it is because it is the Open, and its nature is to change constantly.”
So finally we can arrive at the key requirement of cinema and that is constant change. It is significant to note here that constant in this context is heavily directed by the concept of any-instant-whatever rather than of the static pose. The dialectic of movement in the classical sense where movement describes the transition between two specific and significant poses is thus replaced with this sense that any moment of a movement could be extracted and provided with equal significance as each moment of a movement describes an image of its process of change.
But an amusement park ride doesn’t do that. Remarkably amusement park rides are a repudiation of change. Rather the movement of a ride consists explicitly of a series of fixed poses retuning to an unchanging conclusion. The amusement park ride ends where it began and, if it is functioning correctly, nothing changes. The ride is so carefully tuned to provide a specific and replicable experience that you can position a fixed camera on a timer and ensure that every attendee can have their reaction to that moment memorialized – a fixed pose of screaming exhilaration.
As such the ride is something of an opposite to cinema. For something to be a good amusement park ride it must bring you, via its movement, full circle to the point where you began. It must be a dialectic of fixed poses wherein movement only describes the transition between them: the climb, the drop, the loop, the splash, the photo at the end. These privileged moments are not a Kuleshov like process of montage wherein the juxtaposition of difference leads to an affective change in an audience. They aren’t the emotive collision of Eisenstein. Rather the amusement park ride is a wheel turning in the air, going nowhere.
And this is fine. Obviously amusement park rides affect audiences. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the predictable and the unchanging in and of itself and insofar as that goes. But if something is just a spinning wheel going nowhere it cannot be cinema. Cinema was, in fact, designed explicitly to be contrary to that affect.
While Deleuze sees cinema as being dependent on the technology that created it via Edison’s moving pictures and Lumiere’s teeth I think it’s important to look at cinema not just in the frame of how technology caused it to form but also in the frame of what it does with that form. And what cinema does is furnish transformation. Gunn should know that better than most considering that Super ends with the question of change, and with the protagonist presenting, unanswered, a dialectic between immutable order and transformative change. But of course Gunn has made a career of slyly subverting the superhero narrative, and so this also makes him particularly sensitive to Scorsese’s critique that Marvel films will disallow him from doing the cinematic things he clearly wants to do with the medium.
The problem ultimately becomes one of power. In this relation Gunn has almost none in the shadow of the Disney behemoth, and Disney isn’t in the business of making cinema. It’s in the business of making amusement park rides. I mean let’s not beat around the bush too much. the big Disney film on the horizon right now is Jungle Cruise – a movie that is explicitly derived from an amusement park ride. This movie follows the same basic beats and structure as many of its Pirates of the Caribbean films. The Pirates franchise was also based around an amusement park ride. When one of Disney’s most specific streams of output is so explicitly tied to amusement park rides, and to the cinematic replication of that experience of static poses, is it really surprising that a lover of cinema in the mold of Scorsese would look at Marvel and see a Ferris wheel rather than a movie?
But there is more to it than just this. Superhero movies in general, but Marvel films in specific, have gone to painstaking lengths to recreate the comic book format in cinema. This adherence to comic structure is something that has been lauded by fans on multiple occasions. But comic books are not like cinema nor even like cartoons. Comic books are static poses with movement inferred from the change in pose across panels.
Even in a dynamic panel of a comic containing a lot of action, a few poses, such as that of Batman in the center of the example to the right must stand in for all those any-instant-whatevers. The instant of Batman surrounded by goons, swinging the fire extinguisher becomes a privileged instance that is not impacted by the Kuleshov effect as there is no temporal disjunction. The poses are flattened into a single moment. They become privileged moments. And the superhero genre has desperately tried to replicate this.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the end credits contain rendered images of the fight between the Avengers and Ultron’s robot horde rendered as if it were a marble statue of that moment. The dynamism of their specific poses is captured as a privileged moment through the act of freezing that instant and twirling around it. We see this pattern repeating throughout the MCU both in the first Avengers movie when we see the assembly shot of the Avengers surrounded by aliens, back to back in New York and in Avengers Endgame, repeatedly, during the final battle with Thanos’ army. Of particular note is the assembly moment where the various women of the MCU all pose together, reminding audiences that, although none of them had yet to be given a feature film, the MCU contained plenty of women characters. But it isn’t the message of this moment that interests me so much as that it was rendered as a static and privileged moment.
This sense of stasis is something I’ve commented about regarding Disney before. I talked about it in the context of Disney’s sense of ownership and its refusal to let go. But this stasis is far more pervasive than that as Disney is, as much as it is anything, a marketer of rides, with amusement parks throughout the world which are a major source of revenue. The love Disney has for cross-platform promotion means that this sense of the ride now pervades is other media so that it can sell the ride experience.
But this means that, even when not making movies explicitly about rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or Jungle Cruise, Disney is making movies selling a ride experience. And when you add to the sale of the ride experience the medium-specified requirement of the comic book to prefer the privileged moment of the pose over the any-instant-whatever of the cinematic mode and we see how this amusement park ride sensation creeps into the Marvel movie from two dimensions.
And so Scorsese is right. Marvel movies are not cinema. What they are doing is, structurally, anathema to what cinema was designed to do. Frankly a Looney Tunes cartoon has more in common with Eisenstein than even the best MCU experiences could furnish – not for reasons of quality or enjoyment but because the task of duplicating the comic book form pushes against the task of cinema as clearly and specifically as the task of the roller coaster does. Disney has become very adept at marketing Ferris wheels. As such they have become very adept at providing filmic experiences that proceed through a series of privileged moments, of poses, before returning right back to where they started unchanged and ready for the next trip around the track.