Scorsese on a Jungle Cruise

James Gunn says Martin Scorsese bashed Marvel movies to get press |

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.

26 Of The Most Hilarious Amusement Park Ride Photos You'll Ever See

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.

Hugos: Have we forgotten Disney Must Pay?

Yesterday the 2021 Hugo Award nominees were announced. There’s a lot of interesting stuff on it. Harrow the Ninth and The City We Became are both high up my to-read list. Aliette de Bodard is one of my favourite authors in general – I’ve previously written about her books and I’m very tempted to dig up “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” soonest for all of the Hugo nominated print fiction on offer this year.

I am also very excited to read Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley Moving out of print work, dramatic presentation, Long Form, includes the best comic book adaptation to come out in the last few years with Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and another very strong contender within the category with The Old Guard – a movie I enjoyed perhaps not as much as Birds of Prey, but would still consider one of the best genre entries of 2020.

Short-form dramatic presentation has strong contenders with the series finale of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which is a possible contender for a future Kid’s Stuff essay and with the series finale of The Good Place, for which I have a lot of affection. All in all this slate of finalists looks far better than the painful slates we suffered through during the tumultuous Sad Puppy years. And yet I’m not happy.

Because it seems like the entirety of SFF has forgotten that, as of the time of writing, Disney still has not paid Alan Dean Foster. Disney’s insufferable expression of unadulterated brand-as-entertainment, The Mandalorian, is nominated in short-form dramatic presentation not once but twice, and the Pixar movie Soul is nominated in long-form dramatic presentation. I have never felt even the slightest whit of interest in The Mandalorian as I consider the entire enterprise almost entirely lacking in artistic merit. On the other hand, Soul may very well be a very good cartoon. I don’t care. It’s shocking that the genre “fan community” would show so little concern for the material conditions under which artists labour as to heap fan-accolades upon the Mouse that Eats.

Recently Disney bought and shuttered a minor competitor of Pixar in Blue Sky Studios. This is on top of their widely-covered acquisitions of Fox, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar that have marked its monopolistic quest to control all of entertainment over the last fifteen years. In my opinion there is no greater threat to artistic expression, in the world, than Disney. Not even Amazon is as harmful. Disney has now begun using its streaming service to directly supplant cinema as a result of the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, charging exorbitant mark-ups to access feature movies like the Mulan reboot in which Disney attempts to cement its ownership of a poem older than even Beowulf and Raya and the Last Dragon. There is no reasonable frame in which Disney’s corporate maneuvers, their acquisitiveness and their monopolism can be divided from their art.

Disney’s rapid acquisition of genre properties should be of grave concern to genre fans. It has a long history of homophobia, colonialism and racism. It is a four-quadrant obsessed producer of massive tentpole films in which people don’t fuck or swear, queers exist in subtext alone, and where violence is safely PG-13. It is deeply in bed with the US military. Disney’s vast acquisitions have the effect of flattening and circumscribing the imaginations of audiences who have very few options that aren’t the Mouse. And this also plays into the construction of consumer communities that reduce the act of engaging with art to merely being an unpaid amateur brand ambassador. And so I’m pleading with fan communities to remember that Disney doesn’t care about artists. It just cares about hoarding art and treating it as a revenue stream. If we’re fans of art and not of brands we must show Disney as much distain in 2021 as we did to the Sad Puppies in 2015. The risk to art from Disney is far greater than the risk to art ever posed by the Puppies.

So please do not vote for any Disney owned artworks at this year’s Hugo awards. And spread the word.

A Moral Case for Spoilers

Phillipa Georgiu will return to Star Trek, Quicksilver will return to the MCU and it is immoral to participate in the policing of spoilers.

Now first I want to be precise when I talk about the word, “moral.” The boundaries between concepts are unclear. We have two questions that are particularly difficult to separate – the question of what is good and the question of what is beautiful: Ethics and Aesthetics.

There are many methods of chopping these two discussions of value in order to say this is one thing or it is another. It is good to dispense justice. A painting is beautiful; but there is certainly overlap. The presence of religion gives testament to this as many religious programs attempt to simultaneously define both what is good and what is beautiful in connection to each other. A Christian might say it is Good to live in God’s divine light – but preference for light over darkness is an aesthetic concern.

The truth is that humans don’t easily divide the good from the beautiful. A bigot, upon seeing two men kissing, might excuse himself by saying, “It’s not that what they are doing is wrong, I just don’t want to have to look at it.” These edge conditions multiply persistently wherever we might look for them. How many people would think they have an ethical obligation to their neighbours to keep the façade of their home beautiful? Morality, in the sense I am deploying it here, is to describe a thing that has one foot each in the realm of the ethical and of the aesthetic.

For instance, it is an ethical proposition to suggest an actor has less bargaining power than a multinational corporation. If an actor, in his enthusiasm for a role, announces he will play a part, but the studio, for reasons of marketing, wishes to keep that role silent and the studio then punishes the actor we can hardly side against the actor. After all, some corporations might monopolize the opportunities for an actor to ply his trade; he may have no choice but to sign odious confidentiality clauses or choose against having a career. When facing such a systemic inequality we can hardly call these contracts ones that are negotiated in good faith. And if a corporation has compelled a worker to accept unpleasant working conditions on fear of being unable to work, how could a decent and clear-thinking person say that this worker just should have honored his word? The words that came out of his mouth were never his. This is an ethical concern.

However the problem of spoilers is far more involved merely than a single material relationship between a worker, or even a class of workers, and a powerful avatar of capital. It involves both other ethical concerns, power relationships and the question of group formation, but also questions of what makes for good art.

But before we can address these questions we must first answer a more basic question: what, really, is a spoiler?

To spoil is to rot or to put beyond all utility. Food spoils when eating it makes you sick. But art isn’t food. The problem, I think, is that franchise media wants to make art into a meal: not into something an audience engages with, enters into communication with. But something they dumbly consume. But if art spoils in the same way food spoils, this raises a problem: why would knowing the shape of the plot prior to consuming a work of art make one ill? Perhaps it would be best to push back against the idea of art as something we eat, and to look at art as a vehicle of communication instead. So how do we decompose the utility of art as a vehicle of communication?

We could suggest that a work of art is spoiled when the artist or some third party, through malice or error, eliminates its ability to communicate a coherent message. We would have to put the art into a position of such irreconcilable internal contradiction that it could say nothing at all to truly spoil a work of art.

Monkey Jesus is not a spoiled artwork

Even if we look at grand artistic mistakes such as the amateur restoration off the Borja Ecce Homo fresco, we can see the communication of meaning within the art. Christ’s occluded black eyes and faint hint of a mouth, the abstracted plane of his nose and the indistinct boundaries of hair and flesh all present a contradiction with the subject: Ecce Homo. And yet, behold the man! “Monkey Jesus,” gives a wonderful hint into the animal character of humanity, it puts lie to the suggestion of divinity in a way which still creates a meaningful and significant, if accidental message.

Cecilia Giménez’s Ecce Homo is not a spoiled artwork. It is, in fact, a shockingly successful artwork, as her attempts to restore the fresco, and the beautiful and surprising way she failed to restore it have attracted increased attention to her community and her church. If this Ecce Homo can survive such a transformation unspoiled, why are franchise artworks so fragile that they collapse if only the aspect of surprise is taken from them?

Because this is ultimately the only thing spoiled for the audience. The surprise. Are we, as a culture, so limited that we believe the surprise of reversal to be something fundamental to the quality of art? What then of Romeo and Juliet? How are we to enjoy the art of this famous tragedy when it begins:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Emphasis mine)

Any art so vacuous that it is ruined beyond recovery simply by the knowing of a fact is not art worth anyone’s effort. As such we should contend that, no, art is not spoiled even when the surprise is. But the thing is that while policing of spoilers is about knowledge, it isn’t really about surprise. Rather it’s about secrecy.

Specifically, the spoiler is the inevitable companion of the mystery box. So whose experience of art is truly spoiled by the spoiler? It is the marketer. This becomes painfully clear when we look at how artists are put behind the demands of marketing for secrecy. Tom Holland is given incomplete scripts. He is not allowed to know the secrets of the movie in which he is the star because of the fear he might disclose a secret. His ability to be an actor is hampered so that the marketers can have their way. We cannot have the audience knowing Quicksilver will in fact return before the moment, even if any given audience member with even the slightest spark of critical insight might mark it as likely, because our marketing cycle is built upon the revelation to the press at this time or that of the cameo, of the actor who plays the role, and of all the mystery boxes that will be put in view of the audience with this revelation. And, with its dependence on continuity, and on the interconnection of properties, especially in the case of the MCU with its heavy dependence on lore delivered via cameo-coda, the franchise becomes precisely this: a box containing boxes, containing boxes, containing boxes. Each box carries the promise that there is something inside, some meaning, a kernel of a reason for the art. But the meaning is nothing but an empty box and the endless deferment of the moment of transformation in favour of simulations of catharsis. We cannot spoil the franchise; it’s already rotted to bone, to dust, to void.

Ultimately, the purpose of a franchise artwork is not about anything resembling meaningful communication between an artist or artists and an audience. It’s about the construction of a community, a lifestyle, a fandom. Fandom, with its desire to catalog, to be encyclopedists, to be those who are in the know, polices the spoiler because it allows them to identify those who are to be included as fans and those who are not. An altogether common, and altogether revolting conversation about a work of art on social media will begin: “No spoilers, but OMG, franchise title.” This is a is such an awful exclusionary tactic. It says, “I would love to talk to you, but only after you pay the franchise owner with your time and money.” It denies that anyone might engage with a work of art but as a fan. It denies that any passion should be allowed in response to art but enthusiasm.

This idea, that only enthusiasm is permitted in public discourse surrounding art is summed up in perfect vacuity by the “let people enjoy things,” meme.

But I am, in fact enjoying myself, get your hands off my mouth you irritating twit.

This is an infantilization of an audience. The fan has invested so much of their identity in being a fan of this franchise or that, of being a trekker or of being a Marvel fan, of loving Barbie or loving Batman, that any criticism of the art for its technical execution, its message, its deployment of novelty or of repetition becomes a violence committed against the fan.

Recently, I made the mistake of discussing my opinion of WandaVision on social media, and I said that I thought it was, and this is a complete quote that would not be transformed by context, “Not… good.” Two words, one ellipses. Not… good. A fan replied, “I feel like you kicked me.” Like I had kicked them. My statement, that I denied the quality of this work of art in which they had invested their identity, was seen as being indistinguishable from an assault upon them. Confronted with an artwork consisting of empty boxes, this fan put their heart inside. When I opened up the box and declared it empty, it was as if I had nullified their heart. But fannishness is the worst form of art appreciation. It is nothing but a surrender to the art. It denies that the audience has anything to say about the art, that the audience has any role beyond a mouth chewing.

Fannishness is full of pointless activity – the curation of wikis, the argumentation over “fan theories” and “head canons,” the hunt for easter eggs – but for all this wasted effort in sorting the franchise into digestible bites, easier to chew, there isn’t really anything for a fan to do. To become an artist, to take the work and to make something of it, involves a tearing down of the art to the ground. The once-fan-become-artist unmakes the old art to create the new. This is an escape from fandom; the fanfiction artist has set themselves apart from fandom through the act of responding to the art. Likewise a critic cannot be a fan. Criticism is an act of cutting. We slice apart the art, open up its hidden layers, expose its secret parts to sunlight. A critic must keenly look for the hidden box, rip off the lid and announce its contents to the world. Marketers who want to hide the interiority of the art because they know it to be lacking are enemies of critics in the same way copyright lawyers are enemies of artists.

And so we come to the point where a fan can be identified as what they truly are: an unpaid brand manager. Of course we’ve seen from fandoms what toxicity this ambassadorship can engender.

The best movie I saw in theatres in 2020, and the best superheroic movie released within any franchise since Black Panther in 2018, the only comic book movie worth the effort of watching since the release of Black Panther, was Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. This movie took the only redeemable kernel of value from the otherwise putrid Suicide Squad – Margot Robbie’s excellent performance, which managed to shine through even the monstrous editing of this film – and crafted from it a brash and explosive movie which shamelessly obliterated the authoritarian apparatus of the superheroic genre in a riot of glitter and cocaine.

So, of course, the brand ambassadors of the “Snyderverse” have taken to voluntarily sticking advertisements for their preferred version of the DC brand on the front of dvd boxes for this far-better film. This is just marketing. Unpaid marketing, marketing as competent as the art-restoration skills of Cecilia Giménez’s but with infinitely less charm. And likewise, those discussions that demand we refuse to become either artists or critics, that demand we express nothing but enthusiasm for the next bite of our pablum, are nothing but marketing.

Furthermore, this fannish preoccupation with avoidance of spoilers is a particularly cheap marketing ploy that factionalizes social groups to those who are in the know and those who must get caught up lest they be left out. Let’s be blunt. People who oppose the disclosure of spoilers make their demands in the name of respect but spoiler aversion isn’t about respect for friends. If my friend was about to dig into a steaming plate of offal because some slick liar persuaded them it was steak, I would be a good friend to say, “don’t eat that, it’ll make you sick.” Refusing to discuss art like a critic or like an artist, demanding all public discussion of art permit only enthusiasm is not respect for your friends. In fact, it is deeply disrespectful to your artist friends who would burn down the old work to create the new, or to the critic who enjoy laying the secrets of the artwork visible. Policing spoilers is fundamentally disrespectful to everybody but the brand ambassador. It is respect of the franchise alone.

And this means it is just a roundabout way to lick a particularly polished boot. An empty one at that. There is one final definition of “spoil” I think we could address. One spoils a child by giving in to their childish impulses, by allowing them to dictate what should be done even when their guardians know better. A spoiled child demands that their parents do and say the things they like or they will throw a tantrum. Fandom is an infantilization of the audience. Perhaps we should stop spoiling their detrimental impulses and start talking about art without averting our eyes.