The debate about Coppola and Scorsese’s comments rages on. But there’s a key element about Marvel storytelling that many people are missing.
It was “the Shade” heard ’round the world. Scorsese saying the Marvel movies aren’t real “cinema” and Coppola doubling down on his friend’s comments and going so far as to call them “despicable.”
It’s bad enough for people we respect and revere to make such elitist comments that write off a whole genre of storytelling. As I wrote earlier, them saying Marvel movies aren’t real cinema is akin to Pavarotti saying Beyonce isn’t real music. (Scorsese has since followed up his comment with a NY Times op-ed wherein he explains what he meant. It’s worth a read and will most likely elicit a follow-up retort.)
But one of the refrains I keep hearing from those who defend Coppola and Scorsese’s empirically offensive comments about what constitutes real “cinema,” is that super hero movies are vapid, empty, popcorn, trope-filled formulaic machines designed solely for the purposes of generating billions of dollars.
(Note: this blog post will contain spoilers for various Marvel movies, particularly Avengers: Endgame.)
In the latest tweet thread about the topic, I came across this comment by comedian Gerrence Geroge in response to someone comparing Scorsese and Coppola to the two old theater hecklers from the Muppets.
I want to focus on that last comment by Mr. George. It seems like such a throw-away line:
“…allowed to not care about Cap wielding the hammer.”
That comment really struck me. Perhaps unknowingly, in what seems like such an innocuous comment, Mr. George hit on an aspect of the Marvel movies that in-and-of-itself, gives the strongest argument as to storytelling artistry of the MCU.
Scorsese defines cinema
In my aforementioned reference to Mr. Scorsese’s NY Times op-ed, in defense of his comment that Marvel movies aren’t “cinema,” he writes:
For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. [emphasis mine)
Let’s set aside, for now, the fact that these themes are wrought throughout the MCU, and other extended Marvel films like Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Thor, even Guardians of the Galaxy, all deal with the complex and paradoxical nature of people.
But I am intrigued with this one line and will use it as a microcosm for the entirety of MCU and other comic book films.
Captain America wielding Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, is not just a big deal. It’s a BIG FUCKING DEAL that is steeped in storytelling significance on multiple levels. I believe that it fully and wholeheartedly embraces the idea put forth by Mr. Scorsese.
Who is worthy
For the uninitiated, Mjolnir (pronounced like MYOLE-neer) can only be wielded by someone who is worthy to bear the moniker “Thor.” The hammer is somewhat sentient and it will itself determine who is or isn’t worthy, frequently based on the need at the time. Typically, no amount of strength can lift it (at various points in the comics, it’s suggested others, like the Hulk, who grows stronger as he gets angrier, lifted it. But it’s plausible in those scenarios the hammer was acting on its own accord).
The Marvel movies planted a seed for that hammer-wielding years ago. The story behind who can and can’t wield it is a deep and intricate storyline that goes back to the first Thor movie.
It’s established in that film that Thor himself can lose the ability to wield it. He is shown to be a shallow, self-absorbed man, struggling with being worthy of love and respect. He pours a lot of his self-worth in his ability to wield it or not. His father, Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins) strips Thor of his power and honor and banishes him to Midgard (i.e. Earth).
Thor’s personal struggle is a beautiful, if not bittersweet allegory for the “hammers” we all have in or lives. What things we strive to achieve or attain in our quest to be loved, respected, and accepted by peers or loved ones. Especially, fathers. (I challenge anyone who has ever had a complicated relationship with their father to watch that scene and not get chills and/or get all up caught up in their feels.)
Later on in the movie, we see the despair and heartache in Thor’s face after he finds the hammer, but is no longer able to lift it.
Naturally, by the movie’s end, once Thor shows his ability to care for people other than himself, he regains the ability to call and wield Mjolnir, and be beats up the big bad threat (and almost comically subdued end-fight scene with only ONE giant CGI creature.)
With the significance of the ability to lift the hammer fully established, a few years and a few billion dollars later, we come to the second Avengers movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron. In this funny scene, all the Avengers are gathered around, laughing and discussing Thor’s hammer. They think the whole “Not being able to lift it thing” is just a trick. They all try, and fail, in succession to pick it up. And at the end, Steve Rogers is almost able to lift it. You can see the look of concern on Thor’s face when he almost sees it lifted.
So, when we finally get to Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of a 22-film series over 10+ years of storytelling, among as many directors, all bringing a fresh look and style to their disparate ways of storytelling, when Cap wields it, it pays off a significant story element in a powerful scene.
In the middle of a battle with Thanos, as he is putting the beat-down on Thor, seconds away from taking his life, Mjolnir mysteriously starts to rise, flies to Thor’s defense, and knocks Thanos off of Thor.
For a brief moment you think, “Maybe the hammer as taken on a life of its own, to save its former master? Or maybe Thor is summoning it?” But when it flies and lands in the hand of Captain America, the audience loses their collective sh*t (I nearly jumped out of my seat).
We’re not only cheering for the iconic event (which happened in the comics), but we’re also cheering at Thor’s reaction. He says “I knew it!” He’s genuinely excited to see Steve Rogers wield his hammer. Quite a different response than the one we got back in Age of Ultron.
That is a level of character growth we also witnessed over several films. It included a comical yet poignant descent into depression as Thor deals with the pain and anguish he has endured living under the guilt of not aiming for Thanos’ head back in Avengers: Infinity War, when he struck the titan with his then god-like weapon, the mighty axe Stormbreaker.
Martin Scorsese went on to write in that op-ed piece, when describing what he and his contemporaries deemed as true “cinema”:
It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.
Gerrence George was correct in his tweet. Scorsese and those who came up when he did, don’t have to like, or even “get,” why Cap wielding the hammer is such a big deal. But that scene empirically confronts the unexpected: both in the wielding of Mjolnir by Captain America, and in Thor’s response to it.
Those two moments were not about spectacle. They were all about character and story; about self worth and respect; and about hope and humility. The fact that it happened in the middle of a roller coaster ride-like CGI battle don’t make them any less meaningful.
Endgame absolutely is a popcorn movie, and I would never say it’s “high art.” But by all accounts that I see, using Martin Scorsese’s own definition, it is absolutely, unequivocally, undoubtedly, and empirically, cinema.
This was an original article I wrote for Blerds Online.