by KRISTOFER PURNELL
Illustration by ARIANA MARALIT
My earliest memory of watching a film at a theater was for 2004’s Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. I only learned many years later how bad a film it was, but seven-year-old me was too enamored of seeing a “live-action” Scooby-Doo facing off against adversaries like the Black Knight and Miner 49er.
I’ve been to the movie house dozens of times since then and, to date, my favorite theater moment was earlier this year when I watched Avengers: Endgame. I did not feel for an instance that the movie was three hours long given how epic it was. For the first time I could hear collective gasps and sobs during the movie’s most tearjerking moments, enormous cheers when Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers became worthy to hold Thor’s hammer and finally say “Avengers assemble!” right down until the credits rolled to give Robert Downey Jr. a big round of applause.
Unfortunately there are some who believe that films like Avengers: Endgame, and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), shouldn’t be considered “cinema.” It doesn’t help that these include the likes of award-winning directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who each has produced such iconic films as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Hugo (Scorsese), and The Godfather and Apocalypse Now (Coppola).
According to Scorsese, films like Marvel’s aren’t “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” and Coppola agrees with him because people “expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”
Emotional and psychological experiences were definitely felt in Scorsese’s Raging Bull when Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) went up against Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), and in Hugo when the titular character played by Asa Butterfield gained more than just knowledge about his past when he met Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Coppola’s Godfather trilogy sparked interest in the mafia and repercussions on its existence, and Apocalypse Now shed light on the effects of war.
But surely people felt something emotional during not just Avengers: Endgame, but in at least one other MCU film that preceded it. Even beyond Marvel Studios, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy gave us one of the best heroes and villains ever seen on screen, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse taught us how anyone could be a hero.
Beyond the box office reels that each Marvel film took in, it cannot be denied how influential and inspirational those movies were. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gave a whole new definition for “family” and “father,” 2019’s Captain Marvel featured a female hero (a first for Marvel), and 2018’s Black Panther had a black-heavy cast—not to mention the groundbreaking technical aspects the latter film had in production design, costumes, and musical scoring.
Superhero films can still be inspirational and offer something to be gained, emotional and psychological experiences included. One can even look at Marvel’s competitor DC for how the cinematic experience can be enjoyed literally and figuratively. The best example of this is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which not only gave a Batman grounded in realistic gadgetry and surroundings but also pitted him against an adversary that questioned his—and the audience’s—beliefs on morality, chaos, and anarchy (RIP Heath Ledger).
Said adversary was recently given a plausible origin story in Todd Phillips’ Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix taking up the mantle of the Clown Prince of Crime. The film dives into the very depths of societal indifference, how one bad day could turn one’s worldview around, and this is reflected in the movie‘ camera work. It should also be noted Scorsese himself was attached to direct Joker, and even without his involvement his influence can clearly be seen by how it references his own Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.
Needless to say, both Scorsese and Coppola have a point when they say some films shouldn’t be considered “cinema” because of how they are made or envisioned. But their definitions for “cinema” still fits the bill for Avengers: Endgame given how audiences had tears in their eyes when Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow fell from the cliff, and even more so when RDJ said “I am Iron Man” as a callback to all the years that led to that very moment.
Filmmaker Andrei Severny’s definition of what cinema is better explains how majority of people perceive the art form. Cinema is “the art of simulating experiences, that communicate ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty or atmosphere” through moving images. Each film has its own story to tell, and in each theater there is a seven-year-old kid watching a film for the first time thinking just how beautiful movies (and the world) can be, and that is something no one can take away.