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Why Francis Ford Coppola Is (Mostly) Wrong About Marvel

Whenever I hear someone say “they’re all the same”, I get nervous. Especially when it's someone who should know better.

Case in point: legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who in a recent GQ interview went after Marvel films and blockbusters in general.

“There used to be studio films,” he said. “Now there are Marvel pictures. And what is a Marvel picture? A Marvel picture is one prototype movie that is made over and over and over again to look different.”

With the utmost respect to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time (and of course, he's not all wrong), I’m always a bit taken aback by the lack of nuance among movie giants when asked to sound off on popular studio films. Coppola gave us The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, true. He also gave us Jack, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the face-palming cash grab, Godfather III. (No offense, Sofia, loved Lost in Translation.) Given his own CV, one would think he'd be more open to the "free market of ideas" reality that motion pictures do now and always have provided different strokes for different folks.

To be fair, I believe Coppola is ultimately expressing a deeper concern than what qualifies as "true cinema". If it's anything like what Martin Scorsese was getting at back in 2019, he is echoing the broader perception that blockbusters have somehow prevented independent filmmakers from getting their movies made, siphoning much-needed budgets away from stories the world needs now. (Actually, since Iron Man was released in 2008, the opposite has been true: more independent films have been released than in any other time in film history, in large part thanks to the increasing affordability of cutting-edge film technology, the ever-expanding call for greater representation in film, and the ubiquity of streaming platforms delivering original content.)

And if opportunity and budgets were all Coppola was getting at, I might give my hero a pass. But then he had to go and say this:

“I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin [Scorsese] was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I say it is.”

Are Marvel films successful? Yes. Intimidating? Apparently. But despicable?

And then he dropped a doozy that left me speechless:

“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he's right. Because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”

So to summarize, modern blockbusters as a whole (he includes Villeneuve's Dune and the excellent No Time To Die), and Marvel films in particular, are not merely box office bullies, they are also categorically repetitive, empty, unenlightening, uninspiring, knowledge-free, and, in case you missed his point, despicable. Did I miss anything?

Now, I love these guys. And they are absolutely entitled to their opinions. They have played an undeniably pivotal role in the evolution of cinema and storytelling. Their films have inspired me for decades. They are some of my greatest heroes and their views on this point don't change a thing. But come on, Francis, I thought you were bigger than this.

Fortunately, you were also more specific than your New Hollywood-era colleague. So it's easier for me to define, respectfully, what I think you might be missing.

When it comes to the plot structure, character arcs, and action sequences of some blockbusters, I get your point and heartily agree. There is undeniably a part of these films that is 100% about titillating crowds and making money. But I suspect we all know that. And of course, the same was true for Star Wars (which Coppola still believes was the end of his friend, Mr. Lucas), the OG Superman, and even classic cinema like Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I mean, those jaw-dropping space stations didn't just spin endlessly to Strauss’ Blue Danube for the art of it.)

And, yes, I would concur: a lot of blockbusters are utterly disposable.

But to suggest that Marvel films and virtually all modern blockbusters in aggregate provide zero enlightenment, zero lessons learned, zero revelations and personal insights is, at best, lazy. It's like when you hear a Boomer or Xer (my crew) indiscriminately write off Millennials and Gen Zs as "entitled". Which, for the record, has to go down as the most ironic and embarrassing boomerangs (excuse the pun) ever flung downwind by the the actually entitled over-50 crowd.

At worst, though, it is to profoundly overlook how these films have functioned for two (and now three) generations of young people in the process of figuring life out, providing powerful models and situations that help them discover meaning, navigate crisis, transcend hardship and loss, and explore what it means to be truly heroic. It may be hackneyed old hat to the Master, but it's fresh as rain to tomorrow's young leaders. That's what is most sad about Coppola's comments: it represents a missed opportunity for storytellers who should be seeking meaningful connections with new audiences in a changing and uncertain world.

Anyone who knows me also knows I'm a fan. Not of every Marvel film (Fantastic Four, anyone?), much less all superhero films, and not blindly. But they appeal to me precisely because I believe they do say something. The last two Avengers movies were profound in my opinion and the Captain America films alone are downright subversive. I also have five kids between the ages of 6 and 26, all of whom have been profoundly influenced and enlightened by them. Fresh insights, or old ones framed in a new way, hit me, too, while watching films Coppola sounds like he would dismiss as categorically vacuous.

I mean, what is this whole thing we call the hero's journey if not (to quote the man himself) a "prototype" made "over and over again to look different"? Or as Joseph Campbell called it, the hero with a thousand faces.

(Photo courtesy of ScreenRant)

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Mar 04, 2022

I enjoyed seeing this good balanced approach to the popular debate about whether Marvel films and other lucrative franchises in general are healthy or unhealthy for the creativity and diversity of the film industry. On the one hand, Marvel is easy to poke fun at (kind of like McDonald's in the fast food world) because they're the ones at the top and their movies have acquired some characteristics and shortfalls that warrant pointing out and critiquing (such as the minimal character development and tendency of the humour to fall flat). I can also understand the concern that they create less space and attention for other genres of movies to exist in the theatres and they could make producers more hesitant…

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