Apparently, the hot topic in entertainment these days is the ongoing rivalry between old-school cinematic icons and the current domination of superhero films. Legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have weighed in with their thoughts specifically about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Disney CEO Bob Iger even got in on it, jumping to the MCU’s defense.
Both sides are arguing whether superhero films like Avengers: Endgame qualify as “cinema.”
With their abundance of visual effects and serialized storytelling, some filmmakers consider these superhero epics to be, in Coppola’s words, “despicable.” But what does Steven Spielberg, father of the modern blockbuster, have to say about it?
His history with superhero films
To be fair, Spielberg has been critical of superhero films before. Back in 2015, the director predicted the genre’s popularity is part of the cyclical nature of the industry. He said superheroes would go “the way of the Western” and enjoy a “finite time in popular culture.”
Those comments built off of Spielberg’s 2013 claim that the film industry as a whole would “implode” due to its over-reliance on costly blockbusters. According to the director, his own Lincoln nearly wound up going straight to HBO. If one of history’s most popular filmmakers can’t get his films a guaranteed theatrical release, perhaps he has a point.
Then again, superhero films have only grown in popularity in the past few years. The “superhero fatigue” so regularly predicted has yet to come to pass. So where does Spielberg stand on the genre now, especially in the wake of his colleagues’ recent comments?
Steven Spielberg speaks out
At the Cannes Film Festival, Spielberg shared his take on superhero films and their role in the cinematic landscape.
I love the Superman of Richard Donner, The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan, and the first Iron Man, but [the] superhero film that impressed me most is one that does not take itself too seriously: Guardians of the Galaxy. When his projection was over, I left with the feeling of having seen something new in movies, without any cynicism or fear of being dark when needed.
There is a difference between heroes and superheroes. The hero is an ordinary person who is faced with a serious fact and acts to modify it. A hero is a person who, walking down the street, see[s] a car on fire and runs [to] help the person who is in the driver’s seat, attached to the seat belt to loosen it. [A] superhero is a person who, on the same scene, would fly to the car and try to turn it upside down and shake it using his super strength, until the driver is released.
I identify more with the first example. Films about everyday heroes.
The above comments indicate that Spielberg believes the key to making superheroes work on-screen lies in their humanity. This is a common criticism, one that many pinpoint as the reason a Superman film is so hard to pull off. And with this sentiment, Spielberg may be on to something.
Why it matters what cinema icons think of superhero films
After all, the concern filmmakers like Spielberg have is that superhero films will steer the art of cinema down a dark path. Rather than focusing on creating compelling characters, spectacle and episodic storytelling will lead to the end of riskier projects. This, in turn, would silence truly distinctive voices in favor of those who can tow the company line.
In this regard, Spielberg and company aren’t entirely wrong. Take a look at the box office receipts of the past few years. Remakes, sequels, and franchise fare are dominating, with the bulk of the successes coming straight from Disney.
However, the arguments of cinema’s elder statesmen would be better served if they temper that criticism a bit. Sure, some superhero films fall into the hyper-stylized, formulaic mold they’re calling out. But others manage to balance the need to become four-quadrant, billion-dollar hits with a clear vision and something to say (i.e., Black Panther).
Spielberg’s recent comments cut to the heart of what superhero films should be shooting for. There is a world in which Avengers: Endgame and The Irishman can peacefully co-exist. Dismissing an entire genre only further divides us rather than uniting us over our love of all forms of cinema.