Not since Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man stood off against Thanos—the Mad Titan himself—has an ideological conflict in geekdom come to as fierce of blows as the dispute currently taking place.
On the one side stands director Martin Scorsese—one of the last standing of the old guard of auteur Hollywood filmmakers, having helmed cinematic classics such as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990). On the other side stands the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and its loyal legion of fans.
The conflict ignited when Scorsese, during the press tour for his recent film The Irishman, remarked that Marvel films are “not cinema,” and likened them to “amusement park rides.” MCU fans (as well as Marvel filmmaker James Gunn and Disney CEO Bob Igor) were not pleased by the slight. Twitter exploded (as it tends to do). Scorsese, unphased, dug in his heels and penned an op-ed in The New York Times defending his comments and explaining his reasoning (the article is excellent and well worth a read).
On the surface, this squabble is yet another meaningless episode of the Twitter outrage machine, a war of petty words between a grumpy 77-year-old director and a mob of superhero fans. Beneath the spandex-clad surface, however, is a fascinating and important discussion on the role of film, art, and entertainment that I believe Christians can learn from.
Seduced by Comfort and Familiarity
Scorsese does not dispute that MCU films are well crafted, visually stimulating, or emotionally satisfying. In fact, his concern stems from the fact that the films are those things.
In the New York Times article, he summarizes the crux of his dissatisfaction: “In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk.”
He worries that current Hollywood blockbusters are so laser-focused on “pleasing” and “satisfying” audiences—informed by countless audience test group studies—that fewer and fewer films are allowed to grace the silver screen that challenge audiences.
Audiences go into the movie theater with a clearly defined notion of what they want and expect to experience and then judge the film on whether or not it delivers. This expectation is a significant factor (although not the only one) with the latest Star Wars saga film, The Last Jedi, that is still being passionately debated 2 years later.
This discussion speaks to art at large, not just cinema. A recent example is Kanye West’s new album Jesus is King. The album lost Kanye many “secular” fans while gaining him a legion of Christian fans who would not have been caught dead listening to his music prior to 2019. What does this shift tell us? It suggests that it was never truly about “the music.” It was about a comfort level with the message. People—Christian and atheist alike—want art that is safe and affirms their existing beliefs. They don’t want to be challenged with an opposing worldview, regardless of the quality of the presentation, which is problematic.
The Importance of Dangerous and Risky Art
Rollercoasters offer genuine thrills and the sensation of danger, but its thrills are temporary and the danger an illusion. In this sense, Scorsese’s metaphor is an apt one. Most blockbuster films entertain us, but they rarely change us. They satisfy our inner desires but rarely add to, question, or challenge those desires. They uplift us but rarely disorient us. They stir the emotions we want but not always the emotions we need.
The Christian life should be one of constant growth, and growth rarely comes from comfort or safety. Ask yourself this: What’s the last movie that shook and unsettled you? What’s the last book that sent you rushing to the Bible to strengthen your beliefs? What’s the last song that made you see the world from a different perspective?
If you’re a regular at The Collision, you may have noticed that we generally stay away from reviewing faith-based content. We made this decision not because such content is necessarily “bad,” but because, for the most part, it is uninteresting to discuss. It affirms rather than challenges. Christians sometimes mistake a warm fuzzy feeling or emotional experience for a transformative encounter. They leave the theater after watching a faith-based film declaring, “That film was so moving!” Yet, in reality, they haven’t actually been moved to anywhere new. They have just been reaffirmed in where they already stand.
In the book An Experiment in Criticism—one of the most insightful books on art and criticism ever written— C. S. Lewis distinguishes between using art and receiving art. In the first method, we approach a work of art with a preconceived idea of what we want to get from it, and we often find exactly what we’re looking for (or else we twist the artwork until we do). In the end, the artwork has been greatly altered, but we have changed very little.
When we receive a work of art—a film, a book, a song—we approach it with an open mind and allow it to work on us, either by instilling something new within us or by compelling us to reinforce and strengthen our existing beliefs to counter its opposing worldview. In other words, we allow ourselves to change and grow.
As always, finding a balance is important. There is nothing wrong with enjoying “the rollercoaster” or being uplifted and energized by safe and agreeable content. But if every book you read, movie you watch, or song you hear perfectly affirms your existing worldview, then perhaps art and entertainment has become a therapeutic spiritual drug that provides momentary satisfaction but stunts future growth.
In the end, the MCU vs. Martin Scorsese debate will soon pass and Twitter will move on to a new flavor of outrage. Regardless of which “side” you’re on, the discussion is a timely reminder for Christians that art can do so much more than just satisfy us. It can change us. But only if we let it.