Television today means options—a lot of options. But given the choice between Avengers: Endgame, an epic showcase of super abilities with a bottomless CGI budget, and Vincent Grenier’s Interieur Interiors, a slow-paced, silent exploration of the mental opportunity found in boredom, the overwhelming pick of the masses would be to kick back with the former.
This is not an attack on Marvel’s most recent epic. The narrative has grown more expansive than Star Wars, Harry Potter, and other most dearly loved fantasy epics. But The Numbers’ annual report shows Marvel’s dangerous pervasion of the domestic box office records. Before 2010, there were only two released. Since then, half of the annual box office records have been set by Marvel, the other half still having between one and three Marvel movies within the top ten.
Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese was bombarded with criticism for saying that Marvel movies were not cinema. Following the backlash, he responded with an opinion piece in The New York Times clarifying his understanding: “There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.”
While streaming has entered a golden age of well-written content, it’s a private-home experience. Mainstream theatres show no such diversity. It’s important to establish that it’s not an issue with Marvel’s existence—and it certainly isn’t about seeing more Scorsese pictures—it is its dominance on the big screen. This is where he and many other directors have always wanted their pictures played. Why? The experience is shared.
The Denver International Film Festival (DIFF) is communal storytelling. Like an extensive art exhibit, people witness the unique works of creators and cinematic translators from around the world and discuss its impact and meaning together—and it’s not always a comfortable story.
John Beder’s documentary, Palliative, on Dr. Nadia Tremonti helping families cope with terminally ill children was far from easy to watch. Tremonti’s goal was to help families make human decisions rather than medical and help parents understand that—despite the immense challenge of supporting a child with such severe health issues—it is possible to help them have a meaningful life, no matter how fleeting.
Take A Girl from Mogadishu. With UNFPA sponsorship and based on a true story, it covers the life of Ifrah Ahmed from Somalia as she fights against traditions of female genital mutilation. The film was still subject to some sensationalism and odd editing choices, but they were execution discrepancies in a story that is deeply powerful—a story that needs to be told.
These films deserve attention and contemplation. They are efforts and translations of social impact, not just entertainment—a starkly different experience than a franchise film.
There’s nothing innately wrong with franchise movies. Riann Johnson described a good mystery movie as “comfort food” at DIFF’s red carpet event before his premiere of Knives Out.
So many movies play their role perfectly by allowing a relaxing escape. The Marvel canon allows for a relationship with a wide narrative and a ton of characters. But there’s a divergence between those that allow an escape and those that call for a closer attention for a more profound, rewarding experience.
Now it’s extremely important to acknowledge the subjectivity of a rewarding experience. Personal relationships and nostalgia can be everything because often a movie will give the viewer, in reciprocal measure, what the viewer gives it in attention. But it seems to be almost all nostalgia on the big screen, all an escape to another world, not engagement with this one. Like so many outlets for artistic projects, diversity is everything, especially in storytelling:
Na Střeše (On The Roof), another DIFF film, told the story of a retired Czech professor, Mr. Rypar, who stumbles into a 20-year-old Vietnamese boy, Song, about to leap from Rypar’s apartment rooftop. The boy is caught in a bind of citizenship, wanting to get an education and support his family back home. Mr. Rypar takes him in, and the two find an unexpected and comedically sweet relationship and remedy for one another’s’ struggles.
Stephen Mccoy shot 80 hours of footage of his own life for what became Nightcrawlers. The footage was edited into a jarring non-narrative experience of his life observing homelessness and drug addiction as he falls into it himself.
Zuk Lorentzen’s Midnight Family, set in Mexico City, with a population of 21 million people, runs less than 45 government administered ambulances. Lorentzen’s film follows a family-run emergency ambulance, their income and survival reliant on responding to tragic and hateful incidents around the city.
These experiences are all sharply distinctive, but they’re all rooted in a vein of conveying complex and compelling human struggles, behaviors, and experiences. They all bring a story unheard of by most and expose substance that deserves every pair of eyes and ears that have the fortune of watching.
At the helm of Marvel installments are not the themes of a creative department, but the deep-pocketed producers whose agenda is to keep the heroes alive, even if that means a nice nostalgic trip back Lineage Avenue. Instead of solely focusing on the real social message of the project, there’s a split between applying cinematic artistry and appeasing producers—at the cost of the characters’ dimensions.
Again, there are artistic drives on these projects, but the backbone of the franchise is a price tag, not a story. Production reigns over the authority of the directors, sanctioning the real end of the experience seen on screen—they become a functionary cog in a monetary machine rather than visionaries and creators. Everything is catered towards a sequel. In Scorsese’s words, “nothing is at risk.” Marvel films are exciting, action-packed rides that explore limited emotional themes as a buffer in an arc that is still, in duration, consumed by incredible displays of action and visual stimulation, rather than emotional.
It’s not about giving directors like Scorsese the chance to shine on the big screen again, it’s the opportunity for stories found in the small, underprivileged pockets of the world to be seen globally, like those found at the Denver Film Festival. The controversy that needs to be contemplated is what deserves to be on the big screen: the multi-billion dollar franchise or a new and true cinematic story. Most importantly—can a balance be struck between the two?