by John Ellis
Making waves around Hollywood, filmmaking icon Martin Scorsese trained his sites on Marvel movies, specifically those included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. Dismissing them as “not cinema” during an interview while at the BFI London Film Festival, the famed director of films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas has earned the right to be heard, whether one agrees with him or not. And he’s apparently not exhausted his opinion on the matter, saying that movie theaters are now “amusement parks” during BAFTA’s David Lean Lecture on October 13. At a press conference the following day, the director of Netflix’s The Irishman insisted that, “We need cinemas to step up and show films that are narrative films.”
Scorsese isn’t the only Hollywood A-lister to take on the current king of the Hollywood mountain. Speaking to Variety, Jennifer Anniston took her own shots at Marvel movies. Explaining why she returned to TV (in Apple TV’s The Morning Show), the Friends star knocked the quality of much of what is being produced, saying, “you’re seeing what’s available out there and it’s just diminishing and diminishing in terms of, it’s big Marvel movies.” Looking back with nostalgia, she added, “I think we would so love to have the era of Meg Ryan come back.”
I highly doubt that Scorsese and Anniston are tracking with each other in their criticisms. I would guess that they probably have quite different ideas of what makes a film a quality piece of cinema. However, whether they would want to admit it or not, I believe that their criticisms of Marvel movies reflect an overarching rebellion against God’s Story that resides in all our hearts. On the flip side of that, the massive success of Marvel movies reflects the innate desire all Image Bearers possess for God’s Story.
For the record, nothing that I write below is intended to be taken as a condemnation of Scorsese movies or Meg Ryan-esque movies. Nor should it be taken as my wholesale stamp of approval on Marvel movies. What follows are my reflections on how all stories either reflect God’s Story or rebel against it, and how the films in question correspond with those two categories.
To begin, a story can be defined as somebody (the protagonist) wants something; someone or something (the antagonist) is standing in the way. What does the protagonist do to overcome that obstacle? If he or she succeeds, it’s a comedy in the Classical sense; if he or she fails, it’s a tragedy. For further development of that, especially as it relates to God’s Story, click here.
In God’s Story, He is not only the author, director, and producer, He plays the lead role. And in His story, He created Image Bearers (humans) to glorify Him through their service to Him. God gave humans a beautiful Garden filled with everything they needed, and commanded them to subdue it, populate it, exercise dominion over it, and flourish under His blessing and for His glory. However, the first humans decided that wasn’t enough. They wanted to be like God. They wanted to be the Sovereign over all creation including, most importantly, over their own heart. So, in league with Serpent-Satan, they rebelled against God. Except, because God is both perfectly holy (without sin) and perfectly just, the sin of the humans had to be punished. If God simply overlooked their sin (or our sin), He would not be God. So, God punished all of creation because of the sin of His Image Bearers, and all creation continues to groan under that curse and all humans are born in the first Adam in rebellion against our Creator.
In His great love, though, God desires to save His people from their sins and back to a right relationship with Him. To do that, God had to overcome the problem of sin and rebellion in the hearts of His people. And since no human is capable of overcoming that obstacle, God overcame it Himself.
His Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, took on the form of human flesh, fully God who became fully man, lived a life of perfect obedience to the will of the Father, died for the just punishment for the sins of God’s people, rose from dead, vindicating his claim as God’s Son and the final Adam, and ascended back to the Father. Currently, the dust of this earth sits at God the Father’s right hand in heaven where he rules and reigns over the hearts and lives of God’s people. As Jesus told his disciples, he’s also busy preparing a place for those whom God gave him – the elect. One day, he will return to claim what he’s already won by eternally punishing all those who persist in their rebellion against God and ushering all who repent and believe into the fully realized eschatological Kingdom – the fully flourishing Garden-City that the first Adam failed to accomplish. Until that Final Day, Christ’s Spirit is busy building the Kingdom through the work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
That’s the gist of God’s Story. The Story that all other stories either reflect or rebel against.
I’m not going to delve very deeply into Scorsese’s canon to work out how individual movies rebel against God’s Story (neither am I going to do so with Meg Ryan movies). Overarching themes, though, reveal Scorsese’s heart. Likewise, the love for Meg Ryan-esque movies reveals a heart inclined towards rebellion against God.
For the uninitiated, Martin Scorsese came of filmmaking age during the New Hollywood wave, alongside notable fellow directors Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Nichols, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, among others. While there is no one defining characteristic of the movement that was kicked off by movies like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, nonlinear plots, irresolution, and non sequitur film devices were often employed. Freed from the strict Motion Picture Production Code that was finally jettisoned in 1968, the New Hollywood writers, producers, and directors ran through the newly opened doors of artistic freedom and upended the old aesthetic order of Hollywood. Two of the closely intertwined thematic threads that ran through many of the films of the period and that continue today are those of the antihero and existential hopelessness. While his prodigious body of work rebels against pigeonholing, those two themes course through many of Martin Scorsese’s most important films.
Fighting with his own Roman Catholic background, Scorsese betrays feelings of desperateness as his characters attempt to find forgiveness and redemption. Often, those characters are anti-heroes; either steering into their flaws (sins) as necessary tools to achieve redemption, or their flaws (sins) give them insight into the hopeless depravity consuming the bleak world around them – and us, according to Scorsese. Both aspects can be seen in the character of Travis Bickle played brilliantly by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver.
Bickel’s psychosis induced rage has been built up by the alienation and sense of worthlessness engendered by modernity and his role as a cog in a senseless, impersonal machine of modern day society. Disgusted by the depravity he sees around him and inside of himself, Bickle descends into a violence filled role of savior. The film ends with Bickle hailed as a hero, expect, it doesn’t. Flipping storytelling on its head, the final shot leaves the audience wandering if Bickle’s disturbing gaze in the rearview mirror betrays a reality in which redemption is not possible. The viewer is left to ask, is such a thing as a savior even possible?
With Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese demonstrated that he could deliver on the artistic promise of Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. His voice rang out loudly over the chaotic yet interesting din of his peers. Scorsese helped define New Hollywood and he has not surrendered his place as one of our culture’s most important interpreters of the world around us. And his interpretative lens, his “real cinema” as opposed to Marvel movies, is a worldview that is dominated by a cynical view of saviors and a hopeless perspective on redemption.
Anti-hero movies flip the aspect of God’s Story that demands a righteous hero. The story’s salvation is found because of the character’s flaws (sins) in anti-hero movies. And that’s an important distinction to remember when thinking about the Marvel movies in relation to God’s story.
Tony Stark is the most developed example of an anti-hero in the Avengers’ storyline. When we first meet him in Iron Man, he’s a self-serving narcissist who uses others for his own ends. However, as the story progresses, he grows and changes. I’m not going to give any spoilers (or, at least, try not to), but those who’ve seen the entire series culminating in Avengers: Endgame are aware of Tony Stark’s character arc and growth culminating in a complete reversal of the man audiences met in the first Iron Man movie. More importantly, Tony’s flaws are an obstacle to his objectives as well as those of the Avengers. The movies leave no question about how Tony Stark’s “sins” are a problem. And throughout the storyline, he steers more and more into righteousness, shedding his unrighteousness along the way. In the Avengers quest to protect and save the universe, righteousness is necessary.
Throughout the series, the varying characters’ flaws are revealed to be a hindrance. One of the driving subplots is the need for the Avengers to learn how to be the best versions of themselves, requiring a mortification of their flaws and vices.
To be clear, the Marvel movies do not mimic God’s Story, they reflect it in varying degrees. So, while it’s true that the movies do not mimic the Bible’s revelation that salvation can only be found in a perfectly righteous Savior, they do tell the story that salvation is found through righteousness and not unrighteousness. They also call the audience to believe in selfless saviors. Anti-hero movies tell the opposite story.
To be sure, Scorsese means more that than when he says, “cinemas need to step up and show films that are narrative films.”
His films, though, present his view of the world – his worldview. And it’s a cynical worldview that can be reduced to the trope of the antihero’s irresolution while also recognizing that it’s much more robust than that. Check out his IMDB page. Look at the movies he’s written and directed. The majority of them, especially his early work, reflect the worldview belief that salvation (if even possible) can be attained because of, not in spite of, the deep flaws of the movie’s savior, or they present an existential hands-thrown-in-the-air resignation at the effects of humanity’s unsolvable depravity; while longed for, redemption is elusive. Based on his prodigious and excellent canon, it’s safe to say that Martin Scorsese believes that “narrative films” reflect a rebellion against the 4-story arc of God’s Story – Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. At worst, many of Scorsese’s films betray a rejection of humanity’s need for a righteous Savior. At best, they reveal a cynical view of any hope for redemption and, hence, restoration.
To reiterate, none of the above is to say that I believe that Scorsese’s movies are out-of-bounds for Believers to watch and enjoy. Even stories that rebel against God’s Story can’t help but point us to our ultimate need for the gospel. Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground is the best example of this. With his novella, which was the precursor for the astonishing Crime and Punishment, the 19th century Russian author deliberately crafted an anti-hero with a worldview shorn of hope in order to point the reader to God. Doing an end-run around the censors of his day, Dostoevsky correctly guessed that such an open rebellion against God’s Story would make God’s Story shine all the more brightly in the minds and hearts of the readers. While Scorsese probably does not share Dostoevsky’s objective, that doesn’t mean that the results aren’t often similar.
As far flung from Dostoevsky as you can get, Meg Ryan-esque movies present the opposite side of the rebellious worldview coin. Saccharine, feel-good resolutions earned through the protagonist’s learning self-love and the pursuit of self-fulfillment, these types of movies are the Thomas Kinkade of secularism. And they were hugely popular during the late-eighties, nineties, and into the aughts. Furthermore, I believe that these types of movies and stories contain the potential for more harm than the bleak, violent, unresolved worlds of the New Hollywood craftsmen.
I daresay that many people reading this are more familiar with films like When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, The Wedding Planner, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days than they are with Martin Scorsese and his New Hollywood cohorts. Writers and directors like Nora Ephron helped spawn a seemingly never ending roll-out of romcoms starring actresses like Meg Ryan, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lopez, and others playing the protagonist alongside the vacuous male characters played by the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, and even the esteemed Tom Hanks. Tapping into our rebellious desire to have the Garden without God, these movies tell the audience that life can be glorious as long as you are true to yourself and don’t settle for second-best.
In many ways, that worldview is less sustainable that that of Scorsese. Stepping out of the movie theater, the fallen world around us tells us that Meg Ryan-esque movies are a lie. In our hearts, though, we long for that lie. Like our first parents in the Garden, we love hearing the soothing slither of Satan-Serpent’s words. Those words affirm us. They make us feel special while prompting us to reach for what we believe we deserve. So, Anniston’s call for more “Meg Ryan movies” reflects less the desire for a certain cinematic aesthetic and more a willingness to be lied to about the state of the world and those who inhabit it. Marvel movies do not do that.
The Marvel cinematic universe is filled with heroes dying to self in the service of others and the greater good (sometimes literally dying). There is very little room for self-fulfillment among the Avengers. The gifts, talents, and privileges that they possess are not for their own good but for the good of others. At times, those others are ungrateful, selfish, and undeserving of the Avengers’ sacrifices. And all this is set in a movie world completely devoid of the rose-colored glasses sported by Meg Ryan-esque movies.
All stories either reflect or rebel against God’s Story to varying degrees or other. The backlash against the Marvel movies reveals, at least in part, the innate desire in all of us to find salvation on our terms. On the other hand, the massive success of the Avengers cinematic stories reveals, at least in part, the innate desire we have for our Creator and His Story.
Stories exist for far more important reasons than our entertainment. They exist because all humans bear the image of the Great Storyteller. How we use our birthright of storytelling either serves ourselves or it serves God, bringing Him glory. Again, none of what I’ve written is intended to be received as a blanket condemnation or stamp of approval on any of the movies mentioned. It’s intended as a call to interact with movies, and all forms of storytelling, with an intentionality that brings honor to our Creator. Understanding how stories reflect or rebel against God’s Story is an important step towards that intentionality. With their criticisms of Marvel movies, Martin Scorsese and Jennifer Anniston have unwittingly betrayed the felt need all of us possess to rebel against God’s Story.
Soli Deo Gloria