Opinion | Marvel movies are the death of popular art

Joseph Hoffman, Contributing Columnist

In 2021, all 10 of the year’s highest-grossing films were either sequels or adaptations of existing properties. Half of those were Marvel movies. The highest ranking an original film earned was 27th place, for Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci.”

Members of Hollywood’s old guard have drawn controversy in recent years for expressing their distaste for formulaic superhero films. Nine-time Oscar nominee Martin Scorsese said they are “not cinema” and likened them to theme park rides rather than serious art. Francis Ford Coppola, director of “The Godfather,” went even further, deeming them “despicable.”

Popular film increasingly trends toward valuing entertainment over artistic value. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has thrived in pioneering this heartless, sterile brand of expression. Their interests are only in creating the most effective means of releasing dopamine and extracting revenue. The brand as a whole, in its current iteration, forsakes aesthetic consideration for formulaic plays at nostalgia and familiar emotion. 

The lack of artistry in the MCU is exemplified in its most recent film, “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” It is a device of pleasure delivery: the nostalgic release of its central gimmick, the flat visual style and effects that could easily have been transported from any film in the franchise, or the cliched storyline exquisitely planned to cause a calculated emotional response. It is raw pornography, ready-made as cheaply and easily as a Big Mac.

Marvel’s films fit within the larger modern movement of the “dumbing down” of art. The processed, focus-tested, committee-written products that dominate theaters, bookshelves and streaming platforms are all empty vessels. They are tailored not to challenge or to question their own merit but to generate profit through emotional triggers and manipulation of the medium. 

At its best, art is a process of dialogue between its creator and the audience. It is the presentation of a thought or conception of reality and its response, emotional or otherwise, projected back. It is this dialogue that dictates when a creation is truly elevated to its artistic state. 

Pleasure vessels, such as MCU movies, are the antithesis of this artistic relationship. In these kinds of films, all meaning and emotion is preordained, leaving no space for a critical dialogue. A Marvel film, in practice, is far closer to a CoComelon sensory video for children than true masterpieces like “Moonlight” or “Parasite.”

Another hallmark of modern mass media is the ease with which it can be consumed. Because they attempt to push none of the boundaries of form and seek to deliver the most efficient product possible, most modern bestsellers read like a YA novel or a book found on a discount rack at an airport terminal. This phenomena is made evident by every Harry Potter-obsessed millennial, as they push through the middle phases of adulthood still fawning over children’s books.

True literature is hard to read for even the most experienced and voracious book lovers. Pushing through classics of even the modern canon requires work, attention and comprehension that it seems exceedingly few are willing to apply, instead conflating quick gratification with quality. With only 32% of college freshmen able to read at a 12th-grade level, it’s no wonder why.

None of this is to say there isn’t a value or place for media made for entertainment’s sake. “No Way Home” is plenty enjoyable and one of the best Marvel films produced to this day, especially if you’re a fan of the genre. The critique isn’t so much against any given property or franchise, but the philosophic and practical implications they pose for humanity.

Art is one of the most important forces within history and culture. It shapes our collective understanding of the world, how we view society and, most importantly, how we view ourselves. The ability to critically analyze and experience art is crucial to the development of our sense of self in relation to those around us. By the transformation of popular mediums into channels filled with solely cheap entertainment, our ability to discuss and conceptualize art is diminished because we do not interact with it. 

Without artistic expression, we would develop no sense of each other beyond the factual. Our global community is built on mutual compassion for one another; art is the means by which that compassion is built. Elevated beyond language, distance and time, it binds us together and allows us to share our humanity. The cheapening of these powerful mediums of expression robs us of our agency and the essence of what it means to be alive.

The current state of art is, in large part, a symptom of late capitalism. As a social conception of the world, it inherently views each of us as atomized individuals, isolated from any sense of community or relation to one another besides transactional. The trend is toward the optimization of the human experience: achieving the end goals of daily life (pleasure, entertainment, etc.) as cheaply and in as few interactions as possible. 

Our food is placed on our front porch by delivery drivers we never see, our jobs rarely require us to leave the bed, our sexual encounters are self-serving and devoid of human connection, and our entertainment is prepackaged with easily digestible moral lessons for quick consumption. 

Humans are social beings. In order to thrive as a species we reach out to others, striving to relate and connect. We are imperfect, physical, passionate, prone to vice and love and distress. To deny this fact of life is to deny our very nature. Late capitalism has denied us this too long, and art is one of the many places it has manifested itself. Achieving gratification is work, and it should be, rather than instant happiness on demand. 

Experiencing and expressing what it is to live, to be human, is one of our core desires as people. Preserving the integrity and value of art to allow us this expression is not just needed but mandatory if we are to survive as a species.