The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Please stop asking film directors about Marvel movies

Actor Kumail Nanjiani in a scene from Marvel's "Eternals." (Marvel Studios via AP)

I understand that the culture of cinema is completely and totally dominated by the world of comic books. There’s a decent chance that North America’s five highest-grossing films released in 2021 will have a Marvel logo somewhere in the credits. But I am begging journalists to stop asking auteurs the Marvel Question — before it tears the moviemaking world apart.

It happened this week when screenwriter-director Jane Campion, doing press to support her revisionist western “The Power of the Dog,” was asked whether she’d have any interest in making a Marvel movie. “I think it’s safe to say that I will never do that,” she said. “They’re so noisy and like ridiculous. Sometimes you get a good giggle, but I don’t know what the thing is with the capes.”

It happened last week to Ridley Scott, who is out promoting “House of Gucci” and just got off a press tour for “The Last Duel.” “Their scripts are not any [expletive] good,” he said, adding, “They’re mostly saved by special effects, and that’s becoming boring for everyone who works with special effects.”

And it happened earlier in the year, when “Dune” director Denis Villeneuve argued that Marvel movies have made us zombies. “The thing is, all these films are made from the same mold,” he said. “Some filmmakers can add a little color to it, but they’re all cast in the same factory. It doesn’t take anything away from the movies, but they are formatted.”

This whole trend of asking auteurs who make non-comic-book movies about what they think of comic-book movies kicked off toward the end of 2019, when a reporter for Empire asked Martin Scorsese about the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “I don’t see them,” the director of “The Irishman” said. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.”

Those comments set off a firestorm. Aggrieved fanboys who believed they had achieved total victory in the war for the soul of filmmaking were outraged that Scorsese refused to bend the knee, and their ire culminated in Scorsese taking to the pages of the New York Times to explain what, exactly, he meant. (Spoiler: His detractors were not mollified.)

On the one hand, as a journalist and a writer, I understand the desire to ask the Marvel Question: It’s a surefire way to stoke controversy and generate heat, because there’s nothing fans of comic book movies like less than being reminded of the fact that “serious” filmmakers do not consider these projects serious films. This is the important thing to remember in all these conflagrations. The mark isn’t the director; indeed, one can practically see Campion and Scott chuckling while they come up with ways to slag the multiplex’s most popular stuff.

No, the mark is the fan with a chip on his shoulder who feels disrespected, even though his preferred variety of film is indisputably the era’s dominant form. The mark is the lady cutting a two-hour reaction video to the new three-minute “Spider-Man” trailer. The mark is the person sneering that Scorsese is jealous, that he’s exploiting the MCU to publicize his own movies, that he’s so old and out of touch that this is the only way anyone will pay attention to him.

There is something to be said for the idea that the Marvel Question generates PR for the pictures of these auteurs, but it’s not their fault. There absolutely is a variety of moviegoer and movie vlogger who only cares about capes, and answering the Marvel Question is a way for non-Marvel directors to capture this person’s attention, to reaffirm that there’s a whole world of spandex-free cinema to discover. That could be the question’s redemption — its theoretical function as a bank shot that awakens someone somewhere to the movies sadly ignored by the masses.

In reality, though, the Marvel Question is bad for all sides. It encourages lovers of auteur films and viewers of cape fare to consider each other the outgroup. The balkanization of cineastes is already bad — it’s a rarity when filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson sing the praises of “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” — and deploying this question is only making the problem worse. It’s an inherently divisive way to discuss an artform that at its best brings people together and, as Scorsese once said, opens “doors and minds.”

So I’m hoping interviewers put the Marvel Question to rest. There’s little to be gained besides clicks from asking great directors to sneer at the masses — but there is much to be lost.