Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Is it just a generational spat, or perhaps a vital reality check? Launching stern critiques of Marvel movies, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola scored headlines in the French press and touched a sensitive nerve in Hollywood. Scorsese feels Hollywood is chasing franchises but abandoning “cinema,” turning theaters into “amusement parks.” Coppola believes the superhero surge has been both depersonalizing and “despicable.”
FLEMING: I have two reactions to this narrative brought up by Scorsese and reinforced by Coppola. First is the same trepidation I usually feel writing this column with you, that it falls under the category of that The Simpsons meme newspaper headline “Old man yells at cloud.” But those lions of cinema did provide a reality check as you say. They sure struck a nerve with the directors of superhero movies. At a time when most respond to criticism with a toxic reply, the directors expressed reverence toward those directors, even as they argued their work is worthy and not to be dismissed.
From Jon Favreau to James Gunn on down, these filmmakers have gained financial security doing superhero films, which likely was nothing close to what they imagined back in film school, when they dreamed of making their version of The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Apocalypse Now and other films that defined an auteur era.
I sat with Coppola a few months ago as he described why he rekindled his desire to direct Megalopolis and how close to financial ruin he came making Apocalypse Now. With his incredible wine businesses, he could self-finance his passion project if he wants, which put him at risk in the past. Superhero movies didn’t come up in our conversation. But he is a thoughtful man and I imagine he notices as one talented young director after another gets cherry-picked by Disney for Marvel and Star Wars movies, perhaps altering a growth curve that might have led these directors to auteur efforts.
It is just such a different game now. I watched Favreau’s most recent blockbuster, The Lion King, for instance, and found myself hard-pressed to define exactly what I had seen. I don’t think they changed a word of the script, and while they swapped singers like Beyonce into the same songs and traded 2D animation for the photo-realistic computer-generated format, and though it grossed $1.6 billion, did it advance the art of storytelling?
You can understand Bob Iger dismissing the Scorsese and Coppola comments; fueled by his Marvel and Lucasfilm acquisitions, Disney will break every record for box office and movie profitability that justify Iger’s $66 million salary. But does this commerce stamp out the appetite for art? And if those seminal films by Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin, Lumet, Pakula, Cimino and others defined an auteur era, what to call this era?
BART: I understand the nostalgia of the cinephiles. Coppola’s original dream in Hollywood was to create an indie studio, Zoetrope, that would nurture films like American Graffiti and The Conversation. It went broke until Coppola accepted an assignment to direct The Godfather. His personal vision of that film, superimposed on that of Mario Puzo, its author, resulted in some brilliant sequels.
But while I understand the malaise felt by senior cinephiles, I also have four teenage grandsons who ardently dissent. “Marvel movies inspire my imagination and take me to a different world,” says Peter Shelton, 14. “Of course, some of them suck.” Grandsons, we know, are always right. And his view is supported by none other than Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), who poignantly recalls that his grandfather hated gangster films – another generational divide.
FLEMING: My problem with Scorsese and Coppola’s damning of these films is there is no credit for the way storytellers have innovated in a confined sandbox. Or how they’ve used the currency they’ve gained from blockbusters to make risky projects. On the first part, I would argue that after mostly making R-rated comedies, Todd Phillips showed serious chops as a dramatic filmmaker by stripping out the superpowers and making a gritty Joker film that is evocative of Scorsese’s groundbreaking early work. I walked out of the Toronto premiere feeling like I did after I had first seen the David Fincher film Se7en. This film should factor into the Oscar conversation.
Tim Miller and Ryan Reynolds turned the superhero formula on its ear in the fabulously subversive R-rated Deadpool; Taika Waititi revived a flagging Thor franchise with his wildly inventive Ragnarok film; Gunn, Ryan Coogler, all surprised us as Kevin Feige manages this neat trick of making entertaining hits that reflect the personalities of each filmmaker.
As for how these directors are using the currency gained from superheroes, look at Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, a satirical comedy with Hitler and the Nazis is the personification of risky. After two Captain America and two Avengers films, Joe & Anthony Russo and screenwriters Markus & McFeely have made AGBO’s first movie projects, the Arabic-language film Mosul and Cherry, about a PTSD-suffering drug-addicted bank robber in Cleveland. None of those are blatant commercial plays.
BART: Scorsese and Coppola are reacting not only to the style and themes of franchise films, but also to the box office tyranny. Superheroes or sequels prevail over nine of the 10 biggest-grossing films last year. Scorsese’s latest is a giant gangster saga (The Irishman starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino), arguably a throwback to an earlier genre. Coppola is preparing to shoot Megalopolis, which has a utopian post-apocalyptic theme. “We expect cinema to bring something to us — some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration,” Coppola said in accepting an award in France. I think both films will have a strong impact. I also suspect my grandsons will remain loyal to films they called “amusement parks.”
FLEMING: Their delivery might seem cranky, but good for Coppola and Scorsese in giving these filmmakers a wake-up call. Scorsese went the Netflix route for the extravagantly budgeted The Irishman, when maybe no studio would have braved $160 million and the massive P&A spend needed to launch theatrically. Maybe the influx of streaming services will empower filmmakers to do more auteur stuff. The box office realities for too many adult films is daunting. One that caught my eye was the Natalie Portman astronaut drama from Fox Searchlight Lucy in the Sky. Between the budget and P&A, I’ve heard maybe $40 million was spent and the movie has grossed $277,000. You’ve got a better chance spending $200 million on a superhero movie.
Look how the financiers of the big deal film at Toronto, the Hugh Jackman- and Allison Janney-starrer Bad Education, chose to sell to HBO for around $17 million, and not gamble on a theatrical release. At HBO/HBO Max, there is no P&A, no scrutiny from media that labels films as losers after opening weekend. And the movie will have a healthy shot at Emmys. If Todd Phillips had made a movie about a mentally ill man in clown makeup who becomes a murderer, without the brand identity of The Joker, would anyone have cared? That movie will surpass $750 million this weekend. The superhero film is a safe harbor in this tumultuous moment. I wonder would Scorsese and Coppola have been able to turn down a superhero movie if they were up-and-coming firebrands?
BART: What all of us (Scorsese and Coppola included) are questioning is this: Where will bold new ideas and styles come from? When the ‘60s directors first emerged, they were drawing upon France’s and Italy’s brilliant auteurs. They were the sources of inspiration. When I saw the remarkable South Korean film Parasite last week, I wondered whether this sort of cultural reversal would re-occur – while Hollywood focused on superheroes, will we depend once again on overseas filmmakers for innovative ideas? Some agents and managers argue, on the other hand, that important new filmmakers will emerge thanks to the opportunities posed by the streamers – quicker decision making, tighter budgets, reduced obsession on opening-weekend numbers. Some inspired work may also emerge from entirely new genres – the 10-minute mini bites flooding our handheld devices.
It’s a brave new world out there. The innovative new filmmakers of the future will themselves have to be the next superheroes.
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