Hello fandom, my old friend, I’ve come to write on you again. If you’ve been living under a rock, or simply have literally anything better to do with your time, it may come as news to you that Martin Scorsese has stridden into the media spotlight once again to drive a stake through the caped heart of the Rodent Empire. I am, of course, talking about his mildly contentious opinions regarding the validity of Marvel movies as “cinema”, whatever the hell that word means these days.
I’m not here to debate the finer points of what does and doesn’t constitute art beyond my personal belief that art goes into Marvel films, and that they have artistic merit in their craft and their themes. What has caught my attention, however, is the visceral response to relatively mild criticism of fandom staples that such critique engenders.
Identity is a complicated confluence of factors, composed of labels, projection, representation, and ‘big moods’, and one that is often predicated on the identification with the other as opposed to a wellspring from the self. As long as there has been art, there has been the natural progression of “it me”, a form of abstracted self-identification with the other that we all, myself included, find ourselves participating in to one extent or another. It makes sense then for one to identify with, and be rabidly protective of, media in which we see ourselves reflected back at us.
As we project our self-image out into the world, it follows that we internalize those externalities as a facet of the self and see an attack on one as a de-facto attack on the other. This is where Fandom comes into play. In the beautiful coalescence of fan created works, fanfic, art, and headcanons, we find ourselves drawn deeper and deeper into the self-identification spiral with a work or a franchise, strengthening the bond between the self and the work by degrees. We invest ourselves in the work, and in return become more invested in the work itself, moving from the stages of Audience to Fan and eventually to Stan.
There’s nothing inherently wrong or problematic with this self-identification with media, of course, but it can lead to some interesting issues when the drive to defend the identity of the self spills over to the all-consuming defense of multinational corporate concerns. This is where Marvel Studios enters the picture. Neither Disney nor its subsidiaries are your friends, nor do they need your pity or your help; they’ve got more than enough expensive lawyers’ shoulders to cry upon as they dry their tears with the ever-elusive million dollar bills that the government only issues to corporations with more sociopolitical influence than God. But identity is rarely a rational thing, doubly so when it has been carefully crafted by boardroom executives to drive ticket and merch sales that bring in more revenue than any of us could reasonably envision.
This is where Martin Scorsese comes in. By criticizing Marvel movies as “not cinema” (again, whatever the hell that even means), he unwittingly attacked a now core facet of the identity of millions of people worldwide; what response could one reasonably expect from such a blatant insult? Rage. Frothing fucking rage. Understandable rage, really. I’ve seen everything from people tearing into Scorsese’s less than stellar works, his previous review scores, previous criticisms of his work from his contemporaries, all the way to dismissing anything Scorsese has worked on or inspired as implicitly questionable in its value due to a single, milquetoast, relatively brief criticism of a product line commissioned and funded by one of the largest multinational media corporations that has ever existed.
Are Scorsese’s criticisms wrong? Yes and no. Art definitely goes into the creation of Marvel films, and I dare say the directors, writers, animators, CGI artists, actors, etc. are trying to convey something to their audience, however the films themselves are born of the seed of the Corporate Product, designed for mass consumption and the amassing of obscene quantities of wealth in the hands of a privileged few. This, however, is largely unimportant to what we’re discussing.
Enter Roger Ebert’s now-infamous Video Games Can Never Be Art thinkpiece. If you weren’t a “gamer” at the time, this article was the focus of a rabid years-long fight for what was seen as mainstream recognition of the nascent artform of interactive media culminating in endless ire towards the “establishment art press” and a 68 year old man being subjected to a playthrough of indie darling Braid. Looking back, this conflict was ridiculously silly; a new artform seeking validation from the absurdly misplaced father-figure of old media criticism in the form of Roger fucking Ebert of all people.
This misguided attempt to wring praise and acceptance from a man who had no familiarity with our art-form and no interest in changing his mind is a perfect encapsulation of the defensiveness of that with which one has come to identify. Roger Ebert was wrong, clearly and demonstrably so, his critique was absurd on the face of it, boiling down into its constituent elements of “video games can’t be art because they’re games, it’s in the title people!” Why did we ever care? Because, much like Scorsese, he represents an old-guard, the establishment old-art tut-tutting at the new forms and complaining that things today aren’t like they were in his day and if we all just went back to that we’d all be better off.
There was one thing Roger Ebert was completely in the right about, however. “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” This statement is as true today as it was then, not because games aren’t art or any such silliness, but because we shouldn’t care, we never should have cared what some schlock loving movieman thought about our medium. He isn’t a part of it, how would he know? Why would we even care if he did? Roger Ebert and his criticisms of interactive media will inevitably pass from memory in much the same way as those who decried films as a silly distraction from the real art of theater, or those who decried theater as an imagination eroding departure from the written word, or those that warned in hushed tones that fiction writing would erode the mind and inflame the spirits in a way that the artistic work of the spoken word never did. Video games are art, and will continue to be art long after anyone remembers who Roger Ebert ever was.
What then was the point of this protracted scuffle with an old man with no familiarity with the art form in question? Identity.
I’ve met countless developers and critics who shrink away from telling those at social gatherings that they make “games”, or, even worse, write about “games” for a living. This has generally become less contentious as the years have gone by, although many of us still cringe in apprehension when a family member over the age of 40 asks us if we’ve found a “real job” yet instead of writing about those pacmans and nintendoes. Even I’ve found myself guilty of this, more likely to tell people that I’m simply an “artist” as opposed to a pixel artist, or that I’m a “video game developer” as opposed to a “video game critic” due in part to baby-boomers realizing that making video games can make companies absurd amounts of money, thus elevating it to the tenuous heights of “real work”.
So, to all those Marvel fans and stans out there, you can like Marvel movies, appreciate them, see artistic merit in them, and damn anyone else who says otherwise. You aren’t being attacked, and even if you were, why would you be under the impression that Martin Scorsese or any film maker of his generation would be likely to have a positive view of your favourite franchise to begin with? To hell with Scorsese, his opinion on something he’s not involved with is barely worth the audio format it’s recorded in. I like schlock, I like popcorn flicks, I see artistic merit where others are unlikely to, and based on all of this, I like a lot of Marvel films.
So go, enjoy your movies, enjoy your games, enjoy what you enjoy and to hell with what anyone else thinks, no matter the prestige of their name. You aren’t obligated to defend yourself and you’re sure as shit not obligated to defend Disney. I’ll be right there in the theater next to you, so let me have some popcorn.
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.