Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Moses, Iron Man, and Jesus Walk Into A Cinema
Reading about the recent dust up between Martin Scorsese and Marvel fans, I couldn't help but think of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. It's a film that Scorsese admires and that he showcased in his documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN FILM (1995). It's a finely crafted big budget spectacular. It's also a pretty bad film. What I mean is, no one watches THE TEN COMMANDMENTS today and thinks of it in anything other than genre terms. It's not a serious statement of religious conviction, it's not psychologically rich, and it's not a great work of cinema. Instead, it's the biggest of the biblical epics, the popular movie genre that dominated big screens in the 1950s. And biblical epics were, basically, proto-superhero movies. They have most of the qualities that we associate with superhero movies: square-jawed heroes with fantastic abilities, impressive special effects, romantic subplots, broad action and drama, and characters that fall pretty easily into the categories of good and bad. (About the only thing from the standard superhero tool kit that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is missing is comedy, because DeMille didn't have a sense of humor.) I suspect Scorsese is probably making allowances for Moses that he won't make for Iron Man because he formed an attachment to the biblical epics as a kid. As a child, he looked past their goofiness and their shallowness because all he saw was their size and spectacle. The symbolism of the Bible writ large on the big screen fired his imagination, and that initial awe and wonder has stayed with him. The same is undoubtedly true of people who love comic book movies. Where they would watch THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and might only see stodgy cheese, they look past many of those same qualities in their beloved comic book movies because they bonded with those stories and characters as children.
Something else that has inspired these reflections is that I rewatched Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST the other day. It's a fascinating film, and part of its fascination is that despite all of its controversy, in its heart it's kind of another cheesy biblical epic. It's dealing with deadly serious theological issues, but, I don't know, every time Harvey Keitel opens his mouth to debate Jewish law, I laugh. When the snake tempts Jesus in the desert with "Look at my breasts. Ooh Jesuuus," I laugh. And pretty much every time Peter Gabriel's very '80s score kicks in, I laugh.
Something that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and a movie like AVENGERS: ENDGAME have in common is that they both essentially exist to do fan service. (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was the only movie my fundamentalist grandfather liked, probably because it was designed to give him exactly the version of Moses he expected to see. Most comic book fans love ENDGAME for the same reason.) In this crucial respect, though, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is different. Scorsese made a film that appealed to a very narrow sliver of the moviegoing public. He made a biblical epic that would antagonize the kind of people who usually like biblical epics, without necessarily attracting many people who don't like biblical epics. Along with Kevin Smith's DOGMA, it belongs in a tiny subgenre we might call Subversive-Catholic fanfic cinema. These are works of supremely idiosyncratic theological obsession.
I don't know if the superhero movie could really lend itself to this kind of treatment. Something like UNBREAKABLE is certainly a rethinking of the superhero movie, but it's not working from well known pre-existing characters. And, no, JOKER doesn't count, either. JOKER is a massive testament to fan service. It gives fans of the character exactly what they want to see (to the tune of about 745 million dollars and counting). Perhaps one day when Iron Man and Joker and all the rest of their superhero/villain brethren slip into the public domain alongside Jesus and Moses, we'll see if something truly challenging could be done with them. That should be interesting.
For now, we're stuck with the world as it is, a world dominated by superhero movies. In a way, I'm okay with that. I like many of these movies, and I suppose that whether they wear capes or togas, superheroes have pretty much always dominated movie screens. Having said that, it's also true that most great cinema addresses itself to the rest of us mere mortals, living our little lives down here below without the benefit of either infinity stones or parting seas.