20 October 2019 467 Views

Francis Coppola also has a point about Marvel. We should listen, even if we do not Agree.

by James Murphy

He is the GODFATHER of Film. His movies have had commercial as well as artistic merit. I think we owe Coppola a hearing, no?

So, the debate continues. Are Marvel movies, movies? Of course they are! But are they also factory floor level template productions without a genuine spark of an inciting idea? I am afraid, ‘imho’, the answer to that is also, yes. They are a studio, within a studio. They have a slate and a quota of films to release. And if one performs better than expected, a sequel must be fast tracked, even if that is not readied for release and ends up simply advertising the next big team up. 

Therefore, it is fair to say, and without prejudice, agenda or indeed, any kind of value judgement, that a Marvel movie is a product within a service. They exist to serve a certain need and they operate within a formula. There is a sameness to them and indeed, many, though not all super-hero /comic book products. One can of course import ‘vision’ to pieces of the puzzle, but the puzzle itself, overall, is driven by its need to satisfy a broad church, to provide a particular style and structure of entertainment and thereby both make its money back and lead, immediately and infinitely, to the next iteration of sameness.

The much mooted creative control of directors is to my mind, illusory. Yes, it’s ‘there’ but it’s also very much NOT there IF you keep being TOLD that ‘we let the director share HIS vision’ (did you? did you..aw bless you!..also..bit stupid if you did, frankly..and also..still kinda safe..because none of these Marvel movies have genuinely auteur film style, ‘imho’). The Russo bRothers claim they saw Godfather 2 as an inspiration in their Marvel films. Really? I don’t see that inspiration onscreen, myself. It’s like looking for God at an atheist convention.

Yes, some of these films are ‘darker’ or more ‘complex’. Some are over three hours long! But even that originality or risk is, in its own oxymoronic way, a kind of a hustle; a manufactured mediocrity, posing as some sort of creative breakthrough. And that’s absolutely FINE. I don’t WANT a super-hero movie to deal directly with dementia, cancer, debt management etc..or suddenly slow its frame rate and go all trippy and arty. The sameness is in itself a KIND of selling point. And, funnily enough, that is precisely what Francis Ford Coppola was saying.

Yes, he is just coming to the aid of his good buddy, Martin Scorsese. Yes, he is alerting us to the sameness of Marvel movies and why we should think twice before crowning that as great Cinema when in fact, it isn’t. But that’s NOT to say that one cannot find ELEMENTS of greatness in these movies and nor is it in any way a pretentious begrudging OF your enjoyment IN the Cinema when watching them!

Indeed, Coppola is the anti- pretension mastermind. Sure, he has had some expensive misfires in his day and even overstretched his own literary and cinematic ambition. But he himself has faced commercial realities and indeed HIS MOVIES MADE MONEY! GODFATHER 1 AND 2 = MASSIVE HITS!! They were also, literate, grown up, witty, soulful, complex, challenging and rewarding, whilst dipping into the heritage of gangster pulp thrillers. What he did not do was think: oh..I have a pulpy piece of shit here, but I am also going to justify that by pasting on some artful notions.

Today? It’s a case of: ‘hey! it’s a Captain Batperson /woteva film..but we are like, totally clever, coz we pasted on some stuff that looks like a 70s political thriller and we cast Robert Redford in it!’. It’s all too easy to look clever and innovative today AND make money. First, because Marvel movies make money, no matter what. Second, because instead of dumbing down, we have in fact, dumbed ‘up’. One is impressed by any vaguely substantial plot or character arc, even though it’s basically the same stories and even structures within series, recycled.

Part one = Origin story. Part two: goes ‘darker’. Part three: introduce the Dad. It’s the Lucas and Spielberg commercial formula for adventure story-telling, devolved into an actual comic book / theme park rise, with occasional jackpot moments of innovation through casting and direction. And that’s FINE! I am fine with it. COPPOLA is probably FINE with it! He’s the guy who had to rush through GODFATHER 3 against his will, because his company, Zoetrope, needed cash, fast.

And as part of that? He accepted that no delays would be allowed, hence he lost Winona Ryder as leading lady (she was ill; though he cast her in his Dracula film: itself a kind of comic book film posing as high art, but fun all the same); and Robert Duvall gave up negotiating for more cash and jumped ship. I still like that third Godfather film; it also made money and was a good film, just nowhere near as great as its preceding chapters.

Coppola was even open to making GODFATHER 4! It would have repeated the structure of the second film; part sequel, part prequel. We’d have seen Leeeeeoooo DiCaprio as young Sonny (James Caan the original: unbeatable, even by Leo!), Robert DeNiro as an older take on his young Vito, perhaps..and Andy Garcia 30 plus years later as Don Vincezo, taking the Corleone family down the drug route and ending up as an Escobar like figure, via a dash of Gotti: hunted yet feared, broken yet still driven.

Al Pacino would have still played Michael Corleone (his death in part 3 is clearly a flash forward), there to pick up the remaining pieces as credits rolled. So: decline and fall, again but also some of the old formulaic fun. Coppola did not mind formula, provided there was a STORY of SUBSTANCE to TELL. That proved impossible when his writer, Mario Puzo died, mid draft. And rather than try and refit in a mediocre manner, Francis aborted the mission, completely. He was not going to just keep rehashing the ‘Michael faces three types of villainy and wipes them all out by end of the picture’ every few years. ‘It’s not Albert and Costello meet the Godfather‘, he said.

My point is that Francis did not mind making money or fusing art to entertainment. Apocalypse Now exists as a meditation on war and an adaptation of an otherwise un-filmable Joseph Conrad novel (Heart of Darkness). It is also a functioning piece of entertainment: Dennis Hopper is hilarious; Brando is a menacing villain, Harrison Ford has a stand out cameo and Robert Duvall (him again) has some of the most memorable one liner action in cinema history. There is action, great music and a hero’s journey. It’s not a dull or over-worthy movie and whilst there is a message, it’s not a cut and paste anti-war one so much as a lesson in the need for a clarity of objectives within war.

You simply cannot do that with super-hero cinema and nor should you try. You can HINT at it, you can prepare kids to graduate TO the more sophisticated stuff VIA that sort of cinema and equally, some nights, I simply cannot stomach a full on substantial Coppola /Scorsese style steak of a movie. I need a quiche! I need a Marvel, or maybe even a DC / Batman type movie. Even Coppola concedes that and he DID watch The Dark Knight, admiring some of its competences, whilst reminding commentators that it wasn’t THAT much more than Cops and robbers with men in masks; using the tropes of sophisticated genre pictures but not in fact, BEING one of those just through association.

Am I saying that Coppola is always right? No! He made JACK; not a classic and I would take ANY Marvel movie over that, any day. But he himself is not saying Marvel should be banned or that one cannot enjoy their product. He’s simply alerting you to the fact that ‘product’ is what they are and service provider is what Marvel is; generating the same kind of story, the same structure, over and over. They tag on writers/directors and make concessions to vision, cinematic history and so on as part of that process. But just don’t allow that to now DEFINE Cinema and thereby neglect its wider possibilities and potential. It’s like food: one needs a balanced diet.

JAMES MURPHY Loves Coppola’s work..and the Occasional Marvel movie 😉



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