Secret Identity

From day one, comic-book fans learn that appearances are deceiving.

That awkward-looking reporter there? He’s secretly faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and about to save Metropolis for the 300th time – this week.

That useless-looking billionaire? He roams the streets every night, battling crime with his fists, his wits, and the biggest array of gadgets outside an Amazon wish list.

The nerdy student? The big test isn’t the only thing that has him crawling the walls. Never mind shooting webbing.

And so, it shouldn’t have come as a shock to any fan of capes and cowls when acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese dismissed the long-running Marvel superhero movies – aka the Marvel Cinematic Universe – as “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,” he told Empire magazine earlier this month. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

At which point, the howl of my fellow geeks could be heard from sea to shining sea.

The thing is, this is not new. And it’s not limited to superheroes. Over the years, it’s been both common and easy to dismiss works of genre fiction as superficial thrill rides that may entertain, but don’t bring anything serious to the table. Works that should stay in their corner, behave, and not pretend to be real literature/cinema/whatever.

OK, time to take off the Clark Kent glasses.

Number one, there’s nothing wrong with a story being fun. That is not only a legitimate use of imagination, it’s an important one.

And number two, the presence of genre elements – whether it’s the snazzy CGI of a super-film or the swords and spells of an epic fantasy – does not mean that a work has nothing to say.

Fans of fantasy and science fiction novels know this well – the genre that was disdained by the mainstream until it became the mainstream. As the scholar Tom Shippey notes, many of the most significant books of the 20th century reached for an otherworldly toolbox. Take “1984,” with its vision of the future used to warn about totalitarianism in the present. Or “Slaughterhouse Five,” which used aliens and time travel to evoke new thoughts from the bombing of Dresden. Or “The Lord of the Rings” whose elves and orcs and hobbits didn’t just illustrate an exciting quest, but showed the lasting scars that even victory can receive in a desperate war.

You could do this for any genre. Mysteries had “Chinatown” and “Double Indemnity.” Westerns had “Unforgiven.” Sports stories had Scorsese’s own “Raging Bull.” On and on, story by story.

And it doesn’t even have to be a critically-recognized classic.  An alert reader can draw discussion, implications, and lessons out of almost any story, independent of any conscious intent of the author’s. I have friends who can begin intelligent philosophical conversation from an episode of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” – effectively continuing the tale by tying it to the world around them. In any tale told by humans, the human experience will not be far away.

Others have risen eloquently to the defense of the Marvel films themselves and their extended character and story development over 22 movies,  so I won’t go into a point-by-point analysis here. But I will say that this should feel familiar for another reason.

Namely, that it’s not just stories that get dismissed.

How many of us rarely get seen below the surface? How many talents hide inside someone who has the wrong look, the awkward behavior, the socially unacceptable background? How easy is it to look away from someone who doesn’t feel like … well, like us?

How much pain do we cause, to others and ourselves, because of that?

There is always a deeper story to see. In movies. In books. In people. And even if a tale isn’t to our taste, that doesn’t make it nothing.

The heart of a tale. The heart of a person. The wonder is there to be found.

If only we look behind the mask.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *