Okay, okay, I read VICE’s article, “The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is Not Art,” today. I mean, the title is clearly clickbait, and the whole article itself is a lot of gatekeeping. And it draws an elitist line between “art” and “content” without really telling us what art should be. It reads like the screed of an angry 40-something guy who really wanted to insult the MCU and everyone who’s ever watched one of its films. And looking at the author Patrick Marlborough’s Twitter page, it seems like he is an angry 40-something guy who wants us all to leave the MCU and Star Wars behind and…watch Mad Men? Uh, okay, Patrick.
But for all his angry writing (and passages like, “This is the beauty of a product that holds nothing distinct within it. The MCU has spent a decade and a half honing its voicelessness. That voicelessness sapped a generation of creatives like a parasite, allowing their content to have a universal blank quality that can be adapted to any topic, any vision, any direction, or any change in the market. The result is something that can be anything to anyone: any meaning you can dream of can be attached to this content, like an accessory snapped onto an action figure.”), there’s something Patrick Marlborough doesn’t understand: all True Art that he likes (whatever that is) is content. It’s content that was plucked from obscurity and placed on a pedestal. The person who does that plucking and placing is usually a white guy, like Patrick Marlborough.
Also, I’d like to point something out about this quote from the article: “The result is something that can be anything to anyone: any meaning you can dream of can be attached to this content, like an accessory snapped onto an action figure.” Patrick, dude, the thing you just described is Death of the Author, the concept where authorial intent means nothing and the reader’s/viewer’s response to written or filmed material is everything.
And that, I think, is the reason why Patrick Marlborough hates the MCU (and newer Star Wars content) so much. He wants every filmmaker to be an auteur. Auteur theory is a theory of film that states that the director is the author of a film, much more than the screenwriter or anyone else who works on it. For cinephiles who love auteur theory, they want to recognize exactly which director directed that film. They want something like Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in all of his films or Christopher Nolan’s penchant for dead wives and girlfriends or Quentin Tarantino’s foot fetish. The MCU flies in the face of auteur theory because different filmmakers make each film, but each film’s story impacts the next one.
If you’re obsessed with auteur theory, you can’t get on board with the MCU. That’s fine. It’s not everyone’s thing. But it’s not a good idea to declare that any particular work or series of works “is not art” because it doesn’t fit into auteur theory. And that does seem to be what Patrick Marlborough wants to do in his article. For example, he describes Sam Raimi in this way: “One of the most distinct voices of his generation, it’s impossible to watch a Sam Raimi movie without knowing you are watching a Sam Raimi movie, and Doctor Strange is no real exception if you reduce Raimi to his gut-punch editing, maniacally woozy camera work and fever dream transitions.” Uh, okay. I guess I view Sam Raimi as kind of schlocky outside of his Spider-Man films. Like, I’ve seen Army of Darkness, and I’m not sure I’d call that an auteur film. But okay.
The thing is that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness doesn’t work as an auteur film because it has some of the hallmarks of the MCU house style. However, it doesn’t fully work as an MCU film because Sam Raimi ignores existing character development and arcs in order to get to the visuals he wants to create. Ultimately, Multiverse of Madness is a shallow film, no matter the angle you use to view it. As my sister said, “I enjoy Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, but I did not like his MCU movie!”
And that’s the thing: MCU movies are very much collaborative efforts. The directors they work with are usually willing to work with them to create their narratives. They give up a bit of that “auteur” quality that people like Patrick Marlborough think all films should have. But the thing is that some directors who’ve worked with Marvel, such as James Gunn, Taika Waititi, and Chloe Zhao, have been able to keep some of their personal styles in their MCU films.
Collaboration is part of what it means to be a professional creative. No one who has their name on a film, book, show, album, podcast, crochet pattern, or any other creative effort actually got there alone. Have you ever looked at the acknowledgments section of a novel? It takes a lot of people to put a book together, even though we see the act of novel-writing as a very solitary one (the writing part IS solitary; the rewriting and editing parts, not so much). And sometimes creatives give up some of that auteur-ness in order to further their careers. That’s why many authors write intellectual property (IP) novels. People like Patrick Marlborough may see that as “selling out” or giving our imaginations away, but that’s part of the reality of being a creative. And the people who look down on that usually haven’t ever created (or attempted to create) any fiction themselves.
Patrick Marlborough’s obsession with auteur theory ignores the fact that human storytelling has been largely collaborative and derivative for much of human history. For example, we don’t actually know if the same person wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. Sure, we attribute it to Homer, but historians aren’t sure if he was a real person. He may be a mythical figure; the Irish and Welsh Celtic mythologies have similarly mythical poet-authors that their stories are attributed to. The copy of The Odyssey that I had in college was book-ended by academic essays, and one of them pointed out that we will never know if The Iliad and The Odyssey were written by the same person, but the person who wrote The Odyssey clearly knew The Iliad very well.
That brings me to another insult that Patrick Marlborough throws at the MCU: “Its mere presence allows the proliferation of more content, be it fan fiction, YouTuber easter egg listicles, or articles like this one – the beauty of the MCU’s content moloch is that it feeds into the great ocean of content that fills our every waking minute online and off, a great big reciprocal laundry of ideas and images that bloom and bust as blips of light on the infinite horizon of digital media.” So the MCU is bad because…people want to interact with it through fan fiction, reviews, and analysis articles? Um, dude, if people want to interact with works of fiction, that means that they resonate with audiences enough that they need to make their feelings known. In fact, the fact that Patrick Marlborough hates the MCU so much means that on some level, its storytelling is working.
See, dudes like Patrick Marlborough believe that Great Art or True Art or Great Fiction is created in a vacuum. Great Art can have no influences. It simply pops up in the artist’s head and the artist puts it into their chosen medium. Great Art only relies on random inspiration that fuels the artist’s True Voice, whatever that is. And then their work tells us how they think the world should be, and that’s the only purpose of True Art or Great Art: telling us what the world is really like. And that’s a misconception.
This article is also predicated on another misconception: the idea that creators must become bigger than their creations. We have to know who made the thing. The thing that they created does not matter as much as their authorial voice or whatever. This idea comes across clearly in this passage from Marlborough’s article: “we live in a time when characters and franchises once as obscure as Steve Ditko himself now have the pull of an Ethan Hunt or Ghostbusters.”
I think it’s interesting that Patrick Marlborough decided to offhandedly slam Steve Ditko as “obscure.” The thing is, you may not know Steve Ditko’s name, but you know his creations and co-creations, such as Spider-Man and many of his most famous villains (Doc Ock, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, and Green Goblin), and Doctor Strange. Ditko gave Doctor Strange the surreal visual style that has carried over into the Doctor Strange films. That trippy quality in those films, that stems from him. But ultimately, Ditko’s name and reputation aren’t as important as those of his characters. And since he passed away in 2018 (the same year as his colleague Stan Lee), those creations are outliving him and they’re all over popular culture. Even if Ditko himself isn’t extremely famous, his creations are, and I think slamming him as “obscure” over looks his contributions to comics, visual art, film, and pop culture in general.
You know another person from the comics world who’s similar? Len Wein. He worked for both Marvel and DC for decades, and he created or co-created many iconic characters and concepts for both companies. For example, at Marvel, he co-created Wolverine. At DC, he created Lucius Fox AND Star Labs, among other characters and things. But like Steve Ditko, he was not that famous in his lifetime (he passed away in 2017) or now. But does that even matter if millions of people are familiar with his creations?
And that, I think, is at the crux of how Marlborough separates “art” from “content”: art is something singular that belongs to one creator; content is something that lives on and on, independent of its original creator. That’s why he says this about Star Wars: “The most troubled of these bastards might just be Disney’s other colossal shared universe – or galaxy – Star Wars. Once the playground of an inarguably odd little creature (George Lucas, not Yoda), and once decidedly art (I sincerely believe Picasso would have beheld a character like Dexter Jettster and wept), has become, under the stewardship of Disney and MCU creative forefather Jon Favreau, content. Like the MCU, it has had its future mapped out like a sold-off child bride – its portents foretold by the rolled knucklebones of think-tank analytics, focus groups, and ballistic ultra-fans, leading Star Wars, ironically, far far away from what once made it interesting.”
Star Wars was only art when it seems to belong solely to George Lucas, apparently. The problem with that assessment is that Star Wars hasn’t belonged solely to George Lucas for a long time. He had to work with other people to get the original trilogy made, and two people who worked for him created Boba Fett. Other authors and creators started coming in to create the Star Wars Expanded Universe to create new characters and storylines. For example, George Lucas didn’t create Grand Admiral Thrawn. Author Timothy Zahn did. And many people love Grand Admiral Thrawn as a villain. George Lucas didn’t create fan-favorite Ahsoka Tano, either. Dave Filoni did. And both of those creations occurred before Disney bought Star Wars and Lucasfilm. George Lucas got things going, but new creators took over his baby long ago. The only thing Disney did was amp up the level of content creation, making more live-action shows and cartoons outside of George Lucas’s control.
All of Patrick Marlborough’s ideas are rooted in snobbery and arrogance, and they have little to do with how creatives work and how human storytelling is a tale a constant influence. Writers and artists are always influencing each other. People consume content and create content that reflects what they consume. They create content that responds to other content (not even in the realm of franchises; On the Waterfront responds to The Crucible*). They change and edit their content based on other people’s recommendations. Fiction and art (both of which are content, by their very nature) are never, ever created in a vacuum.
*Elia Kazan was horrible, for the record.
Patrick Marlborough, if the MCU isn’t art, say it’s because it’s own by a large corporation, if that’s what you don’t like about it.. But that’s true of anything made by Amazon, too, and Netflix, to a certain degree. If you don’t like the recent Star Wars content, say what you don’t like about the works themselves, instead of insulting Jon Favreau and any other creators that produce those works. If you don’t like a thing, that’s fine. We all like different things in this life. But pretending you are better than the rest of us for disliking it or never consuming it isn’t worth anything in the long run.
I wrote this post to respond not just to this article, but to the larger critical mindset behind it. You see, there are many other random filmbros like Patrick Marlborough out there. They all have this mindset that if they don’t love a thing, then that thing is worthless and doesn’t need to exist. I’ve encountered that mindset all my life whenever I read film reviews, particularly those written by cishet white men. Those reviewers were always so busy analyzing stuff that they never realized you could analyze and enjoy something.
Also, we need to move past the auteur theory worship. Filmmaking itself has clearly moved past it, and so should our critical frameworks for assessing visual media. After all, I’m not sure auteur theory works for TV shows where the directors vary from episode to episode. Even if you have a limited series like The Night Manager or Obi-Wan Kenobi, where the (female) director is the same across six episodes, is auteur theory the only way to assess the story? No, I don’t think it is.
Let’s enjoy the things we love, analyze the stuff we find interesting, and leave these dudes in our dust.