little jolts of pleasure

(This post has a lot of links, mostly to videos which — I hope — help make my points, but they’re all optional, so I put some of them at the end. I’m hoping I make the argument clear in what I’m writing.)

I’ve been planning for a while to write a blog post called “Little Jolts of Pleasure,” about how movies and television shows please audiences on a moment-to-moment basis, and then it made me think of the big kerfuffle a couple of years back when Martin Scorsese said that “Marvel movies aren’t cinema.”

I thought at the time that there was probably a case to be made, but that Scorsese did a lousy job of making it. He’s operating within a fixed set of assumptions, and he made an “argument” that seemed mostly designed to get nods and Likes from people who already share those assumptions.

But, since I really don’t care about what’s “cinema” and what isn’t in the first place, I dropped the idea of writing about it. “High art,” “low art,” “literary” vs. “genre” writing, “cinema,” “film,” “movies” — whatever. Seek out the good and avoid the crap.

But then I read this: “Kevin Feige Says Marvel Makes Movies Specifically for Packed Theaters

I thought about the classic movie moment when, in some form or other, the cavalry arrives to save the day. Audiences yell and cheer and pump their fists and share a moment. I haven’t seen every Marvel movie, but there are certainly a bunch of those moments in the movies I have seen. And that’s fine — everybody loves the arrival of the Big Damn Heroes (not from a Marvel movie).

But then I started dipping into videos of people watching episodes from Game of Thrones at a place called the Burlington Bar. And some of it is people really enjoying Sansa Stark finally getting the better of master manipulator Littlefinger, and Arya Stark leaping in at the last possible moment to save her brother Bran, and also the rest of humanity (spoiler).

But then there’s the “Loot Train Attack,” where everybody cheers the fact that Daenerys and her huge Dothraki army and her giant fire-breathing dragon are attacking the (evil) Lannisters, and in the process burning soldiers to death (cooking them inside their armor, in essence) and destroying a year’s worth of grain for the entire region, and you can see the people in the bar gradually quiet down as they see how brutal this all is. Dragons, if they existed, would be a horrible weapon to use against soldiers armed with swords and spears and arrows.

Even apart from the fact that, before the entire series is over (spoiler), Daenerys will burn an entire city to the ground (after the city surrendered to her), this is terrible to watch. The music brings this out wonderfully, too. I particularly love a shot of two horses galloping away while pulling a burning wagon, obviously trying desperately to escape the fire that’s attached to them.

Marvel movies don’t do that. When the cavalry arrives, in whatever form, you get the big rush of “Yeah!” and you can sit happily with that feeling for as long as you want.

Even Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel, which dealt a lot with “who can you trust?” and “who should you follow?” ended up with the main character definitely on the side of right, and the bad guys established as obviously and completely evil.

To bring this back to mystery stories, because everything relates to mystery stories, this was one thing I really liked about the Ellery Queen mysteries (the good ones). As I’ve talked about before, they occasionally examined and played with the general “mystery –> solution = triumph!” formula. Sometimes Ellery solved a mystery but held back the solution because of the harm it would cause, or he had trouble figuring out the best way to deal with what he (and nobody else) knew:

A man is haunted by nightmares that he killed his mother when he was young, though it was generally held that she had committed suicide. Ellery investigated, and he discovered that, in reality, the boy had (accidentally) poisoned his mother. So, Ellery constructed another explanation to try to help relieve the man’s torment, rather than reveal the truth.

A man — a husband and father, an apparently nice guy — is accused of murder. After he is convicted, mostly due to circumstantial evidence, Ellery is called in to try to save him from the electric chair. Ellery “fails,” but he later reveals to one person that he had solved the case, and the nice family man was indeed a nice family man, and he was also a murderer. Ellery, who was obviously still somewhat conflicted, had decided it was better to let everybody think that he (Ellery) had failed, rather than to have him explain that their beloved husband and father was guilty.

If you do this on a regular basis, then it becomes another gimmick, another cliche, but if an audience goes into a movie knowing there’s absolutely no chance this will ever happen, then it really is an amusement park ride.

And so I think Scorsese’s argument is specifically about Marvel movies, which are all centrally planned out and controlled by Disney, rather than “superhero” movies or “action” movies or “genre” movies in general. In Alien, only Ripley survives, and there was no guarantee that she would. In the Marvel world, she’d be guaranteed to survive because Sigourney Weaver would already be under contract for three sequels.

By the way, I’m not holding up Game of Thrones as great art (for one thing, there are still some seasons I haven’t even watched, and the last few episodes definitely suck), and certainly it delivered a lot of great, unambiguous “the cavalry is here!” moments, but in GoT you can’t always rely on the fact that 1) the cavalry will show up in time, 2) the cavalry will win, or 3) the cavalry actually represents anything good.


Littlefinger’s death:

Reaction to Littlefinger’s death:

Loot train attack:

Reaction to the Loot Train Attack:

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