Has Cinema Really Abandoned Films Like ‘The Power of the Dog’ in Favor of Marvel?

Spider-Man: No Way Home had a $240 million opening weekend box office. Those are massive, pre-Covid like numbers—and the contrast with everything in cinemas that isn’t an MCU franchise with cameos from actors in multiple other superhero franchises has been stark. Steven Spielberg’s much-hyped version of West Side Story made $10 million on its December 10 opening weekend. Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed retro-noir Nightmare Alley, released on the same Dec. 17 weekend as Spider-Man, couldn’t even get to $2 million.

The ease with which Spider-Man has webbed up and thumped all its rivals has thrilled superhero fans. Film critics and enthusiasts, in contrast, have given in to something like despair. “No better vindication of martin Scorsese than the new spiderman movie. baited nostalgia used in uncreative ways other than to turn cinemas into theme parks,” journalist Hussein Kesvani tweeted glumly.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Kesvani—along with everyone else on Twitter—was referencing an infamous interview and op-ed in which Scorsese argued that Marvel films are “closer to theme parks than they are to movies.” He added, “in the end I don’t think they’re cinema.”

In contrast, Scorsese touts the films of his influences peers, and followers—Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Lee. For these artists, he insists, “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

If you look just at movie theaters, Scorsese may seem to have a point. Genre franchises about superpowered antagonists blowing each other up to take up more and more space and pull more and more dollars. Dramatic films selling earnest meaningfulness take up less and less.

If you take your eyes off the big screen and turn to your living room, though, you can find plenty of meaningfulness. And in fact, there’s a good argument that there’s never been a better time for cinema of aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual revelation—especially if you’re interested in the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual revelation of people who aren’t white men.

Even before the pandemic, the lines between big and small screens had become hopelessly blurred. Prestige television series like Mad Men and Game of Thrones featured big-screen production values and, crucially, big-screen actors. It used to be a rarity to see major movie stars show up on television mid-career, but today you’re as likely to see Cate Blanchett in the little box playing Phyllis Schlafly as you are to see her in some tentpole playing Hela and battling thunder gods. Now that Covid has accelerated direct-to-streaming, it’s difficult to tell what separates the supposedly distinct mediums other than the fact that you sit far away from a big screen in one and close to a small screen for the other.

Passing Sc 91 12.03.19 131r scaled
Courtesy of Netflix

If you accept that television and film are functionally one art form, then it’s not hard to find the cinema of character and revelation that Scorsese is so keen on. Consider two Fall 2021 Netflix films with limited theatrical releases: Rebecca Hall’s debut Passing and Jane Campion’s triumphant return, The Power of the Dog.

Neither of these movies are CGI extravaganzas. But they both are shot with careful 1920s period detail, and both have big-name screen stars who have done time in superhero franchise extravaganzas—Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Tessa Thompson. Power of the Dog had a $30-39 million budget; Passing $10 million. Netflix is reluctant to release revenue figures, but both movies got enthusiastic critical coverage (90% on Rotten Tomatoes for Passing, 95% for Power of the Dog). Both have generated a good bit of social media buzz and discussion—more than Nightmare Alley, at least.

Power of the Dog is a quiet Western about the relationship between an aggressive, bullying cowboy named Phil (Cumberbatch) and the skinny, nerdy son of his brother’s new wife, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Passing is about the intense, jealous friendship between a well-off Harlem doctor’s wife Rene (Thompson) and her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga) who is now passing as white.

These films are not only focused on human revelations in a way that would make Scorsese and Hitchcock proud. They’re more focused on human revelations than the most famous work of those two directors. Hitchcock adored his genre thrills, and in Psycho was famously willing to sacrifice his lead characters for a clever plot twist. Scorsese’s most successful and celebrated films, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, revel in violence and fusillades of gunfire. In their focus on protagonists involved in bloody confrontation, they’re more like MCU films than Passing or Power of the Dog. Both of those latter films build tension out of frightened looks, small social humiliations, and words not said.  Both end with deaths, and even maybe with murders, but there’s no dramatic gunfight, and no real catharsis.

The Power of the Dog
Courtesy of Netflix

Passing and Power of the Dog also underline a positive change in cinema that Scorsese mostly glosses over. It’s a lot easier for people who aren’t white men to get funding for their projects now. Scorsese lists Claire Denis and Spike Lee in his pantheon, but he doesn’t mention the structural factors that have made it harder for women and Black people to get their work into theaters.

White directors have dominated cinema since racist blockbusters like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. And film is probably the single most sexist art form we have, based on how many women get to sit in the director’s chair. Old white guys are the ones who control the massive capital needed to make a feature film, and they overwhelmingly choose to give that capital to other white guys, like Scorsese, or Coppola, or Paul Thomas Anderson or (back in the day) Hitchcock.

That’s changing to some degree; women were the directors of only 4% of the top-grossing films in 2018; that tripled to 12% in 2019, and jumped again to 16% in 2020. And part of the reason it’s changing is because the wall between television and film has become more permeable.

Television has lower budgets, making those old white guys with capital more willing to take a “risk” on someone who doesn’t look exactly like them. The tv industry is also more transparent about their hiring practices, which has given activists more leverage. In 20-21, television streaming directors were 31% women. That’s not great, but it’s still doing twice as well as film.

In the 1970s, the era for which Scorsese is nostalgic, would a first-time female director have gotten $10 million dollars to direct a feature-length film about an intense, complicated relationship between Black women? The answer, in case it isn’t obvious, is “no” and also “hell no.”

Silent Night
Courtesy of TIFF

Scorsese argues that MCU films are preventing people from making the films he loves. But the movies he loves, mostly by white men about white men, prevented other movies from getting made—and those movies now have an outlet and an audience. Passing, Power of the Dog, Candyman, Titane, Zola, Silent Night, Encanto, Looking for Kenny G, and yes also Eternals, Black Widow, and The Matrix Resurrections—what golden year for women directors would Scorsese point to that outdoes 2021?

Not that 2021 is all upside. The pandemic is a misery, and just about every film is going to struggle in theaters as long as any public gathering is a potential death sentence. Even Spider-Man would almost certainly have done better numbers in a less plague-ridden year.

The public, big-screen experience is unique in its own way, and having certain kinds of films shift to other venues is a loss of sorts. But it seems a good trade-off if it means that half of humanity is suddenly allowed to make movies like Passing or Candyman. I understand the frustration with Spider-Man. But maybe the solution isn’t (just) to rail against the theater and shout, “No Way!” but to look over at that smaller box closer to home.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.