Stan Lee’s hot take on the Scorsese/MCU debate
Ever since a snippet of an Empire interview in which director Martin Scorsese said films about people chasing McGuffins while punching and kicking one another isn’t cinema, the internet — nay, society itself — has been torn apart by the philosophical quandary at the nexus of art, film and entertainment.
Journalists, meanwhile, have just been asking anyone who will make matters worse what they think about the whole bunfight. But there is one person whose opinion we have yet to hear — because he’s dead — the great, the late, Stan “The Man” Lee.
The co-creator of most of the Marvel universe (with Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Steve Ditko and a whole bunch of others), Stan was ever a company man and would have said something like, “That devious director is a menacing merchant of cinematic sophistry! All True Believers should see these movies ten times, and you tell ’em, Smilin’ Stan Lee sent you! ‘Nuff said.”
But aside from me putting words into the mouth of a dead legend, we know Stan’s inner thoughts on this hot topic from an interview he did back in 1992 for a straight-to-video documentary series called The Comic Book Greats. The often awkward, scything and occasionally insightful show had a simple format of Lee interviewing comic creators while they doodled.
In the second season, Lee interviews Will Eisner. For those of you tragically unaware, Eisner is considered one of the greatest comic creators of all time and coined the phrase “graphic novel” as a means of selling a comic that wasn’t like any comic that came before, A Contract with God. Eisner is as close to the definition of “auteur” as any creative can get — film directors don’t count. Literally, hundreds of people work on the talkies.
Late into the Eisner/Lee chat, Eisner describes his approach to comics and qualifying them as an art form by breaking them in 3 categories; Entertainment, mythology for young people and, though it pains Eisner to use this pretentious phrase, “works of literary merit”.
He summarises that last category as works existing in an entertaining medium, which do more than just entertain. As an example, he cites Contract with God as being about “a man’s perceived relationship with God” rather than “two mutants fighting each other.”
This is not dissimilar from Scorsese’s explanation of “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” and it’s the one thing Lee and Eisner disagree on.
I feel any entertainment medium, anything that is done for pure entertainment also has educational value
Lee’s reply betrays his usual outer huckster salesman persona and reveals the intellect of the great American novelist that never was.
“I know what you’re saying and you’re not wrong but the area of disagreement is this: I feel any entertainment medium, anything that is done for pure entertainment also has educational value. For example, when Mark Twain wrote what he wrote, when Charles Dickens wrote what he wrote, those were commercial stories…
“Anything has educational value if it is well written, if it’s well drawn, if it’s well sung, if it’s well danced, whatever it is. I think the people who try to entertain, in any medium, but do it well and do it with quality; they’re contributing to society’s fund of knowledge. You don’t have to sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a story with a message’, I think it’s impossible to write a story without a message.”
Anything has educational value if it is well written, if it’s well drawn, if it’s well sung, if it’s well danced
It’s brilliant stuff. Eisner agrees with Lee’s response and reframes the discussion to be about the audience’s expectations of any given medium and the jovial old-timers discuss intention in art.
Some stories intend to say something about the human experience or impart knowledge; does “just entertainment” do the same? Eisner challenges Lee to find the moral, artistic core of the then recently released “slash and trash movie” The Terminator. He asks, what does that teach us?
Lee, woke AF for a man born in 1922, replies, “It may teach us a lot of things. First of all our sympathies are entirely on the side of the good people, and of the woman, in that particular story. One thing that it shows is that a woman, as well as a man, can be strong, can have determination, can fight for what she believes in and eventually triumph.”
I think if something is well done there is something in it. There is a message in it
He summarises again, “Obviously I am grasping for something there. That movie was not written intending to be a life’s lesson, but as I say, I think if something is well done there is something in it. There is a message in it.”
For Stan, the morality and value of a story is built into the execution of its creation, even if it wasn’t the central thesis of the work.
If “cinema” is just a term like “graphic novel” — something Eisner invented because he knew people would (and still do) look down on comics as a term for a medium — then it’s an arbitrary illusion we want to think is important without any real distinction.
Alternatively, if this qualification is dependent on a film saying something about people or trying to impart some knowledge, in Lee’s eyes, that something, no matter how tiny, is always there so long as the films are well made at least. So we know what Stan “The Man” Lee would say, but did he think the Marvel movies were well made?
Probably. He is in them after all.