How the Marvel Cinematic Universe can help you with your Children’s and YA writing.
Last week, in an interview with Empire, Martin Scorsese got up on his pulpit and determined that superhero movies were not ‘cinema’. The quote that has been circulating from his interview is as follows.
“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” Scorsese told Empire magazine. “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. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Now, the man is a living legend. He is responsible for masterpieces such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Gangs of New York… I could keep going. So when he criticizes something, he does so from a platform elevated by success and artistic achievement.
Which is fine.
The problem is that it is also snobbery.
He is justifying his comments by pointing at the lack of emotional, psychological experiences that the superhero movies convey. Well, I beg to differ. And not only do I disagree, I think there is a lot of value in those movies and a lot that can be learnt from their success to inspire and improve our own writing. There are basic lessons there that can be taught to children and young people that, dare I say, are much better than a man turning to a mirror and asking if his reflection is talking to him.
I am going to talk mainly of the MCU because it’s by far the most recent and successful franchise, but it’s applicable to DC, Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and so on. But because we are going to talk movies and not everybody has seen them yet, just so you know, spoilers ahead.
I’m going to start with what’s considered the first MCU movie and ignore the fact that I’ve seen the third live action reboot of Spider-Man and I’m not forty yet. This is the first movie where the characters that we have come to know as part of the Marvel Universe appear for the first time to later re-appear in many of the other movies. It was Iron Man.
The Character Journey
There is a lot that one can dislike about Tony Stark. Mostly, he’s arrogant and egotistical. It’s all about him. When we meet him, he’s about to sell very advanced weapons manufactured by Stark Industries to God knows who, but nobody you would trust to watch your children. And then something happens that changes his life. He gets blown up, kidnapped, saved by a surgeon in a cave, and pulls out an A-Team by saving himself from this abduction, building a suit of armour with what he has lying around (kinda).
He says himself, later, in Avengers Assemble, that being blown up had been a gift of sorts. At the end, while he is still arrogant and self-centered (though this is partly because he is extremely intelligent), his view on the world and how to approach it has changed. He dedicates his efforts and his company’s effort to help, rather than just make money.
Now, that’s the key of any good story, the character goes through a journey and changes in some relevant way, usually for the better, and in children’s literature, that’s what you want. Of course, some stories see the character change to worse, like the more recent DC movie, Joker, but one can argue that this movie is only inspired by the comic’s character and used for a different kind of film. Either way, children’s literature doesn’t usually deal with the anti-heroes.
After I wrote the first Maven and Perry book, The Blue Giant, I went to read to the kids in my local school. I went to Nursery, P1 and P2. Before I started reading, I asked the children in the class if Giants were good or bad. Invariably, they said bad. Maven and Perry thought the same too, but of course, they changed their minds at the end. It changed the way they understood others.
The Deja Vu!
There is a reason why superhero movies are so successful. The superficial reasons are obvious. Great cast, great sets, great fight choreography, capturing story line… but the story line has been rehashed so many times it’s wild that we still go for it. I’m sure you will recognize it.
The hero of the story faces a great challenge. A challenge greater than any one man should face. A challenge that can change the world, or at least the hero’s immediate world, at times. The hero fights for the good guys against terrible odds. Everything indicates the hero should lose. And he’s about to, but he’s undeterred, and gets up one more time. At the end, he wins, of course.
Now, up to the end of that, even To Kill a Mockingbird follows that plot. Atticus Finch defends an innocent man who is already pronounced guilty from the beginning, based on the colour of his skin. But he fights the good fight in spite of the odds.
Now, you might think that these are all American stories and they have a lot to do with Americans saving the world all the time (in movies, that is). But this plot is not exclusive to the American writer. If any of you has ever watched Anime, you might recognize the same plot points. Rurouni Kenshin comes to mind.
“I want you to understand something. If you should lose, not only does your future end, but also the future of the one you are trying to protect. Defeat isn’t an option for the sword that protects others. You should keep that thought engraved in your heart.”
Defeat isn’t an option.
A simple version of that is ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’, a saying traced back to early American teachers encouraging their pupils with their children.
Or, even simpler, never give up.
That was the first theme I had in mind for The Blue Giant. The character of Gorg came after, but the story was born out of a dispute between my kids. Eden (she’s 7 years old now) was building castles with lego and Arthur (5 now) kept destroying them. I told her that sometimes, people destroy your castles, all you can do is build them up again. I used that line in the story too.
Ok, but what does it all mean?
The truth is that comic and movies have not invented anything. You can trace back these sort of stories to any country’s folklore, whether you choose Greco-Roman mythology or Nordic or Celtic (don’t worry, I know there are more, it’s just that those are the ones I most familiar with). Great heroes have always existed. They’ve been the stuff of legend. And even religion. What is Samson in the Bible if not a version of Hercules, son of Zeus? What greater hero does Judeo-Christian religion has than Jesus, son of God?
The stuff of heroes is weaved into the stories we have carried with us from the caves to the society we have built today, whether through literature, through art, through cinema, they are there, the Hercules, the gods and the superhuman. The Chosen Ones.
Why carry them with us if they served no purpose? If they don’t speak to greater human needs and basic human psychology?
The obvious conclusion could be that everybody would like to be the chosen one. That we identify or try to see ourselves in them. Everybody would like to be special. Even if there is a price to pay (Captain America only managed to get back to his life after many many hardships and loads of fighting, Bucky lost an arm and himself, Tony Stark had to be at the brink of death to become Iron Man and at the end had the biggest loss of them all… we could go on). So much so, that it is pretty much the subject of the last MCU movie to date, Spiderman, Far from Home. We need heroes and we want to be heroes.
But there is something much more basic, something that explains, not only the success of superhero movies, but also, as I mentioned before, the success of religion. What these heroes tell you is that, no matter how bad the odds, no matter how big the challenge, there is always hope.
And isn’t hope was keeps us all going? Hope that we will be happy? Hope that we will achieve our goals? Hope that everything will be ok? Hope that we will raise our children to be the best version of themselves?
Children need hope more than anybody else, which is why we write children’s stories. Even the most specific stories, stories designed to explain grief to them, stories designed to explain mental health to them, ultimately gives them hope that, no matter what they are facing, there is a way to make it better if they try.
So, to the Martin Scorseses of the world, while we appreciate your work, Sir, we also hope that you broaden your vision to the more basic needs of the human spirit, which appeal to all of us, not to the few elevated minds that understand art better than the rest of us, mere mortals, and that have brought us to books, movies and stories in general since the birth of the human race and will do so till the extinction of civilisation.
Which I hope will not be any time soon.