When I was a young (30-year-old) sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh writing program, most of my fiction seminar professors had one rule: No genre writing. Despite the unlimited potential for sci-fi and fantasy stories to examine the very real problems of the world, the sheer fanciful nature of these stories make them “less than” in the eyes of many Serious Artists™. One actor who would feel right at home in those classes is Stephen Dorff, who recently said he hates Marvel movies and is “embarrassed” for Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson. Dorff, whose acting CV is unknown to me save for his turn in 1998’s Blade, a Marvel movie, is in good company. Not long ago none other than Martin Scorsese decried Marvel movies as not “cinema,” perhaps because the heroes don’t go on a murderous rampage in the movie’s final moments and get away with it.
Look, if someone doesn’t like Marvel movies or DC movies or movies in general, that is their right and should brook no criticism from the likes of me. However, where I do take some umbrage is that rather than simply saying he doesn’t like Marvel movies, Stephen Dorff goes a step further by saying that they are objectively bad. Objectivity when it comes to art, an almost entirely subjective experience, is nebulous at best. Yet, even that isn’t what bothers me about this. Rather, it’s that this attitude reflects a deep sense of elitism and snobbery when it comes to High Art® versus art that is accessible to the masses. Similarly, if a story takes on a hopeful tone or indulges in whimsy, it’s somehow seen as lacking compared to stories that wallow in cynicism and despair.
What Stephen Dorff Said About Marvel Movies Feels Like Sour Grapes
Image via Marvel Studios.
Other than True Detective and Blade, I am personally unfamiliar with Dorff’s filmography, but I am not writing this to dunk on him. (That’s what Twitter is for.) It is impossible to truly know what’s in others’ hearts and minds, but the commentary from Dorff feels less like artistic hipsterism and more like sour grapes. See, the reason we are in a Golden Age of Superhero Movies is, in no small part, thanks to Blade. This was the film that proved to Hollywood executives that VFX technology was where it needed to be to bring the full power of these stories to life. It also proved, with $130 million returned on a $45 million budget, that there is an audience who will pay to see these movies. Of course, because these movies make money it is inevitable that the “you sellout!” crowd will come for them.
Here’s what Stephen Dorff told Independent.com about Marvel movies:
“I still hunt for the good shit because I don’t want to be in Black Widow. It looks like garbage to me. It looks like a bad video game. I’m embarrassed for those people. I’m embarrassed for Scarlett! I’m sure she got paid give, seven million bucks, but I’m embarrassed for her. I don’t want to be in those movies. I really don’t. I’ll that kid director that’s gonna be the next Kubrick, and I’ll act for him instead.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, again not trying to shame or ridicule Dorff for his career choices, but there are plenty of talented up-and-coming directors in the Marvel Studios sphere. Director of the forthcoming Eternals, Chloé Zhao has won all sorts of awards including the famed Academy Award. Also, directors like Joe and Anthony Russo aren’t kids, but previously only found work in TV comedy until Marvel handed them the reins to their biggest collaborative movies (all of which featured Black Widow). Both Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm have created, via their Disney+ streaming series operation, an incubator for “young talent” to bring their A-game to huge audiences.
Second, I am not sure what video games Stephen Dorff is playing, but Marvel movies are, at least, excellent video games. Also, in the past 20 years (starting with games like BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic), games include powerful storytelling. The Last of Us 2 was heralded for it’s compelling story, and is getting its own adaptation. Third, Dorff definitely seems to feel ‘some type of way,’ as my kid would say, about Johansson making “five, seven million bucks” for a movie he totally doesn’t want to be in or be a part of. He says he’s ‘embarrassed’ for MCU stars, but I think it’s a different emotion starting with “E” that he’s feeling. (It rhymes with ‘envious.’) Also, oddly, he didn’t seem to feel the same way about his True Detective co-star Mahershala Ali being cast as the new Blade just a year ago.
This Sort of Mass Accessibility Snobbery is Centuries Old
Comments like these from Dorff and Scorsese have a long history when it comes to conversations about art. In fact, almost any storyteller whose work long outlives them in popular culture probably faced this kind of criticism. Yes, there are countless wonderful works of art that challenge their audiences and force them to do some mental or emotional work to fully experience. Yet, this does not mean that art which is easily accessible or indulges in whimsy is any less important. In fact, I’d argue, when done well it represents an even greater achievement for doing what those other stories do while focusing on joy instead of loss, despair, or other dark sides of human nature. Dorff may be embarrassed for Scarlett Johansson and her millionaire fellow Avengers, but I feel pity for him.
The desire for stories that feature giant spectacle, god-like heroes, and metaphors about very mundane real-world humanity is deeply ingrained in us. Part of the reason George Lucas turned to Joseph Campbell and his mythological studies when making Star Wars is that Campbell discovered that human cultures separated by time and geography developed very similar myths. One theory we can draw from this is that there is something innate in humanity that draws us to these sorts of epic tales. They aren’t low art for the masses, but rather serve an almost primal need in us.
Ultimately, the point is whether or not Stephen Dorff does or doesn’t like Marvel movies, they aren’t “garbage.” Liking them doesn’t mean you are unsophisticated nor otherwise unintelligent. You’re just human.
What do you think about Stephen Dorff and his Marvel movies criticism? Share your thoughts and reactions in the comments below.
Featured image via New Line Cinema
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he’s loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book “What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More” is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.