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Denis Villeneuve’s comments on Marvel resurface tired debate

His comments were translated and presented out-of-context on Twitter.


Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

The Dune press tour is revving up ahead of its release next month, leading to plenty of fascinating insights on the film from director Denis Villeneuve and the cast, but it’s his comments about Marvel movies that are sparking some outrage, even though those comments are more nuanced than what viral soundbites suggest.

Over the past day or so, the Spanish publication El Mundo and the French outlet Premiere both debuted interviews with Villeneuve. In both interviews, Marvel came up in conversation.

In the El Mundo interview (English translation courtesy of The Direct), Villeneuve speaks of how even big-budget, commercial films have the capacity to be both political and artistic endeavors. Citing Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuarón as two filmmakers doing just that, Villeneuve asked, “Who said that a movie on a big budget can’t be artistically relevant at the same time?” A 2019 interview with Martin Scorsese where he infamously called Marvel movies “not cinema” (which Scorsese later attempted to explain what he meant by that) was looped into the conversation, and Villeneuve described what Marvel was doing as “a ‘cut and paste’ of others,” but he was still optimistic about what big, expensive movies could offer.

“Perhaps the problem is that we are in front of too many Marvel movies that are nothing more than a ‘cut and paste’ of others,” Villeneuve said. “Perhaps these types of movies have turned us into zombies a bit … But big and expensive movies of great value there are many today. I don’t feel capable of being pessimistic at all.”

Scorsese isn’t mentioned in the Premiere interview, but Villeneuve expanded upon the idea of Marvel movies being copy-and-paste as he pushes back on the interviewer’s assertion that franchise movies go against the idea of the auteur.

In those comments, Villeneuve acknowledges that Marvel movies being molded or formatted a certain way don’t take away from what they can offer or what they can do, it’s just part of how those films are made. Whereas in the case of a film like Dune, “as long as one feels a personality in a project, that it is an artistic object and that there is a will at work,” a blockbuster can absolutely be personal. 

“Now, if we’re talking about Marvel, the thing is, all of these movies are made from the same mold,” he said, via Google Translate. “Some filmmakers can add a little color to it, but they’re all cast in the same factory. It doesn’t take anything away from the movies, but they are formatted. Dune is extremely personal. Whether it cost $3 million or $300 million, whether there is a Dune movie or three.”

Those comments contain layers of nuance, and he’s not exactly wrong about Marvel movies having to fit a certain mold. It’s an interconnected universe where each film has to be inserted within the sprawling MCU that requires lots of planning behind the scenes.

But the nuance is lost when simply aggregating a single quote and presenting it out-of-context. The quotes went viral thanks to Twitter accounts like Discussing Film and Culture Crave aggregating El Mundo’s headline, which includes Villeneuve’s comment about Marvel movies being a “cut and paste” of other movies. (The Spanish headline reads, “Hay desmasiadas películas de Marvel que no son más que un corta y pega de otras.”) 

His quotes got plenty of pushback, both from people defending him and those taking issue with his comments toward Marvel.

Anyone looking to get further insight as to what Villeneuve meant by that comment in El Mundo was met with a paywall, and not everyone who reads those comments will sign up for a subscription to El Mundo to read beyond the clickbait headline. Villeneuve has already become a bit of a target of some moviegoers’ ire for his comments about the sanctity of the theatrical experience and his preference that Dune should be viewed on the big screen (even in a pandemic when some people are still uncomfortable going to a movie theater). If you’re someone who was already mad at Villeneuve, these out-of-context quotes just fuels it.

And for what it’s worth, in the midst of a conversation with Eternals director Chloé Zhao for Harpers Bazaar published this week, Villeneuve praised Marvel for what he called the “genius” move of seeking Zhao out to direct a Marvel film.

“I think it’s genius that Marvel approached you because you’re the radical opposite of it aesthetically,” Villeneuve told Zhao. “When I saw The Rider for the first time, I was blown away. I wrote a note to you—an artistic love letter. What touched me was your insane skill to be able to approach life. Life is so afraid of the camera. When I saw The Rider, I cried because I was like, ‘She did it. She was able to go in that zone that I thought was not possible.’ I wonder how you can invite life in a Marvel movie.”

Villeneuve’s comments (and the subsequent backlash to them) are yet another spin on discourse that seems to pop up on Twitter every time a director or someone who might be described as an “auteur” has a big and splashy movie to promote. It’s exhaustive, the comments making people mad are usually mild, and most of all, it’s boring. It’s also an argument that we need better media literacy. But if there’s a silver lining to this performance debate surfacing up yet again, it might make more people interested in Dune.

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