On Marvel vs. Scorsese, and the Importance of Guilty Pleasures

Writer-director Andrew Matthews says it’s essential to acknowledge the difference between high art and low art.

When Martin Scorsese rocked the film world with his admission that he didn’t much care for Marvel movies, I was only surprised by the fact that this surprised anyone. That an Oscar-winning auteur should have little interest in corporate kid flicks is about as much of a revelation as hearing that Cormac McCarthy doesn’t read Twilight, or that Jiro Ono doesn’t eat frozen fish sticks. Yet my Facebook and Twitter feeds were awash with accusations of elitism and irrelevance and gifs of Principal Skinner assuring himself, “No, it’s the children who are wrong!”

It was a bit of an overreaction. After all, he didn’t say superhero movies were bad, just more akin to amusement park rides than cinema. But this distinction is the crime, for Scorsese seems not to be aware of the growing online consensus that the idea of some art being better than others is a sham. Audiences are throwing off the shackles of elitist opinion and waking up to the realization that the line between “high art” and “low art” is just a fabrication by snobby academes trying to elevate themselves over the ignorant masses.

Don’t be ashamed to like what you like, this thinking goes. If a movie or a book brings you enjoyment, it’s just as valid as any other. There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure!

The argument presupposes that the only value stories offer is in the immediate experience. (“If you had a good time, it’s art!”) But like food, the media we consume has effects that persist long after the act of consumption is over. It expands our understanding of the world, our capacity for empathy, and our vocabulary for expressing ourselves. To be sure, there are many esteemed formats, like jazz music or the novel, that were once dismissed as “low art.” But just because a food critic comes to appreciate the culinary complexities of Mexican street food, does that necessarily include Taco Bell? Surely there must be a line somewhere?

It brings to mind another recent internet skirmish, sparked when young adult author Sarah Dessen dug up and posted a small news story from South Dakota about a female grad student who had advocated against including Dessen’s work on her university’s Common Read list. Dessen, several of her bestselling author friends and tens of thousands of their fans spent days harassing and abusing the student online with accusations of elitism and misogyny until she had to deactivate all her social media accounts.

Adults now make up over half of YA’s readership, and like Marvel fans, many of these readers insist that their beloved genre is as serious or worthy than any other. Except, of course, it isn’t. Young Adult isn’t really a genre at all – it includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance and social novels, whose only commonality is that their ideas and language are simple enough for young people to grasp. (Some argue that “coming-of-age” is the primary characteristic of YA, but then why are the works of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë and Esi Edugyan strangely absent from its shelves?)

I don’t mean to pick on Marvel or YA. I watch plenty of tentpole blockbusters and I’ve read all seven Harry Potter books, some more than once. I think adults can and should enjoy content accessible to any age. But why should that enjoyment be contingent on pretending that there’s nothing better? Why can’t we use simple, escapist stories to relax and blow off steam, while remembering that there are more complex and rewarding works out there? I’ll admit, the books and films that most changed my life were initially a chore to tackle – especially when competing with a new sci-fi flick or a pulpy detective novel that I could devour in a night and promptly forget. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing, but calling these pleasures “guilty” motivates me to challenge myself with unfamiliar experiences that I usually end up treasuring for a lifetime.

The guiltiest of my pleasures is probably video games. I won’t lie, I love them. They’re eye-popping and adrenaline-pumping, often filled with top-notch artistry and technology. (This is almost the same way Scorsese describes Marvel films. Perhaps if he’d been born a bit later, video games might’ve been his point of comparison rather than amusement park rides.) However, unlike with literature or film, I’m very mindful about how much time and money I spend on video games, because I know they’re designed to be highly addictive. Feedback loops of trial and reward flood my brain with carefully timed doses of dopamine to keep me playing. Game developers even hire psychologists to refine their control over users’ behavior. They’re really good at it.

Though the video game industry might be pioneers in the science of audience manipulation, it’s now being utilized across most digital media. TV shows are structured to encourage “binge-watching” (often at the expense of satisfying storytelling), social media interfaces compel habitual checking and re-checking, and YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is engineered to maximize minutes watched (at the expense of everything else, including democracy). In a recent New York Times op-ed, Scorsese elaborated on his criticism of Marvel by pointing specifically to their tendency to deliver what is essentially the same experience to viewers, over and over again:

“If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”

It seems quaint now that platforms used to actually ask new users what kind of content they wanted to see. Today’s algorithms bypass the superego and go straight for the id. Why ask you what kind of consumer you’d like to be when they can train you to be one they want you to be? Entertainment companies spend millions to keep us hooked on the familiar and comfortable, while independent artists struggle to find new audiences. And yet, many critics and cultural influencers are discouraging people from second-guessing their media consumption. If you enjoy what’s currently being served, don’t worry about whether there’s something better. Remember, there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure! Though it’s framed as a populist mantra, its main beneficiaries are multi-billion dollar conglomerates with a distinct economic interest in keeping their audience’s tastes from ever evolving.

I know my position on this still sounds kind of elitist. Most people work too damn hard and are too damn tired at the end of a day to worry about how “edifying” their entertainment is. But on the other hand, isn’t it a form of elitism to assume that the masses should stick to children’s stories? After all, there was a time when an uneducated and illiterate working class blew off steam by watching Shakespeare plays. And it’s hard to argue that guilty pleasures have no deleterious social effects. Our population is becoming more and more polarized and authoritarian while ingesting a steady diet of fantasy and superhero films that portray a world of black-and-white morality, where only the actions of a handful of god-like heroes matter. Meanwhile, our political discourse has been taken over – quite literally – by the nihilistic, win-at-all-costs mentality of that quintessential guilty pleasure, reality TV.

Noted research professor and author Brené Brown said that “shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior.” In other words, while shame is often destructive and inhibiting, guilt offers a way to “hold something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be.” I think the same thinking applies to our media consumption. I don’t want to shame anyone for having guilty pleasures, and I’m not saying anyone has to give up the things that bring them joy. But I do think it’s a step in the wrong direction to abandon the label “guilty pleasure.” It’s a useful reminder that there’s always room to improve ourselves, that greater challenges often yield greater rewards. As adults, we should be able to enjoy the occasional milkshake without pretending it’s a balanced meal.

Andrew Matthews is an Austin-based filmmaker whose film Zero Charisma won the Audience Award at SXSW. He is the creator and writer of several award-winning educational series for PBS Digital Studios.