I don’t think there’s a single science fiction franchise that holds a candle to Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Wrath of Khan is, in my opinion, one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made. Undiscovered Country and First Contact aren’t far behind. The Next Generation was an outstanding show that embodied everything the genre should be about; it was an introspective, forward-thinking series featuring likeable characters and stellar writing. Deep Space Nine may have been even better, as it yanked Trek fans away from the idyllic utopianism of Federation territory and forced them to tangle with the moral ambiguities of terrorism, wartime diplomacy, and the Federation’s expansionist aims. Voyager wasn’t quite on the same level as TNG or DS9, but it did deliver some of the most satisfying character development of any Trek show. And while Enterprise left a lot to be desired, it did eventually find its footing and capped off its four-year run with a solid final season.
The 2009 Star Trek reboot was flashy and fun but short on substance. It just didn’t feel like Trek to me. Into Darkness was pure mimicry, lifting a few core elements from the Wrath of Khan and haphazardly stringing them together into a disappointingly predictable story. Beyond was a step in the right direction and felt more like authentic Trek than either of the two previous films. But contract talks with Chris Pine and Chris Hemsworth reportedly hit an insurmountable wall last year, and the rebooted universe died a quiet, unceremonious death.
My feelings about Star Trek: Discovery mirror my feelings about the rebooted Trek cinematic universe. I watched the first season of Discovery, canceled my subscription to CBS All-Access, and have never felt the temptation to give it a second look.
But while today’s Trek may not be my preferred flavor of science fiction, it is still science fiction nonetheless. It presents an optimistic future that marries scientific advancement with humanity’s moral and intellectual development, promotes a drastically different socioeconomic landscape than any you’ll find in the real world, and features technological wonders that are theoretically possible but could take several centuries to engineer. As any longtime fan of Trek can confirm, these are all standard characteristics of the science fiction genre.
I could try to argue otherwise. I could set out to convince the world that the rebooted Trek universe and the Discovery series are of such poor quality and are so far removed from Roddenberry’s vision that they don’t deserve to even be categorized as genuine Trek, let alone genuine science fiction. And if I had the résumé of a Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese to back that argument up, it might carry just enough weight to influence public opinion in a meaningful way. I would still be wrong, of course, but that wouldn’t much matter. If my goal were to try and delegitimize the Trek brand, I can’t think of a more effective means of accomplishing that task than by leveraging my credentials as a legendary filmmaker to rally fans and critics to my side.
I wouldn’t do that, though, because it would be incredibly petty and unprofessional. It’s okay to not enjoy a particular piece of art, but there’s something very unseemly about industry heavyweights using their platforms to try and delegitimize the very existence of that art. That’s why Marvel fans have taken umbrage with Scorsese’s and Coppola’s recent comments about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In an interview about his upcoming film The Irishman, Scorsese opined that the MCU isn’t real cinema and compared superhero films to amusement park rides. Coppola ratcheted things up when he sided with Scorsese and called Marvel films “despicable.” Neither set of comments went over well with the Marvel faithful, and who can blame them?
The way I see it, MCU films are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. They’re not terribly healthy or even all that tasty, but they’re guaranteed to make most people smile with each and every bite. That irritates Scorsese and Coppola for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is that they seem to believe that the audience’s satisfaction shouldn’t be a filmmaker’s foremost concern. When they argue that MCU films aren’t legitimate cinema, what they’re really trying to do is delegitimize commercially successful superhero films made for the near-exclusive purpose of making audiences happy.
But just as Star Trek: Discovery is as authentically science fiction as every other Trek series that came before it, the MCU films are just as authentically cinematic as every other celebrated cinematic universe that has left its mark on American pop culture. Marvel films are character-driven, visually stunning motion pictures that revolve around an overarching narrative that holds the MCU together, much like the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings sagas. Would Scorsese and Coppola have us believe that those two universes are illegitimate cinema as well?
That’s not to say that I don’t share some of Scorsese’s and Coppola’s concerns about the current dominance of superhero blockbusters. Elaborating on his criticism of the MCU, Scorsese seemed to imply that while he believes there’s room in the industry for comic book movies, he’s afraid that the MCU might be stealing attention and resources away from more deserving films that focus on conveying the experiences of important historical figures and events. Frankly, I don’t necessarily disagree with him. More than half of my DVD collection is composed of black-and-white films, so that should give you a good idea of where I stand on the state of modern cinema. However, there is no rule, either written or unwritten, that cinema must prioritize historical narratives over all others. Nor should the industry consider adopting such a rule, which would unnecessarily hamstring filmmakers whose talents are better suited to telling stories that don’t fit within Scorsese’s prescribed framework.
Scorsese and Coppola are masters of cinematic storytelling, but that doesn’t entitle them to act as gatekeepers of legitimate cinema. Any story that is told through the medium of film is legitimate cinema, even if it isn’t particularly good cinema. Besides, there’s more than enough space for both the light-hearted, adventurous stories of the MCU and the more serious, contemplative stories that old-school filmmakers tend to prefer. Different films can serve different functions without forfeiting their artistic legitimacy. Scorsese and Coppola ought to understand that better than just about anyone, which is what makes their comments about the MCU almost as baffling as they are incorrect.