Quentin Tarantino vs Simu Liu: Has Marvel killed the movie star?

Tell me if this sounds familiar: “Legendary Hollywood author takes a dig at Marvel movies enraging comic book fanboys online.” No, this isn’t about Martin Scorsese who called the MCU films “theme parks”. Neither is this about Francis Ford Coppola according to whom all Marvel movies are the same. The latest Hollywood legend to cause disarray in the sphere of online movie fandom is Quentin Tarantino. And this time round one of the enraged fanboys is an actor who portrays a Marvel superhero on screen.

While giving an interview to promote his new book, the director known for hyperrealistic and violent films claimed that Marvel films had killed the modern movie star. It’s not the actors who are the stars now, it’s actually the characters they embody on screen that bring the fans into theatres, he said.

Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu, who portrays the superhero Shang-Chi in the MCU movies, took to Twitter to hit back at Tarantino writing, “If the only gatekeepers to movie stardom came from Tarantino and Scorsese, I would never have had the opportunity to lead a $400 million plus movie”. He went on to call the directors “transcendent authors” but mentioned feeling proud to be working for a studio that gives preference to inclusivity and representation unlike the golden age of Hollywood which was “white as hell”.

Now, as someone who has blabbered for hours about the genius of Tarantino’s cinema (much to the chagrin of my dinner dates), and also watched all 30 of the MCU films in theatres, I’m in a catch-22 situation. General wisdom tells me to side with the underdog, but then again who is the underdog in this scenario? The celebrated film director with a three-decade-long career who cinephiles swear by or the actor who represents the absolute behemoth of a movie studio eating up all competition?

So let’s break down the two aspects at play – movie stardom and diversity.

When I think of Conan the Barbarian and the terminator, I think of Arnold Schwarzenneger, same with Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones. When you think of stardom as a linear growth from one big thing to the next, I tend to agree with Tarantino’s point. Except for the first wave of MCU stars like Scarlett Johannson, and Robert Downey Jr who had already established themselves before entering the superhero arena, it’s hard to think of an MCU actor who has gone on to cement themselves equally in another role. They may help films attain a big weekend box office, like Tom Holland for Uncharted and Chris Pratt for the Jurassic World series, but those films are rarely known for the acting prowess of said actors. Even a Tom Hiddleston who gets critical acclaim for doing a Jim Jarmusch movie post-Avengers has to return to don the supervillain tights for Loki, a streaming show on Disney+. Simply put, the studio has such a strong hold on these actors that the studio is the star.

But when it comes to diversity and inclusion the waters get a bit murky. The hardcore Tarantino fan in me argues that African-American actors like Samuel L Jackson and Pam Grier got plum parts in his movies since the 1990s and there is a clear imprint of black and Japanese cultures in films like Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. Those portrayals have since come under some scrutiny, with allegations of appropriation and fetishisation. On the other hand, when a massive studio like Marvel decides to tell the story of a superhero from a marginalized background it brings their culture to the center stage. The Black Panther movies merge African culture with futuristic sci-fi, Miss Marvel blends South Asian Muslim culture with a teenager getting superpowers, and Shang-Chi explores the character’s Chinese roots while fighting a supervillain.

How prominent these characters would be in the next Avengers movie team up though, remains to be seen. It might after all lead to a further debate about fetishisation vs tokenism.

At the end of the day, a film is a sum of its parts. What is slightly bothersome is the black-and-white binary that is developing around the love of cinema. Every filmgoer should be given the liberty to love the stories and stars they prefer. If a big superhero action film makes them appreciate their culture that’s valid, and if a superstar in an offbeat role makes them take a chance with a movie, then that’s valid too. The highest grossing movie of 2022 has been Top Gun: Maverick, powered by the irresistible charisma of Tom Cruise. At the same time, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever playing in theaters right now is an emotional send-off to the actor Chadwick Boseman. Both movie stars in their own right.

The writer is a stand-up comedian, writer, podcaster/podcast producer


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