On Monday, a particularly provocative quote from Watchmen writer Alan Moore surfaced on Twitter, thanks to The Beat entertainment editor Kyle Pinion. Pulled from a 2017 interview by Brazilian writer Raphael Sassaki in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo by a Twitter user celebrating Moore’s 66th birthday, the excerpt featured Moore saying “the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying.” He also made a tongue-in-cheek argument for calling D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation “the first American superhero movie.”
As Moore explains it, the place of superheroes in contemporary pop culture seems to be to try to maintain a grip on the flawed past, fixating on mostly white characters, created by mostly white artists, and churned out by corporations. By Moore’s logic, The Birth of a Nation, which facilitated the re-founding of the Ku Klux Klan and helped win the group more public acceptance, follows along the same lines, with vigilante white supremacists using capes and masks to protect their identities as they cling to a past that ought to remain in the past.
Though Moore’s name can’t be found on the new Watchmen TV series based on his work, the HBO series grapples with similar ideas, not just in picking apart the superhero genre, but in exploring the wider context of American history.
The series begins with Tulsa’s Greenwood Massacre, a hate crime called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” yet seldom discussed in schools. Subsequent episodes build rapidly on the idea of race: the central character is a descendant of one of the race riot’s survivors, and the massacre is a pivotal turning point both in her plot and in flashback sequences. The villains, the Seventh Kavalry, are also presented as a modern offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, and one major twist involves the revelation that a seemingly heroic character has a Klan uniform hidden at home.
Moore’s comments would be controversial under any circumstances. But they’ve also happened to put Moore squarely in the middle of the ongoing war between Martin Scorsese and Marvel. Speaking to Empire Magazine, the filmmaker compared Marvel movies to theme parks, saying they aren’t cinema.
In an op-ed in The New York Times that soon followed, Scorsese clarified his meaning, describing “the gradual but steady elimination of risk” that’s taken over blockbuster cinema. As he sees it, the proven success and marketability of movies “manufactured for immediate consumption” are making studios less willing to gamble on individual artists rather than popular products, with the way blockbusters dominate cineplexes making it more difficult for other movies to find audiences.
Marvel chief creative officer Kevin Feige and director duo the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame) have since weighed in, with Feige calling Scorsese’s comments “unfortunate,” and the Russos saying (jokingly), “We’re just two guys from Cleveland, Ohio, and ‘cinema’ is a New York word. In Cleveland, we call them movies.”
Where the arguments differ, however, is that while Scorsese is more of a figure in mainstream cinema, so his disdain for superhero movies feels tangential, Moore is an iconic figure in the comics world. That makes his assessment of superheroes in modern culture more provocative — and harder to dismiss.