Martin Scorsese made waves in early October when he declared that Marvel movies are more like theme parks, and “that’s not cinema.” That came off as the type of trolly Rotten Tomatoes review the very same Scorsese despises. It’s one thing to be a casual movie watcher and say that Marvel is anything but cinema, but it’s quite another when you issue the same opinion as a well-regarded veteran in the industry. It’s incredibly insulting to the people who worked on those movies and to the people who actually enjoy Marvel movies, many of whom would likely enjoy Scorsese creations as well. Yet the director came out swinging again in an opinion piece for The New York Times titled I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.
Rather than trying to apologize to anyone in any way or walk back his remarks, Scorsese attempted to explain why he thinks Marvel movies don’t qualify as cinema, or as the kind of art he and others made.
The director acknowledged that it’s a “matter of personal taste and temperament,” while simultaneously defending his belief that they’re not cinema. Again, you can absolutely choose what types of movies to adore. A Bug’s Life might be your favorite movie ever, and that’s perfectly okay. But proclaiming a particular type of film isn’t cinema as a well-respected voice in the industry seems somewhat tyrannical.
Art, whether it’s a movie or anything else, is 100% subjective and the moment when someone tries to definite it as bluntly as Scorsese did, we have a problem. Also, some of Scorsese’s remarks prove that he hasn’t taken the time to truly dive into Marvel movies:
For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.[…]
Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.
Strangely enough, Scorsese also admitted that he grew up with his own type of franchises, in a post that essentially tells you other people don’t have the same right, to grow up with superhero films and define their own concept of cinema:
Or in the films of Alfred Hitchcock — I suppose you could say that Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or that he was our franchise. Every new Hitchcock picture was an event. To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching “Rear Window” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself, and it was electrifying.
One of his other remarks can easily be applied to a different type of franchise, the Scorsese mobster movie, which we’ve all seen:
They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.
Think about it: aren’t Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and The Irishman more or less the same thing? They might not be as vetted as the others, but they are Scorsese remakes of sorts. The beauty of it is that they’re all cinema, and you can still enjoy them even if you know what to expect from Scorsese mobster movies.
Scorsese does have somewhat of a point in his defense of the right to define what cinema is; that superhero films and franchise films might hurt smaller movie makers. But then again, with so many streaming options available, there are plenty of ways for filmmakers who are just starting out to shine in spite of the competition from these blockbuster films. Many of the directors that helmed the most impressive Marvel films started small before Marvel gave them the opportunity of a lifetime. And many of them are actually targeting bigger honors than making a billion-dollar flick for Marvel.
This freedom to pick and choose from content distributors, however, isn’t good enough for Scorsese. He was able to make the kind of Irishman film he wanted to make with the help of Netflix, yet he seems to hate the fact that theaters don’t want to have anything to do with his film. He won’t say it, but that’s because Scorsese is still hunting for Oscars with his movies, and he needs the film to be in theaters to qualify:
Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures
The director fails to see the real problem here. The fight between movie plexes and streaming services has nothing to do with superhero movies like Marvel’s. Netflix, Disney+, and everyone else in the streaming business threaten the livelihood of theater chains, and that’s why they decided not to pick up The Irishman.
Scorsese’s piece ends with a gloomy conclusion, that art in the movie and entertainment business is some sort of endangered species, reiterating the idea that someone can objectively define what cinema is:
[There] are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.
For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.
Scorsese’s full opinion is available at this link.