What Martin Scorsese Gets Right About Marvel and the Industry

Martin Scorsese has a major point about the decline of the industry that many fans of Marvel Studios are missing.

Last month legendary director Martin Scorsese made something of a stir by revealing he does not like watching Marvel movies—and he does not consider them to be cinema. While it is a bit amusing that thousands of people on social media were shocked that a man who grew up in the 1940 and ‘50s doesn’t like watching Iron Man movies, the pop culture upheaval that followed led to much of what Scorsese said being taken out of context. Hence the filmmaker elaborating on his points in The New York Times this week.

Taking to The Times’ op-ed board, Scorsese unpacked his rationale for generally not enjoying superhero movies while being as complementary as possible to the craft that goes into making them.

“Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry,” Scorsese wrote. “You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament.” This is in keeping with what Scorsese has been saying for weeks, including when he told BBC the other day that he thinks many of the superhero movies might qualify as an art form unto themselves… he just wishes to separate them from what he considers cinema.

Fans who feel intimately threatened by Scorsese’s comments have been quick to suggest Scorsese only considers cinema to be “gangster” pictures or movies about violent white men—a clear sign few have watched many works from the filmmaker behind Kundun, The Age of Innocence, The Aviator, or Silence—but in The Times, the director explains the size of the wide net he’s using to classify cinema.

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“We came to understand that the art could be found in many different places and in just as many forms,” said Scorsese, “in The Steel Helmet by Sam Fuller and Persona by Ingmar Bergman, in It’s Always Fair Weather by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger, in Vivre Sa Vie by Jean-Luc Godard and The Killers by Don Siegel.” These wildly different types of films, ranging from allegorical drama to dreamy musicals, featured something Scorsese says Marvel lacks: “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.”

There will be a fair amount of hand-wringing over these comments because Scorsese is, in essence, attempting to gate keep what is considered art, and therefore cinema, and what is not. Some of his listed influences were certainly commercial genre efforts in their day, such as a Gene Kelly musical or Alfred Hitchcock’s penchant for glossy movie star-laden thrillers. However, if one gets over the semantics of whether studio commercialism can be art in the same way that, say, a Bergman movie or a Scorsese movie is, what’s being missed by the immediate discourse is his larger point: the loss of opportunity to make these kind of movies or much of anything else for the big screen that isn’t a safe, risk-averse blockbuster. Marvel is just the biggest and most successful example of this complete submission to intellectual property farming.

“Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true… 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. They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t be really any other way.”

Personally, I can point to exceptions to the generalization Scorsese is making about Marvel movies not having genuine emotional danger: but for every Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 that stealthily deals with the lifelong effects of trauma in a way a child can understand, there are a dozen others that prove the rule. They’re very good at what they set out to be, but by achieving a tonal and aesthetic singularity, they rarely achieve more than that baseline goal. In baseball such a strategy is called playing “small ball.” It can be a winning strategy, but it’s a safe one that won’t produce a lot of home runs or let the individuals showcase their unique talents. They’re building to one showstopper, the heavy hitting Avengers movie, if you will, but everything else is just a tool getting there.

Ever since Marvel Studios found its sweet spot for a tonal and visual default in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012), deviation from that film’s emphasis on humor and winking self-deprecation, often used to punctuate extended computer generated battles, has been largely incremental. Which is fine, it has produced a steady stream of very enjoyable diversions and popcorn entertainment, but it has also created a narrative blur where only the most dedicated fans can remember which movie the Falcon was arrested for fighting War Machine in… as well as why it is a bit baffling their ideological differences that left one of them permanently paralyzed can be laughed away with a quip in their next movie together.

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I do think superhero movies, even at the blockbuster level, can have enough innovation and artistry to qualify for Scorsese’s admittedly lofty pretensions for “cinema.” We’ve seen it before when Richard Donner made millions believe a man could fly; when Christopher Nolan used Batman and the Joker to capture a national mood of paranoia during the height of the War on Terror in The Dark Knight; and when James Mangold bottled audience nostalgia for Hugh Jackman as Wolverine into an elegiac film about aging, unpreventable regret, and the need for a legacy in death. And I think it has appeared in a few Marvel Studios efforts too, including Best Picture nominee Black Panther.

Yet the larger point remains that beyond its popularity, Marvel Studios is the most pronounced symptom of an industry that is eschewing the risk that 10 years ago produced The Dark Knight as a billion dollar-grosser for all ages and a thrilling allegory for adults, or that in Scorsese’s youth allowed filmmakers like Stanley Donen to elevate the musical and Alfred Hitchcock to craft thrillers that have stood the test of time 70 years on. Blockbusters now absorbing the vast majority of studio financing and marketing are not being built to stand the test of time; most of them are built on familiar nostalgia designed to last until a post-credits scene begins getting the audience hyped for the next installment in an endless series of films that has turned movies into disposable episodes of television.

In 1981, Michael Eisner was several years away from becoming CEO of The Walt Disney Company. He was, however, the CEO and president of Paramount Pictures and he wrote what turned out to be a prescient memo to his staff: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

A few years later, he was able to bring Disney’s motion picture division back from the brink of extinction, and in no small part thanks to Walt Disney Animation Studios again producing commercially successful films that were also of high artistic merit, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. However, Eisner was also in charge of Disney when the animated films went into decline in the 2000s, and he personally butted heads with the artistic ambitions of Pixar Animation Studios in that decade. It paved the way for his protégé to become Disney’s current CEO. And under Bob Iger’s leadership, Disney has prospered in the divisions that still take the time to reach for artistic merit, including Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Yet one cannot help but suspect Iger learned much from Eisner’s ethos of always pursuing the bottom line. Under Iger’s stewardship, Disney also purchased Marvel and Lucasfilm, and has reduced its live-action divisions to a strict conveyor belt of remakes of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ previous triumphs, as well as two or three Marvel Studios films a year—with the goal to eventually be able to do the same with Star Wars, albeit current plans have been left in disarray.

In the same timeframe, Disney has parted ways with a studio subsidiary that produced prestige art films in Miramax and has more or less shuttered Touchstone Pictures, which hasn’t produced a film since 2016. Its purchase of 20th Century Fox has luckily so far left Fox Searchlight unsscathed, but Disney executives have apparently grumbled about releasing a film from Taika Waititi mocking Hitler.

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By and large, the idea of making big tentpole films that allow you to make smaller films with more artistic ambition has been abandoned by the Mouse House, which favors using the massive profits off Marvel movies and live-action remakes to produce more of the same, including on Disney+. It is in fact an open question whether Disney hopes to wean people off going to the theaters altogether over the next one or two decades in favor of eventually putting all their product exclusively on Disney+, cutting out theatrical exhibitors. After all, they successfully conditioned many audiences to think theaters are only meant for “event” spectacles.

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Make no mistake, I am not suggesting Disney is a bad actor or doing something particularly unique in the current state of the industry—all the studios want their shared universes and a popular streaming service that can compete with Netflix in the new century. Disney is just the most successful at achieving it. Yet in achieving that success, there is almost no room on the studio’s spreadsheets to pay for daring original ideas, as it had when Disney produced and/or distributed to great success movies like Dead Poets SocietyPulp Fiction, and The Sixth Sense. Or even Scorsese’s passion projects like Kundun under Touchstone and Gangs of New York under Miramax.

Scorsese also has a passion project in theaters right now. It’s a poignant and visceral masterwork about organized crime, which is the subject the director is most famous for. It also features three major movie stars in Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino. All three of them are famous for playing iconic criminals in past movies, some directed by Scorsese and some not, and their new film, The Irishman, leans into that baggage to astonishing results. But in order to achieve that effect, Scorsese utilized de-aging technology, a pricey digital manipulation that Marvel uses regularly. In the case of The Irishman though, it raised the expected budget to over $150 million. That price tag is why Paramount got cold feet after initially developing the project with Scorsese.

After Paramount bowed out, the auteur, who is at his most commercially viable in the crime genre, could only find a home for his De Niro reunion at Netflix. As a consequence, 99 percent of the audience for The Irishman will only ever see it in their living rooms, but at least they’ll get to see it.

“For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art,” Scorsese wrote.

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And it is sad that studios have so successfully engineered moviegoers to only come to the theaters for the “event” films—to the point where the most successful studio refuses to produce anything but “events”—that an actual cinematic event like The Irishman cannot find anyone willing to back it but a streaming service. Studios have conditioned moviegoers to only come out for spectacle and leave everything else “for Netflix.” It isn’t only Marvel that has done this, but Marvel has led the way and it’s sadder still so many are angered by being asked to notice the obvious.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.