Why Martin Scorsese is Still (Mostly) Wrong About Marvel Movies
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
Martin Scorsese wrote a thoughtful and earnest article for the New York Times where he argued that Marvel movies are inferior cinema and they're crowding out better movies from coming to theaters. Unfortunately, much of what he's saying is either wrong or more complicated than he says.
Martin Scorsese recently started a huge debate about Marvel in the film community when he claimed that Marvel films were "not cinema". Instantly, high-profile people started weighing in on both sides, with some, like Francis Ford Coppola, legendary filmmaker of The Godfather, defending Scorsese, and others, like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn and Disney President Bob Iger criticizing his comments. So, early today, Martin Scorsese wrote a response in the New York Times defending his statement.
In the article, Martin Scorsese makes three main points:
1. Cinema is supposed to be complex, character-driven, challenge the audience, and take risks. Marvel movies don't do that.
2. Marvel's spectacle-based, "theme park ride" style films are crowding out other, better films from being played in theaters.
3. With no room for smaller films there will be no room for the next generation of auteur filmmakers to create the kind of films that are the best cinema.
Of course, this is not the first time that legendary filmmakers have claimed superhero hero films are ruining cinema. But this is the first time a legendary director like Martin Scorsese has taken the time to make a well-reasoned argument against Marvel as an op-ed in the New York Times. This is a well-reasoned argument by a legendary filmmaker of whom I'm a big fan. And I agree with his love for cinema as an art form and his observations of how cinema's funding mechanisms are changing. However, his claim that Marvel is responsible for the degradation of the art form is simply not accurate. That's true whether you're talking about from a historical perspective or a philosophical perspective.
Because I love and respect Martin Scorsese, and because many of the issues that he raises are ones that many in the industry agree with, I decided to write this article to respond to Martin Scorsese's points. Hopefully he reads this and can gain a greater hope for the future of the industry we both love, and a greater appreciation for how Marvel films are an amazing and important part of that future. But we'll tackle his points one by one.
1. WHAT MAKES GOOD CINEMA?
1a. Are films supposed to be about character more than spectacle? Well, that's a good question. But the history of film is complex on that issue. Audiences have historically rewarded both, and particularly reward films that offer both at the same time.
When people first invented film, they didn't agree what they were going to use it for. Cinema was originally, first and foremost, a technology. It was images arranged in a sequence so that they appeared to move. It was a new way of doing something. But nobody entirely knew what that something was it would be doing. Some people saw it as the new photograph; after all, that's what it technically was--a photograph that moved. So they created documentaries. Most people thought they were a novelty act--a spectacle, So they set it up in theme parks to wow the audience with the novelty of moving pictures. Some people saw it as the new theater, a medium primarily with which to tell stories. Fairly quickly, the "movies as theater" became the dominant way people wanted to watch films, hence the construction of "movie theaters" around the country. This was the point which films became Martin Scorsese's ideal form of cinema. They became about stories and characters that identified with and explored themselves through exploring those characters.
However, "films as spectacle" never totally went away. First, it was the introduction of sweeping three-hour epics like The Birth of A Nation and Gone with the Wind, then, when cinemas wanted to lure people away from TV, they tried to awe people with the spectacle of color film and wide screens (TV was black and white and had full screens). Then of course, came the blockbuster. As Barry Langford wrote in Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond (pg 244), with the introduction of the blockbuster with films like Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, film that was specifically designed to awe rather than frighten, or somehow or other merely entertain, became a Hollywood staple. It had solidified itself as the most popular form of film to mass audience.
Film as spectacle was now the most popular film. But that didn't make them uninterested in character development. It just meant the character development was in the service of worship; it was about character you aspired to be like and imitate. It wasn't until James Cameron's film, Titanic, that blockbusters went from the most successful kind of Hollywood film to basically the only kind of Hollywood film. Titanic, with it's broad themes and characters, and ridiculously expensive special effects, quickly became a cultural phenomenon and the highest-grossing film of all time. This record wouldn't be broken until James Cameron broke it himself with Avatar, which also pushed broad themes, broad characters, and mind-blowing special effects. To Hollywood, the lesson was clear: this is the kind of film we need to be making all of the time. This meant that Hollywood stopped financing mid-budget films like the kind Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola want to make and only made big-budget and low-budget films. It was at this same time that superhero films started taking off. Superheroes were the perfect vehicle for Hollywood's new focus, with their broad themes and characters, inherent spectacle, and established fanbases. Because of this, superheroes have often been used as a scapegoat for this new Hollywood modus operandi, which would exist with or without them.
So is film as spectacle an inferior form of cinema? Audiences have always resoundingly said "no", decade after decade, year after year. Spectacle cinema is and always has been an important part of the reason people go to the movies. And there's nothing wrong with that. That should be celebrated, not condemned.
1b. However, you might be able to argue that if a movie is only spectacle it is a lower form of cinema. But is that true of Marvel movies?
No. It's not.
It's true that Marvel Movies are often cheesy popcorn flicks that refuse to go to deep enough places. Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man II, Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and The Wasp, and my favorite wasted opportunity, Captain America: Civil War. However, there have also been many great Marvel movies about complex characters and themes and taking narrative and artistic risks. Iron Man gave us Tony Stark, a character as rich and complex in the Marvel saga as any that Martin Scorsese has created. The Avengers made a huge gamble by bringing together four separate franchises together in one movie for the first time. While most films use humor to subvert drama, Guardians of the Galaxy made the brilliant artistic choice to have a gag-a-minute film that would abruptly use drama to subvert the humor, making each dramatic and tear-jerking moment feel like an unexpected gut punch. Iron Man, Black Panther, and Captain America: Winter Soldier have had some of the best commentary about America's place in the world and the war on terror seen on film. Marvel took risks for representation in Black Panther and Captain Marvel. And Marvel took a gigantic risk to tell one story to pay off over 10 years and 23 movies. To say that Marvel films aren't about story or character or risk-taking is like saying there aren't any good Westerns if you ignore Stagecoach, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and Unforgiven. This is why I sympathize when people like Bob Iger say they suspect that Martin Scorsese has never seen a Marvel movie, although it's probably more correct to say he's only seen the wrong ones.
There has always been a tension in films between story and spectacle. But they don't have to be mutually exclusive. And Marvel--at its best--is a shining example of that.
2. ARE MARVEL FILMS CROWDING OUT OTHER MOVIES?
Regardless of whether you like Marvel films or not, it would be a shame if that was the only kind of movie that got made. So, is that happening?
No. No it’s not.
Ironically, Scorsese himself proves that blockbusters aren't crowding out complex character dramas from theaters. Look merely at the past few weeks: The Joker, an arthouse, twisted character drama, based on Martin Scorsese's own style, has dominated the box office since its release, crushing each blockbuster spectacle that has come its way, including Gemini Man, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and the highly hyped Terminator: Dark Fate. Martin Scorsese's own The Irishman sold out multiple shows at it's limited theatrical release. Unrelated to Scorsese, but still related to this argument, Parasite, a South Korean satire-horror about class/social divides has been broke box office records in its US debut. Marvel movies themselves disprove this point as well. Every time someone has tried to copy Marvel’s “cinematic universe” formula, such as with Universals Dark Universe and Warner Brothers DCEU it has been a disaster; this has largely been credited to these copycat franchises’s lackluster stories.
So why won't many theaters show Martin Scorsese's The Irishman? The answer is easy and has already been covered: because The Irishman is a Netflix movie and Netflix won't wait the customary 90 days after a theatrical release to release it on its streaming platform. That's it. That's the whole story. It has nothing to do with Marvel or blockbuster films. It has to do with Movie Theaters being threatened by the new business model of Netflix and The Irishman getting caught in the middle.
Martin Scorsese does make a very good point here that the Netflix conflict illustrates: Hollywood is mostly done funding mid-budget films. The days Hollywood studios making their main business plan to fund a bunch of mid-budget risky films and hope that enough of those do well that you can make their bottom line needs are over; they have switched almost exclusively over to tentpole movies. However, that's not because Hollywood supplied it until the audience demanded it; but because audiences kept demanding it until Hollywood supplied it. Most audiences prefer blockbusters to risky indie films, both for taste and practical reasons. But that doesn’t mean Martin Scorsese's preferred movies aren’t getting made. This fall alone we’re getting Marriage Story, Jojo Rabbit, The Lighthouse, Honey Boy, Queen and Slim, The Two Popes, The Banker, Motherless Brooklyn, and A Hidden Life, in addition to Martin Scorsese’s own The Irishman. Many of these films have been getting rave reviews from critics and many of them have been doing quite well financially. The funding for these movies is simply coming from other places. Netflix and Amazon other streaming services are investing more and more into making the kind of content Martin Scorsese is looking for. (And given how well The Irishman is doing, they will likely fund Scorsese's next project as well.) These may not be the people Martin Scorsese is used to getting money from or necessarily wants to host his material. But the industry is always changing. What matters is the stories are still being told and people are still watching them.
3. WILL THIS THREATEN FUTURE FILMMAKERS?
Also no. A very clear no.
It’s flat-out wrong to say that this era of blockbusters is going to shut out the next generation of young, auteur filmmakers. This era has given some of the best opportunities for auteur filmmakers there's ever been--particularly for women and people of color. Two black filmmakers of racial justice films, Ryan Coogler and Ava Duvernay, got hired to write tentpole summer blockbusters (Ryan Coogler: Creed and Black Panther; Ava Duvernay: A Wrinkle in Time and New Gods). Taika Waititi was plucked from indie fame to direct Thor: Ragnarok. Two female filmmakers--Cathy Yan and Chloe Zhao--were plucked from their career of basically one (Cathy) or two (Chloe) obscure indie films to then be catapulted to national fame by being picked direct next year's Bird's of Prey, and The Eternals respectively.
But what good is it for these creators to get opportunities if blockbusters is all they ever get to make? Well, they aren’t. On the contrary, these gigantic movies give them a greater platform with which to get money for their risker passion projects, like Taika Waititi is with his new "anti-hate satire" film Jojo Rabbit about a young boy in Nazi Germany who's imaginary friend is Hitler, and his next project Next Goal Wins, a sports dramedy based on a documentary. Cathy Yan's next project after Birds of Prey is Sour Hearts, an indie film about the Asian-American immigrant experience. Chloe Zhao's next project after The Eternals is Nomadland, based on the book by the same name.
I love both Martin Scorsese films and Marvel films. Yet, it seems like many people can't enjoy both. Why is it that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jodie Foster can't seem to see how complex and valuable films like Marvel's are?
One thing I've observed overtime is a strong bias against hero stories. People tend to see hero stories as fluffy and shallow. By constrast, many of those same people see stories that deconstruct a flawed character to be complex and meaningful.
If you look at the filmographies of people like Scorsese, Coppola, and Foster, much of their work is built around movies that deconstruct or tear down characters rather than build them up. Scorsese films primarily are interested in being deconstructive; they take something or someone that you think is really cool and then tear them down. He deconstructs the mob in Goodfellas, sports heroes in Raging Bull, the rich in The Wolf of Wall Street, and Christianity in Silence. These films start out impressing you with the protagonist's talent, charisma, wealth, brotherhood, and so on, and then show how their flaws ultimately prove to be their downfall. Francis For Coppola gave us these kinds of deconstructive character dramas like Patton, The Godfather, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now. Jodie Foster, when she directed films, made her characters objects of sympathy rather than admiration, like Little Man Tate, Home For the Holidays, and The Beaver.
Marvel films do the exact opposite. They start out with characters who are arrogant and self-centered like Tony Stark, Thor, Doctor Strange, or Star Lord and then show how they can be redeemed through acts of heroism. Both of these are complex and rich stories to tell, but one inspires people with ideals worth believing in and the belief that they can achieve them, and the other does not. This is what people respond to in hero stories. And this is why hero stories consistently outsell any kind of movie that is played. People argue that this may be what people like but it's not actually good for them. But that claim is a known falsehood. A good friend of mine shared with me how when he say Captain America wielding Thor's hammer made him want to be a better man. This is backed up in psychology, which shows experiencing stories about admirable people makes you want to be admirable yourself.
I hope that legendary filmmakers lose their bias against superhero films someday. I hope that people like Martin Scorsese can see in these stories rich and complex characters who, though flawed, through their example, inspire us to be better.
Just like Martin Scorsese always has for me.