Martin Scorsese is one of cinema’s greatest living icons. Over the past 50 years, he’s directed 24 feature films, 17 documentaries and racked up $1.9bn at the global box office. He’s also got four Golden Globes, two Emmys and an Oscar to his name. His legacy is undeniable. But sadly, his comments about superhero films have sparked more debate over the past month than much of his recent work.
Speaking to Empire magazine last month, the 78-year-old filmmaker said Marvel movies were “not cinema”. He claimed he’d tried to watch them, out of curiosity, but couldn’t stomach the spandex-clad Avengers or Doctor Strange’s artful mysticism. They were “theme park” films that couldn’t convey “emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”.
Now, that’s his opinion, and a lot of people agree with him (Francis Ford Coppola, Ken Loach to name a few), but a great many disagree. James Gunn, who directed Guardians Of The Galaxy, spoke of being “saddened” when he read his idol’s withering criticism. Samuel L. Jackson – who appeared in Goodfellas – poured scorn on Marty’s opinions: “That’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either.”
The story trundled along for a few weeks, with more big names adding fuel to the fire. Jennifer Aniston suggested comic book properties were “diminishing” the industry (really, Jen, with your track record?), before John Favreau side-stepped the question and said the nine-time Oscar nominee had earned the right to shoot his mouth off. Ant-Man star Paul Rudd wisely declined to comment.
It might have ended there. Another story that faded to a distant corner of the internet. Maybe brought up on The Graham Norton Show in a few years’ time, but never mentioned in a think-piece again. However, Scorsese had other ideas.
This week, in a thoughtfully written op-ed for The New York Times, the auteur doubled down on his comments. “I gave an interview to Empire magazine,” he began, as though 20 minutes in a chilly hotel room was a gift of unknowable value. “I’ve tried to watch a few [Marvel movies] and… they’re not for me,” he wrote. Scorsese went on to put forth his full argument, the one he felt was lost in the preceding melee of ‘he said, she said’ reportage.
- Read more: “Nothing is at risk”: Martin Scorsese elaborates on earlier criticism of Marvel films in op-ed
One of Scorsese’s main arguments is that Marvel movies lack “revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger”. There was nothing “at risk”. He’s right that the MCU makes use of a tried and tested format – a cataclysmic event occurs, heroes (at their lowest ebb) band together to solve the problem – but lots of filmmakers do the same. If Scorsese took the time to watch his own filmography – which he surely has – he might just see some recurring themes too. You know, gritty, American crime dramas. He’s also made a whopping 14 features set in New York City. That’s more than half his output.
Later in the piece, Scorsese claims the movie industry has “steadily eliminated risk” and instead focuses on “perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption”. Again, he’s right about the industry, but not about Marvel.
It is clearly beyond Scorsese’s comfortable mindset to understand how pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into a superhero movie with a black lead (Black Panther) might constitute a risk. Nor can he imagine any potential anxiety caused by giving $152m to the studio’s first female-fronted picture (Captain Marvel). Scorsese doesn’t recognise comic book fans’ ingrained apathy towards any story not centred around a white man.
It’s perhaps to be expected from a baby boomer whose films often fail to feature any lines for women. According to a recent study, only 29 per cent of Scorsese’s movies pass the Bechdel Test, whereby two women must talk to each other about something other than a bloke. In The Irishman, out on Friday (8 November), Anna Paquin has a grand total of one line. In a three-and-a-half-hour film. When questioned about this at a recent press conference, the director brushed off the question and called it “a waste of time”. Diversity, it seems, is a problem for lesser filmmakers.
Perhaps Scorsese’s inability to acknowledge Hollywood’s uneven playing field stems from his youth. “I know that if I were younger,” he admits. “I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself.” But as it is, the New York City native grew up with a different type of cinema. Scorsese writes that the filmmakers he loves and respects made films about “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation.” Later, he lists these filmmakers and – surprise, surprise – they are all white and male. Sam Fuller, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Kenneth Anger, Jean-Luc Godard, Don Siegel and Alfred Hitchcock. Fabulous artists in their own right, of course, but this is a list written by a man in love with the past.
To clarify, it’s completely fine for Scorsese not to like Marvel movies. As he says: “it’s a matter of personal taste”. But ‘I don’t like something because it’s different to how it was in my day’ is a classic Grandad point of view. One ill-befitting a man of his talents.
Ultimately, Scorsese’s backwards-looking mindset has led him to make a 210-minute movie about septuagenarian gangsters, funded by a streaming service he then had the gall to criticise pre-release. However, that’s not the most frustrating part of this nonsense – or the most arrogant.
The crux of this story stems from the director’s original comments to Empire that Marvel Studios doesn’t produce “cinema” or “art”. Let’s take things back a step, shall we.
Here’s The Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “art”: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”. When Scorsese says Marvel movies are “not art”, what he means is that they are not ‘good art’. Thereby arguing that if you like Marvel, you don’t appreciate cinema in the same way that he (an intellectual) does. He doesn’t say that, though, because he wishes to present his statement as a fact, not opinion. Again, it’s fine for Scorsese to think this, but he doesn’t get to express it in a way that denigrates other people as ‘lesser’ intellectually. It is arrogance in the extreme.
For the most part, the New York Times piece is sensitively written and well thought out. He’s trying to engage with his critics, rather than ignore them, which he should be praised for. There are things he’s right about: blockbuster culture squeezing out indie pictures; a lack of originality in franchise movies; reduction in cinema footfall.
But the things he is wrong about, which are mirrored in his work, only serve to highlight his age. For Scorsese, diversity and inclusion don’t seem to matter in art as much as his hoity-toity sense of integrity.