In Defence of… Martin Scorsese… and Marvel Studios.

Much has been written recently about Martin Scorsese’s remarks about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and his insistence that the films that comprise it are not cinema. The subject came up when he was speaking to Empire Magazine whilst promoting his new movie The Irishman

What started off as the standard conversation about his career and his new film, took an unusual turn when he was asked about the MCU. Scorsese replied;

I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” 

This seemingly off-handed remark caused a furious reaction throughout social media with many people criticising him, calling him elitist and not understanding the nature of cinema or the impact the MCU has had on people. This has been exasperated by comments made by Francis Ford Coppola who echoed Scorsese’s words and went further, calling Marvel Studios’ films ‘despicable.’  

The reaction has come from fans and filmmakers. James Gunn, the director of the two Guardians of the Galaxy films and the upcoming DC film Suicide Squad 2 tweeted;

Martin Scorsese is one of my 5 favourite living filmmakers. I was outraged when people picketed The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen the film. I’m saddened that he’s now judging my films in the same way.

While Samuel L. Jackson stated;

Films are films. You know, everybody doesn’t like his stuff either. I mean, we happen to, but everybody doesn’t.

Not everyone took offence, however. Robert Downey Jr., who did seem a little mystified by Scorsese’s definition of ‘cinema’, dismissed the radio host Howard Stern’s insistence that Scorsese was jealous of the success of the MCU, ‘Of course not, he’s Martin Scorsese,’ he said.  

Kevin Smith also defended both the MCU and Scorsese claiming: “Martin Scorsese is a genius. But to be fair, my entire film career — even prior to my film career — he’s been pretty much saying the same thing about action movies.” 
This is an important point. Prior to this recent uproar, was there anyone out there who believed Martin Scorsese would be a fan of this type of film? It’s not his opinion that upset people, it was the fact that he admitted it openly to the world at large. What is significant is the fact that he said it to Empire, a magazine known for promoting big-budget, populist movies.  

More recently, whilst speaking at the London Film Festival, Scorsese restated his views, but this time extended his criticism beyond just the MCU, something that was undoubtedly his intention from the beginning: 

“It’s not cinema, it’s something else. We shouldn’t be invaded by it. We need cinemas to step up and show films that are narrative films.” 

The concerns that Scorsese has are not confined to the MCU, but to the wider Hollywood scene at the moment and, by focusing solely on the MCU from the start, his message has got somewhat lost. The problem is not just Marvel, it’s DC, Star Wars, The Fast and the Furious franchise, the Transformers Franchise, the Disney ‘live’ action remakes and the general domination of big-budgeted high concept movies. It has been stated a lot in the last few years that it is better for the Hollywood studios to spend $300m on an almost sure-fire blockbuster that could gross over $1billion than $30m on a mid-budget film that may not make its money back.  Hollywood is show business after all. Their business may be movies but it is business all the same. (Of course, not all these films have mega-budgets – the recent Hellboy remake for example only cost $50million. It still slots into this sub-genre nicely however and so must be included).

Of course, this is not a new argument. Last year Terry Gilliam called superhero movies ‘bullshit.’ After the release of the well-received Wonder Woman, John Landis claimed he was ‘bored shitless,’ and in 2012 David Cronenberg said of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight series; “I don’t think they are making them an elevated art form.”

Going back further – in the December 1998 issue of Sight & Sound, the editorial stated; “Considering the sheer volume of American releases, to find there are only 18 movies that this magazine respects for artistic commitment is lamentable.” 

It is easy to dismiss these remarks as a simple difference in opinion between of an out-of-touch-elite and the rest of us, until you look at some of the films that S&S did find of artistic interest; The Big Lebowski, Scream 2, Saving Private Ryan, Out Of Sight, and There’s Something About Mary. These are not cold, soulless works of art designed to be admired by a chosen few, they are well-made mass entertainment which still stand the test of time and are loved by millions of cinephiles.

Scorsese’s claim that Marvel is not ‘cinema’ is certainly problematic and easily dismissed as elitist. Cinema since the silent days has relied on the spectacular and the thrilling. Watch Douglas Fairbanks running away from the authorities in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), or Cary Grant throwing himself to the ground whilst being chased by an aeroplane in North By Northwest (1959). These films are as much thrill rides as any Marvel movie and there is no question about them being ‘cinema’.

This definition of cinema aside, why has Scorsese made these claims?

Firstly, the reason they have attacked Marvel is obvious. The MCU is by far the most successful franchise in Hollywood history, grossing $22 billion at the international box office. Indeed, given that Hollywood relies more on international box office today than at any other time in history, the success of the MCU extends beyond the borders of the US and the English-speaking world and now dominates globally. Avengers: Endgame is the highest-grossing international hit of all time. Once upon a time box office was judged solely on US grosses. This is no longer the case. The MCU has a massive target on its back and, because of its success, it will always be singled out. 

But the truth is that the MCU, aside from being massively popular, it is also very important to people. An attack on the series is not just an attack on a genre, but on something that people have grown up with, not just in movie form but in the comic books that preceded them. For many people the recent success of comic book movies is something they were long aching for. Of course, there have been films based on comic books before – Superman (1978), Batman (1989) and Blade (1998) – but these have been few and far between. For every good one, there were many more that didn’t cut it – Spawn (1997), The Phantom (1996). There was also a 1977 made-for-TV Spiderman film which illustrates how little studio executives understood this genre. It wasn’t until Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, that studios started to take the possibility of this sub-genre seriously. The many years of hurt before these had a profound effect on these fans. 

The problem comes not with individual films, but from the sheer number of high concept films which are intended, not to ‘enlighten’ as Coppola put it, but to thrill. In 2019 alone, there are over 20 films all aimed at mass entertainment. They are films which are released widely, on the maximum number of screens and, if successful, they continue to fill these screens for weeks on end.  

These films included: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Aladdin, Captain Marvel, Spiderman: Far From Home, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, John Wick 2, Dumbo, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Alita Battle Angel, IT Chapter 2, Hellboy, Hobbs and Shaw, How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and we have Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, Terminator: Dark Fate, Frozen 2, The Aeronauts, and Jumanji: The Next Level to come. 

And this list doesn’t include the sometimes massively successful horror films that proliferate cinemas. All these films are, at their core, thrill rides, just as Scorsese says, however, this is not necessarily a fault. They are meant to entertain as vast an audience as possible and, if made well, they do. It should be noted that the thrill ride element is a coat hanger on which the suit is hung. The better the attire, the better the film and the more thrilling the films are. And as fans will tell you, there is a wide range of other elements within the films that can make each one distinct from the others: be it Thor: Raganok’s humour, Avengers: Endgame’s grief or Deadpool’s irreverence.  

Nevertheless this leaves very few available screens for other movies. With only 52 weeks in the year, the maths don’t add up. It’s easy to see why Avengers: Endgame was in more than 4000 screens for its first 23 days of release, however, the reboot of Hellboy, which was a massive disappointment, still took up over 3000 screens for the first two weeks of its release, at one point making only a $41 average per screen. This is a huge waste of cinema space, taking up seats that could be used elsewhere. 20 films a year times 2 weeks of 3000+ screens doesn’t leave many screens for anything else. And this is just the minimum. The more successful the film, the longer they can command the larger number of screens. 

This is not a criticism of Marvel or any other franchise, and neither is it necessarily a criticism of the studios behind them – it is a business after all and they have to go where the ticket sales are.  

But it also means that the films that the likes of Scorsese, Coppola, Cronenberg or Gilliam make and enjoy, have little opportunity to find an audience. The audience has changed and the types of films that used to be successful are not getting the breathing space anymore. I covered this in my article about the demise of Filmstruck and the future of streaming (here). In that article, I asked the question: 

So what does the future provide for cinephiles now that FilmStruck is gone?” 

This is the question that Scorsese et al are now asking about the big screen. The concern is a real one, one that really needs to be addressed, although I’ve no idea how this can be accomplished. The studios have a winning and very bankable formula and they will continue using it until it stops working. Netflix and Amazon Prime may be one route but all this does is move the audience for mid-budget films from the cinema to the home. This is not what fans of cinema want. Also, Netflix is going to be seriously challenged in the future by Disney and their forthcoming streaming service which will certainly call for a strategic rethink on their part.

It is a battle worth fighting but going after the MCU is the wrong approach. The fan base is too loyal and the films are too important to this fan base. It also means that the wider argument is lost in the furore. These legendary directors may not like Marvel – that’s fine despite what many on social media believe – but if they want to illustrate the problems they face, then they need to use a different method. True, they have been saying the same thing for many years without success, but this current approach has just caused a backlash which is obscuring the issue. There needs to be an outlet for all types of films, not just fans for mass entertainment and superheroes. This is not controversial but attacking Marvel is making it so. When we think of our favourite films they are often the types that are being crowded out now and it would be a shame if a generation of cinema-goers miss out at the varied output that many of us were privileged to experience. 

All we need now is to find a way to change the system without impinging on the entertainment of others, without the furore it has caused so far. Not as Elitist versus The Rest of Us, but as film fans wanting the best and most varied cinematic landscape there is.