The most unexpected beef of 2019 — Martin Scorsese vs the Marvel Universe — continued on Monday with The Irishman and Goodfellas auteur firing off another salvo this time via a New York Times Op-Ed piece. In the lengthy article, Scorsese frames the phenomenally successful Marvel brand as an economic enemy of cinema and a threat to its artistic values.
While the headline of the essay (“Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain”) sounds potentially conciliatory, the only thing the filmmaker offered Marvel Studios in the article was disdain and a bit of backhanded praise. The new volley of criticism by the Oscar-winning producer, director, and writer picks up on his October comments in an Empire interview in which he said Marvel films are more akin to theme parks than cinema. The ensuing dust-up has included responses from Francis Ford Coppola, Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr. as well as thousands of fans on social media.
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The NYT piece is certain to reinvigorate the social media debate that followed the Empire interview and widen the debate of the artistic value of the Marvel Studios content that has dominated Hollywood box office charts for a decade. The ongoing animus from the revered elder statesman of New York cinema has been an awkward credibility challenge to the Playa Vista, California, superhero factory that has been churning out success.
In January, the Disney-owned Marvel Studios scored its first best picture Oscar nomination for Black Panther and this summer it released Avengers: Endgame, which now stands as the highest-grossing film in Hollywood history (unadjusted for inflation).
Scorsese’s criticism isn’t rooted in particular Marvel movies or screen specifics of any kind. He admits that he’s never been able to watch a Marvel Studios film for any meaningful duration. It’s the overarching mythology of the Marvel movies and their formulaic approach that raises the ire of the old-school devotee of auteur theory.
“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.”
Scorsese’s view of cinema is defined by auteur theory but Marvel emphasizes a campus approach to filmmaking. Directors are in service of the brand and their approach to the mythology defers to a higher power: Marvel’s recently promoted Chief Creative Officer Kevin Feige, the chief architect of the shared universe that connects all 23 Marvel films released to date. Those 23 films since 2008 have yielded close to $23 billion in global box office. Remarkably, all 23 of the brand’s releases have opened No. 1 at the domestic box office.
The filmmaker, who will turn 77 this month, conceded that his viewpoint is on the far side of a generation gap that separates him from Marvel’s global fanbase of moviegoers. Scorsese took the time to praise the talent of Marvel Studios storytellers even as he dismissed their work as a callow exercise in pure commercialism.
“Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. 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. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.”
The interconnected nature of Marvel films and their use of archetypal characters, melodramatic plots, and consequence-free peril taken from eight decades of Marvel Comics, reduces the bombastic box-office heroics to something artistically shrill and economically hazardous to the future of cinema, Scorsese notes.
Interestingly, Scorsese hasn’t extended his criticism to other big-screen brands that also embrace formula, such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Alien, or The Terminator franchises. Those brands were launched, respectively, by filmmakers George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron, a peerage whom Scorsese presumably holds in higher regard than the Marvel Studios creative teams. Scorsese hasn’t seen Black Panther, Iron Man, or Guardians of the Galaxy but he confidently classified the whole lot as interchangeable dreck anyway.
“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. Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.”
In summation, the winner of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award said he looks at Marvel Studios films as an enemy of cinema and a threat to the art form. Instead of expressing this with outrage he presented it in the resigned tones of a bitter eulogy. The franchise approach to films, Scorsese posits, is essentially smothering his beloved cinema.
“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.”
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