Image: Martin Scorsese in Hugo [Source: IMDB]
Martin Scorsese recently has been the subject of some controversy. Why? Because he dared to speak up unfavourably against the current cinematic climate dominated by Disney and more so by Marvel. Firstly let us recount his comments; I’m not going to quote every word Scorsese has said about this issue as he has said many, even writing himself to clarify his thoughts. So lets put it very straightforwardly – Scorsese said that he doesn’t like Marvel movies. “They aren’t for me”, claiming that they are bad for ‘cinema’ as he doesn’t believe they drive a message to the audience. Projecting themes and ideas through its subtext to gauge the audience emotionally but rather are closer now to theme park rides to excite and entertain superficially.
Image: Scorsese directing Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver [Source: IMDB]
Guess what…He’s right. Hold back the pitchforks and your Wolverine cosplays for a moment and let me tell you why he is right. The absolute core of this that will really illuminate the issue for you is that when Scorsese talks about ‘cinema’, he means something completely different to what mass audiences perceive. Scorsese talks about the boundless scope of imagination and creativity. He talks about the screen and projector that are as much a mirror as they are a microscope. He means ‘cinema’ in the grandest sense of the term, for it is and forever will be (as well as it is to him) Art.
“Marvel isn’t trying to be some fancy pompous artistic film in black and white starring some unknown actors from the french new wave glory days though” you are probably shouting, or at least something similar. Scorsese is no stranger to entertainment, hell most if not all of his movies are released to mass appeal and have been viewed by millions, many of which do not care for the subtext that Scorsese absolutely drowns into his films. But again, that does not mean Scorsese doesn’t know how to entertain.
But Scorsese doesn’t dismiss it in Marvel movies as something lesser. In fact, he has stated that he understands their appeal but yes likens that entertainment to a theme park ride. He is right of course, more and more in the current climate people journey less to the cinema and even less so for films that speak to something and want to challenge us or illuminate our minds. Instead, flocks of people turn out for the latest thrill fest whether it is Marvel, DC, Disney or a massive franchise. They come, sit down with their 3D glasses and for two hours consume while they are given all the little tricks of the “ride”. This is most evident in the newest wave of 4D screenings where they are as close to theme parks rides as possible, fans, sprays of water, scents and rocking seats. I’m sure Scorsese would turn his nose up at an invitation to such a screening.
But before I back up Scorsese as to why Marvel is more concerned with the theme park ride approach. Let me sidetrack for a moment by acknowledging that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not without its poignancy, there is a reason it connects deeper than Scorsese otherwise suggests. First, we have to acknowledge that the early part of the MCU just lacks any real substance at all, it is not until they get the ball rolling on the climax of the whole decade long build-up that we get the meaty feast of meaning to this narrative. Without going into too much of a long-form essay, I do believe Tony Stark exemplifies my previous point as well as the MCU journey echoing the same growth of character. From flashy, gimmick obsession to deeper personal integrity. Thanos as a whole brings a new element into the MCU that I feel was sorely needed beforehand, it gave deeper substance to the explosions, flying and quippy lines. As solo films go in the MCU, Infinity War is leagues above the rest purely down to the poetry of this scene:
There is a remarkable feeling to the poignancy of this moment, the score, the performance and it was felt by fans the world over. The villain just won but in a weird moment of satisfaction, we cannot help but emphasise with his struggle and realisation of victory. I could go on but one thing is clear Marvel films are not void of substance. However, I still agree with Scorsese. Take Endgame for example, that is a film that while did a superb job of gratifying the emotion of the audience, but took bold steps to stay the course of a drama, conveying human themes and experience. But where did the film finish, where was most of the budget and run time dedicated? To a monumental, eye-widening battle – bursting at the seams with special effects and more characters than it cared to even show more than once. Clearly, that is what most people will remember that film for and why they will return and fair enough, it is such a glorious indulgence of fandom and our journey with these characters on this story. But in the grand scheme of the culture, Scorsese asks what did that add?
You might argue that it will be remembered. I’d agree but ask yourself honestly, what is it exactly it will be remembered for. Because I know for a fact the answer to that question isn’t for being a mirror to our society (well perhaps maybe to its indulgence and turn away from deep stories), it certainly isn’t for the emotional laser beam it focuses in on each and every one of us (outside of making some fans cry that certain characters are no longer with us) and it certainly isn’t for making a grand statement of art. Instead, the answer is for putting billions of dollars behind big stars, big CGI and an even bigger story and bigger special effects. With the billions and billions of dollars, it made back as a testament to its theme park nature.
Image: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) hugs the previously lost Spiderman (Tom Holland) [Source: IMDB]
So yes, Scorsese is right. It does present a looming problem for ‘cinema’. Studios, filmmakers, films and more importantly the audience are turning their back on cinema as an art form. Instead, they collectively push the idea of the ‘ride’, investing more and more into that while the more artistic, vision focused and narratively full films struggle to not only find audiences and cinemas to show themselves. But struggle to even get made. What will the Oscars of the future look like? No more Romas, Godfathers, Lawrence of Arabias and so on. Instead, our best picture category will look like a long list of superhero characters churned out in another origin story or some hot directors new take on the breaking the record for most billions made on bankable idea.
I want to clarify lastly that again, these movies are not without their substance. The recent Joker is a testament to that and it is worth noting that all superheroes have their foundations in mythos. Which is intrinsically connected to the foundation of our societies. So even in their most flashy, gimmicky moments of pure indulgence of childlike wonder there is still merit to unpack and dissect. So perhaps what I’m trying to say is while Scorsese is absolutely correct, perhaps he needs to accept that superhero films arent anything different from the Westerns of cinema gone by. Which were equally dominating in the cultural landscape of cinema and could be equally as indulgent without substance. And yet there are some westerns that exist that stand tall as some of the best films ever made. So Scorsese could maybe sit down and for a moment accept that Marvel has got its finger on the pulse of society.