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Martin Scorsese vs Marvel: a tale of two different cinematic perspectives

At a time when studios are afraid of investing substantial amounts of money in films without a guaranteed audience, it’s time to ditch the snobbery towards popular films

In an interview with Empire magazine in late 2019, the legendary director Martin Scorsese was asked for his opinion on the Marvel movies that have dominated mainstream filmgoing over the past decade. Scorsese, with an audible sigh, responded: “I tried, you know? But it’s not cinema.” He went on to state that, “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.”

To side with Scorsese over Marvel is to make a conscious choice about how one regards the art of cinema

Scorsese’s characteristically candid and thoughtful comments led to what might euphemistically be called lively debate, not least after he doubled down in a New York Times editorial in which he railed against the safe and formulaic nature of films in which there were, in the words of Radiohead, “no alarms and no surprises”. Broadly speaking, those who publicly supported Scorsese were older and more established filmmakers such as Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola, and those who dissented were younger figures who did not wish to risk the wrath of the all-powerful Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. In many cases, they may have hoped to work for him.

An irritated Feige, trademark baseball cap firmly in place – because one imagines a focus group told the multimillionaire producer that baseball caps spell fun, accessibility and an Everyman quality – testily called Scorsese’s criticism “unfortunate”, and said:

Everybody has a different definition of cinema. Everybody has a different definition of art. Everybody has a different definition of risk. Some people don’t think it’s cinema. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to repeat that opinion. Everyone is entitled to write op-eds about that opinion, and I look forward to what will happen next.

He ended with either a promise, or a threat: “In the meantime, we’re going to keep making movies.”

The matter rested uneasily until this week, when Scorsese decided to reignite the debate in the context of an essay praising the director Federico Fellini. Without naming Marvel, he railed against how “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content’”, and caustically observed that “content” has become a business term for all moving images:

A David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode… it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is ‘suggested’ by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?

It seems as if the cinema of Scorsese and his peers is an endangered species

It was possible in 2019, and is again possible in 2021, to criticise the now 78-year-old Scorsese for being detached from the industry that has given him a career for decades. His highest-grossing film is The Wolf of Wall Street, which made $392 million worldwide: an impressive amount, but a fraction of what a mainstream blockbuster would expect to make, and Scorsese’s film was still a big-budget star vehicle for a major A-list actor that needed to make a decent profit at the box office to keep its backers happy. By way of contrast, Avengers: Endgame, the penultimate Marvel film to be released at the cinema before the pandemic, grossed $2.8 billion, which made it the highest-grossing film ever made. The only thing that the two films have in common is their three-hour length and the presence of the actor Aaron Lazar in small roles in both. Otherwise, they may as well exist in entirely different universes. As, of course, they do.

To side with Scorsese over Marvel and their ilk is to make a conscious choice about how one regards the art of cinema. Although many of Scorsese’s films are gloriously entertaining, they are often difficult and violent exercises in moral ambivalence and Catholic guilt, and, at their most demanding, delve into questions of spirituality with a fierce passion that is seldom found elsewhere in contemporary mainstream English-language cinema. They mostly receive R or 18-ratings, meaning that they are intended solely for adults, and have attracted vast amounts of critical respect over the years, to say nothing of awards.

What they are not is populist or easy. On the few occasions that Scorsese has attempted to make a more generic film, as with The Colour of Money or Cape Fear, the results have been notably less distinguished or impressive than his other work.  All the same, the film that won him his much-longed for Best Director Oscar, The Departed, remains a hugely enjoyable anomaly in his career, being, in his words, “the first movie I’ve done with a plot”.

The chances of Scorsese being asked to direct anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU as it styles itself, are on a par with his accepting such an offer. Yet his thoughtful and pointed rejection of their merits stands in contrast to their enduring success at the box office, as well as the general warmth of the critical reception to each release. Announcing that one doesn’t enjoy such successful and popular films marks one out as a snob, who looks down on mainstream entertainment as somehow vulgar. Just as the Star Wars films and their imitators swept away the complex, downbeat cinema of the Sixties and Seventies, from which Scorsese and others emerged, so Marvel and their offerings have now dominated twenty-first century cinema, or, to give them their more fitting nomenclature, movies.

Studios are afraid of investing substantial amounts of money in films without a guaranteed audience

And those movies have been enormously successful, all 22 of them to date. (Many more are on their way.) They have introduced audiences to larger-than-life characters such as Iron Man, Black Widow, Black Panther, Captain America, Thor and my own favourite, the Downton Abbey-loving Happy Hogan, and given some excellent actors work, although it is hard not to forget Scorsese’s pained observation that they are doing “the best they can under the circumstances”. At times, they have been thoroughly enjoyable within the confines of the genres in which they exist. One thinks of Taika Waititi’s loose, uproariously funny Thor: Ragnarok, or the surprisingly subversive Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which played with the tropes of Seventies conspiracy thrillers, even down to the casting of Robert Redford as the film’s villain.

But amidst the occasional gem, there has been an awful, awful lot of dross. The average Marvel film, for the uninitiated, contains a diverse assortment of characters, all of whom are blessed with heroic abilities that will enable them not merely to save the world but the universe, pitted against whichever snarling villain has been brought in for the purposes of the film. (Addressing this deficiency in interesting antagonists, only partially remedied by the all-powerful and genocidal Thanos, Feige commented: “It always starts with what serves the story the most and what serves the hero the most … a big criticism of ours is that we focus on the heroes more than the villains, I think that’s probably true.”) Over the course of many hours, the bickering protagonists must find some artefact or object that will save humanity, before the inevitable cornucopia of special effects and blaring music bludgeon the audience into cowed submission.

The films are colourful, and noisy, and have moments of wit and excitement within them, along with many longueurs and moments of repetition. They also pay lip service to hot-button issues of diversity, with the Black Panther film attracting plaudits for being the first major superhero film to feature a mainly black cast and African-themed subject, and the forthcoming Eternals boasting openly gay and deaf characters, although it will not, as was initially rumoured, include a transsexual superhero. It is presumably mere coincidence that the Eternals’ foes are known as the Deviants, given the largely sexless world that is created on screen; a chaste kiss is about the extent of the eroticism displayed to date.

The major female characters, such as Black Widow and Captain Marvel, are much praised, on and offscreen, for being strong and inspirational role models, although the tightly fitting costumes that they are clad in offer an entirely different source of inspiration to the hormonal teenage boys who make up a substantial, and vocal, part of their audience. And meanwhile, as Feige vocally stresses the company’s inclusive and woke credentials, his colleague Ike Perlmutter, chairman of Marvel Entertainment, became one of Donald Trump’s most generous and consistent donors.

There have always been silly and mindless mainstream films, and until relatively recently, they have co-existed with more intelligent and cerebral pictures. Yet now, with the future of the industry in crisis, it seems as if the cinema of Scorsese and his peers is an endangered species, with increasingly fearful studios afraid of investing substantial amounts of money in films without a guaranteed audience. Meanwhile, the Marvel and Disney behemoth, which, pre-pandemic, dominated cinemagoing – in 2019, their films earned 33 per cent of all revenue at the American and Canadian box office – remains the closest that the business has to a guaranteed means of salvation when cinemas reopen.

The Marvel films are celebrated as the life support system of a beleaguered industry

Little wonder that the complaints often made at the beginning of the Marvel imperial phase – that they treated actors poorly; that they stifled the visions of individual directors if they contrasted with the Marvel brand; and that they were penny-pinching – are seldom heard any longer, publicly at least. Instead, the films are celebrated as the life support system of a beleaguered industry, which help keep people visiting multiplex cinemas and buying popcorn and hot dogs. Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese is only able to make his expensive, personal films with the support of companies such as Netflix and Apple, which themselves work on a business model dominated by the algorithm-driven “content” that he so eloquently rails against. He has acknowledged, not without some self-awareness, that “this has been good for filmmakers, myself included”.

There are many things that a great film can do. It can transport audiences to past worlds that they could never hope to visit, or imaginary universes rich in elegant or astonishing detail. It can tell a story of epic proportions with a cast of thousands, or, by concentrating on the minute workings of the emotions playing on a human face in close-up, cause an audience of complete strangers to weep alongside one another. Yet what every great film needs is a spirit of passion and of excitement animating it.

One looks at the empty sound and fury of the MCU, with its cold calculation of the likely price that can be obtained for each film’s plastic toy tie-ins and carefully market-researched awareness as to how each particular story beat or character development will play in the major global markets, and feels dispirited. It is all too easy to decide that, if this is to be the future of the cinemagoing experience, sitting at home, re-watching Scorsese’s masterpieces, will be infinitely preferable to whatever dross is polluting the big screens.

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