Deputy Culture Editor - Film and TV
Does Martin Scorsese have a point in coming after Marvel? Is it deserved?
It’s official, trash-talking has come to cinema. Compared to the smears and obscenities that the worlds of music and sport thrive upon, reproval in film circles has always appeared tame in comparison. From director Rian Johnson tweeting “Reitman? More like WRONG man” at Jason Reitman, to my personal favourite, Mark Kermode’s terse review of the Star Wars prequels - ”George Lucas couldn’t direct traffic”; film trash-talk has often been colourless.
Enter Martin Scorsese, film director, writer, producer, actor, historian, and general deified figure in the film community. For those unaware, Martin Scorsese came out last month and told British magazine Esquire that he didn’t really like the big blockbuster Marvel movies, such as The Avengers, Black Panther and Infinity War. In fact, he thought that they weren’t even really cinema, but were more like cinematic amusement parks. A chorus of film-makers rallied around him, much to the growing disdain of the many. They proceeded to double down, calling these movies everything from being despicable, cynical, to even sexless (Pedro Almodóvar does have very particular tastes, to be fair). What was more entertaining was the backlash. Director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films, James Gunn, came out and masturbatorily compared Marvel films to the classic Westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. Head of Marvel, Kevin Feige, continued this self-indulgence by pointing out that even though Marvel films don’t win awards, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t win the Best Director Oscar, so winning things doesn’t equate to merit. This is true, though I think the 46 Oscar nominations Hitchcock’s films received prove, if anything, the occasional accuracy of awards ceremonies in establishing value.
The general fan response to this debate was understandably being royally pissed off. Who cares what some old white guys think about what is cinema and what is not, and should we even be surprised? Does anyone see a Disney boardroom humming and hawing about who they need to direct Thor 4: Love and Thunder, to only then realise that the man they need is Ken Loach? Samuel L. Jackson articulated what most people were thinking in a gloriously succinct retort, saying, “not everyone likes (Scorsese’s) movies either”. On principle, Scorsese is obviously wrong - for all his genius, he does not have a monopoly on what constitutes "real cinema". In a later piece for The New York Times, he clarified his comments. He said Marvel films are made with “considerable talent and artistry”, but lack “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.”
It is incredibly easy to pick apart Scorsese’s position. His latest film, The Irishman, is out for three weeks before going exclusively on Netflix, a company more often called the bane of cinema than Marvel ever has been, but he has an incredibly important broader point. To be clear, I enjoy Marvel movies. When considering the blockbuster films that used to reign supreme (the names Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich may send shivers down your spine), superhero films are an astonishing improvement in mass entertainment.
But what filmmakers and actors are coming out in force to protest is not the people who use their skill to make these movies, or indeed the audience that can have as strong an emotional connection as any piece of art in their lives. It is, rather, an objection to how the major corporations are affecting the way people think about cinema. Walt Disney once said, “we don't make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” Could the heads of the various business arms attached to Disney really repeat this statement unironically? Disney is the 24th biggest business in the world and has made in excess of $8bn from box office alone so far this year (pre Frozen 2 and The Rise of Skywalker). However, box office figures are inaccurate for scale, as they do not account for the obscene money the company makes from its resorts, consumer products, broadcasting, or film distribution. In media revenue, Disney is now second only to Google.
Disney is a huge company, no news there. But that is exactly the problem that has many film-lovers restless; why would this ever change in the foreseeable future? What will the influence be if they continue to purchase all the successful film franchises and Disney-fy them for a long period of time? Despite the obvious artistry in Disney and Marvel movies, with a company the size of Disney there will be one incentive for those at the top: more. With this type of mind-blowing investment comes an inherent fear of risk, and instead a reliance on tried and tested money-making techniques. Stealing writer David Foster Wallace’s equation, the more money a film has, the worse it will be (hence the general drop-off point in quality in the third or fourth entry in a franchise). We are being weaned to see how much we can take. If people get used to every film being huge, fan-service visual extravaganzas, then over time the idea of intimate and unsettling films may seem silly. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the effects of what we do as consumers will decide what kind of future we will have, rather than the one we may want.
Maybe, with hindsight, the whole furore of the corruption of cinema by Marvel will be whittled down to be as ludicrous a threat that television turned out to be. For me, Orson Welles summed it up fifty years ago: “I hate Television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”