If you keep up with the world of movies you have undoubtedly heard Martin Scorsese’s recent take on the Marvel franchise. In an interview with Empire Magazine the acclaimed director was commenting on the state of the industry when he said this about the Marvel movies:
“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.”
Scorsese’s comments spread like a wildfire stirring up a wide range of critical responses. And the buzz won’t go away. Since then he has stood by his comments and most recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times clarifying his position (you can read it HERE). It goes without saying the words from such a celebrated filmmaker carry a lot of weight. But it’s also obvious that the MCU has a huge presence in the modern day movie culture. So what do we make of it all?
Not to be a fence-straddler but Scorsese is both right and wrong. Many of his concerns are valid and those who enjoy smaller and more original independent movies are finding it harder to see them on the big screen. The truth is today’s movie landscape is saturated with big-budget franchises. As Scorsese points out, there are far fewer independent theaters than there were ten years ago. This leaves many filmmakers with limited options for showing their movies.
Scorsese is also right when he states “there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination.” On the surface this may sound like a snobbish thing to say, but it comes from a genuine concern over the future of cinema. Many franchise films do feel like studio processed entertainment, meaning they are crafted for easy audience consumption and maximum box office returns. The “elimination of risk” he speaks of is exhibited in the familiar formulas these movies routinely employ (this is especially true for MCU movies). And as audiences flock to these films the riskier and (again) more original non-studio pictures are being squeezed out of the multiplex.
Scorsese also takes a shot at the supply and demand argument; that theaters and studios are just giving the people what they want. But there is truth to that. The reason theater chains are showing the latest MCU movie on ten screens is because the demand is that high. And in many ways these superhero event films are keeping some theater chains afloat. But Scorsese’s perspective shouldn’t be brushed off. It makes sense that if audiences are only fed one type of cinema entertainment that’s what they’re going to want more of.
So Scorsese isn’t trying to pick a fight with Marvel or look down on those who love big franchise movies. His worries are centered around the growing inability of smaller films to reach big screen audiences. And lesser access to these movies inevitably leads to a lesser appreciation for them. That leaves huge franchise movies to define the big screen experience for the many who are content to let them. I’m with Marty on this. As someone who lives in a smaller market, I see first-hand how difficult it is to get certain movies in our area. Now compare that to how many local screens a new Spider-Man movie shows on.
But where Scorsese goes wrong is in uttering the three words “that’s not cinema”. These are the words that riled so many and rightfully so. The problem with Marty’s statement is that it reveals a very narrow view of cinema. And while he tries hard to acknowledge the talents of those both in front and behind the cameras, it would be hard not to take his comment as at least a small slight.
Here’s the thing, many fans of the MCU could use Scorsese’s own parameters to show Marvel movies are indeed cinema. Emotional connections, deep family tensions, dramatic stakes, well-defined characters full of contradiction and complexity, good versus evil and the gray area in between. These are just a few of the things that have drawn millions to Marvel’s sprawling inter-connected universe. It’s also why the majority of critics (whether I agree with them or not) give many of these films high marks. Yes, their paths to the screen are heavily vetted, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful stories being told and visual artistry on display.
Think of the great days of classic 1940’s film noir. While it’s impossible to lump all noir together, many of those movies used the same ingredients: hard-boiled heroes, mysterious femme fatales, low lighting, deep shadows, and many of the same themes. Of course we (along with Scorsese) would consider those films “cinema“. What about the great wave of 1950’s sci-fi? They too could clash with Scorsese’s guidelines but are most certainly cinema.
It’s true, we’ve never seen anything quite like the MCU. But that hardly disqualifies it from being considered as cinema. Saying Marvel films lack some specific level of creative heft to be counted not only dilutes the meaning of cinema but makes it sound like a pretentious and self-congratulatory club reserved only for those who meet standards created by its members.
Do I wish more modern audiences knew the works of Bresson, Truffaut, Bergman and Fellini? More than anything. Would I like to see the movies of Malick, Wes Anderson, Linklater, PTA, and Farhadi on more screens? Absolutely. Is it getting harder for these films to find their way into theaters? Sadly yes. That’s why Scorsese’s personal criteria for what qualifies as cinema hardly matters. Instead we should be listening to what he has to say about the future of movies and the big screen experience. In that regard he’s a filmmaker with some very important things to say.