K&M Commentary: Scorsese, Marvel, and the Meaning of Cinema

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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.

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27 thoughts on “K&M Commentary: Scorsese, Marvel, and the Meaning of Cinema

  1. First let me get this off my chest and offend as many as I can , I’m not a huge fan of Scorsese movies , never have been . They do not resonate with me at all . That is not to say I recognize that most will disagree with me but I like what I like and have never cared if I stray from majority opinion on anything . Perhaps its his style or the type of movies he makes , but they never connect. I do not doubt the talent of the man and his career but his movies don’t do it for me .

    Now to the matter of the art of movie making . With respect to the masses , it is often thought that anything that has mass appeal cannot be “art” or rise to that level . But that is baseless in my view . Shakespeare in general wrote his plays for the common man . Bach wrote music for the common man . They didn’t create with a small lens of appealing only to a certain type of person . The reason in general something becomes popular is it connects to a wide audience at a visceral level . Looking at the MCU as a whole , its had its ups and downs , I have been critical in my circles when we chat about movies about those short comings but at the same time , its had some excellent story telling that has conflict, loss ,sacrifice and humor . All those things reflect the human condition even if it be within a superhero framework. I have said this before but sci-fi/fantasy type of films can address deeper issues more profoundly than realistic movies at times because by entering into a mythological world , it can move the heart and explore things from a unique perspective . Take the story arc of Tony Stark as in the MCU . It takes a self centered , egotistical man to the point of willing to lay down his life for his friends . All the earmarks of a great story telling to me . Plus wonderfully played throughout by Downey Jr. . Just because he plays Iron Man should not take away from his performance and as good as any serious film I saw this year so far.

    Movies or “cinema” should reflect all genres be it comedy to horror . To gritty depiction of real life to the fantasy realms of Star Wars . Ultimately it is there to entertain and at the same time , can inspire , make one take stock of life and lift ones spirit . For me when I’m struggling with depression or a deep melancholy movies can help me and do . My go to are Peter Jacksons Tolkien movies , all 6 . They truly speak to me at level no others do . Somehow I doubt they would make his definition of cinema , no gangsters I guess .

    Plus it is called the movie business . At the end of the day , companies make movies hoping to make money . Now what one hopes that with a blockbuster like Avengers , Disney would bankroll smaller independent movies and release them . But you still must have an audience . That is where I see streaming services come into play for those type of quirky , independent movies that just do not have mass appeal . That does mean they are good either . I’ve seen my share of clunkers .

    Plus looking at the franchise like Star Wars or the MCU, one can say they are not cinema only if you see the art of movie making through a very narrow lens . The art of film making has a wide enough scope to embrace all forms of art . From comedies , horror , sci’fi, fantasy ,drama etc.. they all can breath and rise to the level of great cinema . But mass appeal should never be an indication that its not art or if it happens to feature heroes in flying suits .

    Once again thoughtful article . Plus yes , Im kinda passionate about movies . That comment by Scorsese rubbed me the wrong way .

    • I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I sensed that passion you spoke of and share it with you. I think you make another great argument as to why these movies certainly are “cinema”. As I stated, Scorsese has some very good points. But how he limited the scope of cinema undermined most of what he had to say. Really unfortunate.

    • It’s interesting because he singled out the Marvel movies. And I think one of the reasons they have been so successful is because they do have levels of humanity, more than I would have ever expected. Not all of them resonate with me, but most have impressed me.

      • Marvel movies have some humanity but they are mainly action films. and I suspect that’s what Scorcese was getting at.

        For example, Iron Man has a few moments when Stark realizes that his weapons company is not exactly a good idea and so he starts building a suit to become an Iron Man instead. But the rest of the movie distracts us with big action scenes, explosions, and a Robotic duel in the end. It is fun to watch no doubt. but when all is over, and we are walking out of the theater or living room, what did we just witness? is it cinema about a human being? or cinema about physical action?
        I guess both kinds are cinema, but i think Scorcese is just reserving the word ‘cinema’ for what he believes is its full potential. to be a story about a human being.

      • I think you’re right and that is what he’s doing. I guess he and I differ with his willingness to exclude those films from being cinema. I fully believe there is room from both. I do believe some cinema is much better than others.

  2. I enjoyed reading your unbiased essay, Keith. IMO, any movie, regardless of topic or quality qualifies as cinema. Just as Barbara Cartland romances are literature, so too are the creations from Marvel. One thing you didn’t mention that is a huge difference in their films but you did allude when you talked about how they cover the emotions and human plotlines that any cinema can, and that is pacing. I really think in this digital age ADD has been programmed into the circuitry of young people and the pacing has sped way up to keep their attention spans. Most of the indy films are at a slower pace and are targeting a more mature audience. I’d like to say more but I have things to attend to. Again, well-reasoned essay.

    • Great comments and I really appreciate your thoughts. It’s interesting, my wife has brought up the ADD dilemma. She too has made a compelling case about how movies reflect that. As for what qualifies as cinema, I think Scorsese may be letting preference dictate his opinion. That’s definitely not the way to go. I really dislike raunchy comedies, but I don’t feel comfortable saying they aren’t cinema. I think he’s leaning into that, maybe without even knowing it.

  3. I’m currently working on my own response to Scorsese’s comments as everything you state is spot-on. I can understand where Scorsese is coming from as I would love to have multiplexes play movies by Asghar Farhadi, Pedro Almodovar, Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, and many others so I wouldn’t have to spend extra gas money and drive 15-30 minutes away from my home. I would love for my local AMC theater to show more of these films as an alternative.

    I appreciate Scorsese’s opinion and I respect but when it comes to how he defines cinema, he is definitely wrong. Before Scorsese’s comments, I had been thinking about creating this retrospective to the MCU but his comments have kind of fired me up as I’m still working on the first part as it’s likely I’m creating a 7-part series that will celebrate the MCU and also get a look into its future. To me, cinema can be anything as long as it resonates with someone and has something to say.

    • Now you have me excited to read what you’re putting together. Oh, and you mention driving an extra 30 minutes? I drive an hour and fifteen minutes just to get to the nearest quality theater! The price of rural living!

      • So true. Yes, I may live close to a major league baseball stadium and its closest multiplex is about a few minutes away but yeah, I don’t like the idea of driving 30 minutes to an art house theater either. Plus with the gas prices these day. Ugh…

  4. Great article! Some other things to consider:
    1) I may be wrong, but I think Marty hasn’t seen any of the MCU movies. If they don’t interest him, fine, but he’s not just expressing an opinion; he’s analyzing and even trying to define something he doesn’t know much about. I’m not expecting him to have an encyclopedic knowledge of that world, but now really knowing anything makes him lose credibility.
    2) There’s never been more than 3 MCU movies per year nor more than 10 ssuperhero movies per year. While blockbusters get most of the publicity, we’re still talking about around 10 new releases per week (in the U.S. at least). If an indie flops at the box office, there are other factors to consider aside advertising and the number of theatres showing. Hell, I’d argue that with the rise of social media and streaming platforms, many small movies have gotten more exposure than what they would’ve gotten 10 years ago.
    3) Marty follows formulas too. I don’t mean having trademarks (every director has those); I mean that he has made movies that follow the same story beats (a young man rises to power, cheats on his wife, marries his mistress, fights with his new wife a lot, loses the power, grows a conscience, and tries to make amends with his children in a later stage of his life). He also made genre movies (like CAPE FEAR and SHUTTER ISLAND) where one could argue they were more about entertainment than depth. However, all of his movies have been well-received. That’s because a movie’s quality doesn’t completely depend on the aforementioned elements.

    • Great points. To my knowledge he’s said he tried to watch a couple of the movies. But (as you mentioned) he is analyzing them and making pretty deep judgements with minimal knowledge. That does indeed hurt his credibility.

  5. You did a nice job of hitting the valid concerns of Scorsese and where he is off, not much to add, plus the NY Times didn’t want me to read his editorial. Truthfully, not really a fan of Scorsese, although he has several movies I think are first rate, but the bulk of his movies not so much. When he talks about what cinema should be, I started thinking about Sullivan’s Travels, with the hilarious opening scene of the movie within the movie from the pretentious Sullivan, and then his concluding realization that there is nothing wrong with just making people laugh. Not everyone wants that experience of the grim character study (Bringing out the Dead, ye gods), or certainly not a steady diet of it. There is room for both, I think he’s way off telling us what cinema should be.

    • Ah, I love the Sullivan’s Travels comparison. It does feel fitting, doesn’t it? You’re right, there is room for both and cinema is actually a lot better because of it. Who wants everything to fall into the same lump? Diversity of style is such a meaningful part of what makes movies great.

  6. It’s ironic that Hollywood is so focused on diversity in casting while the diversity of films in theatres is shrinking. I wish mainstream cinemas where like libaries, offering a a broad range. Governmental backing could be the answer if the theatres can’t make a profit from smaller films.

    • It is a shame. And I think some audiences are a reflection of why this is so concerning (especially younger moviegoers). They are content with one type of movie experience and that’s all mainstream theaters are giving them.

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