Was Martin Scorsese Right About Marvel?
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
In October 2019 in an interview with Empire Magazine Martin Scorsese referred to Marvel films as being "not cinema." In the time since the famed director's statement he has been met with scorn and contempt from Marvel fans everywhere. But over a year after this controversy arose, the question must be asked: was Martin Scorsese right all along?
Even as somebody who has seen every single Marvel movie during their respective theatrical runs, I was surprisingly not offended by the director's words. If anything it made me think a lot about where he could be coming from and after a year of sitting on the subject I think I can finally put those thoughts into words. Scorsese's exact words when asked about Marvel movies was " I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema." In his own New York Times article, Scorsese clarified that he believed "any franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry" and that his aversion to Marvel films is "a matter of personal taste and temperament." Film is first and foremost an art form and art is subjective, but does Scorsese have a point when he equates them to "theme parks?
Since July 2011, a total of 23 MCU movies have been produced from the studio, starting with Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 to Spiderman: Far From Home in 2019. On top of that, another dozen are scheduled to come out by 2022. As someone who has seen all 23 existing Marvel films multiple times I think it is safe to say that "superhero fatigue" has officially set in. After watching almost two dozen movies with the same few characters and ridiculously similar plot lines I am starting to understand more and more what Scorsese was talking about.
Martin Scorsese became a prominant filmmaker during the 1970's with popular films such as Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver which have since become some of the most influential and important films of the 20th century. The director wrote in his New York Times article that while he was starting out as a filmmaker: "cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation...It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form." Fellow film director Norman Jewison once said "the studio is the enemy of the artist, because the studio was only interested in money, we are interested in art, we are interested in film. We are the artists" and when you compare movies like Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Jewison's Fiddler On The Roof next to movies like Antman and The Avengers it is easy to see why someone from Scorsese's time would have a hard time considering them as art pieces. Are MCU films really art or are they simply products of big studios looking to make billions of dollars from invested moviegoers?
In his New York Times article, Scorsese compared Marvel studio movies to films like Persona by Ingmar Bergman and Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger. But....are they even trying to be?
What I'm trying to say is, although pictures like Bergman's Persona are great films with a lot to say, I don't think Marvel has ever or will ever try to model one of their pictures off an Ingmar Bergman film. That's just not their speciality and it's not what they do as a studio. It would be like if National Geographic decided to make a wildlife documentary in the style of David Lynch. On top of that, film is less replicating a style and more about accomplishing its own style well. Kill Bill is not trying to be Citizen Kane because they are two completely different styles and genres, Quentin Tarantino had no interest in copying Orson Welles he just wanted to make a good action movie.
Also how can Scorsese say many franchise films exhibit "considerable talent and artistry" yet not see Marvel films as art themselves? How can you discredit the work of these contributors who have gone to prestiguous schools such as composers from Berklee College of Music, editors from USC Film School and directors such as Nia Lacosta who even attended Scorsese's alma mater, New York University? At this point, what's the difference betwen "art" and things that "have artistry?"
So was Scorsese right about Marvel Films being "not cinema?" The truth is, I'm really not sure anymore. I appreciate the man for trying to stick up for independent and upcoming filmmakers in an age where big budget pictures reign supreme and I also thing he made some great points about the "lack of risk" that comes with these franchise films. However I cannot in good conscience discredit the work of so many creative and talented people who have worked on those high budget Marvel films with the purpose of keeping people entertained and telling their own stories.
Was Scorsese right all along or do Marvel movies have just as much artistic merit as indpendent or standalone features? I guess that's for you to decide.