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What to make of the Martin Scorsese versus Marvel debate

By Say Peng  /  12 Nov 2019 (Tuesday)

In an interview with Empire magazine for the promotional of his latest movie The Irishman, Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese said this about the Marvel Cinematic Universe films:

"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.”

The blowback was almost instant.

Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn tweeted:

On Instagram, Gunn posted:

Many of our grandfathers thought all gangster movies were the same, often calling them “despicable”. Some of our great grandfathers thought the same of westerns, and believed the films of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone were all exactly the same. I remember a great uncle to whom I was raving about Star Wars. He responded by saying, “I saw that when it was called 2001, and, boy, was it boring!” Superheroes are simply today’s gangsters/cowboys/outer space adventurers. Some superhero films are awful, some are beautiful. Like westerns and gangster movies (and before that, just MOVIES), not everyone will be able to appreciate them, even some geniuses. And that’s okay. ❤️

A post shared by James Gunn (@jamesgunn) on

Marvel actors and actresses have also jumped in to defend their movies, respectfully disagreeing with Scorsese.

"It’s his opinion. I mean, well, it plays in theatres," says Robert Downey Jr. 

"I mean that’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny," says Samuel L Jackson. "Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like [Scorsese's] stuff either."

Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, says in a Variety interview, "I would absolutely say that Marvel movies are cinema. Cinema is storytelling with visuals."

Of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gillan says "There's so much heart and soul, and it's James' soul in there. He injects so much of his own personality, his sense of humor...that's a very big representation of who he is as a person and therefore it's very cinematic."

Some actors disagree.

Before Scorsese even said anything about Marvel, Ethan Hawke said, "Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, “This is a great movie” and I was like, “Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.” There’s a difference but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it."

Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather trilogy, jumped into the fray and did not mince words: "When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration.”

“I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Ken Loach also has nothing nice to say about Marvel: "They are made as commodities, like hamburgers..."

"It’s not about communicating and it’s not about sharing our imagination. It’s about making a commodity which will make a profit for a big corporation… They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”

Having clearly touched a cultural nerve, Scorsese published an op-ed in the New York Times clarifying his position.

He wrote: "In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all."

He further wrote: "The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other."

Read Scorsese's entire op-ed and you'll find that Scorsese's position is more nuanced than has been reported. 

Or if you're too lazy to read, you can watch this video below.

A few days ago, Marvel's head honcho Kevin Feige finally offered his comments. 

Obviously, Feige disagrees, saying "I think that's not true. I think it's unfortunate. I think myself and everyone who works on these movies loves cinema, loves movies, loves going to the movies, loves to watch a communal experience in a movie theater full of people."

So far, none of the comments and thoughts given by these actors and directors has the same nuance that Scorsese has in his NYT op-ed article.

Scorsese isn't against Marvel per se. 

Scorsese is warning us that the uber dominance of Marvel movies in the theatres is pushing out other kinds of films, diluting the diversity of cinema that audiences can enjoy.

He's also warning us that what Marvel films fundamentally lack is the director's unique worldview and vision of life, which is the essence of the cinematic art.

Film critic Richard Brody, writing for the New Yorker, writes: "Scorsese isn’t inveighing against fantasy but against a system of production that submerges directors’ authority in a network of dictates and decisions issued from the top down—a network in which the director is more of a functionary than a creator."

Perhaps the most even-handed and insightful piece comes from Hollywood Reporter columnist Kareem Abdul Jabba.

Jabba makes the age-old distinction between high art and popular art, with Scorsese's form of cinema as high art and Marvel movies as popular art. Both serve their own purposes and need not be mutually exclusive. 

Jabba writes: "Marvel films have made me laugh, cry, jump, agonize and almost always leave the theater feeling lighter and more satisfied than when I went in. And that’s not nothing. But it’s also not everything. With Marvel melodrama we feel better. With High Art, we are wiser."

And let's hope that everyone involved is wise enough to recognize that while Marvel certainly has a place in our culture, if our cultural or cinematic diet is made up of only Marvel movies, that is also not a good thing.
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