Are Marvel movies cinema? It's like asking if BTS is music or if P.F. Chang's is gourmet cuisine. That is to say, should we consider art made by committee (i.e. — any creative output that's molded in boardrooms and perfected in focus groups) any different or similar to art born out of something more organic? Those are the philosophical questions movie fans and the industry find themselves debating as director Martin Scorsese's thoughts on Marvel movies continue to dominate the internet following his initial interview with Empire Magazine.
After hearing from the filmmakers and actors behind the Marvel product in question, as well as Scorsese's contemporaries, "The Irishman" director gave his final word on the subject this week in an extensive op-ed piece for the New York Times. In the editorial, he explains that he is not trying to diminish the quality of the films per se, rather he is lamenting the state of the current studio system and the underlying result that sees big films taking up far too much screen real estate at the expense of smaller, more character-driven cinema.
Why Marvel movies? They are the elephant in the room; the most popular movies of the moment. If this were the early-aughts, he would have picked on rom-coms. If this were the late-60s, it would have been Westerns. Scorsese's op-ed doubles down on his characterization of the films. But, in a lot of ways, as he says, it's less about those specific movies, and more about the "tentpole" in general (i.e. — a movie that a studio puts all their budget behind, expecting big returns on their investment).
The tentpole is so ubiquitous these days, but it's not like the consumer is demanding more of them. In fact, we seem to want the opposite. Scorsese is, therefore, making a good argument. Aren't mid-budget (and perhaps more "arty") movies just as worthy of screens and eyeballs, as the latest Marvel or "Fast & Furious" adventure? Why must these tentpoles demand four or more auditoriums in a single theater? That's his complaint — and he's right.
It's not like any of this is new — it's been boiling up in Hollywood for some time. "Jaws" gave birth to the blockbuster movie in 1975. Fourteen years later, the summer of 1989 would help studios see just how lucrative franchises and well-known I.P. can be. If Scorsese has issues with tentpoles, blockbusters, and franchises, why was he so quiet about it back when his friends and contemporaries built their careers on them.
Scorsese doesn’t think tentpoles are cinema — maybe he's still hurt by Lucas' rabbit ears.
As blockbusters started to explode, Scorsese and his fellow filmmakers were redefining Hollywood in their own right. The "New Hollywood," or the "American New Wave," of the '60s and '70s gave birth to some of the most dynamic and radical films of the past 50 years. These include movies like "Easy Rider," "The French Connection," "The Godfather," "Taxi Driver," "The Conversation," "Raging Bull," and yes, even "Star Wars." It was an age born out of frustration with the old studio system — a system that in many ways was not unlike what we have now.
Tired of feeling constrained, the filmmakers of the ‘70s went with more individualized methods of storytelling. Distributors took an equal amount of risk to release those movies to theaters, not sure if people would even turn up for such gritty and all too realistic fare. Scorsese and his kind had led the charge. They asserted, as he explains his op-ed, that their films are just as equal as anything that's hung in a museum or performed on stage.
Flash forward to the 2010s and one could argue that Marvel Studios exhumed the ghost of old Hollywood by pressing forward with their vision of a thematic cinematic universe that adhered to certain conventions. This can explain the "creative differences" that caused directors like Patty Jenkins and Edgar Wright to walk away from their Marvel superhero pet projects.
This element of control did come with its own kind of risk, producing a slate of interconnected movies that featured the same actors playing the same roles. The characters weaving in and out of storylines where they were needed, and assuming audiences would follow along in a more serialized format.
Marvel Studios wanted to run their movies the same way they ran their comics. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor all appear in each other’s adventures on the page, why can’t the same happen on the big screen? It was a big gamble that no one was sure would pay off. To downplay the kind of risk this took by everyone involved is a disservice to what they created; even if the films do have a tinge of corporate safeness and sparkle.
And good shawarma — don't forget the shawarma.
Interestingly, in his op-ed, Scorsese doesn't hold back on paying homage to that kind of formulaic “sparkle” from one of his own influences. Yet, while he admits there was a certain cookie-cutter approach to the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, he assumes there is an underlying difference between those films and the tentpoles of today:
"Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is 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."
In a way, Scorsese is right here, too. From a storytelling perspective, nothing is at risk in superhero movies and franchises (Marvel and otherwise). Where was the storytelling risk at the end of "Infinity War?" We knew which heroes were coming back because the studio already greenlit their sequels months before "Infinity War" hit the screens. Certainly, the stakes would have been higher in "Endgame" had we not already known about "Black Panther 2" or "Spider-Man: Far from Home." But, that's not what these stories are about. Would Spider-Man ever truly die in the pages of Marvel comics?
This kind of foreknowledge and lack of character risk is reminiscent of long-standing tropes from sitcoms and TV adventures. We know Homer and Bart will get out of the jam by the end of the episode because they are the main characters and the show needs to reset itself for the next episode.
And yet, it's now on TV where stories take such cinematic risks with characters. Just look at "Game of Thrones," where no character is safe from death, fan-favorite or not.
But, we knew he'd come back...
As film studios have fallen back on more formulaic sequels and franchises, TV divisions have gotten more cinematic in scope. Scorsese says:
"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."
Scorsese may not realize that this change occurred, but it certainly didn't happen as stealthy as he makes it seem. TV always had a place for long-form, cinematic storytelling. The binge-watching nature of TV has always been there, between marathon-watchings of James Bond and "The Twilight Zone." Once the streaming services tapped into both elements, that's when the so-called "golden age of TV" took root. The risks Scorsese is looking for are now more common on the small screen. TV is now the format that takes on personal, character-driven stories. Things have flipped.
It's called the changeover. The movie goes on and no one in the audience has any idea.
This might not have been on the minds of everyone involved from the startbut the concept of serialization — as TV has always been — was the main storytelling risk that Marvel movies took. Each "Phase" of the MCU acts as another season in Marvel's massive cinematic TV series. Save for Kevin Smith's "View Askewniverse" (Smith, of course is hugely influenced by comics and even put a Stan Lee cameo in "Mallrats" before that was a thing), the idea of an interconnected set of movies sharing characters hadn't been attempted before on screen.
Scorsese writes off this risk in his comments because, at the end of the day, these risks aren't meant to redefine art for art's sake. The movie serials of yesteryear certainly didn't intend that, either. But they did give young, budding filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg a sense of adventure. And if it wasn't for those serials and B-movies, there would be no Marvel or DC movies, nor "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones.
...and the world would have been denied the great Queen soundtrack to "Flash Gordon" (ahhh!)
Scorsese does thinks that the blockbusters of the '70s — the ones made by his fellow New Hollywood rebels, Lucas and Spielberg — is cinema, after all. Why, then, does he make a distinction between their popular output and Marvel? If it comes down to the fact that they were the first of their kind, well then we’d probably have to give up on popular entertainment altogether. Movies can't always achieve that same level of "first-of-its-kind" artistic integrity.
The debate over what is and is not art is endless, but what Scorsese is not saying is that all Marvel movies are garbage. He agrees that they are "well made by teams of talented individuals." It's just that what's driving the vision is not filmmakers, but the corporate producers. Moreover, he's upset that these corporately manufactured movies are clogging up so many screens.
The theatrical landscape as we know it is changing. On the one hand, it's great that a filmmaker can produce their passion project and — via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or now Apple — receive an almost worldwide audience. On the other hand, one can feel a bit guilty about watching a beautiful movie like "Roma" on a TV (or on a smartphone…in a subway…during a commute).
Look at this scene. We're really ok with watching this gorgeous scene on an iPhone?!
Scorsese, an acclaimed director with plenty of awards, found difficulty in finding a studio that would give him the kind of freedom that Netflix afforded him to produce his own opus, "The Irishman" (but maybe it would have been different if it had been one hour shorter, and starring an aged-up Leonardo DiCaprio?). For this, he's grateful. And just as Alfonso Cuaron before him, the director admits that the access and freedom granted to him and other filmmakers is not something one should take for granted.. But the freedom does come at a cost, as he explains:
"I’m speaking as someone who just completed a picture for Netflix. It, and it alone, allowed us to make 'The Irishman' the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. We have a theatrical window, which is great. Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures...If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing."
It is a shame that more people have access to wide releases than they do smaller films like "Parasite" or "The Lighthouse." Yet, that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with tentpoles and franchises. It just means that there should be equal opportunity for both, and not only on the small screen. As Scorsese puts it: "You might argue, can't [the moviegoers] just go home and watch anything else they want on Netflix or iTunes or Hulu? Sure — anywhere but on the big screen, where the filmmaker intended her or his picture to be seen."
AMC Theatres is one chain that's trying to do more with marketing and popularizing indie films, or "artisan films," as they call them. This promotion is helping put smaller fare in front of a wider audience. Smaller chains like Alamo Drafthouse and Landmark Theaters are doing the same through a more communal effort. These chains host Q&As and hold other thematic events designed to extend the theater beyond just a place people go to for two hours to escape. The age of the theater is not dying, but it does need to evolve (as does the traditional theatrical release window) — just as the music industry did when MP3s and Napster disrupted those traditional access points.
Scorsese opines on the state of his industry, just as great drummers had before him.
For the audience, though, at the end of the day, they just want to be entertained. After all the hardship and heartache we put up with in the world, what's wrong with a little mindless escape? Marvel movies provide that. They are theme parks, in that sense. It's entertainment at its purest form, and there is plenty of need for that and no shame in it. However, access to such entertainment should not come at the exclusion of other films. There must be room for both.
Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies are not for him. That's his personal feeling and he’s allowed to have it. His opinion might not fall in line with mine, yours, or the pop culture sentiment at the moment…but that's ok. We've been too caught up in what he’s said without considering what he really means. The best we can do is listen, take heed, and move forward. There is room for all sorts of movies – silly and dazzling, serious, dramatic, and artistic. People should have access to all of them — modern or classic — wherever they want to access them, including and especially at the cinema.
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.