Filmmaker Martin Scorsese recently published an interesting essay in the New York Times. The Irishman director penned it in response to the backlash he received after contending that Marvel movies are closer to theme parks than they are to cinema. Predictably, comic book fans freaked out, dismissing Scorsese as a snob or an old curmudgeon who is out of step with modern film. Of course they are wrong, and Scorsese spells out why in his essay.
But first he clarifies that he is not suggesting that the people involved in the production of super hero movies are without talent. On the contrary, he acknowledges that the opposite is true.
“Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen,” Scorsese writes. “The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament.”
With that out of the way, he educates the reader on what serious filmmakers aspire to bring to the screen:
“For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.
“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.”
In other words, film is about exploring and arriving at an ultimate truth about society and our relationship with it. The same can be said of literature and drama, and narrative art generally. It examines paradoxes and contradictions and, most importantly, character, allowing us to better understand the world we live in. It forces us to view circumstances from the points of view of other people. Computerized explosions don’t provide that.
Scorsese mentions Hitchcock, conceding that his films leaned on suspense and thrills but arguing that such things were secondary to the deeper themes Hitchcock presented.
For example, “The climax of “Strangers on a Train” is a feat, but it’s the interplay between the two principal characters and Robert Walker’s profoundly unsettling performance that resonate now.”
He goes on to make a good point about the Marvel franchise: the movies are more remakes than sequels, in that they rely on the same formula and devices over and over again, knowing they’ll pull large audiences.
“What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger,” Scorsese writes. “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 short he’s asserting that Marvel movies are little more than a product fine tuned for mass consumption. They’re safe and predictable and ephemeral; they give us no food for thought and provoke no reflection. They don’t challenge the viewer in any way. As soon as the movie ends we forget about it. Going to see a Marvel movie is like playing a video game or, yes, riding a roller coaster.
But there’s a bigger problem, according to Scorsese. Marvel movies are beginning to supplant cinema, monopolizing movie theaters and making it extremely difficult for independent filmmakers to get their pictures onto the big screen:
“It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.”
The film industry, Scorsese argues, has lost interest in producing serious art. Of course the major studios were always all about money, but it used to be the case that movies like Taxi Driver and Dr. Strangelove were given a chance at commercial success—and many of them were successful. That window of opportunity is gradually closing, and Marvel bears a lot of responsibility for it.