In a recent interview promoting his new movie The Irishman, Martin Scorsese weighed in on Marvel movies, saying they are “not cinema.” He commented, “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.”
Samuel L. Jackson, who stars as Nick Fury in the Marvel franchise, responded by saying, “Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either. We happen to, but everyone doesn’t...Everybody’s got an opinion, ain’t going to stop nobody from making movies.”
At the end of the day, Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors currently living and can feel however he wants about the direction certain aspects of movie-making are going. His comments weren’t anything that haven't been said before or won’t be said again. They probably even have some truth. Marvel movies do favor spectacle over storytelling, but that doesn’t mean they are invalid. Scorsese’s comments were problematic not because he criticized the franchise but rather because he assumes his own talent and success allows him to discredit other styles of storytelling.
Martin Scorsese came to prominence in the American New Wave, a movement that lasted from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. It was a time defined by exciting new visuals marketed towards young people. It completely changed how the industry functioned and shifted the trajectory of filmmaking. Sound familiar? Although it wouldn’t be appropriate to equate Marvel movies to those made during the New Wave, there are some clear parallels between the impact of the two.
Marvel is pushing the world of movies into new territory and creating new expectations for audiences. It has the greatest name and brand recognition at the movie theaters. No matter what is coming out, people will line up to watch what the franchise has produced. They pull together the most popular and beloved stars to create a movie that, frankly, is fun and thrilling to watch.
Some Marvel movies may be more emotionally rich than others, but there is a storyline in each filled with characters audiences love and identify with. Just because it isn’t a gritty character study starring Leonardo DiCaprio looking like he hasn’t slept in a month doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful.
Scorsese’s comments are especially striking considering his latest movie will be released on Netflix, a platform which some critics say doesn’t produce “cinema.” In the past few years, Netflix has been making efforts to create critically acclaimed movies with high-profile directors and actors in an effort to be recognized in the awards circuit. There has been significant pushback to their efforts and some feel Netflix is detracting from those types of movies being released and seen in theaters.
Perhaps most prominently, Steven Speilberg has been an opponent to the rising popularity of streaming platforms in lieu of going to actual theaters. In fact, he petitioned for an academy rule that would block movies primarily released online from being nominated for Academy Awards. This provision would hurt Scorsese, as The Irishman is already favored in the upcoming awards season. Spielberg is one of many who believes the theater-going experience to be not only relevant but necessary to experience the full impact of a film.
Scorsese’s comments combined with his upcoming release seem to indicate that he is buying into one aspect of the shifting tides of movie-going while completely disparaging another when the two are interconnected.
Netflix’s success in producing new content is, in some part, due to filling in a gap created by theaters that are increasingly dedicated to low-risk franchises movies, such as Marvel’s. Netflix pairs with creators who don’t want to take the risk of flopping at the box office or enjoy the creative freedom that streaming allows.
Again, Martin Scorsese can have any opinion he wants. He and his movies will always be beloved (deservingly so). But it is important to recognize that he has become a part of the system which allows more and more movies like the ones he is criticizing to be released. The relationship between theaters and streaming services is bigger than just Marvel and Netflix and looking at these in isolation is a disservice to the wider scope of what is actually happening, which is a huge transformation in movie making and what defines “cinema.”