Ridley Scott's Problem With Superhero Movies Comes Down To The Scripts

The oldies have been coming for your superhero movies for a few years now. Back in 2019, Martin Scorsese caused a stir when he said he didn't consider Marvel movies cinema and regarded them as something closer to theme parks. This sparked a furious backlash, with several younger filmmakers, including Kevin Smith, Taika Waititi, and James Gunn, kicking back against the legendary director. 

Waititi gave the most irritating response: "Of course it's cinema! It's at the movies. It's in cinemas..." (via NME). Well, so was "Dirty Sanchez: The Movie," so maybe he was thinking of "cinema" more as a building where you watch movies rather than the art form Scorsese that discussed in his New York Times defense. 

Smith, still flogging the Silent Bob thing in the upcoming "Clerks III," also chose to miss the point (via The Hollywood Reporter):

"For my money, I think Martin Scorsese made the biggest superhero movie ever, which was 'The Last Temptation of Christ.' Don't get much bigger of a superhero than Jesus."

Scorsese wasn't the only acclaimed director to speak out against superhero films in recent years. Francis Ford Coppola waded into the argument on Scorsese's side: "Martin was kind when he said it's not cinema. He didn't say it's despicable, which I say it is" (via The Guardian); while David Cronenberg doesn't mince his words when it comes to Batman (via Screen Crush): 

"I think people who are saying 'The Dark Knight Rises' is, you know, supreme cinema art, I don't think they know what the f*** they're talking about."

More recently, Ridley Scott, Hollywood's sweariest director, gave his typically outspoken views on the matter.

What is Ridley Scott's problem with superhero movies?

Ridley Scott, currently working on his "Napoleon" biopic with Joaquin Phoenix, was as opinionated as ever when it came to the subject of superhero movies (via Deadline):

"Almost always, the best films are driven by characters, and we'll come to superheroes after this if you want, because I'll crush it. I'll f****** crush it. They're f****** boring as s***."

This might sound a bit rich coming from the man who made "Robin Hood" literally the most boring character ever to trudge onto a cinema screen, but since he also made "Alien," "Blade Runner," "Thelma & Louise," and many others, maybe I should shut my mouth. Asked what his specific beef about superhero movies was, he elaborated:

"Their scripts are not any f****** good. I think I've done three great scripted superhero movies. One would be 'Alien' with Sigourney Weaver. One would be f****** 'Gladiator,' and one would be Harrison Ford ['Blade Runner'] ... They're superhero movies. So, why don't the superhero movies have better stories?"

It's interesting to think about those titles in that way. They're not superhero movies in the strictest sense of the term, but maybe the reason they are so gripping is they are about regular mortals who have the strength, courage, and resolve to pull off super-heroic feats. You can also see this in recent films like "Everything Everywhere all at Once" and "RRR," which clearly tap into superhero concepts and action beats while telling involving stories with regular human beings, albeit ones who can skip between parallel universes or beat up angry mobs single-handedly.

Was calling superhero movies f****** boring the right approach?

I started watching through the Marvel movies again from the beginning with my kids recently, and I was surprised by just how formulaic the stories are. Maybe it wasn't so noticeable when watching them on first release, months or years apart, but it really stands out when seeing them in close proximity. I'd forgotten just how many situations involve near-invincible characters smashing each other through walls until it's time to move on to the next scene. They're fun, diverting, and perfectly cast, but there simply aren't any stakes. They all just blur into one, and I struggle to recall many standout scenes, while even the different energy brought by directors like Taika Waititi and James Gunn is quickly hammered into the Marvel Cinematic Universe house style.

So while I definitely come down firmly on the side of Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, I think they could pick their words better. Dismissing a series of movies that brings happiness to billions of people as "theme parks" or "f****** boring as s***" is a little disrespectful, if not smacking of outright snobbery.

Let's put it another way. I'm a big football fan (soccer), the world's most popular team sport. I'm aware of its problems, but what I don't need is toffee-nosed rugby fans telling me their sport is fairer and morally superior to mine. That kind of talk is more likely to provoke a polite invite to insert their egg-shaped ball where the sun doesn't shine rather than a constructive chat. Scorsese is an intelligent guy with an incredible passion for film, and no doubt he'd love to convert some Marvel fans to the wonders of Powell and Pressburger, but calling superhero movies non-cinema is a bit of a conversation killer.

The generation gap in the superhero movie argument

The Martin Scorsese kerfuffle and Ridley Scott's comments show there is a clear generation gap. Scorsese and Cronenberg are both 79, and Francis Ford Coppola and Scott are in their 80s, while whippersnappers Taika Waititi, Kevin Smith, and also James Gunn are 46, 51, and 55, respectively. In his Hollywood Reporter interview, Smith gave the clearest indication of why the gap makes such a difference:

"My feeling is, Martin Scorsese never sat in a movie theater with his dad and watched the movies of Steven Spielberg in the early '80s or George Lucas in the late '70s. He didn't feel that sense of magic and wonder."

Putting aside that Scorsese was hitting 40 in the early '80s, Smith is referring to movies like "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," part of the blockbuster trend that began with "Jaws" and contributed to the shift away from the auteur-led films of New Hollywood that Scorsese and Coppola were key figures in.

Scott's blunt takedown of superhero movies got Marvel fans frothing, but it didn't receive the same backlash as Scorsese's argument. The "Goodfellas" director went on to say he was more concerned with the way franchises crowd out smaller releases and leave little room for more character-driven films, which has damaging implications for the kind of movies filmmakers get to make in the future.

The older directors consumed their fare share of escapist media when they were kids; maybe not as much as Kevin Smith, but Coppola cited "Dracula" and "The Thief of Baghdad" as childhood favorites, while Cronenberg has spoken of his love for sci-fi and comic books growing up. I guess the difference was without the all-conquering franchises around, there was more room to appreciate the other stuff, too.