martin scorsese marvel movies

It’s been 84 years since Martin Scorsese lit the internet on fire with his less-than-glowing words about Marvel movies. After weeks of superhero fans whipping themselves into a frenzy over what “cinema” entails, and outlets cycling through every auteur they can find to comment on the outrage, the legendary filmmaker is stepping back into the conversation. Scorsese published an essay in The New York Times explaining exactly what he means when he declares that Marvel movies aren’t cinema, and why the dominance of superhero movies could threaten the very face of the industry.

In a beautifully written essay for The New York Times, Scorsese notes that his comments on Marvel movies have been caught up in his definition of “cinema,” and that, “Some people seem to have seized on the last part of my answer as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part.”

He admits that Marvel movies aren’t to his taste (which is fine!) but elaborates that the rigid structure in which a Marvel Studios movie is made is leading to a homogenized culture that, to him, is the antithesis of cinema:

“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.”

Cinema, he argues, is about risk. It’s about taking risks and breaking up a potential monoculture with new ideas that challenge the idea of art. Scorsese never once claims that superhero movies aren’t an art form. But he does suggest that superhero movies are made out of business decisions, first — to sell merchandise, to sell tickets, to sell toys — and artistic ones, second. Scorsese ascribes to the “auteur theory,” the idea that an individual artist’s vision is essential to cinema. And because superhero movies start out in the boardroom, that eliminates the risk:

“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’s essay is more damning of the studio system than superhero movies as “cinema.” It’s a battle that Scorsese has been fighting since he first started directing: rebelling against the studio system and its control over the commercial and creative aspects of the movie industry. And it’s within the rise of a superhero-dominated movie landscape, where studios won’t give a green light to any feature film that’s not from a major franchise or a familiar IP, that Scorsese finds a real danger. Mid-budget movies have all but disappeared from theaters and auteurs are finding it harder to get their movies made outside of streaming.

“The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema,” Scorsese writes. “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.”

Superhero movies aren’t the only representation of this changing landscape, but a symptom. And if we can stop getting caught up in the semantics of what defending what constitutes art, than we could listen to what Scorsese is trying to diagnose.

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