Scorsese Doesn't Like Superhero Movies

There was a time when superheroes and comic books strictly belonged to the fringes. No more. We’re now in a landscape where studios are oversaturated with superhero movies. Where the mid-budget movie is extinct, and where comic book adaptations reign supreme.

So what does Martin Scorsese, one of our greatest living filmmakers, think about all of this? He’s not thrilled. In fact, according to Scorsese, superhero movies aren’t even really “cinema”, at least as he understands it. They’re more like theme park rides. Scorsese gave this statement in a new interview, and the internet, being the internet, isn’t very thrilled about this.

In the new print edition of Empire, Martin Scorsese was asked for his thoughts on superhero movies. “I don’t see them,” he responded. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. 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.”

This quote is not going over so well in some circles. Many think Scorsese is out-of-touch here. Even Marvel director James Gunn weighed in, Tweeting “Martin Scorsese is one of my 5 favorite living filmmakers. I was outraged when people picketed The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen the film. I’m saddened that he’s now judging mine in the same way.” (Gunn has since deleted the Tweet).

So what are we to make of Scorsese’s quote? Is he wrong? I’d argue he’s not, and I think the devil is in the details. First and foremost, I think it’s important to realize that Scorsese isn’t saying superhero movies are bad. He even makes a point of saying they can often be “well made” with “actors doing the best they can.” The way I read Scorsese’s statement is that he’s simply proclaiming superhero movies to not be for him. If you boil things down, the filmmaker is stating: “I tried to watch superhero movies, and I didn’t like them. They’re not for me.”

Is it reductive and dismissive for Scorsese to proclaim them to not be cinema? Perhaps. But Scorsese clearly sees “cinema” in very specific terms – “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Can superhero movies elicit emotions? Of course they can. And so can theme parks – the thing Scorsese compares these movies to. A ride on a scary rollercoaster can make you laugh; make you cry; make you run through an entire gamut of emotions. But it’s ultimately a piece of machinery that’s causing those emotions – not another human being. To Scorsese, cinema is an experience being conveyed from one human (in this case, the director) to another (the audience).

But aren’t superhero movies doing that? Yes and no. Marvel movies are notorious for being “directed by committee.” Yes, they often have strong directorial voices – Gunn is a great example of this. But they’re also micromanaged and tailored to fit into a specific mold in order to maintain a cinematic universe. In other words, they’re assembled in an almost machine-like fashion – just like an amusement park ride.

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz has a great interpretation of this whole kerfuffle:

Look, I think many superhero movies are pretty darn good. Marvel movies can be very entertaining and enjoyable. But…are they saying anything? Avengers: Endgame was a big rollercoaster ride of a movie – a culmination of a decade’s worth of world-building. That’s an impressive achievement! But what does that movie have to say? What is the message of that movie? I’d argue that there really isn’t one. That’s a movie that exists to deliver, as Seitz so perfectly puts it, a “primarily visceral experience,” and little more. And that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with that! And I don’t think Martin Scorsese is saying there is. He’s just saying it’s not for him.

“I believe there is a spirituality in films,” Scorsese wrote in his book A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, “even if it’s not one which can supplant faith. I find that over the years many films address themselves to the spiritual side of man’s nature…It is as though movies answered an ancient quest for the common unconscious. They fulfill a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory.”

That’s what Scorsese is looking for in cinema – that spirituality. And he doesn’t see it in superhero movies. You may, though – and that’s what ultimately matters. If superhero movies give you something they don’t give Scorsese, then do you really have anything to complain about here?

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