Scorsese vs the Marvel Comics universe: what does it all mean?

Martin Scorsese v Marvel

There’s a famous joke in The Simpsons in which Grandpa makes the front page of a newspaper under the headline “Old Man yells at cloud”, which has become a meme mostly used to defame Trump, but also, most recently, to diminish the opinions of Hollywood legends when they discuss Marvel films.

In this instance, we can assume Marvel has become a stand-in for superhero films, and some famous people have come forward to criticise them. As we all know is that people only really have a platform when they’re promoting something, and currently Martin Scorsese has been doing the rounds for his current film the gangster epic The Irishman, and when asked about the modern string of blockbusters said the following:

“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”.

Like a flame on oil it went up. But consider this: the criticism from Scorsese that it isn’t cinema seems short-sighted; the claim that they’re not conveying emotional psychological experiences, given that Iron Man Three explored post-traumatic stress, Captain America: Civil War looked at what happens when a family is being pulled apart, and Black Panther was a meditation on what it means to be Black in the modern world, is a little unfair. Even the saga of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War is near Shakespearean as he follows his quest to save the world in his mission, buoyed by one event he believes has confirmed everything he thought to be true.

Arguably, the scene in which Thanos sacrifices Gamora for the Soul Stone contains more emotion than all of The Wolf of Wall Street, which was really about bad people being bad. Moreover, the complexity of Killmonger and T’Challa coming round to realise that Killmonger has a point, and Wakanda has neglected their fellow man for generations followed by the “all of you were wrong to turn your backs on the rest of the world” is the kind of moral quandary lacking in a film like.. say, The Departed.

However Scorsese is not alone; his friend and contemporary Francis Ford Coppola is currently touring with the final cut of his 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, and added further fuel to the fire when asked to speak on the subject:

“When Martin says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration” I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over again. Martin was kin when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

This is harsher, and somewhat ironic, coming from Coppola, a man currently showing another cut of his film from forty years ago. To complain about the same film over and over is also ironic given that Scorsese three times directed remakes (one of which he won the Oscar for) in Cape Fear, The Departed and Silence.

They’re not despicable, that’s an incredible harsh term to level at harmless fun. Truly despicable films include the likes of Freddy Got Fingered, Birth of a Nation, Little Man or Coppola’s own Jack, a film in which Robin Williams plays a 7 year old trying to have sex with his teacher played by Jennifer Lopez. Films that are offensive are despicable, films that make light of rape – That’s My Boy – are despicable.

But these titans aren’t alone, Jennifer Aniston said “You’re seeing what’s available out there and it’s just diminishing and diminishing in terms of, it’s big Marvel movies, or things that I’m not just asked to do or really that interested in living in a green screen. I think e would so love to have the era of Meg Ryan come back.”

For context, Meg Ryan’s output includes Courage Under Fire, City of Angels, You’ve Got Mail, Kate & Leopold and The Women, films that no one remembers, while Aniston talks of diminishing returns as if her last films didn’t include: Murder Mystery (just posed for a sequel), Office Christmas Party, Mother’s Day and both Horrible Bosses films (as well as Just Go with It with Adam Sandler).

But they have a point, no? After all it’s all Marvel films in the cinema, just them damn superheroes clogging our cinemas and not say Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Sorry to Bother You, Downton Abbey? Sure, three of them come out in a year, but each is so different in terms of tone and content that are films unto themselves.

Are directors of Marvel films doomed to only do those, like say Scorsese doomed to make crime films about women abusers (he’s made seven for context), forever? Well, Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi is tipped for awards glory for Jojo Rabbit, not a cape in sight. Kenneth Branagh (Thor), made Murder on the Orient Express and a film about the final years of Shakespeare.

What do the Marvel people themselves make of these criticisms? Well they weren’t un-vocal.

James Gunn (director – Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2): “Many of our grandfathers thought all gangster movies were the same, often calling them ‘despicable’, some of our great grandfathers thought the same of westerns, and believed the films of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone were all exactly the same. I remember a great uncle to whom I was raving about Star Wars. He responded by saying – I saw that when it was called 2001, and boy, was it boring! – superheroes are simply today’s gangsters / cowboys / outer space adventures. Some superhero films are awful, some are beautiful. Like westerns and gangster movies (and before that, just movies), not everyone will be able to appreciate them, even some geniuses. And that’s okay.”

Jon Favreau (director – Iron Man, Iron Man 2, actor – Happy Hogan): “These two guys are my heroes, and they have earned the right to express opinions. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if they didn’t carve the way. They served as a source of inspiration, you can go all the way back to Swingers… they can express whatever opinion they want.”

Taika Waititi (director – Thor: Ragnarok, Thor: Love and Thunder, actor – Korg): “Of course it’s cinema! It’s at the movies. It’s in cinemas, near you!”

Joss Whedon (director – The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron): “I first think of James Gunn, how his heart & guts are packed into GOTG. I revere Marty, & I do see his point, but… Well there’s a reason why “I’m always angry”.

Samuel L. Jackson (actor – Nick Fury, also starred in Scorsese’s Goodfellas): “I mean that’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either. I mean, we happen to, but everybody doesn’t. There are a lot of Italian-Americans that don’t think he should be making films about them like that. Everyody’s got an opinion, so I mean it’s okay. Aint’ going to stop nobody from making movies.”

Natalie Portman (actor – Jane Foster): “There’s no one way to mark art, there’s room for all types of cinema. I think that Marvel films are so popular because they’re really entertaining and people desire entertainment when they have their special time after work, after dealing with their hardships in real life)

Sebastian Stan (actor – Bucky Barnes): “He’s one of my heroes, and I was listening to him and meanwhile, I Just spent the day with all of you. People have been going up to me like ‘thank you so much for this chatacter’ ‘this movie helped me out so much’ ‘this movie inspired me, now i feel better, now i feel less alone’. So, how can you say these movies are not helping people?”

Robert Downey Jr. (actor – Tony Stark): “It is this very large, multisided hydra at this point. I mean it plays in theatres. I appreciate Scorsese’s opinion. I think it’s like anything where we need all of the different perspectives so we can come to center and move on.”

So, ultimately, who is to say what cinema is? Cinema is a place to go to watch movies, so if that is the claim, The Irishman isn’t? After all, not so long ago Steven Spielberg (a friend of Scorsese) used controversy following Roma winning Oscars by saying “I don’t believe that films that are just given token wyalitifcations in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination. I’m a firm believer that movie theaters need to be around forever.”

But… if that’s cinema, Socrsese isn’t making it, he’s made a TV Movie, in fact some of the most acclaimed films of the past few years are Netflix backed movies – Beasts of No Nation, The King, Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mudbound, to name a handful.

If having to qualify as cinema means being in screens Avengers: Endgame wins that. Scorsese has every right to criticise Marvel films, though he does lean on Italian-American gangsters and women abusers for his films, and Coppola hasn’t made a good film since Dracula in the early 90s. Regardless, however, Spielberg, Scorsese & Coppola can’t dictate what cinema is. In years past the violent content of their films was often considered “not proper”.

Spielberg – himself a lifelong fan of Hitchcock – was shunned by the legend, who deemed his smash hit Jaws nothing special, and refused to speak to him, saying “I can’t talk to the boy who made the fish movie”. The apparent glorification of the corrupt abusive life of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street was criticised widely upon its release with people accusing Scorsese of worshipping at the feet of someone who conned honest people out of money and abused drugs, women and people.

The people from the house of Marvel have every right to defend the work they have done, and will do, from the comments of people who simply do not understand that work. They also seem much more accepting of a differing take than the old hats who throw shade at their hard work.

On a jollier note, Kevin Smith, a lifelong comic book fan who was moved to tears by the tribute to Stan Lee in Captain Marvel, commented “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.”

The answer is: there is no right answer. If you get joy from superhero movies, good, they’re not going away and some are profound – Logan is as deep an insight into love and humanity as any drama about someone with cancer, some are funny – Thor: Ragnarok is one of the funniest comedies of the past few years. The scope of Infinity War & Endgame rivals that of any prestige picture like Lawrence of Arabia.

But the final word on the subject should come from either critic, nor Marvel player, but someone on the periphery of both. Mike Flanagan, director of The Haunting of Hill House, Hush and the soon-to-be-released Doctor Sleep called to mind a quote from Scorsese that “movies are our dreams”, and added “No one dream is more valid than another.”

Mike might have a point.

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Paul Klein

Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.