Last month, I wrote about how accomplished filmmaker Martin Scorsese termed the many, many Marvel films as “not cinema.” His colleague Francis Ford Coppola joined in, going further in calling the films “despicable.”
Superhero fandom has not been kind. (Thankfully, some superhero actors keep on being superheroic, so there’s that).
On Monday, Martin Scorsese wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about the interview that kicked this all off — and where he was coming from in his comments.
I appreciate him taking the time to explain his viewpoint. He’s eloquent, passionate, and has an absolute love of film. If you’ve seen him in interviews and especially from some of his segments on Turner Classic Movies, this man loves cinema — all types of cinema — and I don’t think it’s at all controversial to opine that he’s contributed greatly to cinema through his films.
But while I agree with many of his observations, I don’t agree with the breadth of his conclusions.
Films are made more by committee these days. They are tested and –more likely than not– drained of anything that might be “controversial” as the studios continue to be risk averse in a way that really doesn’t avoid risk (see the box office disappointment of the latest Terminator film). Filmmakers who want to find a voice, tell a singular story, or otherwise be unexpected do find an uphill battle in the face of the studios near monolithic insistence on their vision. And I don’t doubt that the majority of filmmakers would love to make films for the sizable silver screen versus streaming.
But I feel Scorsese is conflating this studio stubbornness and corporate zeal to eliminate “art as risk” with its current method of promoting this blandness: superhero movies.
And there’s a lot of nuance in here, because he clearly understands and loves all sorts of movies. He identifies Hitchcock films as the thrill rides of his day, but I think he discounts the character, craft, and sheer enjoyment one finds in superhero movies. He’s entirely fine to say, as he does, that superhero movies are not to his taste — I just don’t think it’s fair to say superhero movies are in poor taste.
To give an example using the rough equivalent of the “superhero” film of his time growing up: imagine if Studios not only favored Westerns, but they insisted on franchises of Westerns and any new idea was met with, “But can it be a Western?” I can’t imagine Scorsese would enjoy this state of affairs any more than the state of affairs with superhero films — and he’d probably say some of the same things.
And you know what? He’d be right that the studios are too dismissive of anything done for art’s sake. He’d be right that many a Western is weighed down with hoary tropes and is more of a thrill ride that a film that engages you on all levels, but he would not be right that westerns are second-class films as a genre or type by virtue of being Westerns. Amid the slickly produced, forgettable ones, there’s early classics like “Stagecoach” and more meditative affairs like “High Noon,” character-driven action like “Winchester ’73,” and operatic takes like “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Likewise, he’s missing all the character and nuance that you find in films like “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Black Panther.” Action sequences don’t take away from the tale of a man who dedicated his life to serve finding the institution he served has been betrayed from within. CGI armored rhinos don’t negate the nuance of a son coming to terms with things his father never told him as he tries to find a way to lead his people. I get that superhero films are thrill rides –the comics they’re based on have fight scenes and action sequences more often than not– but just like the Hitchcock films and Westerns of old, they’re not uniformly disposable trifles.
I suspect it’s hard not to conflate studio attitudes with superhero films because Scorsese is such a phenomenal, singular filmmaker. The studios are playing their superhero-franchise-over-everything-else card and that’s an impediment to precisely what Scorsese longs to do, (and what he’s done very well doing). He wants to make art. He understands that it’s show business, but he’s knows there’s art in the show and he’s presented with a bunch of drudges who feel showing art is bad.
And I bet if he was able to make all the films he pleased, he’d still be sad on behalf of the next generation of filmmakers.
For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.~Martin Scorsese
Like I said above, this guy loves art. Think of his appearance as Van Gogh in Dreams: he’s a painter who wants you to paint. He implores you to paint for the sheer joy of painting. I think he’s just forgetting there’s other paintings that are artful, even when they’re paintings the studios are trying to mass produce.
I’m so looking forward to The Irishman, but I’m also looking forward to several superhero films. There will be art in both I’m sure (and I still find myself coming back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s piece in response to Scorsese).
Everyone take it down a notch and enjoy some movies already.
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