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Martin Scorsese vs Marvel: Valid points about modern cinema aimed at wrong target?

Hugo, Martin Scorsese

Feature by Rob Carnevale

IT’S the debate that won’t go away. Martin Scorsese has taken on Marvel movies and feels they “aren’t cinema”.

The debate was sparked following an interview with Empire movie magazine in early October (2019) in which he described Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as films that are closer to “theme parks than they are to movies”.

Some of Marvel’s top filmmakers – such as Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn and Thor Ragnarok‘s Taika Waititi – subsequently hit back in their defence, prompting further comments from Scorsese but also fellow auteur filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Francis Ford Coppola, who went as far as saying: “Scorsese was being kind – Marvel movies are despicable.”

The debate was further fuelled this week. Firstly, at Sunday’s Hollywood Film Awards, the great and the good of Marvel attended the same ceremony as Scorsese and took the opportunity to further the pros of Marvel cinema.

Scorsese, meanwhile, sought to make things clearer about where he stood by writing an opinion piece in The New York Times, in which he begins by stating: “I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.”

His eloquent argument is a riveting read. And it’s filled with very valid points about the current state of modern cinema distribution, providing a very real warning with sentences like: “It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theatres than ever.”

This point cannot be faulted. A regular look at the weekly cinema listings does regularly display a bias towards the blockbuster releases of any month. Hence, whenever a new Marvel [or Disney] title is released, it’s hard to find the variety of choice that cinema should demand.

Smaller films inevitably suffer. As do some prestige titles that have to jostle for position with those films that are guaranteed to sell out the multiplex. It’s often left to the smaller, independent cinemas – such as Curzon and Picturehouse – to champion auteur and independent filmmaking, or even revive the classics.

Earlier this year, trying to find mainstream cinemas outside of London willing to screen films like Clint Eastwood’s The Mule [for more than a week] or Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers was difficult, if not impossible. You can forget many foreign language films. While I had to ensure I caught a press screening of the critically-acclaimed Peanut Butter Falcon to ensure I got to see it. And I live in Surrey!

Hence, when Scorsese states that “the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures”, he’s not wrong.

Similarly, I agree with this sentiment: “If you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”

Where I disagree, however, is in his more direct dismissal of Marvel, in particular.

A comment such as this – 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. – is open to criticism.

Avengers: Infinity War

True, not every Marvel film lands on all fronts. I have often criticised the overriding desire for most comic book films to culminate with a gigantic, effects-laden smack-down designed at saving the Earth, with inevitable good triumphing over evil outcomes. It is a genre requirement, after all.

But Marvel has increasingly begun to find ways of getting around this, of personalising the stakes. It has also provided platforms for some of the most innovative, inventive and subversive independent filmmakers to display their gifts on a wider canvas.

Take, for instance, Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, which won widespread acclaim for the way in which it took one of the MCU’s weakest characters and turned him on his head. Waititi’s use of self-deprecation was inspired. And yet he combined slapstick comedy with dark tragedy – the loss of Thor’s father (played by the great thesp Anthony Hopkins), as well as the personal crisis of confidence illustrated by Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. These were elements not commonly associated with a superhero movie, and which were subsequently credited with freshening the genre up.

Waititi is now in Oscar contention for his follow-up JoJo Rabbit, a return to his indie roots, that may – just may – get more theatrical recognition as a result of his association with Marvel (as well as the presence of Black Widow herself, Scarlett Johansson) in a prominent role.

A further example of an independent filmmaker being allowed to express himself within the Marvel medium is James Gunn, for his wildly subversive Guardians of the Galaxy films. The original was a genuine bolt out of the blue… a cinematic joy that rivalled Star Wars for the type of universe it created.

And while I was initially harsher on Volume 2, repeat viewings have exposed a highly dramatic vein running through it, as central characters wrestle with ‘daddy issues’, grief over the loss of a mother, sibling rivalry and personal sacrifice.

The film had narrative surprises mixed within some of its more shouty, comical elements. But the big reveal involving Kurt Russell’s Ego (and his role in the death of Peter Quill’s mother), as well as the story arc involving Yondu remain genuinely involving and surprising. Repeat viewings of Volume 2 show it to be unexpectedly emotional.

There are loads more examples. The major, fan-infuriating twist of The Mandorin’s reveal in Iron Man 3, courtesy of writer-director Shane Black, showed that comic book films could toy with expectation and run the risk of frustrating the faithful. True, Black and company had to fight to keep it, as revealed by Sir Ben Kingsley. But it remained nonetheless and proved a risk worth taking, arguably setting the scene for future Marvel-related twists.

Black Panther

More recently, Black Panther excited generations of cinema-goers by successfully becoming the first black superhero movie, as well as a comic book film that wasn’t afraid to get political; while Captain Marvel struck a blow for female empowerment, especially in its employment of indie stalwarts Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as co-writers and directors and in its steadfast refusal to pander to genre stereotypes involving female heroines (there were no exploitative elements, such as obligatory vest and knickers scenes, or sustained scenes of violence against women).

Captain America: Civil War overcame the superhero smack-down element my making things personal… the world at risk scenario exchanged for a more personal battle between two heroes (Captain America and Iron Man), who had been manipulated by a mysterious doctor (Daniel Bruhl) suffering from the anger and grief caused by the loss of his own family in the collateral damage created at the end of Age of Ultron.

You cannot underestimate the extent to which these Marvel films have so brilliantly been mapped out, thematically and emotionally.

Which brings us to the big two – Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, arguably the pinnacle of the MCU thus far.

Mark Ruffalo had this to say at the weekend’s Hollywood Film Awards: “The team at Marvel Studios did something that brought the whole world together. It’s not something you can do with just spectacle alone, by the way, but there’s plenty of that. What really speaks to people about these movies, I think, is the heart and humanity of characters, that’s what makes Avengers: Endgame so powerful to witness — these characters that care about and reckon with the world around them … to watch them struggle and survive and sometimes even say goodbye. That’s what makes it cinema.”

Without needing to add much to concur, both Infinity War and Endgame did create exactly the things that Scorsese accuses them of not: they possessed ‘revelation, mystery and genuine emotional danger’.

Infinity War boasted one of the most jaw-dropping climaxes of any recent film, delivered by a hero whose reason for being tapped into contemporary concerns about humanity’s toll on the planet. Few could have seen that coming.

But Endgame trumped that by placing the emotional journey of its core characters to the fore. Sure, there were plenty of battle scenes and ‘geek out’ moments for the comic die-hards. But there was real resonance… and emotional danger. Even within the final smack-down, there was loss (personal sacrifice) and so much going on. There were highs and lows.

Given the planning that had gone into this film and those that came before it, the resolutions to the story arcs were tear-jerking, whether in the widespread implications of Iron Man’s fate, or the bittersweet elements inherent in Captain America’s happy ending. Endgame wasn’t afraid to address big emotions (PTSD, grief, identity, bravery, fatherhood, atonement) while still delivering on the expected spectacle.

Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon in The Departed

I remain a huge admirer and fan of Scorsese. Films such as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Casino are rightly regarded as five-star classics. While The Departed – his most commercial of works and an Oscar winner – rates among my most favourite films of all time.

I also love his Wolf of Wall Street and Shutter Island (which counts Ruffalo among its primary stars). And we wouldn’t have Joker (another comic book hero working on a grander scale) without Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy.

In my opinion, a better target for Scorsese’s [valid] frustrations would be those films, or blockbusters, where risk and care seem to be in much shorter supply… more obvious titles that conform to Scorsese’s view of “the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption“.

He says of these types of films, “they are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit”, while highlighting “the gradual but steady elimination of risk” as one of his biggest concerns.

Here, there’s plenty to take aim at. Just this year we’ve seen failed attempts at a Terminator reboot, with Dark Fate bombing. Similarly, a Chris Hemsworth-featuring Men in Black revival stalled, as did a continued attempt to fashion a monster universe around Godzilla.

Not so long ago, DC and Warner Bros attempted to replicate the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its Batman Vs Superman films – ill-judged attempts to rush what Marvel had taken so long to create. Their failure arguably paved the way for the studio to take a shot at a film like Joker.

Even James Cameron’s Avatar, until this year the highest grossing film of all-time, is arguably a remake of better films such as Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. And there are four more of those films still to come!

Disney itself isn’t critic-free. Its decision to make live-action remakes of its classic animated back catalogue is an example of the risk-averse approach to filmmaking that Scorsese alludes to, with titles such as Aladdin, The Lion King and Dumbo flooding the multi-plexes this year.

These films are far more worthy of Scorsese’s comments than Marvel.

But if the longevity of this particular debate succeeds in doing anything, no matter where you sit, then let’s hope that one eventual outcome could be the willingness of film financiers, studios and multi-plexes to decide to take the risks that Scorsese is talking about and offer a more diverse slate of films for audiences to see in the future: a market-place in which The Irishman and The Avengers can happily co-exist with plenty of bums on seats for both.