What does Martin Scorsese, the legendary American-Italian filmmaker, really mean by his criticism of Marvel movies? In the aftermath of Joker's release, Martin Scorsese was asked about his opinion on Marvel blockbusters. Suffice to say he isn't a fan, going so far as to observe that, in his view, they're "not cinema."
The resulting firestorm of online debate has been curious, to say the least. Fans wasted no time in stepping up in Marvel's defense, and they've been joined by actors and directors such as Robert Downey Jr., James Gunn, Joss Whedon and Samuel L. Jackson. It's perhaps curious so many people seem to feel Marvel needs to be defended; the reality is this is Hollywood's hottest property, a studio who recently made history when Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing film of all time. And yet, there remains a strange degree of insecurity in the Marvel fanbase, who are unable to forget the decades when Hollywood dismissed their heroes with amusement, and point to the fact Marvel Studios is yet to net a Best Picture Oscar.
As a result, Scorsese's argument has largely been overlooked, treated merely as an example of cinematic snobbery. That's actually been quite easy to do, simply because Scorsese's words were fairly clumsy, and he'd no doubt have expressed himself much better had he realized how controversial his comments would become. So just what is Martin Scorsese trying to say about Marvel Studios?
Scorsese's Criticism of the Marvel Formula
Scorsese generally tries to avoid talking about his dislikes, instead trying to focus attention on films he's enjoyed watching. During an interview with Empire, however, he aired his views on Marvel - and admitted he's not a fan. "I don't see them," he noted. "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."
Scorsese sees cinema as an art form that explores the reality of the human condition, allowing viewers to enter into another person's world and experience their lives. To Scorsese, the Marvel movies simply don't achieve this; they're pretty formulaic, often reducing characters down to their most basic elements, and they depend on spectacle and adrenaline rather than psychology and emotion. That's presumably what he's getting at when he calls them "theme parks." Good actors can breathe life into the script, but in Scorsese's view they're fighting against the tide. That's why Scorsese would insist he isn't slighting the likes of stars like Robert Downey Jr., or directors like the Russo brothers, but instead is critiquing the entire process Marvel follows making their movies.
Marvel Movies Don't Allow Directors The Chance To Experiment
Scorsese's recent comments are a little indistinct, which perhaps explains the strength of reaction they've engendered online; but this isn't actually the first time Scorsese has criticized Marvel, and earlier remarks are a little more illuminating. In chapter 104 of his Master Class, entitled "Discovering your process," Scorsese discussed his opinion on blockbusters in general when it comes to the film-making process. There, Scorsese explained he believes there's a certain magic to directing a film, which the most skilled directors are aware of at all times.
There's a sense in which Scorsese views a film as a living thing, that can head in unexpected and unpredictable directions; in his view, the best directors have the freedom to react during the film-making process, adapting their ideas in response to lighting, the inspiration of a location, a detail in costume-work, the dynamic between two actors, anything of a thousand things. "You have to stay open to what's happening right in front of you," he noted, "around you, at every single moment as you envision a scene, as you work on the scene with the crew and with the cast." This lies at the core of his criticism of Marvel - and, in truth, blockbusters of that ilk. They are, in his mind, almost "director free." He criticized them as being “like a succession of line readings, in a sense. Good script, really good actors, you can enjoy it, but I don’t feel it’s cinema. I don’t feel it’s a film, somehow."
Marvel movies are more producer-led than they are director-led, and the almost-unbroken run of hits is a testimony to the creative vision of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. Under Feige, Marvel Studios has become a production line of superhero content, signposted by the fact they're able to churn out three or even four films in quick succession. Scripts have a loose "formula" to them, common to both their best and their worst, and there's a characteristic house style that directors are expected to correspond with. Risks aren't particularly encouraged, because Marvel is always making a movie with an eye to the next sequel or crossover. It's not hard to see why Marvel has taken this approach; it means they generate a lot of content without running the risk of a dud like Fantastic Four, but it also means they're never going to create something as unique or distinctive as Logan or Joker.
Does Martin Scorsese Have A Point?
All in all, then, it's hard not to conclude Martin Scorsese has something of a point. He's overstating the case when he claims Marvel movies aren't cinema, of course; the truth is more that they're a different kind of cinema. The comparison to a production line is a fairly appropriate one, because Kevin Feige has essentially created a system that guarantees a certain level of box office success, and Marvel's directors have a strictly-defined role in that process. Indeed, even Feige sometimes unwittingly admits as much; he's noted Marvel doesn't tend to worry about getting experienced action directors, because they have a team who can handle that side of things. Scorsese would be appalled at the idea there's a part of a film the director doesn't control.
This may partly explain the ferocity of the reaction online. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, envisioning a scenario where a person over-reacts in defense because they quietly sense a degree of truth in the criticism. But it is important to note Scorsese goes too far, in part because he himself admits he hasn't watched many Marvel films. If he had done so, he'd realize that - while directors operate within certain constraints - they are allowed a greater degree of freedom than he thinks. Compare Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok to Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, for example, two very different films even though they exist in the same shared cinematic universe.
Furthermore, Scorsese over-romanticizes the film-making process, in part because of the position of prestige he's in. While studios would never dare to challenge a director like Scorsese, most film-makers have long since realized that making a movie is something of a balancing act. Studios invest a lot of money in each film, and they have to be confident of a return of investment. As a result, they expect to partner with a director during production, and they can and do intervene in order to make sure a movie will be profitable. Cinema isn't just an art form; it's also a business. Kevin Feige's Marvel Studios veers more towards the business side, and that's just something Martin Scorsese doesn't like.
- Black Widow (2020) release date: May 01, 2020
- Eternals (2020) release date: Nov 06, 2020
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) release date: Feb 12, 2021
- Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2021) release date: May 07, 2021
- Spider-Man: Homecoming 3 (2021) release date: Jul 16, 2021
- Thor: Love and Thunder (2021) release date: Nov 05, 2021
- Black Panther 2 (2022) release date: May 06, 2022