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Martin Scorsese on Marvel superhero films: “not cinema”

ByReuben Bharucha

Oct 24, 2019

Martin Scorsese recently made news, and not just for the release of The Irishman, heralded as his greatest film since Goodfellas. No, Scorsese made headlines a few weeks ago by claiming in an interview with Empire that Marvel superhero films are “not cinema”.

Scorsese’s main point was that he had attempted to watch a Marvel film but found the experience more similar to a theme park than a cinema, arguing that cinema was “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”.

Whilst his statement may seem out of touch, unjustified and unwarranted, there is something to be said about Scorsese’s underlying criticism of current corporate filmmaking.

Scorsese belongs to the wave of New Hollywood filmmakers of the 1970s that revolutionised American film industry, and the root of his critique can be found in its origins. Largely a reaction against the increasingly sterile and mass-produced films of the 50s and 60s, New Hollywood filmmakers took inspiration from European cinema and based their productions on the theory of auteurship, built around the idea of film as the vision of a director.

Starting off with shoestring budgets and working outside the studio system, a group of young filmmakers began to experiment and, in the process, revitalised American cinema. They would eventually emerge as the leaders of a new era of film – an era in which some of the greatest, most successful films of all time were made, from Easy Rider and The Godfather to Taxi Driver and Star Wars. By the late 70s/early 80s though, the system had changed. Studios realised that total artistic freedom was no longer necessary to ensure box-office success and began to reassert control.

Fast-forward to now, and the cinematic landscape is polarised between low-budget indie or studio-backed ‘arthouse’ films and big-budget studio blockbusters often about superheroes. The former gets awards, the latter money.

They seem to be peacefully coexisting, but one clearly dominates in terms of viewership and marketing. It is nonetheless very difficult for more original, large-budget films to be made. Scorsese was forced to make The Irishman with Netflix as no other studio would foot the bill.

So where does Marvel fit in? Although now a subsidiary of the megacorporation that is Disney, Marvel has done an admirable job of hiring generally unknown indie directors to helm their projects, from Jon Favreau and Shane Black, to Scott Derrickson and even Taika Waititi. And it seems as if they get a fair amount of creative freedom. But how much? Edgar Wright famously left Ant-man citing creative differences but so far he seems to have been an outlier.

Despite these visionary directors, Marvel films still feel like they are made in a lab by scientists. Not as much as the new Star Wars films, maybe, but there is an element of 3-D-printed universal appeal to Marvel films.

Each director may have their own individual tone and take on their film, but they share overarching similarities and feel a bit generic. And I think this is what Scorsese was getting at. The films may be fun, entertaining, make you laugh at the right parts and make you sad at the right parts. Like theme parks, you leave them feeling energised, exhilarated and with a childlike grin, but they rarely stay with you.

Don’t take this the wrong way, there is room for crowd-pleasing, no-holds-barred superhero fun, but Marvel films sometimes feel like really flashy Corvettes. Loud, brash, attention-grabbing and a lot of fun to watch, but after they round the next corner, forgotten.


Image: Siebbi via Wikipedia

By Reuben Bharucha

Film and TV Editor

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