Martin Scorsese: Are Marvel Movies Cinema?

In 2019 Martin Scorsese said to Empire Magazine that he doesn’t go to see Marvel movies and thus doesn’t go to see them. But the way in which he phrased this – “I tried, you know. But that’s not cinema” – proved to be one of the most controversial things said within the mainstream movie industry in recent years. Not the least because thousands, maybe even millions of people, had become fans of the long running franchise that was soon to meet it’s spiritual end with the release of Avengers Endgame. But also because that very same year he released a four hour film of his own, The Irishman, which unintentionally on his behalf set up the idea that what he makes is worthy of being called cinema and what Marvel makes is not. Again, unintended as this symbolism was, it became more ironic due to the fact his film launched on the Netflix streaming services, after premiering at a film festival, while Avengers Endgame launched in cinemas.

I know this is all old news at this point and has been debated to death, but now that it’s all in the past I find it’s easier to take a more logical and sensible look at what was said and what it means, without all the hefty emotional reactions in-between. Sometimes doing these things in retrospect allows for views and opinions to be better communicated or, at the very least, understood.

This leads directly into my first point which is Scorsese was stating an opinion, not some be-all, end-all statement. But, by the nature of the way modern media communicates this type of “news” and the snowball effect that social media uses to promote reactionary discourse, it was inevitable that Scorsese’s words would be perceived as controversial gospel. But as Scorsese himself writes on the matter in a New York Times article, “Some people seem to have seized on the last part of my answer as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part. If anyone is intent on characterizing my words in that light, there’s nothing I can do to stand in the way.” If you’re sitting there thinking that this is obvious, just remember that it wasn’t to a lot of people at the time, or else there wouldn’t have been any controversy to begin with. Alas, outrage culture reigns supreme.

But perhaps more important than how news is reported, is how news is consumed. I went through a number of online articles that had reported this “news” and found that every one I read, regardless of if they agreed or disagreed with Scorsese’s opinion, also included a quote from him in which he acknowledged the time and effort that goes into making superhero films: “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.” And why wouldn’t Scorsese acknowledge how hard it must be to make a film? He’s one of the most well known and successful directors out there. Regardless of how he feels about these Marvel movies, he respects the work that goes into them. As examples, here is an article by the Guardian that feels indifferent to Scorsese’s opinion, and one by Metro that is positioned against his opinion that both include this quote. The mere inclusion of the quote cuts Scorsese some slack from critics because they’re at least including his entire phrasing, rather than cherry-picking the controversial bits (that’s exclusive to the clickbait headlines)… So, why is it that the movie-going public didn’t cut him slack also?

Honestly it’s because no one reads these articles. Well, at least not the people vocal or insecure enough to get riled up by someone having an opinion that doesn’t perfectly synchronise with theirs. Because, and let’s not beat around the bush here, while there was reasonable discourse being had, there was also a lot of very angry people due to the way social media promotes outrage. So my diagnosis is that these people read the hundreds of hundreds of headlines that DID cherry-pick the controversial quotes that said something along the lines of “Martin Scorsese doesn’t consider Marvel films cinema”, didn’t read any of the context, and instead began this very overly defensive discussion about Marvel. And even though it’s easy to demonise people who do this sort of thing and who are a little insecure/in need of validation, I think it would be foolish to do so. I don’t know if any of you own snapchat, but news reporting on that site normally consists of a half naked man/woman, a flirtatious or controversial headline, followed by maybe two or three paragraphs of insignificant garbage that more or less just rephrases the headline two or three times over. It’s designed to be consumed in the quickest most digestible way possible for people who’s attention spans are slowly deteriorating. Sure, while the articles surrounding Scorsese and Marvel weren’t meant to be read this way (those sites get money from clicks), they sure as hell were meant to be circulated that way. The truth is, it’s more complicated than “a bunch of idiots didn’t read the whole article and thus had poorly thought out opinions”. I think the truth is that the way news media is consumed and circulated online was and still is changing, and thus not everybody it going to absorb information in the same way. And what certainly doesn’t help this matter is that there are so many online news publications that once you’ve read one article you’ve essentially read all of them. Even those two articles I previously linked to, where one seems indifferent towards the Marvel debate and the other is positioned against Scorsese, both present the same exact same information. So when 101 articles all of the same headline, “Marvel isn’t cinema”, containing the exact same information pop up all over social media, of course no one is going to want to read that because, y’know, we got better things to do.

This type of media consumption isn’t healthy, and neither is the way online news outlets put their stories forward. Ideally more consumers should strive to get the full context on the stories that interest them, and not just the outrageous headline’s bias summary. Equally, news outlets should aspire to not manufacture false outrage news and controversy off of something so trivial as and old man not liking superhero films.

But, with all this in mind, how exactly can we determine (if it is possible) whether or not Marvel movie are cinema? Well first, let’s break down Scorsese said and how those who disagreed argued against him.

The actual quote that started this whole debacle was “I tried, you know. But that’s not cinema.” The first, and weakest, argument against Scorsese seems to be writers picking out notable scenes of character development in Marvel films and then saying “how can you say this isn’t cinema!?” Well the answer is simple: Scorsese hasn’t seen that very specific moment that you only pulled out as a reaction to his broad comment. His exact words were “I tried”, implying that he started watching these movies and then stopped because he doesn’t like them. Why on Earth would he continue watching these movies, all the way up to the ends of these character arcs you cite (which often take two or three movies to complete) if he isn’t entertained by them?

But perhaps more obvious than that, why on Earth would a 76 year old man who’s filmography consists of films that are almost entirely slow-burners with short, yet climactic, endings (think films like Shutter Island or The Irishman) want to sit through a 24 film saga of high octane CGI action? That’s not to say the man hasn’t made any more eccentric films (Cape Fear comes to mind), but that literally everything he has made seems to indicate he is the opposite type of person Disney and Marvel are marketing their films towards… The fact he isn’t a young person also suggests this. Even films like Goodfellas, which I’d say is a slightly quicker paced movie of his, tend to have their most suspenseful moments laced within slower, tense scenes.

The next argument seems to be that Marvel movies make lots of money and therefore they’re cinema. The way this argument is frequently presented implies that the amount of money a film earns also correlates to the overall quality of it, which- Erm, no! I think The Rise of Skywalker sunk that ship, along with all these dumb Terminator sequels we keep getting for some reason. Not only that, but incredibly low budget films, like John Carpenter’s Halloween, prove that something great can be made with few resources if there is a clear vision and the right amount of dedication to the project. But then again, Scorsese never mentioned anything about money in his opinion, so bringing it up in response to him is kind of weak.

A second and similar answer that keeps reappearing is that “just because Marvel movies don’t earn awards doesn’t mean their worse than other movies”. Again, Scorsese never suggests any such thing in his comment. Bringing it up as a response on signifies how insecure and defensive people can be about liking something.

This next argument is used much less frequently and is harder to come by, but I still thought it was worth mentioning: Some said that The Irishman being released at film festival and then Netflix, while the Marvel line-up got into actual cinemas proved that Scorsese was wrong… I think today’s pandemic climate has proven this wrong. Disney has released a number of new releases online via their streaming service, one of which was a Marvel film (Black Widow) due to the fact cinemas were closed. Though over priced, it proved to be a much more convenient, if a little less eventful, way of viewing new releases than going to the cinema. Ironically, it seems films don’t need to be in the cinema to be considered cinema. Since originally writing this, Scarlet Johansson has actually sued Disney for putting Black Widow on their streaming service because it wasn’t in her contract that they should be able to do that, given that the actor’s pay come’s out of the box office revenue which is generated from cinemas. On Disney’s behalf, they’re showing a lack of faith in cinemas going forward from this pandemic.

To summarise:
-Profit does not indicate a film is cinema.
-Awards do not indicate a film is cinema.
-Being shown in the actual cinema does not indicate a film is cinema.

It’s not looking good for Marvel. But, here’s the thing, I actually disagree with Martin on this one. I, personally do think Marvel movies are cinema… Or at least that they can be. I just disagree with these extremely dumb and arbitrary ways the insecure and vocal minority, perpetually promoted by toxic social media algorithms, have chosen to argue in response to Scorsese’s opinion. So, let me offer my response instead. Just stop me if I for one minute assume Marvel want the elderly to be interested by their 120 minute action-packed, seizure inducing light-shows.

Now, when you sit down to watch a Marvel movie there is normally a 50/50 between it being an actual film or just a corporate product. A film is something that gets you thinking, makes you feel emotions and, hopefully, leaves you entertained for a while. Think of the original Iron Man; It’s a sort of redemption story for an asshole billionaire who is humbled in the biggest possible way, by being taken hostage by terrorists who captured him using the weapons he manufactures, who then tries to turn his life around. Not only does it have the action everyone expects of a summer blockbuster, but it’s got heart soul and talent poured into it. It genuinely a well written film for what it is, aside from the final battle being a little contrived, and has a lot of great acting and character moments. Regardless of whether you like the film, it is certainly a film – not a corporate product – and therefore cinema in my eyes.

But then you have the other Marvel films like Ant Man and the Wasp… Who the hell remembers what happened in Ant Man and the Wasp? I mean other than Ant Man and the Wasp teaming up? I haven’t watched the original Iron Man since before Ant Man and the Wasp released and I can still recall its plot clearly, but I draw a blank on this much more recent Marvel film. I think Ant Man fights a lady dressed in white, then Paul Rudd makes some witty remarks and Michael Duglas looks at the camera and says “I wish I was in a better movie”, and then it ends. The only thing I genuinely remember about this film is that Ant Man gets stuck in the shrink zone (It’s probably not called the shrink zone), and that sets up Avengers Endgame. And the reason I remember that is because it’s relevant to the set up of a film that is much better, and whose purpose wasn’t to be a filler movie with only one relevant scene. It’s a corporate product, as far as I’m concerned, that I don’t consider to be cinema.

For every Captain America: The Winter Soldier in the MCU, you have another Captain Marvel. One’s about a man out of time adjusting to a world that has moved on without him, and one he no longer knows how to protect, and the other is about an invincible alien whose character arc is that she just needs to become more invincible by thinking about that one time she fell off a rope in army training. Some prove you can have self contained character arcs, or even ones that stretch the franchise, while others are concerned with one thing only: Setting up the next film because money has to be made, damn it.

Good or bad, these Marvel films aren’t supposed to be complex. Saying that they aren’t cinema because they all end with a big light in the sky with all the heroes fighting on a rooftop is like saying cowboy movies aren’t cinema because they all end in a shootout. And while I do agree with the larger point that Scorsese tries to convey in his comments, that he thinks cinema should be about actors conveying emotion to communicate a larger story, I don’t think that’s all we should limit cinema to. Don’t get me wrong, those things are great – I felt these exact things were done perfectly in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the first film I reviewed on this blog that wasn’t a Godzilla movie because I enjoyed how it conveyed it’s story through the characters so much that I felt as though I had to write about it. The same goes for my recent review of Alexander, but because of how it tried to do those things and failed along the way. Hell, for all it’s failures, I’d still consider Alexander to be cinema over something like Captain Marvel. And, objectively awful as it was, the fact I was thoroughly entertained by it makes low budget, but fun, crap like Godzilla vs Megalon closer to being cinema than the snore-fest that was Antman and the Wasp.

But sometimes I do have to switch my brain off. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don ‘t think there’s anything inherently wrong with shlock cinema so long as we all remain aware that it’s schlock. And, don’t be mistaken, a lot of Marvel movie are schlock. Most of the later X-Men movies look like medium-budget TV shows where they fight increasingly dangerous villains that the team seems to struggle to communicate the power of. And while I do find that some of the X-Men movies, like Apocalypse for example, take themselves far too seriously to be enjoyed, others like Dark Phoenix are the perfect mix of semi-self aware but also paradoxically melodramatic that they can be enjoyed for the mediocrity that they are. My point is that I would consider schlock to be cinema… So long that the schlock is fun. The Amazing Spiderman 2 is an example of schlock that isn’t good. It’s not so goofy and bad that you can enjoy it as a so-bad-it’s-good film, it’s just boring and uninteresting with nothing to get yourself invested in.

I spoke a lot in my review series of Godzilla about how many of the later entries were pretty bad from an objective stand point, but what makes them so legendary is that they’re always so sincere and full of heart. I feel that if schlock can show that sort of passion and dedication to the project that it, regardless of it’s short comings, has a chance to be enjoyable from a certain point of view. And like Godzilla, as well as many other long-lived franchises, there are the Marvel films that do this and the ones that don’t. The ones that do are cinema, in my opinion. The rest? Nothing but a senseless theme park ride.

All this to say that while I do agree with Scorsese, I would still challenge him by suggesting that perhaps we can expand what “cinema” is, given how varied and diverse films can get from one and other.

And while all this may sound a little condescending towards Marvel, I do think there are some genuinely excellent superhero films out there that stand up as genuine cinema. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an action-thriller that can be enjoyed when watched in isolation from the MCU even if you don’t like superhero movies. Spiderman 2 is a film with half as much action of anything else in the Rami trilogy, but which also has such a tight focus on telling the story of Peter Parker’s struggle leading a double life that many fans consider it to be a great character study. Speaking of character driven tales, Logan is one of the best superhero films out there simply because it doesn’t concern itself with being a superhero movie for the most part; It’s a great drama with a couple of scenes of creative action tossed inside. I’d even go so far as to say I thought Logan was one of the best films to come out in 2017. Then you have the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy which carry the “superhero” label, but which feel like their own self contained sci-fi misadventures more than anything else, the likes of which make you laugh and pull on your heart strings. These example aren’t just enjoyable schlock, they’re worthy films of being recognised for what they are.

And what they are is cinema.

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