From the moment Captain America punched Hitler in the face on the cover of his first comic, the medium became more than the sum of its parts. Sure, comics may be funny books for children, but (like all art) examples of excellence in the form transcend that limited definition. Unfortunately, the latest person to argue that they aren’t art is one of the greatest film directors of our time. In an interview with Empire magazine, Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies “aren’t cinema,” instead comparing them to theme park rides. With these comments, Scorsese joins the likes of Bill Maher and Marc Maron in deriding a narrative form steeped in the mythological traditions of stories dating back to the dawn of, well, stories.
Old myths couched their critique of the human condition in “answers” about scientific questions about the creation of the universe or where the sun goes at night. These modern myths, however, put their messages inside of fantastic stories about costumed nutjobs battling supervillains and malevolent robots. To be fair, Marvel Comics movies often include huge, violent conflicts that aren’t as intimately disturbing as, say, Joe Pesci being violently beaten to death and buried at the end of Casino. Yet, does this mean that the latter film is “cinema” and the MCU films are not? Obviously, I’m biased. But I’d say “No.”
Just as Scorsese’s films demand nuanced critique, so too do films like Avengers: Endgame or unpopular ones like X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Instead, these movies suffer from the same problem that plagued great storytellers like Shakespeare, Dickens, or even Stephen King. Anything made for “the masses” has to be low brow at best, right?
Martin Scorsese Says Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema Like His Films
Image by Peabody Awards via Flickr
Before we go any further, let’s make it clear: Martin Scorsese is a genius. Like them or not, his films are visually stunning, complex, and made with the kind of care only a true auteur gives their work. The real debate at play here is what the famed director really means by his comments about superhero movies. When Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies aren’t cinema, does this mean he thinks they are “bad” or does he simply not like them?
Here’s what he said, exactly, via The Guardian:
“The director…told Empire magazine that his attempts to get up to speed with contemporary superhero films had failed.
“’I tried; you know?’ the director said when asked if he had seen Marvel’s movies. ‘But that’s not cinema.’
“He continued: ‘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.’”
Director of both Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Franchise and the DC film The Suicide Squad, James Gunn replied to these comments on Twitter.
“Martin Scorsese is one of my 5 favorite living filmmakers. I was outraged when people picketed The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen the film. I’m saddened that he’s now judging my films in the same way. That said, I will always love Scorsese, be grateful for his contribution to cinema, and can’t wait to see The Irishman.”
Fans of both Marvel films and Scorsese also took to social media to vitriolically attack anyone who dared defend or criticize, even mildly, their preferred party in the debate. On one hand, this discourse disproves Scorsese’s point on its face. These “theme park” rides resonate deeply with people, so much so that reading an insult directed at the movies felt like an insult directed at them. As I can say from personal experience, this is a very similar reaction to what you’d get if you criticized Scorsese on social media. In this respect, both parties inspire similar passion in the audiences that love the stories they tell.
By Saying Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema, Martin Scorsese Is Definitely Insulting Them
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The critique from Scorsese about comic book films puts cinephiles who enjoy both them and the director in a difficult place. This led some folks who disagree with them to defend him by saying things like “It’s not an insult, I love theme parks!” Yet, there can be no question that Scorsese places this genre below his own work in the hierarchy of art. His films require audiences to empathize with characters, consider different perspectives, and (hopefully) come to some realization about the human condition. Marvel movies, according to Scorsese, do none of those things. It’s also not the first time he’s made comments like this.
Back in January of 2017, Scorsese told the AP that “Cinema is gone.” He lamented that the only “communal experience” in a theater comes from “theme-park movie(s).” Though, to be fair, he also noted in that same interview that he’s an old man lamenting that things aren’t as good as when he was a kid. Yet, he came of age as filmmaker in a tumultuous time in the country. His first film A Big Shave is just six minutes of Peter Bermuth cutting himself bloody. It’s not particularly compelling or pleasing to look at. Yet, analysis of the film suggests that this was a critique of the Vietnam war, because the short film also had the title of Viet ’67. While this short isn’t a favorite of mine, I don’t doubt its artistic merit just because the message doesn’t resonate with me. If only similar considerations were given to genre pieces by those who see themselves as above that sort of thing.
Martin Scorsese Is Right, Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema Like His, They Are Actually Hopeful
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Similarly, some of Scorsese’s early films focused on intimate violence, despair, and tragic consequences. Boxcar Bertha romanticizes a Bonnie & Clyde pair of train robbers who take violent, bloody revenge on corrupt authorities. Meanstreets follows a Catholic man torn between his faith and his criminal behavior. When he tries to escape it, he’s rewarded with a bullet in his neck. Taxi Driver turns psychopath and racist Travis Bickle into a hero (albeit mistakenly) in the film and in the eyes of the audience. King of Comedy takes sad-sack comedian Rupert Pupkin and turns him into a “King for a Night” after kidnapping a popular television host. After Pupkin’s release from prison, he enjoys great success. (Although his happy ending in the picture could be just a fantasy.) Even his recent films, like Wolf of Wall Street, glorify criminals as much as (or more than) they critique them.
However, it’s Scorsese’s mafia movies that really underscore a somewhat twisted concept of “heroes” and “villains.” In Goodfellas and Casino, the mob gets painted as an organization based on honor and traditions respected by our protagonists. Also, they’d likely all do very well for themselves if not for That One Guy (usually played by Joe Pesci), who kickstarts all the trouble. Perhaps they aren’t shown as noble heroes as some dummies on Twitter (Read: me) suggested, but they aren’t all-the-way bad guys either. Other films like Gangs of New York and The Departed treated the central criminal organizations less charitably, though their violence is almost fetishized by the director. And while things don’t turn out well for the folks in The Departed, the “hero” of the piece is a cop whose last act is the extrajudicial killing of a corrupt colleague. Scorsese’s ethos seems to be that heroes don’t exist, only villains do.
Even Scorsese’s foray into mythical storytelling, the aforementioned The Last Temptation of Christ, posits that Jesus Christ would become a bad person if he didn’t die young. In the beginning of the film, one of the greatest pacifists in all of religion builds crosses for Romans to use to kill Judean rebels. Even “God” isn’t perfect in Scorsese’s eyes.
The Mythical Tradition of Comic Book Movies and Stories
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Joseph Campbell, author of the book Hero with a Thousand Faces, spent his life studying the mythology of different cultures and finding the similarities therein. What he discovered became the ultimate blueprint for any epic story before or since. For example, a year after Taxi Driver debuted a film called Star Wars delivered a story in the exact opposite in tone of the Scorsese classic. George Lucas based his film on Campbell’s work in order to tap into the collective human unconscious where these common stories are born. Where Scorsese almost glamorizes personal violence and despair, Lucas kept the violence abstract and focused his story on characters who are inordinately hopeful. At the time, some critics derided the galaxy far, far away as nonsense whimsy for children. Yet, that the Star Wars saga stays rooted in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey means that it shares at least some DNA with the classics. Comic book movies are the same way.
These characters are far more complex than people are willing to give them credit for, as are the films in which they appear. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a big spectacle action film. Yet, it’s also a tale about the paradox of safety and security in a society that values free thought and liberty. It’s also tells a very human story about two best friends who lost each other and then find each other on opposite sides of the same war. Instead of killing his friend, Captain America risks his own life to save him and bring him back to the light. One can’t just write off these movies as brainless whimsy without doing some work, just like one has to do to find the Vietnam allegory in The Big Shave. Commentary on the human condition is all over mythology, and that includes comic books and movies based on them.
The Martin Scorsese Marvel Movies Divide Is One Of Age, But Not The Way You Think
Image via public domainIn his 2017 comments, Scorsese says that his opinion sounds like that of an “old man.” This is relevant, but not in the way Scorsese suggests. The “mood” of the culture in the late 1960s and 1970s is markedly different than today. After the plague of assassinations, civil strife, and war that marked that era, people felt cynical. Someone like Travis Bickle appealed to people not because of his villainy, but rather because of the way he rebelled against a flawed system.
Films like Scorsese’s early works and the theme-park rides of that day, Death Wish or the Dirty Harry films, all echoed that malaise. In a post-9/11 world, however, people turned to more hopeful fare, some dressed up as characters from the favorite stories of their youth. Captain America is a hero who does try to punch his way out of trouble, but he also maintains a kind of moral consistency that we real-world humans don’t have the luxury of anymore. Fans don’t watch these films hoping these heroes come to life to “save” everyone. Rather they watch these films hoping to see something of themselves in these new gods. And, perhaps, something to aspire to.
The last key feature is that, save for some aberrations in this pattern, these superheroes don’t actively try to kill their enemies. In fact, they sometimes save their lives, such as the Joker in The Dark Knight, clearly delineating those who fight for death (despair) and life (hope). Stories like that are about as far from the type of stories Scorsese tells as one can get. This is not to say one is better nor worse than the other. They are merely different, and that difference is likely generational. Baby Boomer-era figures like Scorsese saw themselves ready to take over and change the world, only to fail spectacularly. Not only do they know no superheroes will ever save us, they may fear that “saving” the world isn’t even something worth doing.
You Can Not Like These Movies but You Don’t Get to Decide If They Are Art or Not
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Martin Scorsese is a living legend, and no one is saying he should be forced to watch, enjoy, or direct a comic book film. No, the problem is that Martin Scorsese says that Marvel Movies aren’t cinema or art. It’s not that Scorsese says the films aren’t for him, he’s implying that have little-to-no artistic value. That’s not just unfair but it can feel like an attack on those who find real artistic meaning in these stories. Filmmaker Kevin Smith, a super-fan himself, frequently talks about how the scene between Tony Stark and his father in Endgame gave him his own “father back” for a brief moment. Perhaps Scorsese really does believe that these mega-franchises diminish the communal power of cinema to tell stories about the human condition. Or, perhaps, he’s accidentally become the kind of closed-minded cinematic gatekeeper that once stood against auteurs like him and his contemporaries. The “proliferation of images” on phones, computers, and tablets he decried in his 2017 comments are often images made by amateur artists using similar devices to make films they wouldn’t be able to make otherwise.
Die-hard Scorsese fans probably ripped their hair out by the roots reading my one-sentence summaries of some of his legendary films. While I stand by them, I also admit that they are reductive in a way that’s not fair. A movie like Boxcar Bertha or Taxi Driver deserves more consideration than a single sentence (or tweet) allows. Yet, this is exactly the sort of reductive and uncharitable assessment Scorsese offers up about comic book movies. The only difference is, I’ve seen his movies and he’s not watched the comic book films. From the giant movie factories like Marvel to smaller one-off comic adaptations, these films tell very human stories. They just don’t have to wallow in pain and misery for 90 minutes to find something beautiful to show us. (Except maybe Joker.)
That said, I echo James Gunn’s sentiment that I can’t wait to see The Irishman.
Featured image by Dick Thomas Johnson via Wikimedia Commons
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.