Scorsese's right about film being in trouble, but Marvel isn't all to blame

Commentary: It doesn't really matter whether the legendary director of The Irishman likes Captain America, but we should listen to his warnings.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
5 min read

Martin Scorsese has strong ideas about what is or isn't cinema as he promotes The Irishman.

Ernesto S. Ruscio

He's been making films for six decades. He just united the finest actors of a generation in what could be a collective swan song. But never mind all that. Did you hear Martin Scorsese doesn't like Marvel movies?

Yes, the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street happened to mention he isn't keen on superhero flicks, and it's slightly overshadowed the release of his new crime epic The Irishman. So much so that Scorsese penned a New York Times opinion piece this week clarifying his position.

In recent interviews promoting The Irishman, Scorsese said Marvel movies are "not cinema." Instead, he describes these effects-driven, comic-based blockbusters as theme park rides. What's more, the 76-year-old director decries the "sameness" of Marvel movies and their lack of "revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger."

Strong words. In recent weeks fellow directors Francis Ford Coppola and Ken Loach also joined the pile-on, criticizing Marvel and superhero movies in general.

However, it's not as simple as "grumpy older men taking potshots at things the kids like." In fact, Scorsese isn't just trying to piss off Marvel fans, but making some vital points about the state of filmmaking today. Looking closer, he's making two related but distinct arguments. To be precise, Scorsese has reservations about Marvel films on screen and off.

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The Irishman is Scorsese's star-studded epic on Netflix.


Marty says he's seen a few Marvel movies -- we'd love to know which ones -- but their characters lack depth. Yet for a decade, millions of viewers and fans have come back to the Marvel Universe over and over out of love for those characters. You only have to look at Tumblr to see what those characters mean to people, or look at the reaction to Scorsese's comments from aggrieved fans.

But he acknowledges Marvel movies just aren't his idea of a good time, and that's OK. Marvel doesn't float his boat, but those of us who do enjoy them can continue to do so and -- get this -- can continue to enjoy Scorsese films too. 

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Try telling these guys that Marvel movies don't have great characters.

Marvel Studios

More importantly, Scorsese laments the setup of the filmmaking industry, and the effect Marvel's dominance over pop culture has on the industry.

It's tempting to assume Scorsese uses Marvel as shorthand for Disney , or for effects-led, spectacle-driven franchise blockbusters in general. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe , and the effort rivals put into cloning that success, makes the MCU the most high-profile example of the big-budget event movie, the kind of tentpole release other studios are desperate to replicate with endless reboots and sequels. 

So the timing of this brouhaha is interesting: Joker, a superhero movie without any superheroes or even any spectacular visual effects sequences, spends over a month at the top of the box office to become the most successful R-rated movie ever, while another FX-led franchise entry, the terminally uninspired Terminator: Dark Fate, follows Dark Phoenix into the darkness of box office oblivion, along with the likes of Hellboy and failed franchise-starter Alita: Battle Angel. Does that mean audiences are tired of superheroics and sequels and spectacle?

Clearly not. In the past 12 months Aquaman, Endgame and not one but two Spider-Man flicks have all been smash hits, and the MCU and Star Wars and their ilk are booked into theaters for years to come. And Joker may be indebted to Scorsese with its loving re-creation of the director's classic The King of Comedy, but it's not an actual Scorsese movie. When it comes to grown-up movies that aren't franchises, we didn't exactly flock to Ad Astra, The Kitchen, Ready or Not, Harriet... The list of under-appreciated films goes on. 

We might say we want interesting and unique films -- what Scorsese calls "cinema" -- but when a trip to the movies costs so much and there's a million streaming services available on the comfort of our sofa, we're clearly voting with our wallets.

Which is as good a time as any to mention another irony of Scorsese's definition of cinema: The Irishman will appear in only a selection of theaters before streaming on Netflix on Nov. 27. Netflix was the only one willing to foot the bill, and so most people will see this cinematic landmark on their TV, tablet or phone. Meanwhile Marvel movies will be a jewel in the crown of new streaming service Disney Plus when it launches Nov. 12. In theory, streaming should be a boon for cinephiles like Marty, but an ever-expanding field of streaming services doesn't necessarily mean a wider or deeper catalogue of great films. In his essay, Scorsese highlights The Steel Helmet, Persona, It's Always Fair Weather, Scorpio Rising, Vivre Sa Vie and The Killers as some of his fave classic films. Try finding them on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus or Apple TV Plus.


Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the red carpet for The Irishman in London.

Jeff Spicer

The things we choose to watch create a feedback loop with the things that get made. Even when Scorsese teamed with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and the rest of his once-in-a-lifetime cast, nobody wanted to stump up the cash for The Irishman. OK, The Irishman is an expensive movie that took a long time to make -- thanks to the extensive use of digital de-aging effects also used by, you guessed it, Marvel -- but even so, it's not a great state of affairs if a film with that pedigree struggles to get made.

Scorsese succinctly sums things up when he says, "There's worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there's cinema." The debate about what is or isn't cinema, what is or isn't art, is old and boring so let's just agree with his broader point: that the financial dominance of big blockbusters over other types of films can "marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other." For an example of that, look at how Disney has locked away the back catalogue of classic Fox movies after buying the rival studio.

When each new Marvel movie is a billion-dollar event, that's good business for Disney and for theaters. But if that's the only business model that works, it could set the moviegoing experience onto a course that ends with only one kind of movie on the big screen, if any big screens are left at all.

So maybe Marty didn't love Ant-Man. That doesn't really matter. But he's right that we're in a transition point for cinema, or the audiovisual entertainment industry, or whatever you want to call it. As Scorsese enters the twilight of his career, there are more opportunities than ever for new filmmakers to make "content" for television, streaming services, big screens and small -- but the question is whether cinema will survive in the form that Scorsese is so infectiously passionate about.

Everyone has a part to play. Critics need to champion smaller movies. Theaters need to make sure a trip to the movies is a rewarding experience. And we can all go and enjoy the latest Marvel blockbuster, but let's try and see other stuff too.

Do it for cinema. Do it for Marty.

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Originally published Nov. 5.