When Martin Scorsese makes a judgment about what is and isn’t cinema, film writers sit up and listen. Or we ought to. And British writers ought to listen to him with special humility and respect. In the 70s, this great American artist and passionate cine connoisseur single-handedly revived and preserved the reputation of the great English director Michael Powell and his great collaborations with Emeric Pressburger when this country had been content to neglect Powell for decades.
So whatever your view on what I think of as the false opposition of Scorsese v Marvel, it is invigorating to read his article in today’s New York Times, in which he eloquently, and with inimitable wisdom and good humour, explains and amplifies his personal view (originally expressed in an off-the-cuff remark to Britain’s Empire magazine) that Marvel movies and by implication superhero franchise movies generally are not cinema – though he concedes that many are made by people of “considerable talent and artistry” – because they are closer to theme park rides, soullessly focus-grouped and market tested, lacking the humanising signature of the individual artist and without “mystery, revelation or genuine emotional danger”.
Many would agree with Scorsese and many have agreed, though critics all over the world, aware that their praise for both Scorsese and recent superhero films is on the record, and hitherto unaware that they might be asked to choose, have been charier of commenting. Scorsese’s words certainly come at an interesting time: the huge box-office hit Joker (a DC, not Marvel figure) contains pedantic and self-admiring allusions to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver – gifs that for me only reveal that particular film’s bumptious inferiority to Scorsese films.
Scorsese’s article is a great piece of writing, especially when he talks about seeing great films for the first time. I didn’t think I could love Scorsese more than I do, but you have to, after reading his words about seeing Hitchcock’s Psycho at a midnight show when it was first released. It’s great to think of the 18-year-old Scorsese – with hair and beard starting to grow long, maybe – vibrating with excitement and wonder in the auditorium.
As for his views themselves, only someone very presumptuous is going to say he’s wrong. I myself offer qualifying thoughts. The question of what isn’t cinema and what is an enemy to cinema, is changing all the time. Until very recently, the consensus of opinion was that the great evil was not Marvel (which at least believed in big-screen spectacle and getting crowds of people into cinemas) but Netflix, and how awful to think that people were being encouraged to watch films on their smartphones etc.
But it was the streaming giant Netflix that distributed Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Roma and has bankrolled Scorsese’s magnificent new picture and late-period masterpiece The Irishman, though at the expense of limiting a big-screen release. As Scorsese remarks: “Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would.” I have always thought some anti-Netflix, small-screen rhetoric was overplayed, especially as most of us encountered classic movies first on TV – Scorsese himself has written about a regular TV slot called Million Dollar Movie, which introduced him as a kid to cinema – and we all continue to enjoy movies on TV as well as the big screen. For what it’s worth, I think the bigger threat is “motion smoothing” on plasma TVs, recently denounced by Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie, which makes all films look like daytime TV.
As for superhero films, I hugely enjoy them as melodrama, spectacle, craziness and fantasy: for me, in these terms, they really are cinema. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the slo-mo sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past, with Quicksilver dashing around catching bullets, to the melancholy accompaniment of Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle is pure cinematic inspiration. Thor: Ragnarok is a great comedy and Black Panther is a terrific action drama. Superhero franchises are market-tested, of course, but then audience testing has been a part of Hollywood cinema since the 1920s. And so often, watching yet another middlebrow, sanitised, awards-bait biopic, I feel that it’s this – not Marvel or DC – that is the umpteenth franchise iteration. And we should beware of dismissing genre. Westerns were once looked down on as inferior product that offered the same old personae and plots. Now they are treasured for their mythic potency.
And as for superhero movies crowding out other types of movies – well, I’m not sure. Those other films are there, and independent movies have always complained about studio behemoths sucking up the oxygen. No one should make Captain America or Doctor Strange their alibi for failing to know or care about other types of cinema. If we want creative diversity in the movies – that vital proliferation of artistic signature that Scorsese proclaims – then critics have to contribute by discovering and promoting new young film-makers. Scorsese has done his job, by making another outstanding film. Critics have to do theirs.