The Irishman director Martin Scorsese has rejoined the debate over the artistic value of superhero movies, which he sparked in a magazine interview in October by saying they were “not cinema” and comparing them to “theme parks”.
Writing in the New York Times, Scorsese says: “The situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.”
He denied that his original comments were “insulting, or … evidence of hatred for Marvel on my part”, and acknowledged that “many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen … I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself.”
However, Scorsese goes on to describe his own idea of cinema, which is “as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri”. For him and his contemporaries, as well as those he admired, he says: “Cinema was about revelation – aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters – the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
Scorsese also cites cinema as an “art form … equal to literature or music or dance”.
He adds: “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger … They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”
Scorsese names a string of contemporary film-makers – Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Ari Aster, Kathryn Bigelow and Wes Anderson – as the polar opposite of “tentpole” franchises, saying their work offers “something absolutely new” and the potential “to be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience”.
The key point for Scorsese, however, is that the dominance of franchise movies has vastly restricted the opportunities for other kinds of films to be seen in cinemas. “It’s a perilous time in film exhibition … The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system.’ Acknowledging that his new film, The Irishman, is the result of a deal with streaming giant Netflix, he adds: “Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But, no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.”
He also identifies Hollywood itself as part of the problem, saying “there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art”.
“The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: there’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare … the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalise and even belittle the existence of the other.”
In the weeks-long controversy, Scorsese’s position has been backed by fellow Hollywood new wave director Francis Ford Coppola and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, with directors James Gunn and Joss Whedon defending superhero movies. Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of Disney (which owns Marvel), also defended its franchises, saying: “I don’t get what [Coppola and Scorsese are] criticising us for when we’re making films that people are obviously enjoying going to and they’re doing so by the millions.”