'Of course Marvel is cinema!' Why the Scorsese backlash is justified

Kevin Smith, Taika Waititi and James Gunn reject veteran film-maker’s dismissal of superhero movies as ‘theme park’ fare – while his output exposes a debt to spectacle and innovation

Who decides what qualifies as “real cinema”? Martin Scorsese, possessor of perhaps the most potent reputation (as cineaste and film-maker) in Hollywood, has apparently decided that it is him. After describing the Marvel movies as “theme parks” and “not cinema” in an interview with Empire published earlier this month, the celebrated director of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas doubled down this week at the London film festival, where he is promoting his highly anticipated feature The Irishman.

“What has to be protected is the singular experience of experiencing a picture, ideally with an audience,” Scorsese opined. “But there’s room for so many others now, and so many other ways. There’s going to be crossovers, completely. The value of a film that’s like a theme park film, for example, the Marvel-type pictures, where the theatres become amusement parks, that’s a different experience. I was saying earlier, it’s not cinema, it’s something else.”

To say that Scorsese’s comments have inspired a furious backlash would be to ignore the reverence in which the Oscar-winner is held by many of those who find his recent comments unpalatable. So let us say merely that there plenty of film-makers out there, most of whom have worked on superhero movies at one time or another, that disagree with him fiercely.

Christians protest outside a Manhattan cinema, in 1988, at the screening of The Last Temptation of Christ
Christians protest outside a Manhattan cinema, in 1988, at the screening of The Last Temptation of Christ Photograph: Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Kevin Smith reminded Scorsese that his own 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ resembles a superhero flick for those who are not religiously minded. Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, currently picking up Oscar buzz for his Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, said simply: “Of course it’s cinema! It’s at the movies,” while Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn tweeted: “Martin Scorsese is one of my 5 favourite living film-makers. 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.”

There are a million ways to unpick Scorsese’s argument. For a start, the film-maker’s attempts to label superhero films as corporate entities rather than examples of high art would appear to ignore almost every big-budget, special effects-laden film that has been made since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars ushered in the blockbuster era in the mid 1970s. That is to wipe a lot of other people’s filmgoing experiences from the history books, purely on the basis of the director’s own view of film as “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”.

A more cogent unravelling of Scorsese’s argument can be obtained by examining the film-maker’s own movies, as well as the history of film that the King of Comedy director cherishes so deeply. Let us take for an example 2011’s Hugo, the whimsical Scorsese fantasy set at a railway station in 1930s Paris. The movie is obsessed with the films of Georges Méliès, and particularly the French pioneer of early cinema’s classic space fantasy A Trip to the Moon.

If there was ever a film to evoke a sense of childlike wonder in audiences – much like comic-book movies, some might say – it is this one. Astronauts travel to the moon, where they encounter a phantasmagorical lunar landscape of Carrollian mushrooms, cosmic rain showers and bizarre extraterrestrials. There is not much here in the way of narrative sophistication, frankly, and yet this was the film that Scorsese chose as the central pivot in one of his essential arguments within Hugo – that we need to preserve and celebrate both the history of film and the film-makers that helped make it.

The director would no doubt point out that Méliès’s work comes from a different place, that it is inspired by magical inner reveries rather than the prospect of selling theme park tickets and toys. But it is hard not to see more than a hint of A Trip to the Moon in films such as Gunn’s own Guardians of the Galaxy 2, in which our heroes head find themselves trapped among the psychedelic flora of Kurt Russell’s Ego the Living Planet.

Moreover, technical innovation itself, as much as storytelling, is surely a valid element of cinema’s capacity to manifest as high art. Méliès hand-painted individual cells to create some of the earliest colour cinematography, while his techniques were extensively copied by the earliest Hollywood film-makers, at a time when the fledgling US film industry was still lagging behind its European counterpart.

Marvel, funnily enough, is known for pioneering the art of digital de-aging, in films such as Captain Marvel and Captain America: Civil War. Those same techniques are now being used by Scorsese himself to deliver younger versions of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in The Irishman. Would such technologies have ever entered the conversation without the vast funds that the Disney-owned studio has to work with? That scenario seems as unlikely, sadly, as the prospect of Scorsese ever making a superhero film – though Todd Phillips’ Joker at least teasingly suggests what might have happened if he had ever taken a crack.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies are 'not cinema'
The director says he has tried and failed to watch the new brand of superhero films, which he likens to theme parks

Catherine Shoard

04, Oct, 2019 @12:56 PM

Article image
Martin Scorsese defends decision to make deal with Netflix for The Irishman
Director says no one else in Hollywood would back his new film The Irishman after costs soared due to pioneering ‘de-aging’ technology

Andrew Pulver

13, Oct, 2019 @3:30 PM

Article image
Robert De Niro on Donald Trump: 'I can't wait to see him in jail'
The Irishman actor tells the Guardian that Trump and the Republicans ‘have to know they can’t get away with bullying us’

Andrew Pulver and agencies

11, Oct, 2019 @2:26 PM

Article image
‘Why do they do that?’: Nicolas Cage isn’t down with the Coppola-Scorsese Marvel bashing
Francis Ford Coppola reckons comic-book blockbusters are ‘despicable’ – his nephew, stage-named after an MCU superhero, disagrees

Ben Child

25, Mar, 2022 @9:38 AM

Article image
Super bad: who is the greatest ever Marvel supervillain?
Director Taika Waititi reckons it’s Christian Bale as Gorr the God Butcher in the forthcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. But what about Thanos? Or Loki? And who else is in the running?

Ben Child

06, May, 2022 @10:27 AM

Article image
Thor 4: Taika Waititi drops Akira for second bite at God of Thunder
The problematic Warner remake of the classic anime is put on hold while the Ragnarok director returns to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe

Ben Child

18, Jul, 2019 @9:45 AM

Article image
Marvel's next wave of heroes will tear up tradition in the name of progress
Boundaries are being razed with Natalie Portman cast as Thor and Ta-Nehisi Coates set to write a black Superman film

Ben Child

12, Mar, 2021 @9:32 AM

Article image
Francis Ford Coppola: Scorsese was being kind – Marvel movies are despicable
The Godfather director joins in criticism of superhero films, while Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn hits back at out-of-touch geniuses

Catherine Shoard

21, Oct, 2019 @10:52 AM

Article image
Rogue One's CGI resurrection tech: how 'ghosting' will change Hollywood
Peter Cushing-style reappearances might soon be used to solve all kinds of problems, from Ben Affleck’s discomfort in the Batsuit to Benedict Cumberbatch’s busy schedule

Ben Child

16, Jan, 2017 @5:23 PM

Article image
Martin Scorsese isn't wrong about Marvel movies – but neither is he quite right | Peter Bradshaw
I didn’t think I could love The Irishman director more after reading his wise words about what is and isn’t cinema, but I’m still a huge fan of superhero films

Peter Bradshaw

05, Nov, 2019 @12:08 PM