Legendary director Martin Scorsese took Marvel to the woodshed in a New York Times opinion piece Tuesday.
Overall, whether you agree or not (and I’ll get to the essay in a bit), how refreshing is it to see someone, anyone, in this increasingly fascist culture stand by an opinion that has been deemed “incorrect” by Twitter bullies, nerd bullies, and the like…
To begin with, Scorsese did not pick this fight. Last month, he was asked a question about Marvel movies and responded by expressing an honest opinion: “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” he said. “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.”
But, you know, we’re not allowed to do that anymore — express an honest opinion, I mean. Today, there are only “approved” and “unapproved” opinions, and one of the “approved” opinions is that Marvel movies are not just awesome, are not just art, they are high art, and if you disagree, the most powerful man in Hollywood, Disney chief Bob Iger, will smear you as racist, which is exactly what Iger did to Scorsese.
But here’s Scorsese refusing to back down on the pages of the New York Times, and making a pretty convincing argument while doing so…
Here are some highlights:
For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, 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.
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. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.
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.
In other words, these Marvel films, and other franchise films, are predictable. In the piece, Scorsese does pay tribute to the “people of considerable talent and artistry” who make those films, but like a theme park ride, these are movies programmed to deliver a very specific and generic experience.
Sure, there are exceptions, at least in my opinion: The Dark Knight for one. Even Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Empire Strikes Back deserve credit for surprising us with a bleak conclusion. But those are exceptions that prove the rule.
For the most part, we know what we are walking into with a Marvel movie, but — and this important — that is part of the appeal, no? When you’re paying something like $100 bucks to take the family to the movies and load them up with munchies, who wants to take a chance? You want bang for the buck, and even a bad Marvel movie promises spectacle.
McDonald’s became McDonald’s because it promised sameness. No matter where you are, you can count on McDonald’s to deliver what is expected, so there is no reason to taste the locally-owned cuisine. You drive through any small town today and it’s Generica. Even when we’re supposed to be on vacation, we’re stopping at Ruby Tuesday, or its equivalent, because there’s no risk.
The other problem, though, and I wish Scorsese would have mentioned this, is that for the last 15 years, so-called adult movies or indie movies have mostly stunk. It’s fair to argue, as Scorsese does, that when you release a corporatized piece of nothing like Terminator: Dark Fate into 4,100 theaters, it elbows out the kind of movies Scorsese prefers. But it is not the 70s, 80s, or even 90s anymore. Indie/adult cinema has become a preachy, partisan lecture, and in that respect, every bit as predictable of an experience as Marvel.
My personal movie collection is buried in the kinds of movies Scorsese loves. I literally own hundreds of them. These are my kinds of movies, too, but the stuff coming out today is almost all shit.
Sure, again, there are exceptions that prove the rule, including Scorsese’s own Silence and his pal Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. But the mountain of indie manure you have to dig through to find those ponies becomes less and less worth it every year.
I do have one small disagreement with Scorsese:
I suppose you could say that Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or that he was our franchise. Every new Hitchcock picture was an event. To be in a packed house in one of the old theaters watching “Rear Window” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the audience and the picture itself, and it was electrifying.
And in a way, certain Hitchcock films were also like theme parks. I’m thinking of “Strangers on a Train,” in which the climax takes place on a merry-go-round at a real amusement park, and “Psycho,” which I saw at a midnight show on its opening day, an experience I will never forget. People went to be surprised and thrilled, and they weren’t disappointed.
Within his genre, within his own franchise, Hitchcock did a whole lot more than deliver surprises and thrills. Your uncle as a murderer in Shadow of a Doubt. The protagonists as murderers in Rope and Psycho. The hopeless conclusion of The Birds. The brutal choices made by the characters in Lifeboat. And where does one even begin to describe Cary Grant’s self-poisoned Devlin in Notorious, the most complicated, agonizing, and mature romance ever put on the screen.
You cannot dismiss the Hitchcock genre anymore than you can dismiss Scorsese’s gangster genre, and Scorsese doesn’t entirely:
Sixty or 70 years later, we’re still watching those pictures and marveling at them. But is it the thrills and the shocks that we keep going back to? I don’t think so. The set pieces in “North by Northwest” are stunning, but they would be nothing more than a succession of dynamic and elegant compositions and cuts without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.
The climax of “Strangers on a Train” is a feat, but it’s the interplay between the two principal characters and Robert Walker’s profoundly unsettling performance that resonate now.
Here’s the kicker:
Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. 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. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.
And not just a “specific set of [corporate] demands.” What we have is a generic set of demands to appeal to the widest audience possible — so we get milk and bread and cheese.
Much of this can be attributed to the death of the movie star. It used to be that the brand the studios could count on to put butts in seats was the actor or actress. Customers who trusted certain movie stars would go along with anything, which is why a Treasure of the Sierra Madre could be made, even though Humphrey Bogart become the villain. This why The Searchers got made, even though John Wayne’s racist character spends the entire movie determined to kill an innocent little girl.
With the movie star now dead (mostly through the suicide of them being divisive, spoiled, un-talented jerk-offs) and “adult” movies being almost universally awful and off-putting, unfortunately…
All the studios and we the customers can rely on is The Sameness of the Predictable Experience.
Plus, how many toys does an adult drama sell? How much merchandise? None.
Anyway, God bless and keep Martin Scorsese, and I’m counting the days to see The Irishman.