To use the proper idiom, it’s clobberin’ time.
In the red corner, we have super-heavyweight Martin Scorsese. Many people think he is the greatest living film director, a position earned with films like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), King of Comedy (1983) and Goodfellas (1990).
Facing him down are Marvel Studios. They are the doyens of the superhero flick, the makers of Iron Man (2008), of Thor (2011), of Black Panther (2018). This year, their film Avengers: Endgame became the most successful film of all time, grossing $2.8 billion.
It was Scorsese who started the beef, during a promotional interview for his latest picture, The Irishman. He was asked what he thought of Marvel’s product. “[T]hat’s not cinema,” he responded. “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.”
Not quite ka-pow!, but enough to knock noses out of joint, and not just on Twitter (where, obviously, outrage ruled). Some directors who worked with Marvel politely disagreed, while others (like fellow-legend Francis Ford Coppola) sprang to his defence. What’s more, the row spread into places where sectarian film-buff grievances seldom get discussed, into TV news and the opinion pages of newspapers, with commentators weighing in on one side or the other.
Nor has the brouhaha abated; this very week – a month or so after he first waded into battle – Scorsese returned to the theme in an op-ed for the New York Times, clarifying and expanding his comments. (“I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.”)
Some will agree, some won’t. But, as interesting as the debate is, what’s more interesting is that it’s happening at all, and happening so publicly. Popular cinema has always had its critics, and it’s always had its rabid fans ready to defend their darlings (social media has made backlashes easier; it did not invent them). But those arguments seldom – well, never, actually – make it on to the news pages. So why has it happened now? Why should it be that one guy’s opinion has caused such uproar?
The obvious answer is that it’s about much more than personal taste. Marvel has been the great cinematic success story of the last decade. They have enjoyed tremendous success and have done so by taking risks, building a “shared universe” (the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU) of characters who not only appear in their own films but pop up in other characters’ too. Avengers: Endgame was the culmination of something like 22 previous films.
What’s more, these are films that strive to be contemporary. They might be fantasies, but that doesn’t mean they are shy of tackling real-world issues (no spoilers, but 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier takes a dim view of modern politicking). Most famously, they have made a positive virtue of championing diversity – Black Panther was a legitimate milestone, a blockbuster directed by and starring African-Americans, tackling themes of colonialism, slavery and pan-African solidarity.
And don’t think the highbrows haven’t noticed. Almost uniquely for franchise flicks, Marvel movies get discussed in broadsheets and on BBC Radio 4, their importance chewed over and decoded. That’s why Scorsese’s musings have caused such ripples: this is a serious, heavyweight artist sounding a note of caution about the state of the broader cultural landscape.
If Scorsese has taken against the MCU, it’s not because he’s too old or too fuddy-duddy. After all, this is a man of admirably catholic tastes, a champion not just of high art but also of low trash, a man who spoke up for Hammer horrors and Italian exploitation flicks long before it was considered polite to do so.
As a man who cherishes cinema in all its varieties, it is the formulaic quality of Marvel films that exercises him most. “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.”
But this is quite the fight that he’s picked, for Marvel are not some scrappy little upstart who got lucky. They (and their comic-book division) are owned by the Walt Disney Company and have been since 2009. Although the Disney brand is still associated with dear old Uncle Walt and his cheery Mouseketeers, it is something far grander these days – comfortably the largest entertainment conglomerate in the world.
Marvel is only one of Disney’s subsidiaries. Thanks to their acquisition of Lucasfilm, they own Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Pixar is part of the Disney family, as is National Geographic, the ABC network in America, and ESPN. Most recently, they took Fox, a film and TV studio, off Rupert Murdoch’s hands, giving them some of the most valuable intellectual property rights around – get ready for the Home Alone reboot, coming soon.
But it’s Marvel that is their most important division, not simply as a cash cow but as a laboratory. As if to prove the point, Disney recently appointed Kevin Feige to oversee a Star Wars movie. Feige is the mastermind behind the MCU; he makes the decisions, he plots the way forward. For him to be handed Star Wars – a Disney-owned property that’s as beloved as Mickey Mouse – suggests just how highly they value him.
It also suggests that the Marvel model is how Disney sees the future of film, building a series of shared universes that can be spun out into franchises and sub-franchises, as well as into comics, games, toys and – to use Scorsese’s words more literally – theme parks. Naturally, there will have to be a certain consistency, which means that filmmakers will be expected to behave and do as they’re told.
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about this vision of the future as the studios are, which is why it behoves us all to think carefully about Scorsese’s objections. This isn’t just about the MCU, it’s about our culture and what we want it to be.
Marvel will carry on regardless, of course. They have seventeen films (give or take) on the schedules and many more in various stages of development. It seems improbable that any will be cancelled just because the guy who made Raging Bull doesn’t like them. Still, Scorsese has begun a debate and focused minds. And maybe, too, reminded us that there’s more to movies than superheroes.
Photographs Getty Images, Disney/Marvel Studios