“Scorsese Versus Superheroes” Misses the Point

Martin Scorsese’s recent comments bashing superhero movies provoked a torrent of outrage. But the real issue isn’t Marvel movies — it’s a funding model that prioritizes easy blockbusters over riskier, daring films.

Martin Scorsese attends the SFFILM premiere of "The Irishman" at the Castro Theatre on November 5, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Kimberly White / Getty Images

When Martin Scorsese stirred up controversy recently by saying that Marvel superhero movies “aren’t cinema,” I groaned inwardly. Superhero movies aren’t my favorite genre, but I’ve liked a few of them, and they continue to make my godsons happy. At any rate, I recognized the storm of stupid overstatements we were headed into. Here’s how it went down, according to Indiewire:

Don’t ask Martin Scorsese his thoughts on the record-breaking “Avengers: Endgame” because he hasn’t seen it, nor will he ever see it. The legendary filmmaker recently dismissed the Marvel Cinematic Universe during an interview with Empire magazine, saying that Marvel movies do not possess the traits that make cinema truly special.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” Scorsese told Empire. “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.”

This kind of loaded question is one I know well. It’s common practice to get people associated with some serious effort at making films, or writing about films, or teaching in film studies programs, to weigh in on the topic “Superhero Films: Great Stuff or Pernicious Shit?” My students used to ask me where I stood on this burning question, and I always recognized it as the trap it was. Nobody wants a moderate answer, such as, “A few are good, but in general they suck, like with most things.”

In fact, that’s a version of what director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) replied in defense of the movies he makes: “Some superhero movies are awful, some are beautiful. Like Westerns and gangster films [of earlier decades], not everyone will be able to appreciate them, not even some geniuses. And that’s okay.”

Nobody wants to hear that kind of tolerant response. (Even I find unendurable the patronizing line “And that’s okay.”) Everybody’s ears are sticking up for the uncompromising statement condemning superhero films as a blight on a once-proud medium. Something like what Francis Ford Coppola offered when he heard about MarvelGate and came to the defense of his friend:

When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration . . . I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.

“Despicable!” That’s Daffy Duck’s furious, sputtering insult of choice. Well, now it’s a party.

What I hate about this argument is that it brings us back to the tired old art film vs. genre film wars, from which no one emerges a winner. The issue quickly devolves into snobs vs. populists, auteur artistry vs. mass-produced commercial cinema, education vs. pleasure. But these lines are actually very blurry. As a rule, artists are also preoccupied by commercial concerns (even if not by choice), great art is frequently great entertainment and vice versa, art films can suck every bit as much as genre films and seem every bit as formulaic, and you can actually learn a lot going to see popular films.

Though the suggestion that people flock to the theaters specifically to get educated has always struck me as bizarre. It would make more sense to skip school to go to the movies, to find relief in a sensorium of visceral excitements and pleasures. You can certainly get an education from movies as a byproduct, and maybe you prefer documentaries, but does anyone rush out to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood or Parasite or The Lighthouse (to name a few exciting films of 2019) for the high-minded lessons they might learn? I hope not.

I love genre films. I think Coppola was once, for a short period of time, a great filmmaker, and is now a crazy old coot for saying, “I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again.” Repeat viewing is one of the great cinematic pleasures. I bet I’ve seen certain moves twenty times, easy.

But genre films are Coppola’s real target here when he says “same movie over and over again.” Those are movies like Westerns, gangster films, war films, musicals, sci-fi movies, and other highly recognized narrative types that follow formulas involving the same sorts of plot, characters, setting, etc., with specific configurations and details changing each time. By expressing contempt for them, he’s attacking the majority of films people actually love. And he’s betraying a profound ignorance of the richness of the genre film experience, which is a real connoisseur’s delight. Only by seeing a large number of films in any given genre can you begin to appreciate the inventiveness and wealth of meaning in an exciting new example of the genre, as each new director takes up the challenge of a long history and addresses the specific cultural concerns always represented in a popular genre.

Joker, for example, wasn’t a huge hit by accident. Writer-director Todd Phillips did exactly what smart creative types working in popular film do: make the genre seem fresh again, newly relevant to audiences. Some critics argued that Joker is good because it transcended genre and became an art film. Nope, it’s an artfully made genre film.

And, ironically, Coppola got established as an important director by pursuing that practice himself, with the revisionist gangster film The Godfather in 1972. He didn’t want to make it — he thought the novel it was based on was an unworthy potboiler. He wanted to make art films instead.

Also, please note that in the 1980s and 1990s, the burning question would’ve been “Action Films: Great Stuff or Pernicious Shit?” I know because I taught an action film course, and it was regarded as a rather daring move given the genre’s supposedly deleterious impact on the world. Most of the scholarship at the time was disapproving. The first academic books on the topic tended to condemn action films as nothing but exercises in misogyny, racism, and imperialism that indicated something was deeply wrong with our cinema and culture. I remember my dissertation advisor once telling me, after the crossover success of her first book on a film genre, that she’d met with a publisher who offered her a lucrative contract for a book on action films — as long as she argued they were fundamentally bad for us.

That stuff sells. It makes the general public angry and the high-culture snobs happy, and a good time is had by all who get in on the argument.

Martin Scorsese has kept the good times rolling with a follow-up opinion piece called “I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.” In it, he makes some admittedly good points. His list of movies he considers “cinema” are a careful mix of auteur-made art films (Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising) and old Hollywood genre films, though he’s careful to choose the ones made by auteurist masters of their genres (Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s It’s Always Fair Weather, Don Siegel’s The Killers). He uses Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense films as his favorite example of someone who successfully combined the auteurist art film and genre film traditions and practices: “I suppose you could say Hitchcock was his own franchise. Or he was our franchise.”

Scorsese is pointedly ignoring a complexity that André Bazin once formulated to check the auteur-mania of the film critics (and soon-to-be directors) he mentored at Cahiers du Cinéma, such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Bazin reminded them of “the genius of the system.” He was referring to all the incredibly effective films that came out of the Hollywood studio system that were not “authored” by any lone visionary figure. They seemed to emerge from the process of mass-produced filmmaking itself, and the constant collaboration of so many brilliant specialists in screenwriting, cinematography, editing, sound, production design, costumes, hair, makeup, and so on.

Of course, Scorsese isn’t wrong about the necessity of taking risks in filmmaking. It’s a maddening and expensive form to work with, complicated, labor-intensive, reliant on technological know-how, and full of creative X factors that can make the most surefire effect on paper came out looking like crap on film. Plus, it’s the riskiest business in the world, especially when pursued with independent means, as you find out if you try to make a film and hire a lawyer to draw up the paperwork for potential investors. That’s when you discover that, by law, you must warn them of the extreme likelihood that they’ll lose their money.

The inherent risk factor that businesspeople in film industries have tried to mitigate, spread, and otherwise do away with over the past 120-odd (very odd) years has reached a terrible point among the few media conglomerates now controlling the film industry. As an oligopoly that runs a closed system of profit-making worldwide, they’ve figured out how to spread risk so thin it’s hard to see how they can ever lose on an individual film. Scorsese describes the process of filmmaking now in terms familiar to us all: “That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”

And there’s no disagreeing with a basic concern Scorsese expresses, which is that screens worldwide are completely dominated by the franchise films made by those few conglomerates, with superhero films as the main offering. This leaves little room for featuring ambitious stand-alone movies by filmmakers consciously dealing with riskier material:

It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever . . . [S]treaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.

The dire situation, in short, isn’t the popularity of superhero films, or their lack of artistry — it’s the lack of a healthy, thriving supply of other varied films vying for equal screen time. If visionary filmmakers had an abundance of opportunities, and we audience members had a wide viewing choice that included plenty of auteurist art films of maximum daring, plus a dose of all the exciting genre films we could handle, there’d be no reason to dwell on how despicable Marvel films may or may not be.