Martin Scorsese fears that Marvel is ruining cinema. Is he right?
Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
In April 2019, fans eager to watch Avengers: Endgame crashed Fandango servers weeks ahead of the movie’s release. Advance ticket sales for Ironman and company’s swansong smashed records, doubling totals for global blockbusters Aquaman, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Avengers: Infinity War, and Captain Marvel combined. Cineplexes across the country dedicated multiple theaters to the film for weeks; American audiences couldn’t get enough of The Avengers.
Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese’s 2019 epic crime drama, The Irishman, released quietly on Netflix. Scorsese is both a reliable profit and a critical darling, but The Irishman’s steep budget (200 million) and considerable runtime (210 minutes) proved a bridge too far for Hollywood executives. Scorsese’s regular partners all passed on the project; essentially, he made the deal with Netflix because no one else would finance The Irishman.
Many critics and filmmakers alike worry that if a towering figure like Scorsese can’t get funding, then Hollywood’s more artistic productions may soon be pushed entirely to the margins. The time-tested assumption that blockbusters exist to make more provocative films possible is, therefore, no longer certain.
Last year, Scorsese himself picked a well-documented fight with The Avengers. He compared Marvel movies to “theme parks” and added that whatever the ‘super’ studio is producing, it doesn’t qualify as “cinema.”
His assertions have the ring of truth. Each of the 23 films in the MCU invokes the rollercoaster experience: thrilling while it lasts but easily forgotten once it’s over. If this is the future of cinema, if we can no longer expect to be challenged in theaters, then we have lost something valuable, indeed, and perhaps we have Marvel to blame.
Super Powered Pouting?
One is tempted, however, to dismiss Scorsese’s complaints as sour grapes. It seems fair to assume that the price tag and audience-antagonizing runtime of The Irishman are what kept it out of theaters and that Avengers-mania had nothing to do with it. After all, Marvel didn’t release any movies in September, October, or November of 2019, and therefore did not occupy any theaters that might have otherwise shown The Irishman.
Despite that small release gap from Marvel, however, superhero fare nevertheless dominated theaters at the time of The Irishman’s release. Todd Phillips’s Joker broke box-office records for R rated movies in October of 2019 and commanded the entertainment headlines, too. So, while Marvel didn’t directly interfere with The Irishman’s press, one could make the case that the Marvel craze is amplifying the buzz around every superhero film adaptation, including Joker, at the expense of more substantive films.
Joker, however, is quite different than the MCU. It proved that comic book adaptations can meet Scorsese’s criterion for “cinema” because it focused on Arthur Fleck’s “emotional [and] psychological experiences” instead of putting him through a two-hour CGI fireworks display with intermittent one-liners. Critics have frequently compared Joker to Scorsese’s early masterpieces Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy; clearly, the distinction between “cinema” and “theme park” made by Scorsese isn’t as neat as he thinks.
The similarities between Joker and Scorsese’s crime dramas aren’t accidental. Phillips and star Joaquin Pheonix planned Joker as ‘Scorsese homage,’ and longtime Scorsese collaborator, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, served as producer on the film. If comic book movies are amusement parks, then Tillinger Koskoff, it would seem, is a carnival barker. Still, that didn’t stop Scorcese from hiring her to produce The Irishman.
Scorsese himself flirted with both Warner Bros. and Phillips about joining the Joker team before ultimately deciding he didn’t have time for it. In Scorsese’s world, comic book films are apparently “cinema for me but not for thee.”
Despite Scorsese’s mild hypocrisy on the matter, he still makes a fair point. Hollywood puts directors in rigidly constructed boxes and will accept no deviation from standard forms. 3 1/2 hour films, for example, will never get distribution by major studios — even industry titans like Martin Scorsese can’t get such projects financed.
Surely, though, many worthwhile stories simply can’t be told in less than three hours. Hollywood market rubrics, therefore, forbid immersive film experiences that make steep but rewarding demands on audience attention. Films like Hungarian epic Sátántangó, for example, can’t get made in Hollywood. The seven-hour runtime of Sátántangó is enough for three showings of Joker or Captain Marvel; despite its objective superiority to such films, Sátántangó could never compete with the likes of Marvel because studio stockholders will always prefer selling three tickets in seven hours instead of one.
Neither do American theater audiences ever screen English language equivalents to films like Shoah — the nine-hour Holocaust documentary masterpiece released in France in 1985. Instead, we get bite-sized “docutainments” like Schindler’s List that severely distort and minimize the subjects they treat. Hollywood has conditioned us to think of movies as bookends to bathroom breaks; anything too short to fill the bladder or too long to stretch it gets an immediate pass from studio executives.
Runtime isn’t the only consideration, though; corporations — including movie studios — prefer proven brands to fresh innovations. Hollywood peddles celluloid Big Macs in the main, and no one is making tastier drive-thru films than Marvel. Given the choice, film investors will always lay odds on another bombastic episode of Thor instead of quieter offerings that make audiences uncomfortable, like The Irishman.
That’s because studios want audiences to pay instead of think; the less we think, in fact, the better. That way, we’re unlikely to notice that the films of Disney’s Star Wars and MCU, with a few notable exceptions, are all largely the same. The same goes for Warner Bros. Harry Potter and DCEU franchises. Neither will we notice how these films, unlike The Irishman, serve prevailing ideologies about class and capitalism, and how they “reproduce” audiences in the same fashion that ideological state apparatuses reproduce the workforce.
But is Marvel Ruining Cinema?
Before The Irishman, Scorsese always got his movies into theaters. To be fair, though, The Irishman is the first time he’s ever deviated sharply from the Hollywood script. It’s true, American cineplexes will only support so many screens, and Marvel’s overwhelming occupation of theaters necessarily reduces opportunities for more thoughtful filmmakers. Frankly, the math is simpler than Captain America’s moral compass.
Despite the broad influence of Disney’s homogenized film factory, however, no one can compel us to keep watching Marvel movies. We do that by choice. Marvel, therefore, hasn’t ruined cinema, it has merely reproduced American culture. Thanos, even with the awesome might of the Infinity Gauntlet at his command, can’t feed us junk food if we refuse to eat.
Scorsese’s criticism of Marvel is thus only partially accurate. The Avengers franchise is a rollercoaster, but lines for the ride are long only because American movie audiences have made them so. Audiences, therefore, share equally in the blame for the state of cinema. We are a culture bred for instant gratification; it is little wonder that our preferred films, like Marvel’s Avengers, reflect and reinforce that ethos.