- In a New York Times op-ed on Monday, Martin Scorsese elaborated on his recent comments about Marvel movies.
- Scorsese argued in the op-ed that Marvel movies are made to “satisfy a specific set of demands” and that they lack “revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger.”
- He’s right about the first part, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t compelling.
- In comic books, characters are frequently killed off and revived. But this doesn’t strip those stories of their revelation and mystery when thought of individually. The same can be said of Marvel movies.
- In “Avengers: Endgame,” Iron Man sacrifices himself to save the universe, and that was compelling for many young viewers who grew up with this character and watched him evolve over time.
- Scorsese considered producing DC’s “Joker” before passing on it but called that script “remarkable.” What makes “Joker” so much more remarkable or unique than some of the MCU’s best movies?
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Here we go again.
For the past month, filmmaker Martin Scorsese has been the subject of headlines, not for his upcoming Netflix Oscar-hopeful “The Irishman” but for his comments about Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. In an interview with Empire Magazine in early October, he said they are “not cinema” and compared them to theme parks. He went on to elaborate on his comments in a New York Times op-ed on Monday.
Let me get this out of the way: I agree with a lot of what Scorsese wrote. I agree that franchise films are the “primary choice” at movie theatres (and there are pros and cons to that). I agree that streaming is evolving into the “primary delivery system” for entertainment, as evidenced by Scorsese’s own “Irishman,” which was passed on by major Hollywood movie studios. And I agree that the decline of independent theatres is troubling.
I even agree that Marvel movies are “made to satisfy a specific set of demands.” It’s hard to not agree with that. The MCU is basically a well-oiled machine at this point, with years of movies (and even TV shows) mapped out.
But they can still be compelling.
Marvel movies can stand on their own
This seems to be the crux of Scorsese’s argument: “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk.”
But these movies can be both. They can both “satisfy a specific set of demands” and convey “genuine emotional danger.” They can expand “what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds.”
Let’s not forget that these movies are a reflection of their source material. As an avid comic-book reader born in the 1990s, I have more of an appreciation for Marvel movies than Scorsese does. But that’s also why I know that in comic books, characters are both never safe and somehow everlasting. Name an iconic comic-book character and they have probably been killed off and brought back to life at some point: Superman, Batman, Flash, Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine – the list goes on.
Does this strip away the “risk” or the “genuine emotional danger” in comic books? Not at all. These stories are still compelling when thought about individually and not in some collective way, and the same can be said of Marvel movies.
Iron Man died in “Avengers: Endgame” for narrative reasons – and the fact that the actor Robert Downey Jr. is just getting older. But the movie was compelling nonetheless: A character known for his selfishness sacrifices himself to save the universe. And audiences saw that development over the course of a decade across multiple movies. Is that not compelling “cinema”? Does the fact that the movie is one piece in a larger puzzle undermine its power? I don’t think so.
Not to mention Downey won’t be back like a character in a comic book, at least in a substantial way. Actors age out of characters and that uncertainty about the future adds a layer of wonder to the franchise, especially as it heads into its second decade with no signs of slowing down.
Perhaps that franchise structure is why audiences gravitate toward the MCU, especially younger audiences. It’s the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time for a reason, after all. These characters are the Luke Skywalkers for a young generation of fans, only this time, they don’t have to wait years in between movies to experience them on screen again.
The MCU is the only franchise to achieve that kind of business success under that structure, and that must count for something. Does that not expand “what is possible in telling stories with moving images”? Others have attempted a connected film universe and failed, notably Warner Bros. with its DC Extended Universe. The culmination of that, “Justice League,” flopped hard both with audiences and critics, and the studio has pivoted toward standalone stories. Case in point: “Joker,” which is nearing $US1 billion at the global box office.
The “Joker” problem
Speaking of “Joker,” Scorsese considered producing the movie for years before ultimately passing on it. He called the “Joker” script “remarkable” in a recent BBC interview, but said that he wouldn’t have been able to make the leap to a “comic-book character,” or an “abstraction.”
Scorsese seems to think that comic-book characters can only be abstractions or symbols and can’t be complex individuals, and that’s not true.
What makes “Joker” so much more remarkable than some of the best MCU movies, from “Guardians of the Galaxy” to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” to “Black Panther,” which won several Oscars earlier this year and was nominated for best picture? Is it “remarkable” because it’s not a “traditional” comic-book movie until Joaquin Phoenix’s character actually transitions into the menacing Joker?
There is still plenty of comic-book mythology in “Joker” leading up to that point. Batman’s parents are an essential part of the movie. We even – SPOILER ALERT – see them die on screen for the umpteenth time. It’s still an origin story for a comic-book character. I struggle to grasp how that is more original or remarkable than “Black Panther,” the first superhero movie to feature a predominantly black cast.
Scorsese’s arguments seem to be more directed at the state of the film industry at large, with the Marvel movies his focus, which is unfair. Plenty of people likely think that the MCU and superhero movies in general are destroying “cinema.” But that doesn’t mean they aren’t cinema.
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