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Martin Scorsese is not a film snob. How could he be? In his four-hour documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, he extols the virtues of Westerns, gangster pictures, melodramas, musicals — the genre blockbusters of their day. These pictures were with rare exceptions made within the strict confines of the studio system under the watchful eye of showmen who sought to match public taste, not advance the possibilities of the art form. And virtually every Hollywood movie released between 1934 and 1968 submitted to the self-censorship bureau, the Hays Office, that severely circumscribed what artists could do. “All criminal action had to be punished,” notes a Wikipedia summary, “and neither the crime nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience, or the audience must at least be aware that such behavior is wrong, usually through ‘compensating moral value.’” Complexity suffered in an era when frowning Comstocks required every movie to contain the proper degree of moral uplift.
That’s why it was so jarring to hear Scorsese wave off Marvel movies as “not cinema.” Kiss Me Deadly, Gold Diggers of 1935, and Cat People are in the cinema club; Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out? Scorsese cites revelation, complexity, unpredictability, and depth of character as his criteria for real cinema, but are there really more of these things in a Busby Berkeley musical than in Avengers: Endgame? We’re all nostalgic for our youth, yet we err when we tell ourselves everything was necessarily better when we were younger.
Scorsese’s comments in an interview with Empire first attracted attention in a piece published in the Guardian on October 4. Timing-wise, this was the cultural equivalent of Bill Ayers regretting he hadn’t set off enough bombs in an interview published September 11, 2001. The day Scorsese’s comments caught fire on Twitter was the same day an unabashedly Scorsese-like comic-book movie, Joker, was released in the U.S. (Scorsese was specifically asked about Marvel movies, but I believe he took that as shorthand for comic-book movies in general rather than drawing a distinction between Marvel films and, say, DC efforts.) Love it or hate it, you can’t deny Joker is cinema. It barely even acknowledges comic-book conventions. It has a demonic vision. It’s wringing with anguish. It shakes you. It is the opposite of a theme-park ride, unless you count the ones that make you want to hurl.
Yet Joker is simply the most extreme example of a tendency that started to catch on a few years ago: To spirit other genres of movies into the multiplex fortress inside a Trojan Horse of comic-book tropes. Winter Soldier is a gateway drug to 1970s paranoid political thrillers. Ant-Man is a funny caper movie harkening back to the 1960s. Spider-Man Homecoming is an awkward-teen ’80s rom-com. Logan is a 1970s Clint Eastwood Western. Joker director Todd Phillips realized his stated goal — “to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film” — and as his film approaches $1 billion in global ticket sales, it’s introducing millions of young moviegoers to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver/King of Comedy themes and style.
So does Phillips at least get a thank-you note from Scorsese? I doubt it. I doubt Scorsese has seen the picture. Scorsese’s opinions about comic-book movies aren’t well-informed. He hasn’t even seen the films he’s talking about. He said so. “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” he said. Scorsese’s blanket dismissal sounds like a Millennial who admits he doesn’t watch silent movies saying he knows they’re boring. Who knows when Scorsese gave up on superhero movies? If it was around the time of Superman IV: Quest for Peace or Batman & Robin, I don’t blame him. But the genre has grown and moved in surprising directions since Christopher Nolan re-imagined it in 2005 with Batman Begins. There’s a broad range of themes, styles, and quality within the increasingly fluid label “comic-book movies.” Some of the efforts are rich with ideas, complexity, even emotional “revelation.” Scorsese dismisses the lot as “theme-park rides.”
That’s almost fair, in many cases, but the term “spectacle” is more apt. Theme-park rides are brainless; they appeal directly to the viscera. They work on the appeal of getting dropped from a high tower or thrown at speed around a loop-de-loop. But comic-book movies require a level of intellectual engagement. They don’t succeed if you don’t care about what happens to the characters, which in turn means the really brainless ones don’t work. (See, or rather don’t see, Fantastic Four.)
Citing art-house filmmakers such as Claire Denis and Spike Lee as exemplary artists, Scorsese is dusting off a distinction between high and low art that has largely been discarded by the film world. Back in the 1960s Pauline Kael made it okay to love trashy movies, and Scorsese is one of many directors who alternate between art films (Raging Bull, Silence, Kundun) and punchy genre entertainment (Cape Fear, The Departed). Meanwhile “art” films made to win awards, like Green Book and Moonlight, get stuck in their own kinds of formulas and clichés.
Scorsese considers comic-book movies frivolous, shallow entertainments. They can be, of course; the climactic clash-of-everything CGI storm in Avengers: Age of Ultron is as boring as lint. As a general rule, the big fight scenes of comic-book movies tend to be dutiful and rote. To me, they’re usually more to be endured than enjoyed. The ubiquitous wisecracking often lowers the stakes to such a degree that it’s impossible to feel any genuine sense of danger or uncertainty. If the characters are relaxed enough to goof around, the viewer has no cause to get too exercised about anything that’s happening. The desire to appeal to the vanity of the adolescent, or adolescent-minded, filmgoer who imagines himself being impossibly nonchalant in the face of staggering danger tends to dilute the emotional pull of the story.
Yet if superhero movies, cartoons, and “IP” (intellectual property) tend to rule the box office these days, Scorsese is simply wrong to worry that these pictures are crowding out his kind of movies. He need look no further than the career of Martin Scorsese for proof. It was in the 1980s that Scorsese couldn’t even get a meeting, according to his own account, after Raging Bull and King of Comedy flopped. He was forced to take paycheck jobs like The Color of Money (an underrated movie, and its director is among those who underrate it) to stay in the game. Warner Bros. wouldn’t even throw him a wrap party for Goodfellas after it ran over schedule.
That isn’t how things work today. Netflix reportedly authorized $100 million to make Scorsese’s new one The Irishman, then didn’t blink when Scorsese overspent by another $100 million. He got funding for Silence and Hugo, two eccentric projects that predictably flopped. Nobody neglects to give him a wrap party these days. He can do more or less whatever he wants in movies and find someone to foot the bill. All around him, other art-minded directors are getting funding for their passion projects, too. If the five big studios won’t back them, they have lots of other options. They can go to Netflix or Lionsgate or Chinese investors or a hedge fund like the one that financed The Wolf of Wall Street. In the entire history of film, artistically ambitious filmmakers have never had it better than they do now. In the previous golden age of auteurism, the 1970s, visionary directors were given lots of freedom but not much money. Now they enjoy access to both.
Scorsese is equally wrong to claim Marvel “isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” He can’t be expected to know this since he doesn’t watch the movies, but emotional richness, not CGI, is what holds them together. Consider the gratitude and humility of the pipsqueak Steve Rogers when he finally gets the opportunity to fight for his country because an experimental therapy makes him strong. Or the touching and funny way Peter Quill connects to his dead mother via her favorite Lite FM tunes. Or how the arrogant billionaire Tony Stark turns to pudding like any other dad when his little girl, at bedtime, tells him, “I love you 3,000.” Superhero movies have plenty of human depth and struggle. But in order to notice, you first have to watch them.