Late last year, Martin Scorsese landed himself in the ire of moviegoers all over the world. The question that must be asked is, what could this beloved filmmaker possibly have said? There is a certain amount of goodwill that is granted to people who make good art. In labeling superhero films as ‘not cinema,’ he opened up an entire can of worms. Like many people, when I first heard the snippet of his comment, I was pretty upset myself.
I love Marvel films and superhero films in general. I enjoy going to the movies and knowing what I’m getting. To me, and countless people, it sounded like Martin Scorsese was giving the fans of these juggernauts the kiss-off. However, I decided to avoid the clickbait temptations of the internet and read Mr. Scorsese’s New York Times’ op-ed in its entirety. In doing so, I gained a deeper understanding of his comments. I also realized that I think he’s right.
In his thought-out and lengthy response to the mounting criticism, he laid out a few things. The first being the undeniable talent of every single arm of these films, from the cast to the set designers and creative directors. It takes skill and precision to make films of that caliber. The second, and I think, the most critical point he expanded on is the quality of the movie. He never said they were terrible or poorly written and acted. He said they weren’t cinema.
So what does that mean? In my opinion, for a film to be part of cinema, there is be something in the story that mirrors reality. Reality is messy, unfair, beautiful, and tragically funny. Nothing is promised. You won’t be getting that in a Marvel film. Sure, our heroes will go through some growing pains, but in the end, you know they’ll be fine. In other words, there is no emotional risk involved. There is no acknowledgment that sometimes the bad guys win, and no, you don’t get a do-over.
That in itself isn’t a problem. Sometimes it’s comforting to know exactly how a film is going to end. The growing diversity and racial reflection of our society is beautiful to see as well. The real issue is that these well done, fun, massively entertaining, and formulaic movies are pushing out riskier, less straight-edged ones. Superhero franchises are a sure thing, unlike the work of independent filmmakers. Directors like Greta Gerwig, Ava Duvarnay, and Mounia Meddour continue to make waves. Still, the space for them in the broader film landscape is smaller than ever because of franchise superhero films. Smaller, more intimate pictures by independent directors are gaining a new life on streaming platforms; however, there is still a novelty and magic in physically leaving your space to experience something new with strangers.
Our artistic education can become a lot more limited and narrow-minded when we only see particular stories. We need to accept that the trend of seeing everything through as superhero lens isn’t necessarily a good thing. The return of the more corporatized model of filmmaking is, in the long run, detrimental because it reduces every artistic choice to money alone. When we watch Marvel films, a writer didn’t decide that he or she had something interesting to say and then penned a story. A director didn’t take a said script and roam free with artistic license.
The truth is way less romantic than that. A board room full of people sorted through what licensed properties they already owned the rights to and decided what would be the most profitable to make. Every single aspect of production is tightly pre-designed down to the color grading, which is how we end up with Ant-Man (who needed this film??). In between the endless reboots that occasionally get wrapped up in racist rhetoric, we are completely ignoring the dearth of original, exciting content that isn’t getting made. Even if some of these films are getting the green light, it is not on the same scale franchises and reheated intellectual property are.
Martin Scorsese’s comments came from a place of concern for the future of film that encourages a little faith that what you are about to see is worth your time and effort.
In an age where ‘sameness’ seems to prevail more than ever, thanks to the rise of social media, we need independent filmmakers more than ever. Variety and risk are what makes just about anything worthwhile, and in the film business, we stand a higher chance of losing it.
The next time you decide to see a new film, consider seeing something that challenges you. After all, that’s the whole point of cinema.