Alright, let’s have the conversation most people don’t want to have about this idea of “cinema vs. theme parks,” as put forth by Martin Scorsese himself in a recent interview with Empire Magazine.
First let’s see exactly what he said before going any further, so there’s no confusion or assumptions being made:
There you have it. Now as could be expected, this got the Marvel Cinematic Universe fans frothing at the mouth and they took to social media in droves to drag Scorsese every which way they could, including taking potshots at his body of work over the past several decades.
Let’s start with that BS first, shall we?
Martin Scorsese can have whatever opinions he wants about film, even without the illustrious career and reputation he has built as one of the greatest auteurs we’ve ever seen. If you don’t agree with what he’s saying that’s fine and that’s your business, but it’s beyond pathetic to go after the man’s career and suddenly claim that he’s overrated, jealous or otherwise because of what he thinks of Marvel movies. Plus, he couldn’t care less what you think of him. The man’s 76 years old and he’s going to make movies until he leaves this earth. That’s all he cares about and a bunch of Twitter warriors raking him over the coals isn’t going to move the needle for him or even those around him one bit. There’s nothing you can tell him about cinema that he either doesn’t already know, or could likely correct you on, so let’s take that uncivility out of the equation, please.
Now, onto the heart of the matter about what he said. Obviously, it’s clear where Marvel fans would be upset about his assertion that characters in the MCU are not conveying emotional, psychological experiences to another human being. All the people that cried at the end of Avengers: Endgame would beg to differ.
The thing is, Scorsese isn’t being basic about this. He’s making a commentary on the type of movie being made with respect to its intent, production and transmission. He was one of the early pioneers back in the 70’s that broke away from the studio system model and started doing location shooting along with Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Dennis Hopper and others. Those guys weren’t interested in making a billion dollars, they were doing it for the love of telling stories and creating art, and that’s all Scorsese has ever really made movies for.
So, when you understand that about his position, you can see where he wouldn’t care much for Marvel movies because the MCU is almost the opposite of his intentions. Yes, the audience can and has felt many emotions and psychological experiences conveyed between characters in MCU movies, but the overall principle of the franchise is dollars and cents, hence its production structure, marketing approach and sheer volume of movies made in an 11-year period.
I used to argue a few years back about whether the MCU was revolutionary for movies in general and I ran into the same problem that a lot of people are running into now, which is distinguishing the business from the artform. Business-wise, the MCU is unprecedented based on averaging 2 movies released per year since 2008 and in recent years 3 movies a year and has made $22.58 billion worldwide at the box office. If you’re a fan of numbers and box office, that’s sexy as hell and no one has ever done it. On that level only, it IS revolutionary.
When it comes to the artform though, it leaves much to be desired, largely because of the prolific structure the franchise has had to employ in order to be as financially successful as it has been. To make $22 and a half billion with 23 movies in 11 years you have to appeal to the widest possible audience, which means you’re not taking as many risks with your material and you’re not flexing quite as many creative muscles in the process, because once you nail the formula that brings in the largest audience, you have to stick with it for the sake of consistency and maximization of your return. That’s why MCU films have been shot with the same Arri digital cameras since The Avengers, why the post-production and color correction processes have all been “defaulted” to a look and style that is uniform across the franchise, and why scheduling is even tighter with respect to filming and release. It’s the nature of the beast if this is how you want to do it.
Martin Scorsese isn’t a franchise builder or a brand builder, he’s a storyteller. He’s much more interested in telling his stories as creatively and as artistically as possible than he is in how much of the audience goes to see them. When most of your movies have been rated R throughout your career, you’ve already resigned yourself to the idea that not everyone is going to watch them, so you set your sights on making movies for those who are interested in watching them. For him, and those who appreciate the artistry of film, it’s not about the money nearly as much as it is about the storytelling.
This is what people must reconcile within themselves in terms of where they sit in this discussion, whether they are more concerned about how a film performs monetarily, or how well it tells the story for you. Sure, you can do both, but if that’s the case then it shouldn’t bother you when Scorsese says what he says, because you should understand where he’s coming from and what he means instead of being upset or “saddened” about it like James Gunn says he is. I’m looking forward to The Suicide Squad, I’ve made that clear, but if Gunn is really taking Scorsese’s comments to heart then perhaps, he should take this opportunity to do something very different than he did with Marvel Studios, and I still believe that he will, but we will see.
The bottom line is that there is a marked difference between the films that Martin Scorsese makes and the ones that Marvel Studios makes and acting like they’re the same thing is truly being uninformed or disingenuous. You can say that the MCU is actual cinema all you like, but you’re going to look foolish as hell if you start comparing Infinity War to The Godfather like they are made the same way and intended to do the same thing. There is a difference with respect to filmmaking for profit and filmmaking for art, even though both are part of the business.
Take Joker for example. That’s a film that Marvel Studios is never going to make. Ever. Not just because of the obvious reason that they don’t have rights to DC characters, but because an R-rated film filled with disturbing imagery and graphic violence isn’t part of the Marvel or Disney plan overall. If you want as wide of an audience as you can possibly have, you can’t be controversial, and you can’t cut off the age range of your customers. Marvel Studios and Disney overall want EVERYONE to partake no matter what……just like a theme park.
Don’t get it twisted, WB wants everyone to partake as well, it’s just not “no matter what.” They have made it clear that they are willing to take risks and impact the artform in addition to selling tickets, which is one of the reasons that I consider WB and other studios to be actual movie studios, but I call Disney a brand builder instead, because again, that’s what they do and they do it EXTREMELY well. Mass produced content for the masses that is largely safe, uncontroversial and fun for the whole family……again, like a theme park.
Arguably the most important thing to parse out of what Scorsese is saying here, aside from the fact that he’s allowed to have his own opinion whether you like it or not, is that there is a place in this world for both films that are designed to sell tickets and make billions with the widest audience possible, and films that are designed to enrich the artform and push the boundaries of conventional storytelling for a smaller, more select audience. It’s not a zero-sum proposition where only one form of movie can exist and whichever one you like better, you should respect that there are others who prefer the alternative, because there’s nothing wrong with either one. The only problem arises when people try to denigrate the other to place their preference on a pedestal where all films should be made the same way as the one that they enjoy. Just because billions of people eat and enjoy McDonald’s cheeseburgers every day doesn’t mean that all burger restaurants should be McDonald’s. That would be bland and uninteresting to say the least and wouldn’t benefit anyone in the long run.