Martin Scorsese Is Not Wrong, Just Misunderstood
Martin Scorsese is a legendary figure in the world of film and really the wider world of entertainment. There are few people who have influenced cinema in quite the way Marty has and anyone who has an interest in the art of filmamaking has probably studied his work extensively.
His ability to tell a story in a visual medium ranks with the Kurosawas and the Kubricks of the world and his work with actors is unmatched. While probably best known for his films involving the world of crime and violence he has a wide ranging filmography that includes comedy, romantic drama and even a few fantastic music documentaries.
This is not to say that Scorsese has had a perfect career, anyone who has worked in a field for over 50 years is bound to have a few slip ups. It is when Scorsese rests on his laurels that he does his most pedestrian work, look no further than films like Gangs of New York and The Departed. This brings me to Scorsese's recent comments regarding Marvel movies and their place in the world of cinema, and for the most part he is not incorrect.
Let me start off with the beginning part of his comments, which most people seem to be ignoring. While he did say he is not a fan of Marvel movies, he did say that he tried. Many people will make these sort of bold statements based off of personal biases rather than legitimate critique, but that is not what Marty has done here.
Not everyone in the world likes Marvel movies, and to a greater degree superhero movies, and that is okay. Scorsese has lived most of his life in a world where superhero movies were, for the most part, a niche genre that lacked substance in favor of excitement. The fact that he even gave these movies a shot is respectable to me, and giving his honest opinion of them is something that I think will ultimately make superhero movies better.
Now we get to the real meat of his comments. The full quote he gave was...
"But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.”
This I think may be one of the most thoughtful and insightful criticisms of Marvel movies I have ever heard. We will get to his cinema comment in a moment but I would like to focus on the latter section of the comment for now, and maybe discover where the miscommunication comes from.
First of all he did go out of his way to mention how well made Marvel movies are and how well the actors do..."under the circumstances". I think even the most close minded, rational movie watcher can agree that Marvel movies are well made. It is without a doubt the reason Marvel is absolutely dominating the superhero movie war over DC.
Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have done a great job of putting the product of the movie first, and the cost and budget second. This is certainly helped by being owned by the greatest entertainment conglomerate the world has ever seen in Disney, but Marvel movies are almost always well directed, good looking and most importantly fun. DC movies on the other hand have almost always have none of these things, other than Shazam! which felt like the first real effort by DC to make something audiences will actually enjoy watching.
Onto Marty's thoughts on the acting in Marvel movies. Just for a second think about how many amazing performances Scorsese has directed actors to. His work with Robert DeNiro alone should speak for itself. From Mean Streets to Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to The King of Comedy to Goodfellas, we are not talking about solid acting performances, we are talking about some of the greatest displays of acting ever committed to film.
If there is one positive thing to say about The Departed and Gangs of New York (and there literally is only one good thing in both these movies) it is the performance of the leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis respectively. Both actors absolutely shine through the trash that both of those movies are and deliver all time great performances. Leo has had some further success with Scorsese in films like The Aviator, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street, some of if not the best performances of his career.
There are obviously too many more to mention, but the point is Martin Scorsese knows how to direct actors better than anyone. We don't go to see Marvel movies for the top notch acting, but Marty knows that these actors are capable of more and dislikes seeing their talent underutilized.
He is not saying they are doing a bad job or phoning it in, but the films that Scorsese likes and admires require stronger performances from it's actors than Marvel movies demand. It is the same as some viewers saying that those same movies that Scorsese admires may not have enough action in them to be enjoyable. It is a matter of taste and in art everyone's taste has value.
Now we move onto the "theme park" section of Marty's comments which again I think is actually pretty spot on. If we think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a "theme park" and each individual movie is it's own ride providing different experiences to different guests it does make a lot of sense.
The top brass at Marvel may not even disagree with this point. To me the goal of these movies has always been to excite audiences and keep them coming back for more. This sounds a lot like what a Six Flags or a Disney World attempts to do. When I think of theme parks I think of fun, exciting entertainment for kids and adults alike. Remind you of any movie franchises?
The final and probably most complicated take out of all of this is the "but that's not cinema" quote. This one may be a little harder to justify and may even seem a bit elitist, but again Scorsese is not wrong.
We can argue over the semantics of what Scorsese exactly meant by "cinema" but I think it is easier to again go back and look at what kind of "cinema" influenced him. Scorsese studied masters of filmmaking, movies like On the Waterfront starring Marlon Brando and directed by Elia Kazan, Citizen Kane starring, written by and directed by Orson Wells and Seven Samurai directed by maybe the finest director of modern cinema, Akira Kurosawa.
These are not only fantastic displays of Film Making in an age when CGI and digital effects were non-existent but also the blueprint for all of the movies that came after.
Kurosawa showed directors how to properly compose shots using all of the tools at their disposal, sound, color, shape, movement, balance, light and dark. These are just a few of the ways Kurosawa makes his statements through his imagery and directors for the last 50 years have been attempting to emulate him.
Kazan and Brando brought naturalistic acting to the forefront, prior to 1951's Streetcar Named Desire acting was normally over dramatic, attempting to replicate the tone of a stage play. These guys flipped it all on it's head and gave audiences characters and performances that attempted to emulate real humanity rather than dramatize it.
Citizen Kane, often regarded as the finest film ever made, showed audiences the power of a well made film in the real world and brought the idea that films could be made to teach and expand the minds of viewers. It also opened the door for auteur directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Scorsese himself.
It is not fair to hold Marvel movies up to the same standard as these literal masterpieces, but these movies do a lot of things that Marvel movies don't. They push the boundaries of what is possible, they attempt to innovate and change our idea of what films can be and take big risks to do so.
For everything that is great about Marvel movies they don't necessarily do any of those things. They are made to a very high quality, but only so they will appease to as wide an audience as possible. They give viewers what they want instead of subverting expectations, leaving the viewer content until the next installment and they almost never push the boundary electing to play it safe and deliver an experience that the vast majority of people will enjoy.
Again I am not saying that Marvel movies HAVE to do any of these things. Their blueprint is solid and has worked out extremely well in delivering experiences that audiences will enjoy, but I do have to admit that after seeing pretty much every movie Marvel has released since Iron Man, the formula for me has gotten a bit stale.
This does not delegitimize Marvel movies but it does point out that there is a reason that different types of movies exist. Some people want to be entertained with a solid, well made movie featuring characters they like and leave with a sense of satisfaction. Others want to experience something different, original and want to leave with a question in their mind about how they felt about the experience. I am lucky enough to enjoy both.
Scorsese is not bashing or taking anything away from Marvel movies, he is simply stating that for him those movies do not provide what he looks for in cinema and I think we should all be okay with that.
I will end this article by looking back on Mr. Scorsese's magnum opus, his finest work and one of the most influential movies on my life, Goodfellas. At the time of it's release people were skeptical of a movie that focused on and even romanticized the bad guys. Audiences were unsure whether they could relate to people who lived life by a different code and ultimately those reservations were dashed.
Scorsese found a way for the general viewing public to be brought into the world that he had built and find themselves enthralled by how the other side lives. If he had not taken some chances and made that movie we would not have the greatest TV show of all time in The Sopranos, we would not have such fully realized and relatable villains such as Thanos and we would not be able to dedicate a full movie to the mental state of one of the worlds greatest bad guys like Joker.
All types and ways of making cinema has value, it just depends on how hard you want to find it.