The Marvel Debate: Scorsese Vs MCU

Remember last fall when Martin Scorsese opined that Marvel movies (and superhero movies, in general) were more like theme park rides than cinema? Yeah, I hate bringing that controversy up again, but I have a good reason for doing so. I have some thoughts on the matter that I’ve struggled to articulate for the longest time and with Endgame and Infinity War both celebrating their first and second birthdays over the past couple of weeks, I feel like I want to try and bury this drama once and for all. As much as I may hate bringing this discussion up, I hate seeing it rear its ugly head just as much.

Flashback to October 2019. Martin Scorsese is promoting The Irishman and the Scorsese-inspired Joker is about to open. Joker has been hyped as taking much inspiration from Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, and for Scorsese’s latest, much has been made of its use of visual effects to de-age its stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Of course, Marvel movies frequently use similar technology to age or de-age actors (Hayley Atwell in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas and Laurence Fishburne in the Ant-Manfilms and both Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg in Captain Marvel, just to name a few) and when asked about the MCU, Scorsese had this to say in his interview with Empire Magazine:

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know. 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. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying

to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Of course, Scorsese’s not the only person to have decried the superhero movie boom in recent years. Filmmakers like Roland Emmerich, David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Jodie Foster, Alejandro Gonzales Inniritu, David Cronenberg and William Friedkin have all voiced their displeasure with superhero movies prior to Scorsese. Even actors like Ethan Hawke, Rose McGowan, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez and Cillian Murphy (who appeared in Christopher Nolan’s highly successful Batman trilogy, one of the pioneering films of the superhero movie genre) aren’t exactly huge fans of the genre either. So, Scorsese’s not the first to voice his disapproval of such games, nor will he be the last.

Typically, whenever people express their dislike of the superhero subgenre, the typical comments I tend to hear in defence of the genre are: “Oh, he or she is just jealous that their movie isn’t making tons and tons of money”. And while I disagree with these auteurs’ aforementioned disapproval of the superhero genre, I don’t think their dislike for the genre is motivated by jealously. Frustration, perhaps. But not jealousy. I think the issue lies a little bit deeper than that. Because if there’s one thing that is abundantly clear, it’s that superhero movies are huge right now. So huge that many people have expressed worry about other kinds of movies not being made as a result. As if superhero movies are the only thing out there right now.

Scorsese himself elaborates on this issue at the BFI London Film Festival:

“Theatres have become amusement parks. That is all fine and good, but don’t

invade everything else in that sense… That is fine and good for those who enjoy

that type of film and, by the way, knowing what goes into them now, I admire

what they do. it’s not my kind of thing; it simply is not. It’s creating another kind

of audience that thinks cinema is that.”

Judging by these comments, I don’t think that Scorsese necessarily has outright disdain for Marvel movies per se. Disinterest for sure (he makes it quite clear that theme park movies aren’t his thing), but not outright contempt. He also makes clear to emphasise that he appreciates the craftsmanship that goes on in these films (he has continuously said that Marvel films are well-made in his critiques), even if he doesn’t exactly care for the films as a whole. And you know what. That’s perfectly OK. You don’t have to like superhero movies, especially Marvel ones. I respectfully disagree but that’s fine.

But getting back to Scorsese, it’s probably common knowledge that the man is a huge champion of cinema. He always has been. He created The Film Foundation, the World Cinema Project and The African Film Heritage Project in order to aid in the preservation and restoration of old, obscure or damaged films, and he’s always been at the forefront of film restoration. To paraphrase a line from Casino: Marty practically eats, breathes and sleeps cinema.

And since superhero movies (or blockbusters, in general) are the most dominant in today’s cinematic landscape, it’s hard not to be irritated at how other movies are crowded out of film theatres. Marty sums up the situation rather eloquently:

“We are in a situation now where the theatres are only showing the latest

superhero films. You have 12 screens - and 11 are the superhero film. You

enjoy superhero films, fine, but you need 11 screens?”

Speaking as a superhero movie fan, I do think that is a valid point. You’ve probably heard time and time again about Disney buying everything, remaking all of their animated classics and generally doing everything they can to be the undisputed top dog. And as a result, the types of movies that Disney wouldn’t even dare to touch are being forced out of the market onto VOD or streaming obscurity. And while Disney has made some great movies in this decade, they’ve become just as notorious for mining their old IPs through live-action remakes and unwanted sequels (Aladdin, The Lion King, Dumbo, Cars 2, Cars 3, etc.) And while I love Avengers: Endgame and I understand that it’s a big event picture, it doesn’t need to take up every single screen in the cinema.

At the same time, I do think Scorsese is slightly exaggerating a little bit because while smaller movies, non-IPs and non-blockbusters aren’t as common as they used to be, they’re not completely absent from today’s cinematic climate. In 2019 alone, we got films like Jordan Peele’s Us, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, James Mangold’s Ford V. Ferrari (or Les Mans ’66in the UK), Sam Mendes’ 1917, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, The Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which all received wide releases in cinemas (although Uncut Gems did end up receiving a Netflix release outside of the US) and were all critical and commercial successes in spite of the current climate favouring IPs and big tentpoles releases, smaller movies are still around.

But I guess the point that Scorsese is trying to make is that these aforementioned successes are becoming increasingly rare in today’s climate, especially as his latest film, The Irishman(and most likely, his current production, Killers of the Flower Moon), is a tough sell in today’s cinematic climate, even with a filmmaker of his clout at the helm and the one-two-three-four punch of acting legends Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel in prominent roles. Add to that an ever-expanding budget and a three-and-a-half-hour running time and you can understand why Scorsese wound up eventually approaching Netflix to get his latest project off the ground.

So, yeah. I get Scorsese’s frustrations and I kind of agree with him to some extent. That being said, I very much disagree with his assessment of the MCU. I fully sympathise with his displeasure at the current film landscape and I certainly feel that there’s plenty of room for improvement, but saying that superhero movies aren’t cinema is just plain wrong as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, they probably are like theme parks. But saying that they’re not cinema. Can’t say I agree with you there, Marty. Even if it may not your type of movie, it’s still cinema as far as I’m concerned

In the words of George Miller:

“Cinema is cinema, and it’s a very broad church. The test, ultimately, is what

it means to the audience.”

Superhero movies are like any other genre. They can be unique, exciting, complex, intricate or just pure entertainment at its finest. While not everyone will agree, there’s nothing quite like seeing a big event movie like Avengers: Endgame in the cinema with an audience and just cheering, laughing and smiling your way through it. Maybe it’s just me but those are the kind of things that I think cinema is made for. Cinema is all about how a film can emotionally resonate with you, and when I watch a film like Avengers: Endgame, I just get a real sense of joy and delight, the same type of euphoria that audiences had when Star Wars first came out in 1977. It’s the same type of communal experience that Scorsese describes and wants to be protected. Like he himself says, it’s a feeling that’s best felt in the theatre.

There’s plenty of things I personally disagree with when it comes to Scorsese’s arguments against superhero movies and blockbuster films. He opines that such films are more like products, one that’s designed primarily “to be consumed and thrown away.” I do kind of get what he’s saying. Film is a business and there’s always this kind of creative tension about whether to make art or make profit, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in many respects, a product. A damn good product. But still a product. But even if it is a product, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t the same level of love and affection poured into making one individual film as Scorsese pours into his pictures. As Robert Yaniz Jr.states: “Many of the accusations levied toward Marvel, DC and their ilk fail to separate the art from the commerce”.

Many of the people who are detracting the superhero boom aren’t entirely criticising the genre’s merits per se, but rather the business behind it all. As much as I hate using Mel Gibson to back up my argument, this particular quote regarding his feelings on Batman V. Superman, I think, sums the discourse up quite nicely:

I look at them and scratch my head. I’m really baffled by it. I think there’s a lot

of waste but maybe if I did one of those things with the green screens I’d find

out different. Maybe they do cost that much. I don’t know. It seems to me that

you could do it for less. If you’re spending outrageous amounts of money, $180

million or more, I don’t know how you make it back after the taxman gets you,

and after you give half to the exhibitors… what did they spend on Batman V.

Superman that they’re admitting to? And it’s a piece of shit.”

Much has been written about how today’s cinematic landscape values big-budget tentpoles and no-budget horror films, perhaps because most of the time, there’s no risk involved for the investors. When you’re making a big-budget blockbuster like Batmanor Spider-Man, there’s already a built-in audience for the film, so on paper that minimises the risk factor. But medium-budgeted films (ones costing $20-80 million) are becoming increasingly harder to come by in the cinemas because of the studios seem to value either massive movies or miniscule movies with no in-between.

It’s easy to blame Disney and Marvel for this trend, but it’s not entirely their fault. The other studios are just as guilty of doing this, and it’s also partially the fault of studios trying to replicate success without fully understanding why something was a success in the first place. It’s kind of like blaming Christopher Nolan for inspiring legions of copycat imitators because his Dark Knight trilogy was so successful, or TheMatrix for spawning so many carbon copy wannabes in the early 2000s. It’s the fault of the studio executives who don’t entirely understand why those movies clicked with audiences. That’s just Hollywood for you. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.

Of course, that’s not the only reason as to why people tend to lambast the superhero movie genre. Some filmmakers just don’t really connect to the material. Cronenberg thinks that the genre is “adolescent in its core” and again, that’s perfectly fine. It’s his opinion. I personally disagree because there’s plenty of comic-book and superhero stories made for older audiences. Watchmen, Kick-Ass, The Boys, Deadpool, Logan, Joker, for example. Perhaps some of these properties are too irreverent for some people’s tastes, so if you want comic-book films that do take their characters more seriously, bam. Logan: a hard-R take on the comic-book story Old Man Logan that sees its titular character deal with mortality and loss. It’s a film that really could’ve come off more like a superhero film that’s ashamed to admit such, but it really works in spite of that. It’s poignant, gripping and heartbreaking, while also delivering on the blockbuster spectacle and thrills that one might come to expect from the genre.

Rose McGowan argues that superhero stories “lack complexity, story development, character development and freedom of thought”. Again, I don’t entirely agree. As much as I don’t want to praise Bryan Singer, his work on the first two X-Men films still holds up tremendously as it tackles themes of prejudice and hatred in a way that’s remarkably poignant. The scene in X2 where Shawn Ashmore’s Bobby Drake attempts to come out to his parents about his mutant abilities is pretty tragic. The subtext is quite clearly there [“Have you tried not being a mutant”], but it still works. And while the idea of a mutant cure in X-Men: The Last Stand that could eerily reflect conservative attitudes towards homosexuality and trying to cure it is tragically underdeveloped in the finished movie, that’s not because it’s in a superhero movie. It’s because it’s in a superhero movie that’s criminally short and fighting for screen-time alongside ten million other plot threads that are equally underdeveloped.

As for lacking character development, I can’t say I agree with that particular assessment either. As much as I love these movies for the action sequences and set pieces, that’s not the only reason I enjoy them. I enjoy the characters and I enjoy seeing their conflicts. I enjoy seeing them fight against unimaginable odds. Watching Infinity War and seeing Thanos win is a genuine gut punch that leaves you with anger and anticipation for when The Avengersinevitably kick his loathsome ass in Endgame. And even watching the MCU films as a whole, I love seeing Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark go from being a narcissistic arms dealer who is completely oblivious to the damage that his weapons cause to eventually trying to use his inventions for the greater good. That road is not an easy one to travel and he continuously makes mistake after mistake after mistake along the way, but it’s still compelling to watch.

I’d even go so far as to say that superhero movies can be remarkably human, even in the MCU. That’s part of the reason why I, and so many people, have connected to them and why we’ve went along with these characters on their decade-long cinematic journey. It’s easy to just dismiss the films as silly, fun, popcorn entertainment, but I’m pretty sure there’s a damn good reason why it’s survived as long as it has. And it’s not just because of the explosions and super-powered heroics on-screen or because the films are so tightly interconnected. That can only get you so far. It’s because a lot of people, myself included, do genuinely like these characters and invested in their conflicts. As Greg Brian puts it: “the superheroes involved are still people for the most part) and have psychological situations with their peers and foes.”

Part of the reason why I still love the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films (even 3 to a certain extent) is because they do a really wonderful job in showing the struggles that Peter Parker aka Spider-Man has to face. Take a look at Spider-Man 2 for example. Peter’s continuously late for work, college and social events, his relationships with his loved ones is strained and he’s realising that his choice to give up a normal life is not an easy one. While the action scenes in the film are a lot of fun (the train sequence, in particular, is still one of the best in recent memory), what makes the film so great is its more emotional moments. Spider-Man is off-screen for a long time and much of the film’s second act is devoted to Peter grappling with the ratifications of his decision to give up being the wall-crawler. For a movie that features “people in funny suits” (Roland Emmerich’s words, not mine), there’s a remarkable amount of humanity on display.

Scorsese comments that in today’s Hollywood: “The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes. They are remakes in spirit”. I agree to a certain extent as there are so many films that feel like they’ve been compromised to reach the broadest possible demographics, but I feel like you could almost say the same thing about the early films of Lucas and Spielberg. Both filmmakers, who came up around the same time as Scorsese, have been accused of dumbing down cinema, marching “backward through the looking-glass” and returning audiences “grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films to the simplicities of the pre-1960s Golden Age of movies”. Yeah. Sound familiar? I’ve always said that history has a weird of repeating itself. As George Lucas might say: “It’s like poetry. It rhymes.”

While blockbuster films can often feel cynically made: “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, riveted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.” I don’t quite see that level of cynicism within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m probably wrong about that, but I still feel like the filmmakers behind Marvel films can and often do put a ton of love into each film they make. It’s like Rush once said: “All this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted. Not so coldly charted. It’s really just a question of your honesty.” Well, the same is very much true for film.

As James Gunn describes:

“What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big

films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who

make independent films or who make what are considered more serious

Hollywood films…

…if you, as an independent filmmaker or a "serious" filmmaker, think you put

more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America,

or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply


Although some of the lesser Marvel films tend to feel very homogenous (Thor: The Dark World, anyone), the better entries in the franchises are the ones that benefit from the director’s own touches. The likes of Joss Whedon, Shane Black, James Gunn, Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler have all done an absolutely splendid in letting their voice be heard even within the confines of a larger cinematic universe.The two Guardians of the Galaxy movies are very distinctively reflective of Gunn’s sensibilities, the first two Avengers movies do feel like Joss Whedon films, Thor: Ragnarok is pretty indisputably a Taika Waititi joint and Black Panther does benefit heavily from Coogler’s filmmaking sensibilities. Hell, even if the Russo Brothers aren’t the most stylistically unique or boundary-pushing of filmmakers out there, they still do a wonderful job of managing films on a grand scale with big ensemble casts without each individual film feeling overstuffed.

But in the end, it’s all down to personal taste. I see a lot of value and merit in the MCU, but I understand that not everybody will feel the same way, and that’s OK. I understand why the superhero genre isn’t to everyone’s tastes.However, while I do love the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will continue to be excited for what comes next, I do agree to some extent with Scorsese’s concerns that they might be crowding out smaller movies. While streaming has been a massive benefit to the film industry, I do not want to see smaller films being entirely forced onto VOD or streaming services like Netflix and Disney+. There can and should be room for them on the cinema screens alongside Avengers: Endgame and the latest Disney live-action remake.

Thanos might’ve had the worst way of going about executing this statement but he was right when he said “all things should be perfectly balanced”. I know that’s easier said than done but we should strive for more balance in the industry so that awesome movies continue to be made regardless of their budget and whether they’re based on an intellectual property or not. Moderation is key for the survival of cinema. The big movies keep the business going but can’t keep the industry standing on their own. They should enable smaller movies to continue being made so that new talent can be discovered, nurtured and possibly promoted to the big leagues without having to sacrifice their own vision. The big and the small should complement one another, not cancel each other out. And I think even Scorsese would agree with that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy another trip to the theme parks before I sit down to watch The Irishman for the umpteenth time.

Written by Danny Quinn

Bibliography: Scorsese takes aim at Marvel again at The Irishman press conference) Scorsese compares Marvel movies to theme parks: “That’s Not Cinema”) Scorsese Won’t Back Down From Anti-Marvel Stance: “It’s Not My Kind of Thing”)

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