Martin Scorsese is one of the most respected film directors who has ever lived.
The Marvel franchise is a box-office behemoth.
So, it was inevitable that when the man who made 'Raging Bull' passed comment on Tony Stark and co, cinema-goers would be more than a little intrigued.
The hullabaloo started when Scorsese gave an off-the cuff remark to Empire magazine. He was simply asked for an opinion of the Marvel movies, and he, likewise simply, gave a reply - they're not for him; more theme park than film.
However, that drove the fanboys (and girls) crazy, so he expanded on his comments for The New York Times. If anything, that only added fuel to the fire.
(Which is a shame, because his article is fantastic - it should be compulsory reading for anyone who claims to love cinema.)
It's not exactly caused the celluloid equivalent of a diplomatic incident (thanks to Covid-19, we've all got bigger issues to content with), but Scorsese's words have undoubtedly ruffled some feathers.
For those for who have adored watching the antics of The Avengers (and judging by the box-office returns, that's millions of us), the thoughts of 'Casino's director have been used to prove how old-fashioned he is. A relic of a bygone age who is simply out-of-touch with modern cinema.
For the cineastes who worship Scorsese, his words have been used to support the argument that the Marvel universe is creatively and morally vacuous, solely aimed to swell the (already considerable) coffers of Disney, a lifeless husk compared the emotionally, and thematically, rich masterpieces the director himself crafted during the 1970's and 1980's.
Forget Team Stark or Team Cap; it's become Team Marvel or Team Scorsese: Who's 'right'?
Perhaps it's symptomatic of modern age; polarization is the norm. So part of me understands the ease into which everyone has effortlessly slipped into a respective 'for' or 'against' position.
And, as a film-lover, I also understand the passion: I love (love!) 'Star Wars', and do not take kindly to people speaking negatively of my 'baby.' Considering the popularity of Marvel, it's safe to assume there's many people who have the same emotional connection to that franchise, as I have to Lucas'.
And, knowing as I do a number of film fanatics who worship Scorsese, I know there are people who adore his work with the same passion as the Marvel devotees worship theirs.
And, love - as they say - can be blind.
For example, although Scorsese was at pains to say he admired the craftsmanship in such movies, and that he wasn't denigrating them, but simply saying they weren't his 'cup of tea,' it's understandable that that distinction got lost. In the emotional fog caused by his words, I can see why the 'pro-Marvel' camp overlooked that. Love is blind, remember.
However, all that being said...
I've found myself in 'Camp Marvel.'
I wasn't to begin with. If anything, I sided with Marty.
But, the more I thought about it, the more issues I took with the words of the director of 'Mean Streets.'
Scorsese is a genius. No question. Even if you don't personally like 'Taxi Driver', or 'Raging Bull', or 'Goodfellas', you cannot deny the craft inherent in them. He is one of the greatest film directors who ever walked this Earth, and we are all immeasurably better off for his body of work.
As thought-provoking as his article is, there are three things I simply don't agree with.
Unlike many others, who have interpreted his words as a 'man out of his time' bemoaning a lost age, I too feel the same sense of loss that he does at the homogenization of cinema. I think he's right - with its reliance on remakes, and continuation of franchises, film has become too 'safe.' It is sad to think that the current climate probably wouldn't allow for the emergence of another Kubrick, or Fuller, or Hitchcock, or even Scorsese himself.
However, I don't think we've lost those kind of creative masterminds: We've still got them, they're just working in a different medium. One that Scorsese directly mentions:
Many years ago, I remember watching an interview with David Chase. He said how film studios simply weren't interested in his ideas, one in particular. So, he approached HBO, who, not only leapt at the chance of working with him, but who were also willing to let him expand one of this 'pitches', allowing him to explore that idea to an extent just not possible in a two-hour film.
That project was 'The Sopranos.'
I'm certain that the story of a neurotic mob boss would have made a very good film. Perhaps even a wonderful one. But, one of the things that made 'The Sopranos' so fantastic was its scope. Stretched out over a number of seasons, the writers were able to show us the entire 'world' Tony lived in. We could spend time getting to know the minor characters, giving us insights that only added to the central character's plight.
Just as Aaron Sorkin did with 'The West Wing.'
And just as Vince Gilligan did with 'Breaking Bad', and is still doing with 'Better Call Saul.' And Jason Bateman and gang are doing with 'Ozark.'
I've no doubt that the film-makers behind all of those projects could have fashioned excellent films from the same source material. And, I agree with Scorsese that it's tragic we're not seeing them on the 'Silver Screen' - there is still something wonderfully magical, something joyfully primal, about going to the cinema.
But, on balance, I'd rather have those beautifully expansive, involving TV shows, than their watered-down cinematic equivalents. And, if that means I have to watch them at home, instead at my local multiplex, then that's a bargain I'm willing to strike.
And if one of the reasons why those artists are now plying their trade on Netflix instead at the movie theatre is because of the dominance of franchises like The Avengers, then I'm not sure we've lost more than we've gained.
Another issue with Scorsese's article is his claim that the Marvel movies were less cinema, but more exercises in market research as they'd been, "audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and re-modified until they’re ready for consumption. "
Yes - the puritans cried! That's true! Well, it is - but, two points: One, 'Endgame' cost upwards of $350 million dollars to make, and only a fool wouldn't market-test a product that expensive before it's official launch. That doesn't display a lack of artistic integrity, it's just good common sense. Two, Hollywood has always done this.
In his article, Scorsese references Alfred Hitchcock several times: not only was Hitchcock himself more than aware of what film audiences wanted, and - often very calculatedly - gave them it, his films - like nearly every other in history - were re-modified for consumption after test screenings.
Hollywood is a business, after all. The masterminds behind the Marvel movies may have taken the marketing side of things to a slightly preposterous level. But, it's a bit naive of Scorsese to lay the blame solely at their feet - the studios have always had an eye on maximizing their returns.
However, my final (and biggest) gripe is this:
Scorsese also said he believed film should be able about, "the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. "
Granted, there's no character in the Marvel canon with the psychological complexity of Travis Bickle, or in the work of the other film-makers Scorsese name-checks in his article. I don't think anyone in their right mind would argue that Russo Brothers have yet mined the emotional depths Paul Thomas Anderson has.
But, you can't say there's no "complexity" in the world of The Avengers.
I've seen few better examples of the difficult dynamics of a sibling relationship than the one embodied in the interplay between Loki and Thor. Furthermore, Thor doesn't lack for 'daddy issues', nor does Tony Stark. Neither quite match the depths of 'Hamlet', but it's not as if there's nothing there.
And I've seen fewer films that touch upon the theme of 'parenthood' with as much effectiveness as 'Ant-Man' or 'Endgame.'
As for "the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves "? Just re-watch the scene between Pepper and Tony where he wrestles with trying to explain to her that's he found a way to undo Thanos' 'snap' and bring back half of the human race, but it requires him to put himself - and therefore also the family he's always needed - at risk.
Where he practically begs her for permission not to go through with the 'time heist.'
Paradoxical and contradictory? Tony is both IronMan, as well as a husband and father. But, heartbreakingly, he ultimately learns he can't be both.
There simply is complexity in the Marvel world. A huge amount.
Yes - it's all been market-tested to the nth degree. Yes - it is a slick, money-making machine. Yes - Scorsese is right: It probably has made cinema less risk-adverse, and - as a result - TV is where you'll now find the modern greats of visual storytelling. And, yes - it does have more in common with a theme park than it does with the work of the great auteurs.
But, in terms of marketing, the creators of the Marvel universe haven't done anything than hasn't been done through Hollywood's long history.
However, they've done it with a massive amount of aplomb, and no small measure of emotional complexity.
I love Scorsese. I always will.
But I'm also happy to have more than one foot planted in 'Camp Marvel.'
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