Opinion: Why Martin Scorsese was Wrong. Kinda. Let Me Explain.

RyderFlynn

Active Member
  • #1
In an interview to Empire magazine last year, filmmaker Martin Scorsese made the remark that superhero movies aren’t cinema, that they are more comparable to theme park rides. To be fair, the statement has been blown out of proportions to some extent, but having grown up in the era of superheroes, I guess I’ve acquired a much different perspective that leads me to utterly disagree with his sentiments.

And here’s the thing: I’m not just a superhero fan, I’m also a cinephile. I remember that as a kid, two of my biggest idols were fellow filmmakers Steve Spielberg and James Cameron. I thought they were the most amazing people ever who could tell stories that both entertained and enlightened me about life. I put them on this pedestal. But after a few years, as I began to consume more movies, I started to realize just how “flashy” and even gratuitous some of their works can be. Spielberg is famously associated with the term, “schmaltz,” or excessive sentimentality, that diabetic sweetness that frames life with rose-colored lenses. Cameron, on the other hand, has stopped making good films after Titanic in my humble opinion (I still think that Titanic is unfairly hated and served as a good drama in its own right if you could just overlook some of its historical inaccuracies).

More relevant to the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve also seen my share of “arthouse cinema” like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and, in recent years, Raging Bull. I was maybe 15 when I first discovered my love for cinema and its incredible storytelling. I started searching for all the known “masterpieces” in history, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and also contemporary works like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. I wasn’t just some kid who read comic books growing up and thinking that it’s the only way you could tell stories. I know my cinema.

It’s probably why I could also see what Scorsese was trying to say. To be accurate, Martin wasn’t saying superhero films alone; he explained in a New York Times opinion piece that he was pointing towards franchise films like Mission Impossible 6 or James Bond 25. These are franchise films that have to fulfill specific requirements of the Hollywood executives, certain “checkboxes” that they have to tick off the list. It’s easy to see why superhero movies would be lumped into that lot because they, more than any other kind of films perhaps, are often conceived out of certain agendas as a product, not an artform. Batman v. Superman was conceived as a response to Marvel’s Avengers films and its crossovers. Wonder Woman was rushed out and forced into that film because Warner Brothers wanted to be the first to create female-lead superhero films. Marvel is not exempted either, especially in the early days of the MCU when Iron Man 2 was forced to lead up to The Avengers rather than tell its own story. Likewise, Captain America: The First Avenger had to remind the audience to catch the upcoming Avengers film at the end rather than be entirely its own exclusive story free from any franchise-building. Thor was also not particularly good, but it had to be done out of necessity to build up to The Avengers even when there’s no compelling story to tell. It’s become more of a business and less of an artform that exists solely for telling a story than selling a product.

And I get that, Martin. I get all of that. I was an incredibly cynical kid back then in the 2000s. I remember that when I first started getting into film appreciation and film study, I would follow this YouTuber named “The Movie Preview Critic” (I think his real name is Simon) who would often criticize about the lack of creativity and originality that goes into modern cinema. He made similar arguments about the problem of franchise films and how they were “safer bets” for Hollywood executives than the riskier independent cinema that artists with a voice want to express with. I had quite extreme views in my youth (still does on some level) to the point where I took Simon’s message and took it to the extreme polar end, where I thought that all films that don’t follow this code of trying to say something about life or be more than just another cash-grab are bad movies. I was far more snobbish than either Simon or Martin combined, having my nose stuck so high it could reach Mount Olympus. I’ve mellowed a lot since then, thankfully, even though I still find mindless popcorn entertainment to be shallow and not worth my time (hence why I didn’t bother with Mission: Impossible films past Ghost Protocol). But that said, something interesting happened to me around the early 2000s, before I turned 15 and discovered “artsy cinema,” and it has lingered in my mind for a long time. Well, two things happened to me, actually: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Pixar.

Looking back, it was actually two things that shaped the way I view storytelling and cinema, much like the way Martin’s perspective was shaped by classic cinema of his time. These two things were superheroes and animation. As someone who grew up watching the Spider-Man animated series on TV, I was quite amazed what Sam Raimi brought to this character that I loved, how he could capture my attention so engagingly and showed me a whole perspective on one man’s journey to explore his responsibilities in life and his struggles with it. That, to me, is cinema, because much like the kind of cinema Scorsese was talking about, it contained the kind of emotional and spiritual revelation that makes you think about life and your place in it. You have to actually be there to understand what I’m talking about, this 14 year old kid so full of angst and uncertainty about life to know the kind of spiritual lesson it has taught me again and again over the next decade and a half.

And as for animation… the infinite range of emotions and genres it could encompass speaks for itself, but I think the one film that really showed me how amazing it is as a tool was The Prince of Egypt, an underrated cinematic masterpiece that takes you on an emotional journey of two brothers struggling against a blood-filled legacy. It’s as cinematic and poetic as Shakespeare or Kubrick. That’s the kind of achievement animation could reach as well, and it’s shown me that simple drawings on paper, that cartoons adults would dismiss as childish could actually tell such a breathtaking epic equivalent to any live action epics.

As someone who grew up witnessing the fluidity of storytelling, how it’s limitless and isn’t constrained to a single medium or specific set of genres, how it can be both Taxi Driver and Spider-Man 2, how it could be both Citizen Kane and Toy Story 2, you could see why I’m so open-minded towards storytelling’s power as a tool. I could also see Martin feels that way, having grown up in an older generation of cinema, a form of cinema separated from the derogatory term of “genre cinema,” or “low-brow cinema” like horror movies or sci-fi. Dune and The Lord of the Rings are technically considered genre cinema, so that tells you how positive the term is. But I get it. I get why Martin feels that way, because the Hollywood money-making machine is a very… frustrating beast. It thrives on franchises and tentpole films, especially nowadays where the most acceptable films in their eyes are those that could last a decade or two with a whole trilogy or an entire series of sequels. It’s why “cinematic universes” are so popular these days — endless profit to be made for 10 or 20 years. It’s not a good feeling to live in an age where the latest Transformers movies could outsell and are more attractive than your passion projects from artists with a voice. Martin has sensed that change in the industry and is justified in being afraid of it. It’s harder than ever to be an artist.

Where does that leave me though? An average schmuck who’s not part of the industry, but nonetheless holds an idealistic view of what storytelling could be instead of seeing it for what it is? I can’t tell you that filmmaking deserves to be done one way or another because I’m not a filmmaker. I could only tell you my point of view as an audience member. But even as an audience member, I could tell you that, in spite of our seemingly bleak world where cinema has changed, there are still opportunities for passionate artists who want to say something. Superhero movies? They, much like storytelling itself, is just a tool. I have seen superhero stories that mirror the emotional complexities of high-brow cinema. Netflix’s Daredevil is perhaps the most notable example (as I’ve constantly repeated), but I think that what the MCU has achieved in certain movies of theirs are merely different variations of high-brow storytelling in a different skin. I think that Avengers: Endgame can’t really be considered one because it has way too many gratuitous fanservice to act as the kind of “high art” Martin is thinking, but when you look at the MCU as a whole, or Steve Rogers’ journey in particular, there is that same emotional core in his journey from being a scrawny Brooklyn kid who stood up against bullies to a leader of nations and gods. There is a fantastical element that divorces from Hitchcockian authenticity in superhero movies, but at the same time, the lessons and humanity of the people in these films are authentic and relatable.

Even over at Warner Brothers, even with someone like Zack Snyder who might as well be the poster child of Martin’s anxieties, Watchmen presented a heightened reality no more unrealistic than some of the colorful figures in Scorsese’s films, and these characters were played out in a world that eerily mirrored ’70s America full of paranoia and tension after the Vietnam War and during the Nixon era and Watergate. These were realistic people that had real fears similar to Americans living at that time and real mistrust towards one another. In fact, their nihilistic view towards humanity is still ever-present today, if not more prevalent than ever. It’s for that reason that their journeys also possessed that genuine emotional danger that Martin was referring to, that personal association and attachment the audience could latch onto long after the movie is over. It’s all there, the slow burn contemplation of our own bitter existence snuffed out by an unrelenting fate often seen in high-brow cinematic tragedies, the character study of how a man could be shaped by the crushing pressure of social expectations and how he would react to it. It’s all there. It always has been there, waiting for visionaries to seize the tool and create a brand new kind of fire never before seen.

I have seen what these movies can do, what they can become, and therefore, I feel that it is my duty to inform and address Martin’s concerns. Relax, Mart. Cinema isn’t dying; it’s merely changing, maybe even evolving to a different form. It can take different forms. It always has since the time of the westerns, since the time of black and white cinema when seven samurais got together to fight the battles we never could (yes, I’m implying that Kurosawa created the original Avengers). Cinema, like storytelling itself, is as malleable as life itself. I know that probably sounds pretentious, but I don’t know any better way to describe just how cinema doesn’t have a single or even a limited set of forms. I genuinely believe that, and perhaps it’s due to my youth and naivety, perhaps it’s just some fanaticism that treats storytelling like some religion one could have so much faith invested in, but if so, so be it.

But somewhere out there, I hope Martin could open his heart to believe in the power of storytelling too. I still have a lot of respect for him as a filmmaker, and I think that he’s holding himself back with this skewed viewpoint about the limits of superhero or even franchise cinema when he could bring his own vision to the new world. He has mentioned that it has been that way back then in Hollywood too, an artist having a shouting contest with some executive who wants to do things his way, but it’s much more difficult now because studios have a more self-entitled attitude now in terms of monopolizing franchises. Could you think of any particular corporation that seeks to swallow up every franchise imaginable and make as much money off them as possible? I could already think of one house. Of mouse. It squeaks in its vanity, seeing movies and stories as ‘cha-ching’ milk cows to be drained. However, even with a corporation as powerful as that, I believe that storytelling and the artistic voice is far more powerful, that these storytellers could compromise and find a way to make deals with the Devil and sneak their passion projects in under the guise of mainstream tentpole films. That’s how you still get films like Inside Out or Coco even after Pixar has been bought out by Disney. That’s how Christopher Nolan got his three Batman films made, because the studio trusted him enough to let him share his vision with the world. As frustrating and obstructive the system of Hollywood can be, there will still be opportunities for artists to be given a chance and hone their craft the way they wanted.

So cheer up, Martin. That artistic fire, that tension is still there. There is still risk to be taken because when a voice like Nolan comes in and says that he wants to show a man's spiritual journey to conquer his fears through the use of a bat motif, there is that risk you're talking about, that challenging voice to show the world something genuinely emotional. This “financial domination” can’t stop the voice from being expressed because somehow, someway, visionaries like Nolan and the Wachowskis (with their underrated V For Vendetta exploring an alternate fascist England) could find a way to filter through the voice to create something brilliant and timeless. That’s just what visionaries do. That’s what storytellers do. They tell memorable stories.

But I’m not gonna bother addressing Fincher’s criticisms about superhero movies. That twat can f**k off.

Just kidding. I love Fincher and his films. But lighten the f**k up, Jesus.
 

RyderFlynn

Active Member
  • #2
Still a little distracted in my life at the moment to be writing articles on a consistent schedule, but as I mentioned in another thread, I want to talk a little more about this subject and explore why superhero fiction can become an essential cornerstone of cinema.

But for now, I'll just let Kevin Smith do the talking. He's known for his fantastic speeches and podcasts on superhero movies and he's a huge comic book fan himself too.

"My feeling is, Martin Scorsese never sat in a movie theater with his dad and watched the movies of Steven Spielberg in the early '80s or George Lucas in the late '70s. He didn't feel that sense of magic and wonder. I can still step into one of those comic book movies, divorce myself of that fact that I do this for a living, release, and my dead dad is back for a minute, for two hours. And it's personal for a lot of the audience. You know, and we're not arguing whether or not it counts as cinema.

I guarantee you there's something he enjoyed with his parents, like a musical — I bet you some cats would say, 'A musical is not really cinema,' but Martin Scorsese grew up on musicals, and I bet they mean a lot to him. These [Marvel] movies come from a core. They come from a happy childhood. And they're reflections of a happy childhood. He's not wrong, but at the same time, neither are we for loving those movies. And they are cinema."
- Kevin Smith

I hate musicals. Even after giving Singin' in the Rain a chance, I still didn't enjoy it. I liked La La Land though, but only because it feels like a deconstruction of the peppy naivety of musicals. But then again, many would label these movies where people spontaneous burst into song and dance "cinema." Likewise, Steven Spielberg and his rose-colored takes on life like E.T., much as they give me diabetes, his films would also be labeled as cinema. So what makes superhero movies or Marvel movies different? Because they're not gritty and depressing like Joker (produced by Martin Scorsese himself as an anti-cape film by the way)?

Except that superhero movies have been known to touch on realistic and emotionally heart-wrenching issues like depression, poverty, existentialism, or trigger-related issues... like Logan:

"Genre films essentially ask the audience: "Do you still want to believe this?" Popularity is the audience answering, "Yes." Change in genre occurs when the audience says, "That's too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated."
- Leo Braudy, The World in a Fame

In case you couldn't tell, I really like that quote by Leo. Over my next few articles, I'll hopefully touch on genre fiction as well like science fiction and horror fiction, both genres that have been unfairly dismissed as low-brow and schlocky in spite of their evolution over the decades. After that, maybe I'll touch a little on anime as well. But the point is that, all these genres and mediums, anime, sci-fi, horror, superhero, whatever, they have all showed excellent examples of respected storytelling that are finely-crafted with finesse, thought-provoking scripts and breathtaking cinematography, yet these genre films are still struggling to earn the respect and attention of the Academy or "high-brow" filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and David Fincher. Fincher himself has done both sci-fi and horror and he couldn't see the potential of superhero movies. That's a crying shame.

I always like to return to Netflix's Daredevil as a fine example of superhero filmmaking, but Logan, The Dark Knight and Watchmen are noteworthy examples too that challenged our perceptions and brought the Greek myth to the modern world. These were pioneers that were crafted by hardworking people accompanied by talented cinematographers and musicians who put together a beautiful fabric of writing, visuals and music, so it feels like an insult and a disrespect to these artists to handwave their hard work and dedication as childish theme parks not worth taking seriously any more than Teletubbies or Power Rangers. Hell, Michael Bay's movies are more like theme parks than Marvel films, and even his hard work should be commended.

See, my inherent problem isn't that he's bashing on movies I like. It's that I see the kind of vision people like James Mangold and Drew Goddard have imagined in their head and gave birth to in their films, and I see the kind of passion and visual artistry and life experiences portrayed on-screen by people who deeply believe in what they do, not just selling a product or a theme park, so this contradiction in Martin's statement still doesn't sit well with me today even a year later. It's what I see in superhero movies and what I'm hearing from Martin and his supporters and superhero detractors. It's not that I'm not able to accept someone else's opinion, but I'm strongly disagreeing with an inherently misinformed opinion that failed to address the influence and artistry these movies have and will continue to have in the coming decades.

And I think what Kevin Smith has said above sums up pretty well what I tried to express during my last article acknowledging Martin's statement. We grew up in these very different circumstances and childhood where our perspective of cinema has changed very radically. We see that potential of the wonderment these films could bring us and the life experiences they could exchange with us, whereas Martin grew up in an older time where cinema meant something drastically different.

What I'll hopefully do in the near future before digressing from the point I'm trying to make (as always, like with this post) is to closer examine films like Watchmen and V For Vendetta and decipher what they say about our society more than what they said about superheroes. A lot of people remember Watchmen as a commentary on superhero fiction, and while it might have been partially written out of that intent, it was also written during what was still a very tumultuous time in America, 1986. Former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev had just put an end to the Cold War by halting the testing of missiles and Ronald Reagan, while a more popular presidential candidate than Donald Trump, certainly contributed to that Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Watchmen reflected a darker reflection of what would've been a far more depressing version of America had Richard Nixon not stepped down as president. The picture was not pretty, and Americans in the book were far more paranoid and unhinged from the fear of the Doomsday Clock, the day when the end of the world would happen via nuclear genocide. That, people, that is the kind of theme park Martin Scorsese is basing his entire argument on. Does such a ponderous and reflective piece of writing that challenges the rose-colored view of '80s America we bear today with our nostalgia culture look like a theme park to you?

I've said my piece. Until next time.
 
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