From “Irishman” to Iron Man: Acclaimed Mobster Movies Aren’t So Different From Superhero ‘Genre’ Films

Photo Courtesy: Left to right: DC Films/Warner Bros. Pictures/IMDb; Paramount Pictures/IMDb; Paramount Pictures via Michael Ochs/Getty Images; Marvel Studios/Disney/IMDb

After an interview with Empire in October 2019, Academy Award-winning director, writer and producer Martin Scorsese found himself going viral. Not for his latest cinematic endeavor, but for his thoughts on Marvel movies — and, by extension, the intersection of pop culture and genre with Cinema (yes, capital "C"). Following the Twitter backlash, Scorsese published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled "I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain." While the attention-grabbing headline may have been succinct, his essay — and explanation — unearthed a much larger, more complicated conversation.

"The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes," Scorsese wrote. "They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit…. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption." In short, companies want a sure bet — they want to capitalize on a built-in audience, a dependable audience. Folks who won’t just see an entire trilogy of films, but folks who will invest in merchandise and books and games and theme park tickets. With established fandoms, there’s a love and loyalty that becomes quite the asset. For filmmakers like Scorsese, this seems to leave little room for art. "Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures," Scorsese noted. "What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk."

Sure, whether they’re telling the story of a Norse god or a super-soldier circa World War II, superhero films hit familiar story beats time and again. After all, they are purposely archetypal — not unlike the stories of mythology. There’s a comfort in that familiarity, in seeing good prevail or an unlikely hero rise up. But that satisfaction, in its alleged predictability, sees such genre films lambasted for being just that — of a particular genre. So while Scorsese may have a point to make in saying the risk or stakes don’t quite feel there in a superhero movie, it’s also quite possible that he’s not fully aware of (or willing to see) just how similar his films are to Marvel’s movies.

Some of this comes down to personal taste, which the Goodfellas (1990) director wholeheartedly acknowledges, writing that it was a matter of what pictures came out while he was growing up and learning about filmmaking. Despite trying to watch a few Marvel films, Scorsese simply noted they’re not for him — "closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them." Despite the fact that Marvel films are helmed by considerable talents, artists and storytellers, they just aren’t "Cinema," so far as Scorsese is concerned.