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.
Generic or Just Genre?
When Scorsese began making films, he and his peers still had something to prove. “There was some debate about [if cinema was an art form] at the time,” he recalled, “so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance.” Of course, this happens every time a new art form emerges — be it a new genre of music or the advent of television shows, which have only recently entered a “Golden Age” worthy of garnering the medium as much praise and artistic merit as film. When it comes to “genre” works, there’s always an argument to be made for said works’ merits.
For example, in the world of books, James Patterson mysteries are the sort of paperback pulp you pick up at the airport: They are entertaining, but they aren’t works of “Literature.” However, a thriller like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which pays closer attention to craft elements, characterization and the beauty of language, can have a plot full of mystery but still win merits for being Literature. The works are supremely different but still inhabit a similar genre space — relying on similar tropes or story beats (or the subversion of those things).
In his latest film, The Irishman, Scorsese returns to his own genre: mobster movies. (Or “epic crime dramas,” if we’re being all Cinema about it.) Unlike superhero movies, mob films — from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather to Scorsese’s own The Departed — have been heralded as the subject of great cinema for years. The people making the movies, Scorsese or otherwise, wanted to tell these specific stories time and again, and, in doing so, created a barometer. Now, these are the types of stories that garner awards, the types of characters actors want to play. (In a way, the so-called “Golden Age television” began in this genre too, thanks to HBO’s The Sopranos.) But mob films? They have a formula too, something The Irishman, specifically, throws into sharp relief.
Franchise Films & Famous Filmmakers Have Similar Power
In the Netflix-backed film, a mob hitman, played by Scorsese favorite Robert De Niro, recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa. Moviegoers were excited by the prospect of the film for a number of reasons: Like an Avengers team-up, it promised to bring together the mobster genre’s heavy-hitters — De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale. In many ways, the epic crime drama echoes something like Goodfellas, but with the virtue of more money, a larger cast, a decades-spanning epic story and, like any superhero film worth its Infinity Stones, some fancy de-aging CGI.
In his opinion piece, Scorsese acknowledges that director Alfred Hitchcock was once like a franchise unto himself. This comparison is apt and, whether Scorsese realizes it or not, illustrates why The Irishman is an event — much like Avengers: Endgame. As the director laments, it’s difficult to convince folks to spend money on features, and indie theaters are waning. Like production companies, audiences can be afraid to risk their ticket money. When a big-name director like David Lynch, Wes Anderson or Steven Spielberg releases a new film, it’s an event — something to see. The director is like a franchise — or at least a brand. Going in, you know their style, their flourishes, their themes.
Much like having the Marvel seal, a film produced — let alone directed — by someone of Scorsese’s stature has a built-in audience. In this way, his films aren’t just linked by common tropes, story genre and familiar actors, but by a larger identity. By him. That is to say, while Scorsese may be taking risks in his films, the films themselves are familiar — as safe as any other fandom to those audiences who crave his stories.