Who decides what qualifies as “real cinema”? Martin Scorsese, possessor of perhaps the most potent reputation (as cineaste and film-maker) in Hollywood, has apparently decided that it is him. After describing the Marvel movies as “theme parks” and “not cinema” in an interview with Empire published earlier this month, the celebrated director of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas doubled down this week at the London film festival, where he is promoting his highly anticipated feature The Irishman.
“What has to be protected is the singular experience of experiencing a picture, ideally with an audience,” Scorsese opined. “But there’s room for so many others now, and so many other ways. There’s going to be crossovers, completely. The value of a film that’s like a theme park film, for example, the Marvel-type pictures, where the theatres become amusement parks, that’s a different experience. I was saying earlier, it’s not cinema, it’s something else.”
To say that Scorsese’s comments have inspired a furious backlash would be to ignore the reverence in which the Oscar-winner is held by many of those who find his recent comments unpalatable. So let us say merely that there plenty of film-makers out there, most of whom have worked on superhero movies at one time or another, that disagree with him fiercely.
Kevin Smith reminded Scorsese that his own 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ resembles a superhero flick for those who are not religiously minded. Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, currently picking up Oscar buzz for his Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, said simply: “Of course it’s cinema! It’s at the movies,” while Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn tweeted: “Martin Scorsese is one of my 5 favourite living film-makers. I was outraged when people picketed The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen the film. I’m saddened that he’s now judging my films in the same way.”
There are a million ways to unpick Scorsese’s argument. For a start, the film-maker’s attempts to label superhero films as corporate entities rather than examples of high art would appear to ignore almost every big-budget, special effects-laden film that has been made since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars ushered in the blockbuster era in the mid 1970s. That is to wipe a lot of other people’s filmgoing experiences from the history books, purely on the basis of the director’s own view of film as “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”.
A more cogent unravelling of Scorsese’s argument can be obtained by examining the film-maker’s own movies, as well as the history of film that the King of Comedy director cherishes so deeply. Let us take for an example 2011’s Hugo, the whimsical Scorsese fantasy set at a railway station in 1930s Paris. The movie is obsessed with the films of Georges Méliès, and particularly the French pioneer of early cinema’s classic space fantasy A Trip to the Moon.
If there was ever a film to evoke a sense of childlike wonder in audiences – much like comic-book movies, some might say – it is this one. Astronauts travel to the moon, where they encounter a phantasmagorical lunar landscape of Carrollian mushrooms, cosmic rain showers and bizarre extraterrestrials. There is not much here in the way of narrative sophistication, frankly, and yet this was the film that Scorsese chose as the central pivot in one of his essential arguments within Hugo – that we need to preserve and celebrate both the history of film and the film-makers that helped make it.
The director would no doubt point out that Méliès’s work comes from a different place, that it is inspired by magical inner reveries rather than the prospect of selling theme park tickets and toys. But it is hard not to see more than a hint of A Trip to the Moon in films such as Gunn’s own Guardians of the Galaxy 2, in which our heroes head find themselves trapped among the psychedelic flora of Kurt Russell’s Ego the Living Planet.
Moreover, technical innovation itself, as much as storytelling, is surely a valid element of cinema’s capacity to manifest as high art. Méliès hand-painted individual cells to create some of the earliest colour cinematography, while his techniques were extensively copied by the earliest Hollywood film-makers, at a time when the fledgling US film industry was still lagging behind its European counterpart.
Marvel, funnily enough, is known for pioneering the art of digital de-aging, in films such as Captain Marvel and Captain America: Civil War. Those same techniques are now being used by Scorsese himself to deliver younger versions of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in The Irishman. Would such technologies have ever entered the conversation without the vast funds that the Disney-owned studio has to work with? That scenario seems as unlikely, sadly, as the prospect of Scorsese ever making a superhero film – though Todd Phillips’ Joker at least teasingly suggests what might have happened if he had ever taken a crack.