Challenging the Marvel Phenomenon: Martin Scorsese’s Unending Struggle
In the wake of an impending release of a new cinematic masterpiece by the esteemed Oscar-winning director, Martin Scorsese, the time has come again for him to unleash his passionate tirades akin to King Lear’s soliloquies. His target: Marvel Entertainment and the entire realm of superhero movies, which he perceives as an existential menace to the art of filmmaking, Western civilization, and the very act of experiencing cinema. In a recent interview with GQ, while promoting his upcoming film, “Killers Of The Flower Moon,” Scorsese revisits arguments he first articulated in 2019 during the promotion of his polarizing creation, “The Irishman.”
He vehemently asserts that Marvel films are ensnaring audiences by habituating them to a diet of “theme park movies,” fearing that future generations will perceive these as the essence of cinema. He contends that major studios are no longer inclined to support individual voices that convey personal emotions or thoughts within a big-budget framework, relegating such innovative projects to what they term “indies.”
A profound bellow of discontent reverberates in his words, echoing through the interview.
Marvel movies have garnered substantial criticism, particularly in their recent iterations, characterized by convolution and overproduction. However, Scorsese may not be attuned to the fact that the audience’s fascination with these films is waning, with a significant decrease in their once-assured viewership. Productions like “The Eternals” and “Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania” met with underwhelming responses, and numerous fans seem to indulge in a form of reluctant viewing of movies such as “Thor:
Love And Thunder” and “Dr. Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness.” In stark contrast, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) remains a medley of financial missteps and largely unpopular ventures, punctuated only by the fortuitous success of “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” as well as movies that continue to perform decently despite their quality, solely because they feature the iconic Batman.
Scorsese’s resistance to this cinematic trend is not groundbreaking.
To portray “theme park” movies as a novel phenomenon warranting universal distress is somewhat disingenuous, particularly coming from a director who has maintained close ties with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for over four decades. The battle Scorsese envisages filmmakers fighting was either lost many years ago or may have never existed in the first place. This battle could arguably be traced back to 1977 when the unprecedented success of “Star Wars” ousted William Friedkin’s masterful dark action noir, “Sorcerer,” from theaters, allowing C-3PO and company to claim more screens. The struggle effectively concluded in 1980, obscured in the dust cloud surrounding the release of Michael Cimino’s anti-capitalist Western, “Heaven’s Gate,” which suffered a catastrophic reception, said to have led to the ruin of United Artists, the studio financing the film.
Scorsese, more than anyone else, should be aware of the perpetual challenges posed by the theme park transformation of cinema. His works have frequently struggled to find a substantial audience. While “Raging Bull” is now celebrated as a quintessential masterpiece, it barely grossed $24 million at the box office, despite an $18 million budget. This film was sandwiched between two other financial failures: the anti-musical “New York New York” and the unsettling creation, “The King Of Comedy,” exploring the theme of obsessive fandom.
“New York New York” was released in 1977, the same year as “Star Wars,” while “Raging Bull” floundered in 1980, coinciding with the release of “The Empire Strikes Back.” “The King Of Comedy” struggled for attention in a market dominated by “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” In essence, Scorsese, at the time, was encountering the shift in the industry. As the studios moved away from the artist-driven and custom production models of the 1970s toward the high-concept escapism championed by his close associates, Steven and George, the serious filmmakers of a prior era, including Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Friedkin, Cimino, Peter Bogdanovich, and Paul Mazursky, found themselves dwindling in influence.
In response, Scorsese briefly revisited his indie origins, giving rise to the micro-budgeted dark comedy, “After Hours,” which barely secured its position as his first box office success since “Taxi Driver” nearly a decade earlier. The indie film world, which he now deems creatively inadequate, provided the lifeline for his career. Subsequently, he collaborated with major stars such as Tom Cruise and Paul Newman, saving himself with “The Color Of Money,” an Oscar-winning but critically maligned sequel to Robert Rossen’s somber classic, “The Hustler.”
There was never an era where major studios systematically endorsed “personal” films on the grand scale that Scorsese envisions. When they were riding high with successes like “The Godfather,” “MAS*H,” or “The Exorcist,” a few creators briefly enjoyed the liberty to create on a monumental scale with financial backing. However, when these ambitious endeavors fell short, the studios, as usual, pulled the plug on their funding. The “big budgets” that Scorsese demands be allocated for personal projects are not the solution but rather the root of the crisis. The approach to filmmaking, which Scorsese criticizes as overly simplistic, was imposed by some of his closest friends, driven by a calculated and self-evident motive: a reliable return on investment.
Perhaps Scorsese fails to grasp the full extent of this because, among his contemporaries, he has been exceptionally fortunate. The virile masculinity explored or celebrated in his films has long been regarded as a symbol of artistic gravitas by the testosterone-fueled individuals who founded, propagated, and ruled Hollywood for many decades. Consequently, Scorsese continues to secure substantial funding, a privilege that eluded talented filmmakers like Coppola and Altman.
While he did experience a few major hits, such as “Shutter Island” and “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” particularly during the peak of Leonardo DiCaprio’s popularity, these triumphs were always counterbalanced by disappointments like “Gangs Of New York,” “Hugo,” “Silence,” and “The Irishman.” Nevertheless, Scorsese continues to receive substantial financial support, primarily due to the prestige associated with his name. Thus, he persists in creating and occasionally failing at a level that aspiring talents, like the young and ambitious Damien Babylon Chazelle, can only dream of achieving once.
These developments are not recent and cannot be attributed to Marvel alone. Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind Marvel, merely perfected an existing system. Even for those who harbor antipathy towards Marvel, it must be grudgingly acknowledged that escapist fantasies have always been an integral part of the cinematic experience, providing solace and delight to countless moviegoers, especially in tumultuous times.
At the age of 80, Scorsese is vexed by the realization that the Marvel films, up to “Avengers: Endgame,” have become a cultural touchstone in contemporary cinema. When Scorsese’s legacy is reassessed, with its overarching exploration of toxic masculinity, his oeuvre may confront a different reckoning, unearthing whether it can command the same influence as it does today.
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