The Marvel-less Mr. Martin
The legendary director of ‘Goodfellas’ doesn’t think comic book movies are ‘cinema’ — and people lost their damn minds
On Friday I awoke and after my self-imposed mandatory “one-hour before looking at my phone” period was up I, unfortunately, looked at my phone. More specifically, I looked at Twitter.
And so I discovered that acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese was the talk of the world. (“The world” of course being the small subsection of humanity known as Marvel fanboys, along with the even smaller subsection of the Extremely Online community known as Film Twitter.)
The first tweets I saw didn’t directly reference what Scorsese had done, or said, or was accused of doing or saying, so I suppose I can be forgiven for worrying, given the extent of the conversation around him, that he had gotten drunk and had blurted out that Hitler had a couple of good ideas, or that all puppies should be stoned to death. But of course that wasn’t the case: what he actually said, to Empire magazine, in response to a question of whether he watches Marvel superhero movies was this:
“I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema… Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Naturally, upon reading this I immediately headed to the rocking chair on my veranda where I said “Oh my stars” in my Southern accent, fanned myself with one hand, turned the knuckles on my other hand red from clutching my pearls so goddamn hard, and had my manservant fetch me a nitroglycerine tablet from the gold case in my pocket and put it under my tongue.
Or, maybe — just maybe — I don’t have a veranda, a rocking chair, a Southern accent, pearls, a manservant, or nitro tablets, so I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, “Hey, that’s cool.”
I know what you’re thinking right now: “Would that everyone was like you, Andy,” and obviously, yes, would that they were. But they’re not. So what we got instead of “Hey, that’s cool,” was millions of fanboy voices suddenly crying out in terror, while much of Film Twitter puffed on its collective pipe, adjusted its group monocle, checked the time on its communal pocket watch, and whispered, “He’s right, don’t you know old sport.”
Well… he’s not “right” — at least not completely. It’s weirdly ahistorical for him to say the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t “cinema,” given that most of the history of cinema is comprised of films that are meant to do nothing more than entertain. And it’s particularly odd for a film historian of Scorsese’s caliber to make a statement like that, considering he’s absolutely aware of the long tradition of genre filmmaking, much of which is the very definition of disposable or “low art,” as some would have it.
This shouldn’t be a slam on those films, because guess what? The same thing applies to literally every field of artistic endeavor! Most books aren’t written to be taught in schools, or discussed in book clubs, or to say something about the human condition: they’re written to entertain people. The fact that some books do have something else in mind beyond being a few diverting hours for someone who might have just worked a long day and just wants to escape for a bit doesn’t mean the ones that are “just that” aren’t also books, any more than films that aim solely to provide pleasure aren’t cinema.
So sure, what Scorsese may have been doing here is separating “cinema” from “movies,” the way people often differentiate between “literature” and “books.” But the funny thing is our opinions on what artistic works fit what categories are fluid. As a kid devouring Stephen King's books, I was repeatedly told they were garbage, crap, or worse (“garbagecrap,” for example). And now King’s got a National Medal of Arts, is worshipped by pretty much the entire writing community, and is considered an American treasure. It’s not hard to think of similar examples from film history, particularly in genre films: in the horror category alone, I’m old enough to remember when The Shining and Halloween — now considered classics of the form — were not critical darlings when they were released.
But look, this is not to say that ultimately there’s no difference between “high art” and “low art,” whether you think that’s pretentious or not, and whether we often change our collective minds as to what is what. (Maybe a perfect example for this particular kerfuffle is Joker, which wants very badly to be high art and fails miserably at it, but in my opinion, anyway, is not bad as low art.)
And while I think this is what Scorsese was getting at, I do think he went wrong in being as utterly dismissive as he was of the low art of the MCU. I would argue that not only can low art be very, very good at what it is, but that it is often actually welcome. I absolutely loved Scorsese’s Silence, but I’m probably not gonna sit through it more than a couple of times — it’s not an easy watch. On the other hand, I’ve seen a bunch of MCU movies so many times I can pretty much recite all the dialogue as I’m watching them, and they do not fail at giving me enjoyment, which is, y’know, what they set out to do.
Because who cares? Who cares if Martin Scorsese doesn’t like the movies you like?
Okay, now let’s throw that all out because what Scorsese was ultimately saying — again, phrased badly in my opinion — boils down to: “I tried to watch an MCU movie and it isn’t anything I’m interested in.” See, that’s where the shoulder-shrug and the “Hey, that’s cool” come in.
Because who cares? Who cares if Martin Scorsese doesn’t like the movies you like? And is anyone shocked that he might be a wee bit of a film snob, never mind the fact that he’s kinda earned that right? (Also if the MCU movie he tried to watch was Thor: The Dark World, I can’t even disagree with him.)
In the wake of Scorsese’s comments, one of the prevailing sentiments from MCU and comics fanboys (along with others, who should really know better) was, “He’s always been overrated,” which is so absurd it shouldn’t even be engaged with. (It’s also, unfortunately, a thing we do now whenever an artist says something we don’t like.) Another was, “Oh this from the guy who just makes the same movie over and over.” Well, I’m guessing anyone who holds that opinion has only seen Goodfellas, Casino, and maybe The Departed, because otherwise, that’s also a completely laughable opinion. (And even then they’re wrong, of course.) The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Silence, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Color of Money, After Hours, The King of Comedy… yeah, that’s just a partial list of Scorsese films that can hardly be said to be “the same movie over and over.”
Of course, this is not to say that “Martin Scorsese Pictures” don’t often share similar themes: men who are ticking timebombs (frequently portrayed by Robert De Niro) is an obvious one for many of them; the religious exploration of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Silence, another. But to make the leap from the not uncommon — and often necessary — tendency of an artist to revisit and further examine the same thematic space to “He’s just making the same movie over and over” is to misunderstand the nature of art itself. And yeah, that sounds pompous as hell, but it’s also true.
But again, even if you’re foolish enough to believe any of that about Scorsese, who cares if he doesn’t like the same movies as you? Why are you so insecure about the movies you’re into? Go enjoy a superhero movie if you want; I certainly do! I’m such an idiot I’m currently rebuying all the MCU Blu-rays as they’re released in 4K; Marty Scorsese saying he doesn’t care for them ain’t gonna stop me!
It should not matter to you one bit that Scorsese — or anyone, for that matter — doesn’t share your taste in movies, and it shouldn’t affect your opinion of his filmmaking. I loved Silence and I loved Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the best of the MCU movies: do not argue with me on this) and guess what: I still do, even after what he said! I’ve watched Avengers: Endgame three times and loved it each time, and I have no doubt that I’ll eventually have seen it well into the double-digits. I’ve also owned Goodfellas on DVD, Blu-ray, and now 4K Blu-ray. This changes nothing.
Repeat after me: This changes nothing. This changes nothing. This changes nothing.