Are Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola Right About Marvel? (Column)

If you want to shoot holes in the comments that Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola made recently about Marvel movies (Scorsese: “That’s not cinema”; Coppola: “Martin was being kind when he said it wasn’t cinema. He didn’t say it was despicable, which is what I say”), then go right ahead, because they’ve practically handed you the gun and the bullets. The most obvious bullet is the one that automatically damns you in this day and age: These guys are old (Scorsese is about to turn 77, Coppola is now 80), and you could argue that their grand objection to the blockbuster films of today boils down to the fact that the world is no longer the world they grew up in, or the one that existed when they were at their creative apex as filmmakers, so they’re unhappy about it.

The whole “It’s not the way it was in the good old days!” song and dance, which I’m personally quite familiar with (since my set-in-his-ways father did it every day), is one that we tend to think of as just another cranky version of “Get off my lawn!” And the public discourse today overflows with it. America, in case you hadn’t heard, is going down the drain, and it’s all the fault of … the millennials! The Trump voters! The corporations who control everything! The Internet! The fake news! The video games! The greedy corrupt Hollywood that elevated fantasy over reality! Please, God, bring it back to the way it used to be!

Much of the knee-jerk condemnation of the Scorsese v Marvel crusade, as expressed on social media, has come down to a visceral rejection of the-damning-of-the-new-by-those-who-are-old. Beyond that, though, the Scorsese argument that Marvel movies aren’t cinema is riddled with irony, if not flat-out contradiction, when you take a closer look at the messenger.

Popular on Variety

Scorsese, who has always been a high priest of cinema, decided several years ago to make his magnum opus gangster movie at Netflix. When “The Irishman” is released in November, it will be seen, for the most part, not in the movie theaters that Scorsese (and a lot of us) still regard as holy temples of art, but at home, on your big or not-so-big TV screen. If you randomly pose the question, “Which of these two situations represents a greater threat to the future of cinema: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ opening on 4,662 screens, or ‘The Irishman’ opening on hardly any screens at all?,” you could make the case that “The Irishman,” precisely because it’s such a good movie, represents the selling out of cinema. At the very least, it makes Scorsese, at this moment, a less-than-perfect messenger for the notion that cinema is the great force he’s upholding.

And, of course, there’s another king-size irony: the fact that Scorsese and Coppola came up as part of a generation — more than a generation, a movement, a kind of revolutionary vanguard of film directors — that took over Hollywood in the early ’70s, and in the top echelon of those directors were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who changed the world (not just the world of movies, but the world, period) by ushering in a new kind of narcotic escapist pop fantasy. Can a Marvel movie be a work of cinema? I’ll address that in a moment, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Scorsese are Coppola are right — that it’s not. Then I’d like to ask both of them a question: Is “Raiders of the Lost Ark” a work of cinema? Are the first two “Star Wars” movies works of cinema? (Is “The Phantom Menace”? Kidding!) If these two directors are so down on what Hollywood became, are they willing to trace that Hollywood, of all-zap-pow-all-the-time, back to the Hollywood that was forged in the ’70s by their comrades-in-arms? Whatever your feelings about Marvel culture, it didn’t come out of nowhere.

And here’s the ultimate bullet. Since most of us would say that certain Marvel movies are good movies, isn’t it sheer carping to declare that they aren’t “cinema?” What is cinema, anyway? If we use the word to mean a transporting and enveloping motion-picture experience, shared in a theater with hundreds of other people, then saying that a Marvel movie isn’t cinema can sound like the height of perversity. To a great many people, a Marvel movie is the very essence of cinema. You could say that the entire kerfuffle comes down to an issue of semantics: What movie is or is not “cinema,” and who gets to decide?

But here’s why I think that Scorsese and Coppola are actually right — and why in their high-minded and disgruntled what’s-the-world-coming-to? way, the two are doing American movie culture an incredible service. The way I see it, they’ve planted this issue at the center of the conversation, staking their credibility on an argument that radically challenges the status quo. And instead of carping about them, we should all take a big pause and listen to what they’re saying. Because this isn’t really about putting down Marvel movies. It’s about asking what, in the future, we want our popular culture to be.

Over the years, I’ve written positive reviews of more than my share of Marvel films. This year alone, I liked at least one (“Captain Marvel”) that most critics didn’t, and at least one (“Dark Phoenix”) that most critics thought was beyond abysmal. I stand by both opinions, so mock me if you will, but I am no Marvel basher. I think that the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” is the greatest Marvel movie, and close to a work of art.

Yet here’s why I agree, in spirit, with Scorsese and Coppola (and with Ken Loach and Fernando Meirelles, the two other directors who’ve since chimed in on this issue). What, deep in its bones, does the word “cinema” mean? If it’s merely a synonym for “motion-picture spectacle,” then obviously the two are wrong. (If “Avengers: Endgame” isn’t a spectacle, I don’t know what is.) But that’s not actually what cinema means. Scorsese said that a Marvel movie “isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” On a literal level, you could say that he’s wrong (the hero of “Guardians of the Galaxy” tries to do those things), but what he’s really speaking about comes down to a different word. The word is mystery.

The trouble with our blockbuster movie culture, and not just Marvel movies, is that there’s no mystery to it. None at all. It’s all on the surface; what you see is what you get. Whereas cinema, as it has stood for 100 years, represents a realm in which stories vibrate with an emotional and psychological reality that transcends the design of the film we’re watching. Cinema is about what happens, in a movie, right in front of you, but it’s also about what happens between the lines. It’s about a place where what the film brings to the audience is met by what the audience brings to the film — a sacred zone of spirit and empathy, where the identification you feel with a character takes you to someplace unknown.

Marvel movies, in their eye-popping and often quite enthralling way, have the quality of being finite. There’s no hidden layers to anything that happens in them. They scarcely pretend to have those layers — not the way a movie like “La La Land” or “The Social Network” or “12 Years a Slave” or “Lady Bird” does. Or the way that “Joker,” the anti-comic-book comic-book movie, does. To point this out doesn’t need to be a put-down. But Scorsese and Coppola are asking something elemental: Do we want a movie culture where everything is programmed and scannable, with no hidden levels, so that movies no longer reflect the mystery in ourselves? Some might say, “We do!” But I would say be careful what you wish for. Instead of rising up to damn what Scorsese and Coppola have said, maybe we should spend a few moments considering why they said it. Are Marvel movies cinema? We’ll be a healthier culture if we let the debate begin.

More Film

  • Joe Keery appears in Spree by

    'Spree': Film Review

    It didn’t seem like there was a large portion of the movie-going population who felt that Todd Phillips’ “Joker” was too subtle, in either its commentary on the modern era of those who are involuntarily celibate, or its homage-like appropriation of classic Martin Scorsese movies. But maybe writer-director-producer Eugene Kotlyarenko has other information, since that’s [...]

  • Dream Horse Review

    'Dream Horse': Film Review

    Louise Osmond’s 2015 Sundance audience winner “Dark Horse” was one of those documentaries that played like a crowdpleasing fiction, its real-life tale of underdog triumph had such a conventionally satisfying narrative arc. And indeed, the new “Dream Horse” proves that same material is indeed ready-made for dramatization. Euros Lyn’s feature springs few true surprises within [...]

  • Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein appear

    'The Nowhere Inn': Film Review

    Bill Benz’s high-concept rock mockumentary opens with a white limo speeding through the desert. The driver (Ezra Buzzington) has never heard of his passenger, the cult sensation Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent. “I’m not for everybody,” she shrugs. The driver is unsatisfied. “Don’t worry,” he glowers. “We’ll find out who [...]

  • THE_GLORIAS_DM_02-12-2019-00128.arw

    'The Glorias': Film Review

    In “The Glorias,” Julie Taymor’s pinpoint timely yet rousingly old-fashioned biopic about the life and times of Gloria Steinem, the legendary feminist leader is portrayed by four different actresses at four different stages of her life. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young woman wearing a sari as she travels through India, planting her flag [...]

  • Black Bear

    'Black Bear': Film Review

    Actor-writer Lawrence Michael Levine’s first two directorial features, “Gabi on the Roof in July” and “Wild Canaries,” were idiosyncratic indie hipster comedies of a familiar stripe. His third, “Black Bear,” is a much trickier proposition, a kind of narrative puzzle box in which one might be hard-pressed to find a solution, or even determine there [...]

  • Wendy

    'Wendy': Film Review

    Eight long years after “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin brings that same rust-bottomed sense of magical realism to the legend of Peter Pan, reframing J.M. Barrie’s Victorian classic through the eyes of the eldest Darling. “Wendy,” as the indie-minded not-quite-family-film is aptly titled, re-envisions its title character as a working-class kiddo raised at [...]

  • The 40-Year-Old Version

    'The 40-Year-Old Version': Film Review

    In Radha Blank’s semi-autobiographical comedy, the quadruple-threat plays “Rahda Blank,” a Harlem-based playwright who faces many of the same struggles and setbacks as her creator. It’s been more than a decade since Radha (as we’ll call the character) earned a promising “30 Under 30” award, and now, instead of getting her work produced, she’s teaching [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content