By Jason Delgado
Recently, director Martin Scorsese made some disparaging remarks about Marvel movies in an Empire magazine interview. “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” Scorsese told Empire. “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.” Fellow renowned director Francis Ford Coppola doubled down on that sentiment by saying, “Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”
Full disclosure, I’ve loved Marvel comics since I was little. They helped expand my vocabulary, made reading fun, and I never grew out of them. At the same time, I’m an avid movie buff who would watch movies all day and night long if I could, much to my wife’s dismay.
Scorsese and Coppola certainly have a passion for film. I think that they want to make American film great again, much like certain movements that long for a past, idealized time in history. In a press conference at the Rome Film Fest, Scorsese said, “In Hollywood we couldn’t get the money to make the picture (The Irishman), nobody would give it to us. Netflix came in and said they’d support us…If I was 30 years younger I wouldn’t be able to make films in Hollywood. In the last ten years my films have been independently financed under difficult circumstances. In this case, we had charted (the story) since the 1970s and nobody would give us the money. Netflix stood up and financed it completely. The trade off is it gets streamed (but) it’s still shown in theaters. I thought that was a good deal under the circumstances.” Scorsese also said that he used to be able to get film funding based off of the star power of people like De Niro and DiCaprio, but that “can’t be done anymore”. For Hollywood royalty like Scorsese, this must feel like a slap in the face. Coppola, Scorsese, and their buddies like George Lucas used to have the freedom to experiment with different kinds of movies right out of USC and NYU film school. That’s just not the movie-making landscape anymore, and who do they blame? Industry giants like Marvel/Disney.
I think the real culprit, however, may be the sequel/remake era that we’re living in. People like to throw out the saying that “Hollywood has run out of ideas.” Nonsense. Look at sites like The Black List, where original idea scripts and writers are found frequently. The problem is getting scripts like that produced on a regular basis. Hollywood doesn’t have an idea problem, they have a risk problem.
So the real question is, why doesn’t Hollywood have guts anymore? I think that it may be as simple as job security. Imagine you’re a movie studio executive with the power to greenlight films. You’ve got money, you’ve got power, and you may have been craving these things your entire life to be in this position. Now do you take a swing at an unproven idea, that could cost you your job and possibly entire career with a bomb, or do you go with a proven intellectual property (IP) that already has a built-in audience? Hollywood is very risk-averse nowadays, and even if a sequel/reboot IP fails, the execs can go to the higher ups and say hey, we had the data behind it to prove that the film should’ve been successful. The blame can be placed elsewhere, and it’s all about the blame game when a movie fails, and millions of dollars are on the line.
A friend of mine brought up the thought “Why doesn’t Disney, of all studios, take creative gambles, because they certainly have enough money to do so?” John Carter anyone? Even large companies like Disney are not in the business to lose money. Can you imagine Disney CEO Bob Iger telling shareholders, “Hey guys, we lost money this quarter, but at least we took some chances on original films!” I’d love to see that, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Another factor in the types of movies being produced now is that many films are made with an international audience in mind. Foreign ticket sales make up a larger portion of the box office than they did in the past. The story and set locations have to keep countries like China in mind to make a profit. So what appeals to a foreign audience, where the language can get lost in translation? Action and superhero flicks. Coppola and Scorsese probably loathe this new reality, and again we come to the idea of wanting to make American film great again. Their gangster flick days were such a slice of Americana and New York immigrant history. Coppola also had his uniquely American Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now, and I’m sure there are more examples. These legends can’t make these types of films anymore, except maybe on Netflix.
In my opinion, the 1990’s and early 2000’s were the last era where creativity in film was in full force, before sequels and remakes became the rule instead of the exception. There were filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez exploding onto the scene with their inventive, low-budget movies. A major reason for this was a film company called Miramax. They specialized in going off the beaten path, and won many Oscars while doing so. Well, it just so happened that the studio was run by a Mr. Harvey Weinstein, a man accused by many women of grotesque sexual assaults, in a casting couch manner. Can we get more studios willing to take risks, minus the alleged sexual misconduct? Another such independent company, Fox Searchlight, was recently bought by Disney and absorbed in the acquisition of Fox, which probably means even less indie movie options for the viewer moving forward.
Scorsese and Coppola long for the days of old, and who can blame them? They ruled the world with films like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Godfather part 1 and 2 (Coppola is partly at fault for this sequel craze for the masterful Godfather 2). I do think that their contempt for Marvel, however is a bit misguided. Scorsese admitted “I don’t even see them.” Maybe he caught part of Iron Man 2? The comments about Marvel not conveying “emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” would make a lot more sense in that case, because movies like Avengers: Endgame (Link for my full-spoilers review, where I explain the emotional depths the film dives into) and Black Panther are chock full of emotion. I went to multiple screenings of Endgame where sniffling was heard throughout the theater, by both young and old, during the scenes where characters sacrificed their lives heroically. If they’ve watched all the Marvel films and still feel that they’re “trash,” much like how I feel about the Transformers movies (minus the fun and heartfelt Bumblebee), then as the Dude from The Big Lebowski would say, “that’s just, like, your opinion man.”
Film and art are still subjective, last I checked. I touched on this in my first FoCC review, for the Hellboy remake. “Trash” can be just as beautiful as art. FoCC Blog’s Transmute Jun loves The Batman ‘66 TV series (as do I) and The Orville, not exactly hits with some of the critics. The editor-in-chief, DRWHO42, really enjoyed Godzilla: King of the Monsters, while I did not. The Rotten Tomatoes site is a constant reminder that viewers do not necessarily enjoy what the critics love, and may love things that the critics hate. No one opinion means more than the other, we all have our personal tastes. Actor Bruce Campbell tweeted out an article about Roger Ebert defending Star Wars from being called “not cinema” by another critic, decades earlier. Campbell said, “Good gravy! This is sillier than politics. There is no such thing as “real” cinema. We should celebrate the wildly different choices in Entertainment.”
Some Marvel fans have certainly had harsh words for Scorsese and Coppola, perhaps none so much as Disney’s aforementioned Bob Iger. In a Wall Street Journal Tech Live conference interview, Iger said that Scorsese and Coppola’s comments were “so disrespectful. If they want to bitch about movies, it is certainly their right… It seems so disrespectful to all the people that work on those films, who are working just as hard as the people working on their films, and are putting their creative souls on the line, just like they are… You tell me Ryan Coogler making Black Panther is somehow doing something less than Marty Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola have ever done on any of their movies?” he added.
I still love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as do millions of other fans, and I don’t think any comments from anyone else will change that. The only people who truly have to worry about a film being as “artful” as a movie like Cinema Paradiso, are the film students who have to write a paper on the subject. We all need to be a little thicker-skinned, and take film criticism with a grain of salt. Critics and opinions can be a guide, but not a be-all, end-all for what we’re into. We, the audience, didn’t actually make these movies, yet we find ourselves defending large corporations like Disney. As another Disney flick would go into song about, “let it go.”