In early October, Martin Scorsese committed what many regard as an unpardonable sin: he told the truth in public.
While promoting his new film, The Irishman, he let fly that Marvel movies — those CGI’ed, bloated-budget, cape’n’codpiece spectaculars that have all but crowded films for discerning adults out of theaters — are “not cinema.” Rather than featuring “human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experiences to another human being,” these films, Scorsese stipulated, are more like “theme parks.”
Comic-book-loving man-children from all corners of the internet immediately stormed their indignation stations. (The average age of comic-book readers, by some estimates, is now around 36, though in fairness, many can read on a 37-year-old level.) “How dare he?” they seemed to whine in unison, while failing to notice that many Marvel characters are literal theme park attractions. (See the Incredible Hulk coaster and Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall at Universal Orlando, for starters.)
Shortly thereafter, Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola joined his paisan, doubling down by adding “we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration … Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just said it is.”
It seemed every actor and director who long ago strapped on knee pads to service the blockbuster gods, from Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) to Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) to Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, respectfully disagreed with directors they rightly recognize as cinematic goliaths, or Unicrons, to put it in language the Dörkenkultur might better comprehend.
But the Twitterverse was outraged. (Then again, when aren’t they?) Faux cineastes, who wouldn’t know Nicholas Ray from Rachael Ray, and who think Italian neorealism is a gelato flavor at Trader Joe’s, were now purporting to tell two of the greatest directors and film aesthetes of any generation what was what. In addition to the inevitable entreaties for Scorsese/Coppola to autocopulate, no fewer than 52 Twitter lynch-mobsters (replicating the tired repetitiveness of the films they’re defending, which often seem less like films than excuses to merchandise Happy Meal cups), described Scorsese, now 76, and Coppola, now 80, as crotchety geezers yelling at the kids to get off their cinematic lawns.
But the mob had some high-powered back-up. No less an eminence than Disney chief Bob Iger (Marvel Studios is a Disney subsidiary) told a Wall Street Journal conference, “If they want to bitch about movies, it’s certainly their right,” but “I reserve [Coppola’s] word ‘despicable’ for someone who committed mass murder.” For a second there, it sounded like Iger might be confessing. Though even if he’s not a literal mass murderer, he is, at the very least, an arsonist of sorts. For while he acted as though Scorsese/Coppola had farted in church, it is Iger and his ilk that long ago burned the temple of high and even middlebrow cinema down. On the big-screen these days, we’re much less likely to get a Last Temptation of Christ or Goodfellas, than we are Avengers XVII: Thor Goes To Home Depot To Buy A Framing Hammer With Shock-Reduction Grip.
If you feel like you’re constantly driving past movie marquees advertising next-to-nothing besides cape’n’codpiece dross, as you slink home to Netflix since quality narrative entertainment for adults is now largely the province of television, it’s not your imagination. These films have spread like a bad rash over the last decade-and-a-half.
After crunching numbers from inside sources at Wikipedia, here’s the breakdown: Without counting Marvel or DC-Comics-based films, from 1977 to 2002, a 25-year interval, there were 60 live-action superhero-type films. From 2003-2019, a 16-year-period, there were 86 of them, with at least 13 more slated for future release. Again, that’s without factoring in DC Comics-based films (e.g., Superman and Batman, etc.) and Marvel-based movies (e.g., Hulk and Spiderman).
But let’s factor them in. Over a 52-year span, from 1951 until 2003, there were only 15 live-action DC films. But since 2004 — a mere 15 years — there have been 17, with three more on the horizon. Move to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and recent numbers skew off the charts. From 1944 until 2001, a 57-year stretch, there were only seven Marvel-based live-action films. From 2002 until now, there have been 52 live-action Marvel movies, with five more in the on-deck circle in 2020 alone.
No wonder the highly decorated director Terry Gilliam, when asked last year if he’d like to direct a superhero movie, was prompted to say, “I hate superheroes. It’s bullshit. Come on, grow up! … We’re not going to be teenagers for the rest of our lives.”
Though plenty are trying. One member of the nerderati media (from what else – comicbook.com), tried to settle the Scorsese debate by wheeling out box office numbers. It turns out that 23 Marvel Studio movies made over the last 11 years have earned more than double Scorsese and Coppola’s entire oeuvre combined over their respective half-centuries as filmmakers.
Leaving aside the fact that it’s highly doubtful any Marvel movies will be regarded by history as holding the jock of the directors of such timeless classics as Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, Goodfellas, Apocalypse Now, or The Godfather (I or II, take your pick), this is a grossly inadequate yardstick by which to judge the quality of films. By comparison, Ford sells a lot of Fiestas every year. A lot more than Aston Martin ever did their DB5 model (James Bond’s car in Goldfinger and Thunderball). But do we judge the former to be a superior piece of automotive engineering based on sales figures? Of course not.
Only a studio executive or a mook would regard that as an adequate measure. For “mook” context, see Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which would handily win if pitted against all comers in Captain America: Civil War. Though to be fair to the talented Paul Rudd, who faces off against Tony Stark’s Iron Man as Ant-Man in that picture, so would Rudd’s recent Netflix cloning dramedy, Living With Yourself. Netflix being one of the “television” depots where top-shelf Hollywood talent is now forced to go in order to make “quality” entertainment that doesn’t demand to be tent-poled, merchandised to within an inch of its life, and/or sold to the broadest audience possible for Chinese dubbing rights, since foreign-market box office now exceeds American numbers for America-made movies, which could explain a thing or two about why our movies keep getting more simplistic, i.e., dumber.
Such assembly-line conformity is what drove Scorsese to speak out. As he explained in a New York Times op-ed, of all the changes that have plagued the film industry over the last two decades, the most ominous is “the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”
Scorsese himself — about as proven an artist as there is who has succeeded in a variety of cinematic genres — was considered one of those risks by the major studios, who otherwise have no qualms about squandering ungodly sums of money letting grown men prance around the big screen in spandex. Even though he was making The Irishman in his most proven genre, the gangster drama, and even though he pulled stars whose faces belong on acting’s Mount Rushmore (Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, along with the always-electric Joe Pesci), Scorsese was rejected by all major studios over a ten-year period. It was left to Netflix to finance his film, which currently sports a 97 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes critics rating, along with a 93 percent fresh audience score.
No wonder Scorsese had to resort to a CGI de-aging process for his actors, for whom just getting the production greenlit took approximately one-seventh of their lives. Major studios were more interested in producing comic-book disposables to meet their increasingly cartoonish financial demands. The cost of just marketing 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time ($2.8 billion and counting), was at least $200 million, much more than the production costs of nearly every movie you have ever loved.
Yet what did $200 million used to buy you when we didn’t live in a cape’n’codpiece world? Well, consider that the cost of all three Coppola Godfather films put together, was only $73.5 million. And The Godfather: Part III, which plenty of us Godfather fans could’ve happily lived without, took up $54 million of that production budget. And that was just the production budget! The marketing budget of Avengers: Endgame alone exceeded the cost of making all three Godfathers 2.7 times over.
Still, The Godfather: Part III did serve a higher purpose, convincing the miscast Sofia Coppola that her real calling wasn’t as an actress, but as a director. And a fine one. Despite critics of Scorsese perpetually trying to conjure 3-D complex human moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, along with celebrating the films’ increasingly woke politics (title of real-world academic paper: “Unbecoming Women: Dark Phoenix and the Dethronement of The Wealthy White Male Hero”), I challenge them to find one moment as beautifully human as the one Sofia Coppola created in Lost in Translation. It was made for $4 million back in 2003, when independents still had a fighting chance on the big screen, and climaxed with Bill Murray whispering something unintelligible in Scarlett Johansson’s ear. No capes’n’codpieces. No cities destroyed. No enemies crushed by far-fetched superpowers. Just good clean, honest storytelling.
The cruel irony of the knocks on Scorsese is that the man who is arguably the greatest master of the form — one of the people who inspired me to minor in film (and not just to pad my GPA), which I can barely bring myself to care about any longer due to the medium's mass Marvel-ization — is getting reamed for being an elitist movie-hater.
In the 1989 book, Scorsese On Scorsese, Michael Powell nicely describes Scorsese’s ethos in the foreword, framing him as someone who believes that “film-making must be personal, and this most of all when it commands the greatest technical and industrial resources. Only with this insistence on coherent authorship will it be authentic, demanding that the film-maker test every gesture and line-reading against personal experience and emotion. Its techniques must above all be expressive, bending the spectator’s eye and emotion to the film-maker’s vision, however bizarre or removed from normal experience. And the resulting beauty will follow the Surrealist Andre Breton’s definition: it will be convulsive, or it will not be.”
Nine times out of ten, in Scorsese’s world, it is convulsive. Superhero hacks should take notes.
Scorsese himself described his governing ethos even better once: “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places. They open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime, we need to keep them alive.”
And yet, Scorsese is not the hero of this story. Surprisingly, the true hero of this story is Gwyneth Paltrow. It is popular to bash fair Gwynnie: for naming her kid “Apple,” for selling overpriced vaginal steamers on her ridiculous Goop lifestyle site, for referring to her divorce from a Coldplay singer as a “conscious uncoupling,” for marrying anyone from Coldplay in the first place.
But Paltrow is a sublime actress in her spare time, who historically chooses quality projects, when not taking the money and running to play Pepper Potts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see her in Shakespeare in Love, Sylvia, or The Royal Tenenbaums if you don’t believe me.)
In an inadvertently revealing moment last summer, she provided one of the most honest glimpses into humanity a Marvel star has ever produced. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in one of the movies. It came during a cooking segment on Jon Favreau and Roy Choi’s Netflix series, The Chef Show. Favreau is also the director and producer of several films in the Marvel franchise. And while Favreau reminded Paltrow over a hot stove about their time together on Spider-Man: Homecoming, she seemed to have no idea that she’d ever been in it.
“We weren’t in Spiderman!” she protested, dumbfounded.
“Yes we were – Homecoming. You were in Spiderman,” insisted Favreau.
“No,” replied Paltrow, “I was in Avengers.”
Favreau was correct, Paltrow was wrong (or half-wrong: she was in both.) But was she really wrong? She just couldn’t remember which Marvel movie she’d been in — they’re all so generically interchangeable. Martin Scorsese might bang on about the importance of remembering. But Paltrow teaches us something just as valuable: the importance of forgetting the forgettable.
Matt Labash is the author of Fly Fishing with Darth Vader.