marvOne of the biggest cultural conversations of the past few years has been the debate about blockbuster movies, as superhero franchises and other genre fare like Star Wars have raked in massive amounts of money at the box office, but have been criticized for formulaic storytelling. Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese has become an accidental focus of this conversation, after he argued in a 2019 interview that Marvel movies, in particular, are more akin to a theme park ride than "cinema." Just this week, Scorsese caught more ire for broadly addressing franchise storytelling — without specifically calling out superhero movies by name — in a recent interview with GQ UK.
"I think there will always be theatrical, because people want to experience this thing together," Scorsese argued. "But at the same time, the theatres have to step up to make them places where people will want to go and enjoy themselves or want to go and see something that moves them.... The danger there is what it's doing to our culture. Because there are going to be generations now that think movies are only those – that's what movies are... They already think that. Which means that we have to then fight back stronger. And it's got to come from the grassroots level. It's gotta come from the filmmakers themselves. And you'll have, you know, the Safdie brothers, and you'll have Chris Nolan, you know what I mean? And hit 'em from all sides. Hit 'em from all sides, and don't give up. Let's see what you got. Go out there and do it. Go reinvent. Don't complain about it. But it's true, because we've got to save cinema."
"I do think that the manufactured content isn't really cinema," Scorsese added. "No, I don't want to say it. But what I mean is that, it's manufactured content. It's almost like AI making a film. And that doesn't mean that you don't have incredible directors and special effects people doing beautiful artwork. But what does it mean? What do these films – what will it give you? Aside from a kind of consummation of something and then eliminating it from your mind, your whole body, you know? So what is it giving you?"
In the span of just a few hours, sections of Scorsese's comments were met with backlash online, with fans of superhero movies quickly trying to prove him "wrong." While only Scorsese himself can clarify his intent — and even if he did, the discourse around would continue regardless — it can be argued that there's a truth to what he said, especially amid the past few years of modern-day franchise storytelling.
Let's get one thing out of the way — Scorsese is not trying to stop you from enjoying, or feeling emotion because of, the latest superhero blockbuster. He has admitted he doesn't watch most of them anyway, which probably isn't going to change no matter how many times you try to counter his argument with clips of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 or Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. He is not devaluing the work that goes into these movies, as made clear by his mention of "incredible directors and special effects people." He is also not saying that comic book adaptations are a lost cause — as evident by the fact that he almost produced one himself, Warner Bros. 2019's DC hit Joker.
What he seems to be taking issue with, in part, is how franchise movies have dominated the theatrical landscape. Beginning in the early 2010s, the runaway success of the early Marvel Cinematic Universe and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy sent a message that audiences wanted more movies with high-octane action and interconnected Easter eggs like it — and in the decade or so that ensued, studios took that concept and ran with it to varying success. The MCU only got bigger, the post-Nolan DC Extended Universe had its own lofty aspirations, and Sony and Fox's Marvel properties were (and in Sony's case, still might be) set to kick off their own interconnected sagas, with other non-superhero franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter's "Wizarding World" soon following suit.
And depending on who you ask, these franchises have maybe gotten a little too big — focusing on meeting release dates instead of maintaining creative control, delivering consistent quality, and creating an emotionally-satisfying story. Following Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has ballooned in its overall runtime, but it has left most of its narrative threads unceremoniously tangled. Phase 4 of the franchise got shuffled (thanks, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic), resulting in projects that were filmed in such close proximity that they became disconnected from each other, with unceremonious or scrapped endings, storylines that just set up future storylines, and countless characters who were introduced with no promise of when we'll ever see them again. The franchise's most recent chapter, the Disney+ series Secret Invasion, had all of these things in spades — and left the vast majority of audiences feeling exhausted by the time its six episodes wrapped. Granted, the MCU isn't the only franchise with problems like this, as so many DCEU movies were siloed off from each other, and Sony's Spider-Man universe has resulted in some real head-scratchers. Even if you've enjoyed recent parts of these franchises, Scorsese's description of the individual sagas being "a kind of consummation of something and then eliminating it from your mind" can feel fitting.
Another key part of Scorsese's comments — and the ones he's been making since 2019 — is how there has become less room for smaller movies or movies of different genres to thrive in theaters. Scorsese isn't even the first person to acknowledge the changing tides in the industry, with Steven Spielberg predicting it would happen all the way back in 2013, and Tom Hanks arguing in 2020 that non-franchise movies would die out in theaters after the COVID-19 pandemic. But Scorsese's point about future generations of moviegoers and moviemakers is absolutely significant — even with the current glut of streaming services making more films instantly-accessible than ever, there is arguably a lack of variety in the types of films the popular culture motivates us to see. (Just look at the recent reported changes to the Turner Classic Movies, and Scorsese's own efforts to help ensure that the popular cable network would continue to provide classic movies to the masses.)
Again, nobody is forcing you to expand your cinematic horizons if you don't want to, but the larger monoculture should not be limited to only a few types of movies finding success and acclaim. Even Samuel L. Jackson, who has appeared throughout the MCU since its inception, also made headlines in 2019 for reminding Marvel fans that "other f-cking people make movies." It's like a diet — you technically could live off of only eating steak dinners or fast-food sandwiches or the sugar from Pixie Sticks, but it would get tiring and unfulfilling after a while. You don't have to like everything that you watch, but it should be easier to refine your tastes and discover exactly what you like, outside of any algorithm.
To Scorsese's point, there are movies finding genuine success outside of the current franchise model. Sure, Nolan did helm a trilogy of films about one of the most famous comic book characters ever, but his most recent work on Oppenheimer has been nothing short of remarkable, proving that a brutally-serious adult drama could become a phenomenon at the box office. Even though it's based on a long-beloved toy brand, the smash success of Barbie also began to expand many viewers' cinematic horizons. Last year's Avatar: The Way of Water and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery have also outperformed expectations and created resonant, multi-film stories without fully ballooning into a franchise. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Scorsese's comments, you can't deny that we shouldn't put all of our cultural eggs into a single basket.