Throughout the long rollout of The Irishman, from the premiere in late September to the current limited theatrical run leading up to November 27, the day that Netflix will begin streaming it around the world, Martin Scorsese has been generously granting interviews and taking questions on nearly every topic under the sun. In a sardonic tweet, critic Stephen Whitty notes that, with The Irishman, a meditation on mid-twentieth-century American history starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, Scorsese has “re-examined a genre he’s often feared he’s exhausted, brought in lifelong friends to help, convinced another actor to come out of retirement, delivered an epic reflection on regret—just so he could be asked about frigging comic book movies.”
The question Whitty is referring to, raised in early October during an interview conducted by Empire magazine, pertained specifically to Marvel movies. “I don’t see them,” Scorsese said. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema.” Click-hungry outlets immediately picked up on the comments, knowing full well that Marvel’s vast and deeply committed fan base would rise up in fury and drive untold volumes of traffic to their sites.
To be fair, those fans are not alone. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, while noting that “only someone very presumptuous is going to say [Scorsese is] wrong,” does add that, when it comes to these superhero movies, “I hugely enjoy them as melodrama, spectacle, craziness, and fantasy: for me, in these terms, they really are cinema. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the slo-mo sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past, with Quicksilver dashing around catching bullets, to the melancholy accompaniment of Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’ is pure cinematic inspiration. Thor: Ragnarok is a great comedy and Black Panther is a terrific action drama.” Even so, for weeks, many cinephiles simply ignored the artificially stoked-up “controversy” in the hope that this little rivulet of a news cycle would spin out and fade away. No dice.
As it turns out, though, there is a silver lining. Scorsese has evidently felt compelled to explain his comments, and that explanation has evolved into a carefully constructed and ultimately quite vital assessment of the state of cinema in the form of an opinion piece for the New York Times. Scorsese first establishes that, while Marvel movies and other franchise films are “made by people of considerable talent and artistry,” his lack of interest in them is simply “a matter of personal taste and temperament.” They don’t offer what he looks for in cinema, which is “revelation—aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation.” Cinema should be “about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
Scorsese grants that there is some of that going on in some Marvel movies, but: “Nothing is at risk . . . That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted, and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.” And to ensure that they are consumed, “the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.” This isn’t a new issue for Scorsese. Last year, while speaking at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he argued that there is “a gradual disappearance of films of ambition—in other words, the cinema that we know, the cinema that’s inspired us and enriched our lives.”
Superheroes are sucking all the air out of the room. Toward the end of his NYT piece, Scorsese drives home his main argument. “The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields,” he writes. “There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.”
Scorsese will turn seventy-seven later this month, and he’s already well into preproduction on Killers of the Flower Moon, a film based on David Grann’s book about a series of murders in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. While it hardly seems possible, his stock carries on rising. RogerEbert.com is currently counting down its selection of the best films of the 2010s, and coming in at #6 is 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Strong reviews keep rolling in for The Irishman—see, for example, Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot), Nicolas Rapold (Film Comment), Dana Stevens (Slate), and Amy Taubin (Artforum). And from November 22 through January 4, Toronto’s TIFF Cinematheque will present a Scorsese retrospective. “As an exacting cinephile, an observer of male violence, and a man immersed from childhood in the Catholic faith, Scorsese has made his obsessions belong to all of us who love film,” writes TIFF programmer Cameron Bailey. “Scorsese remains a singular voice in our cinematic landscape. It may never again be possible for such a figure to emerge.”
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