BY ANDREW MOODY
There has been some recent debate within Hollywood about the merits, (positive or negative) surrounding the industry’s focus on making Marvel Superhero films, especially given their popularity within the millennial generation. Nobody has been more outspoken than fabled film director Martin Scorsese, who after an October 2019 interview for UK film magazine Empire, was forced to write a follow up in November 2019 for the New York Times: I Said Superhero Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.
“For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was 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.”
Even though many people would agree with this statement, the current top calibre directors and filmmakers in Hollywood were not raised in a literary and genuinely cinematic era, being more influenced by video games and theme park rides, essentially making the concept of loss for well written characters irrelevant.
In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: 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.
In the movies of Scorsese, one only has to remember Harvey Keitel standing over doomed Robert De Niro’s dead body in 1973’s Mean Streets, or Travis Bickle taking Cybil Shepard to a porn movie on their first date in Taxi Driver, or Jake La Motta punching the walls of his prison cell in 1980’s Oscar winner Raging Bull to understand what the director is trying to say. Since the early seventies Scorsese has carved an incredible reputation as one of the world’s best movie makers. Like enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino, he has earned a level of respect that few directors are capable of. Many of his movies have regained their initial popularity re-released on Netflix, and it was only due to Netflix that he managed to find a deal for his 2019 gangster movie The Irishman, starring Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made — in the words of Bob Dylan, the best of them were “heroic and visionary.”
Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination.
Nobody can really question the idea that Marvel Franchise movies are easier to digest than, say Scorsese’s Catholic passion piece The Last Temptation of Christ, even if Avengers: Endgame became the highest grossing movie of all time in 2019, grossing 2.7 billion dollars, and even being primed for a (frankly insane) Oscar bid by producers Disney and Marvel.
The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: 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. For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.