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Martin Scorsese’s fight against Marvel isn’t really about Marvel movies

The iconic director isn’t mad at Black Panther, he’s mad at Marvel’s system.

SFFILM Presents “The Irishman”
Martin Scorsese attends the SFFILM premiere of “The Irishman” at the Castro Theatre on November 5, 2019 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Director Martin Scorsese will not be joining the masses to see next year’s Black Widow prequel, nor be slugging down soda and getting his hands sticky with popcorn grease at 2021’s Thor: Love and Thunder. He was also not one of the millions who saw Avengers: Endgame.

It’s not because the famed director wouldn’t be caught dead in a normal movie theater. It’s because, to him, Marvel movies aren’t “true” movies at all.

“I don’t think they’re cinema,” the director wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times on November 4, voicing his disdain for Disney’s superhero blockbusters. “I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.”

The New York Times piece was Scorsese expanding upon an interview with Empire in October where he first commented on Marvel. The director of The Irishman, as well as critically heralded classics like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, ignited a discussion about Marvel movies that have seen other famed directors criticize them. Francis Ford Coppola, for instance, called the franchise “despicable.”

Given that there are countless fans of Marvel movies, enough to make this year’s Avengers: Endgame the biggest movie of all time ($2.797 billion at the worldwide box office), their comments were not taken lightly. Defenses of the Marvel franchise immediately followed Scorsese’s interview, and the op-ed a week later further stoked ire from not only fans but also from makers of Marvel movies, like Taika Waititi and James Gunn. Gunn, who directed the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies and will direct the third film, tried to explain that the way Coppola and Scorsese see Marvel movies is how their movies were treated by the generation of directors before them:

Scorsese’s comments reached Marvel chief creative officer Kevin Feige, who responded to them on Sunday.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Feige said of Scorsese’s take the Hollywood Reporter during an interview on one of the publication’s podcasts. “I think myself and everyone who works on these movies loves cinema, loves movies, loves going to the movies, loves to watch a communal experience in a movie theater full of people.”

While Gunn frames this clash between filmmakers as a generational conflict, and Feige’s response is based on audience appeal, the real issue fueling Coppola and Scorsese’s seemingly-out-of-the-blue backlash against Marvel is something that all involved parties might agree on: Audiences aren’t going to theaters to see movies like they used to, and movie studios are compensating by pivoting away from original stories toward surefire bets. And those tend to be very expensive superhero movies, sequels, and adaptations or remakes.

It’s possible to love Marvel movies and also be terrified of a future where no one makes anything but Marvel movies. (If non-stop Marvel movies sound great to you, please attend a 29-hour marathon of them to find out what it’s really like.) Scorsese’s comments and the reaction they’ve triggered are evidence that this is what happens when you dismiss the joy and glee that Marvel movies bring to massive amounts of viewers.

The fight about Marvel is really about how the movie industry works

Scorsese’s New York Times opinion piece is structured into two sections: why he doesn’t like Marvel movies, and why Marvel movies scare him. He argues that the main problem with Marvel movies is that movie studios have changed their mindset to just want more movies in that mold instead of taking chances on more intimate films, and that worries him as a filmmaker who loathes repeating himself.

“So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple,” Scorsese wrote. “In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen.”

He’s not wrong. People went to theaters in 2019 to see franchise or superhero films. The box office results — in billions and billions of dollars — speak to that.

According to Box Office Mojo’s 2019 worldwide box office list, there were four superhero movies — Avengers: Endgame ($2.7 billion), Spider-Man: Far From Home ($1.1 billion), Captain Marvel ($1.1 billion), and Joker ($938 million) — among the year’s 10 highest-grossing movies. Three of those four are from the Marvel franchise. Sequels and remakes by Marvel Entertainment’s parent company Disney take another three spots — The Lion King ($1.6 billion), Toy Story 4 ($1 billion), and Aladdin ($1 billion). Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbes and Shaw ($758 million), a spinoff and the ninth film in the Fast and Furious franchise, takes another spot. The only two movies in the top 10 that aren’t franchise films are two Chinese films, Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will also most likely be on that list when it debuts in December.

Scorsese argues that movie studios interpret these box office returns as indicative of what the audiences want. He suggests that directors who want to be successful might see this and feel the need to keep making these same kinds of big-budget movies in order to get any of their movies financed, small or large. Studios will continue to be less inclined to take a risk on smaller movies or more original stories because those kinds of movies won’t be guaranteed to hit the way a sixth or seventh Avengers movie would.

Scorsese isn’t alone in fearing the Hollywood machine, and he’s not even the first person to prominently broadcast that fear. Back in June, the New York Times asked a series of Hollywood directors, producers, actors, and studio heads about the movie-going habits of your friendly neighborhood moviegoers. They came to the same conclusion as Scorsese: The market is tough for mid-sized movies that weren’t franchise hits.

“[E]ven we are finding that is becoming increasingly difficult as the months pass — not as the years pass, as the months pass,” Joe Russo, co-director of Avengers: Endgame said. “It is a tough market, even for us coming off Endgame, to make a darker, character-driven movie. It’s not what the market was even two years ago.”

For someone with the box office bonafides of Russo to say that it’s difficult to get the funding to do a smaller movie puts the market into perspective. Imagine how hard it is for directors who don’t have Endgame clout or a bevy of awards to their name to convince studios to give them a shot at directing a mid-sized drama or comedy.

We know that people go see franchise movies. We also know that the success of franchise movies has affected the market for directors who want to make smaller movies. The less obvious and trickier part of the anti-Marvel movie discourse is figuring out the reason, as Scorsese suggests, that people are seemingly only seeing these big franchise movies when they go to theaters.

The movie industry hasn’t figured out how to get people to go to the movies more

Scorsese answered that question like this: People only see Marvel movies because the industry keeps moviegoers juiced on Marvel movies.

“If you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree,” he wrote in the Times. “It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”

Scorsese’s image of an “endless” stream of Marvel blockbusters is a bit of an embellishment. Since Iron Man’s release in 2008, Marvel has implemented a strategy of releasing about two movies per year, with occasional exceptions. In 2018 and 2019, for example, Marvel released three movies each year to ramp up for the colossal event that was Avengers: Endgame.

The Motion Picture Association of America reported in its theatrical and home entertainment market environment (THEME) survey that in 2018, there were 758 total movies released in Canada and the United States. Ticket sales were also up in 2018 to the tune of $1.3 billion, a more than five percent increase from 2017.

So the year’s three Marvel movies made up .003 percent of the movies released in theaters. If we want to include Disney movies, that number jumps to nine, and if we were to include Lucasfilms’ Solo: A Star Wars Story, we get to 10, or still a paltry 1.3 percent.

Theatrical releases in 2018 according to the MPA

The overall picture of movies released in 2018 compared with the Marvel or Disney output doesn’t match Scorsese’s assertion that moviegoers “are given only one kind of thing.” Being generous, you could also add movies like Aquaman, Justice League, Venom, Deadpool 2, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse into the mix, as well as franchise movies like Creed II, Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald, and Halloween, too. But even then, you barely moved the needle on that percentage, and you’ve already hopped into different genres.

What Scorsese is probably getting at is that Avengers: Endgame opened to a record number of screens (4,662) in its opening weekend, while movies like Jordan Peele’s Us and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opened on nearly a thousand fewer screens.

Trying to find statistics of mid-sized movies is a bit of a moving target though. We know that they are struggling and we also know that 2018 was an absolutely bombshell year for the Oscars’ Best Picture nominees, even without the inclusion of the box office colossus that was Black Panther. And the MPA report also shows that the number of smaller movie theaters (one to four screens) decreased to 4,355 from 4,443, while the number of big movie theaters (five or more screens) increased to 36,220, signaling that people are going to bigger theaters, which tend to cater to the biggest movies. That doesn’t even get into the unlikelihood that the independent or less expensive movies that often play at those smaller theaters rarely play outside of major metropolitan areas as it is. Someone in the Midwest may have a tougher time finding anything other than Disney fare at their local multiplex.

But we know people aren’t given only one kind of thing. We also know they do keep going to theaters, as box office returns have shown us year after year, for that “one kind of thing.” And they go en masse.

The MPA’s 2018 THEME report explains that the average moviegoer bought five tickets in 2018. If that moviegoer saw all the Marvel movies that year, that leaves room on the table for two more movies. Say they want to see Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins, and there’s only one left — maybe for Game Night and the indomitable Rachel McAdams?

Moviegoers, explained

Getting people to theaters to see a movie is what Tim Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures, calls “theatricality.”

“There now has to be something about it that gives it that theatrical urgency, and it’s true whether it’s a small-budget horror film, a gigantic event film or a mid-budget original drama,” Rothman told the Times in that June roundtable.

People who go to the movies more than once a month make up 49 percent of movie tickets sold.

Marvel movies, thanks to their 50-plus years of comic book source material and the studio’s cinematic release strategy of interlocking films, have figured out how to take advantage of their theatricality. It also helps that Marvel has a track record of critically-lauded movies.

What Rothman, his fellow executives, and directors haven’t totally figured out is how to crack the theatricality for the smaller films that Scorsese talks about. How do you sell a movie that doesn’t have well-known roots and beloved characters that people have been waiting to see on screen? What will move someone to spend money on rising ticket prices and concessions in order to see a slower, less flashy movie in a theater?

One of the obvious levers here, in a broad sense, is marketing.

Crazy Rich Asians, also released in 2018 and based on a best-selling trilogy of books, was portrayed by its distributor Warner Bros. as a special event. The movie was a milestone for onscreen representation, featuring the first all Asian and Asian American cast in 25 years, and that achievement was something that Warner Bros., the film’s creative team, and audiences leaned into.

“The weekend became a can’t-miss pop culture event,” director John Chu said at Cinemacon earlier this year. “But it wasn’t about the first weekend. Our audience came back for the second and the third and they brought their parents and grandparents and friends. Some people bought tickets for total strangers.”

But not every movie has a milestone-type cultural achievement to bank on. Booksmart, released in 2019, earned raves and was touted by critics as a can’t-miss comedy. The movie underperformed at the box office, only making $24 million worldwide, and its distributor Annapurna Pictures’ effort (or lack thereof) in marketing the movie was blamed for the low box office returns.

“When you have a movie that’s as entertaining, well-made, and well-received as Booksmart not doing the business it should have, it really makes you realize that the typical Darwinian fight to survive is completely lopsided now,” JJ Abrams, who has made big films like Star Wars and smaller ones like Super 8, told The Times as part of that roundtable. Everyone’s trying to figure out how we protect the smaller films that aren’t four-quadrant mega-releases. Can they exist in the cinemas?”

Another big variable is streaming platforms, and how their catalogs influence what people will see in theaters. A moviegoer might think: Why see a small-scale family drama like Marriage Story in a theater for a ticket that costs as much as the Netflix subscription you’ll be able to view the movie with a month later?

Theater releases and streaming don’t directly cannibalize each other. As Variety reported in 2018, a study commissioned by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), a lobbying group for theater owners, found that people who went to a movie theater nine times or more in the previous 12 months consumed more streaming content than moviegoers who only went to theaters once or twice a year. Ergo, people who go to the movies a lot also stream movies a lot.

For Paul Feig, the director behind hits like Bridesmaids, a movie that he thinks could have done better if he’d released it on a streaming platform instead of theaters, was his 2018 film A Simple Favor, a pulpy thriller starring Blake Lively in a series of great suits and pants.

“I always felt like this was a movie that a lot of people were going to catch up with once it got to streaming,” he told Decider this summer. “It’s a lot harder to get people to get up out of their houses and drive to the theater and put down money and get them to sit there, unfortunately. It’s much easier to sit in front of the TV and turn on their favorite streaming service. It’s a lot more convenient way for people to catch up, and so you just want people to be able to access it.”

The problem with Hollywood today isn’t so much that people are going to Marvel movies more than anything else. Rather, it’s that the majority of the film industry hasn’t figured out how to adapt to the habits of moviegoers. There is no rule that people can only see a finite number of movies per year — but producers, directors, and marketers of films without the same immediate cachet that Marvel has haven’t figured out how to convince people to see more than five movies per year in theaters, nor determining whether a movie is worth spending the time and money to drop in theaters instead of streaming.

Perhaps that’s because movies are too expensive to attend in theaters (the average ticket price in 2018 was $9.11 according to the MPA) or maybe movie studios haven’t figured out how to sell specific movies to the right audiences (RIP Booksmart), or maybe there’s a strong philosophical delineation between watching movies in our homes versus watching them in theaters. Industry experts are still trying, as they told the Times, to understand the underlying causes for these trends away from theaters. And that’s good because it’s ultimately the industry’s problem to fix; it isn’t the responsibility of moviegoers to diversify a top-heavy, Marvel-heavy box office.

There’s a difference between the way we talk about Marvel movies as a cultural force and Marvel movies themselves

Vox’s critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff shared an incisive observation following Scorsese’s New York Times piece, which gets at the heart of this debate over Marvel movies and movie enjoyment:

Essentially: Scorsese and Coppola and Marvel’s biggest critics talk about Marvel movies and their effect on the industry as “bad,” but then also casually judge the individual movies as unworthy of the term “art.”

It’s the conflation between the two — that bad art has contributed to a bad cultural movement that leads to the conflict and debate we’re having now.

In his op-ed, Scorsese generally refers to Marvel movies as “amusement parks” and lists how they are devoid of “revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger,” and that the “pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”

He passes these judgments without listing any specific Marvel movie. But if you look at reviews for the 20-plus Marvel movies from movie critics, they’re all generally positive. The review scores for each Marvel movie over the last five years are solid amongst a variety of critics and outlets, with standouts films like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther leading the charge.

Dismissing these individual movies as low-quality monoliths implies that disparate Marvel movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Captain Marvel cover the same themes just because they’re Marvel movies, or that there was no emotional danger in Avengers: Endgame. Endgame may be a pulpy comic book on the big screen, but the emotional connections that Marvel fans forged with its characters are earnest and telling. These movies are important to viewers, and are not absent of meaningful substance.

“I love all types of movies and always have,” Feige told the Hollywood Reporter. It’s “why we try to blend our films with different genres and take the success that we’ve had and do different things — which is why we haven’t made an Iron Man movie since 2013.”

In that same vein, Scorsese mentions the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual revelation that he sees in “the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time” as he did, and how those movies enlarged “the sense of what was possible in the art form.”

What he doesn’t mention is that a lot of these friends and filmmakers and the stories they told never really were particularly concerned with women and non-white people. To be clear, until recently with Black Panther and Captain Marvel, I don’t think Marvel has been concerned with telling those types of stories either, nor has it been totally successful in doing so even now (I didn’t particularly enjoy Captain Marvel, for instance).

But perhaps the decades of white men making movies about white men’s experiences and rewarding those movies for it didn’t really change the scope of the art form as much as Scorsese thinks they did. And maybe a movie like Black Panther or Captain Marvel is, for some people, changing the sense of what is possible in the movies they see. How does that kind of representation factor into his calculus? Does it at all?

Because of this seeming lack of empathy, Scorsese’s filmography and how it tends to revolve around the stories of white male protagonists has been called into question. This in itself is thorny and unfair to Scorsese’s work. While his personal filmography as a director leaves a lot to be desired on the diversity front to his critics, Scorsese has served as a producer on a number of films that give platforms to people of color — more than Marvel has.

Scorsese founded the World Cinema Project, part of the Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization that preserves and restores neglected films from around the world. Dismissing Scorsese’s work behind the scenes on helping movies from all over the world find a wider audience would be a mistake, as it’s had a significant impact on Hollywood’s tentative embrace of foreign cinema. But the backlash exhibits how deeply fans care about defending their favorite movies from what they believe is an unfair attack.

“Everybody has a different definition of cinema. Everybody has a different definition of art. Everybody has a different definition of risk,” Feige told THR, citing the hero deaths in Infinity War as a creative risk. “Some people don’t think it’s cinema. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to repeat that opinion. Everyone is entitled to write op-eds about that opinion, and I look forward to what will happen next. But in the meantime, we’re going to keep making movies.”

Scorsese may have said Marvel movies are like “amusement parks” derisively, but it’s a strange comment — I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of enjoying a rollercoaster or a funnel cake simply because I don’t find joy in funnel cake or rollercoasters.

But I also don’t think that there’s anyone going to a Marvel movie or an amusement park looking for anything more than a Marvel movie or an amusement park. Nobody is going to an amusement park to find hopeless existentialism, unless, of course, they’re doing so ironically. Similarly, I’d wager that most people going to Marvel movies are looking for the joy and glee and wish-fulfillment that superhero movies bring, and understand that they’re not necessarily there to witness a serious Best Picture contender (Black Panther notwithstanding), or an avant-garde homage to French New Wave.

If we should be insulted by a movie that helps us experience a full spectrum of emotions, then we are ignoring how important those emotions are in the lives of people all around us.

That said, as someone who will absolutely shed a tear if you make me watch the “Portals” scene in Endgame, I would have no qualms laying out which Marvel movies feel like formulaic placeholders for sequels, or how a world exclusively full of Marvel movies is completely worrisome. I’m just not sure if this moment in cinema is exceptionally more hostile to art, as Scorsese asserts, than the homogenous Hollywood machine that has been around for years. I understand the general worry, but my love for Marvel movies and amusement parks doesn’t mean I can’t love other things. Stuff that Scorsese might even call “cinema.”