Our daily Cultural Advent Calendar is now concerned with our resident journalists' Highs & Lows of 2022. Today: the largely online boxing match between cinephiles (Scorsese fans) and amused chimps (superhero fans) that reached a new nadir.
In 2019, Martin Scorsese was asked a simple question about what he thought of Marvel movies. We’re still not hearing the end of it, three years later.
“It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” he said to an Empire journalist.
So immediate was the backlash at the revered film director saying what he thinks, Scorsese elaborated on his thoughts in a New York Times opinion piece.
“I don’t think they’re cinema,” he wrote. “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.”
Closer. To. Theme Parks.
It’s safe to say Marvel fans didn’t like that one bit. At the time there was media attention, but the place it was most hotly discussed was on social media platforms like Twitter, where MCU fans couldn’t believe a dull old director had the gumption to criticise a multi-billion-dollar film series.
Guardians Of The Galaxy director and now co-CEO of DC Studios James Gunn handwaved the Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas director’s opinion, claiming superhero films were the latest in a long list of Hollywood trends including gangsters, sci-fi and westerns.
President of Marvel Kevin Feige himself even added to the furore, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “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 theatre full of people.”
The core of Scorsese’s criticism though was that the way Marvel and Disney conduct their movie-making is taking crucial room away from other kinds of films in cinema.
“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 wrote.
It’s a very real growing issue that all other films are struggling to find budgets and cinema releases unless they are major superhero blockbusters.
Fine, all sounds like good content for a few weeks of internet discourse. Why is this part of the cultural highs and lows of 2022, you ask.
Because Scorsese’s comments clearly cut deep.
At the time, the MCU was at its epoch. In 2019, the studios released Avengers: Endgame. It was the summation of 22 films and made nearly $3 billion at the box office.
MCU films still make ridiculously large amounts of money, but the picture has changed a little since then.
After Endgame, the MCU films have lacked the clear momentum of their previous Phases. They aren’t heading anywhere. 2022 saw three releases with sequels for the Dr. Strange, Thor and Black Panther characters. The once uniform praise has given way with the mediocre core of these films showing.
And other directors have joined in Scorsese’s wake.
Ken Loach called them “boring”. Francis Ford Coppola called them “despicable”. Jane Campion said “I actually hate them”.
Twitter MCU fans obviously don’t care about the directors of boring old-timey history films like The Piano and The Wind That Shakes The Barley. What even happens in those films? Probably just a lot of people staring at each other silently… in French.
But someone like Quentin Tarantino - who makes films comprehensible to people who only watch the MCU blast-a-thons - he’ll get their hackles up. He said the Marvel films are “made by hired hands” and that this era is “the worst in Hollywood history”. Damning stuff from a guy who appreciates explosions in his films.
In response, the lead actor of the dull MCU entry Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings Simu Liu took to Twitter.
"If the only gatekeepers to movie stardom came from Tarantino and Scorsese, I would never have had the opportunity to lead a $400 million plus movie."
"I am in awe of their filmmaking genius. They are transcendent auteurs. But they don't get to point their nose at me or anyone."
"I loved the "Golden Age" too.. but it was white as hell."
It’s a reasonably fair criticism of the two directors.
Let’s not focus too much on how Scorsese made the Tibetan-led Kundun which chronicled the life of the Dalai Lama. Let’s especially not focus on how distributor Disney distanced itself from the film when China came complaining. It’s still not available on Disney+.
Forget too about Tarantino’s efforts to bring foreign cinema to Hollywood, including buying cinemas and helping produce films by Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou, and Reb Braddock.
The important point is that Marvel and Disney have totally taken over cinema in the past decade. 2022 seems to have been the turning point though when the MCU films have started to bare their hollow souls in a way even the Hamelin-dwelling fans have seen.
The films don’t get glowing reviews anymore. They are taking less money at the box office and Disney is putting more focus on TV shows for its streaming platform.
As Liu’s comments exemplify, fans have stopped arguing online that MCU films are genuine artistic triumphs; instead defending them as just good fun that at least makes money.
That’s especially clear when one of the worst performing MCU films in every metric was The Eternals helmed by Nomadland director Chloe Zhao. If ever there was a time these films would attempt art with a capital A, that was it. And it was reviled by fans.
Scorsese may have called Marvel films “theme parks” all the way back in 2019. But it was in 2022 that fans started agreeing.