Peter Howell: The movie business needs Marvel, so Martin Scorsese does too

Martin Scorsese this week turned a bad soundbite into a thoughtful essay on the current state of movies, doing us all a favour.

He sparked worthwhile discussion on what cinephilia means at a time when so many films in theatres seem to involve spandexed heroes and villains while artier fare migrates online to serve as streaming service “content.”

Scorsese set the cat among the pigeons in an interview last month in Britain’s Empire magazine. He declared that the multibillion-dollar enterprise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t deserve to be considered as part of the same art form practised by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Ingmar Bergman, Spike Lee or — and he didn’t name himself — Martin Scorsese.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” Scorsese said of Marvel movies.

“Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Scorsese’s off-the-cuff snobbery provoked a torrent of outrage from Marvel fans who considered his remarks to be the epitome of “get off my lawn” old-guy crankiness.

Among them was James Gunn, director of the MCU’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, who lamented that a director he has always revered, and who once had to endure picketing of his movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” by people who hadn’t even seen it, was now himself damning films he can’t be bothered to watch.

The uproar prompted Scorsese to gather his thoughts in an essay for the New York Times this week, in which he elaborated on his thinking.

He talked about his lifelong love for movies of “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” films with characters who reveal something about the human condition here on planet Earth, not across in the galaxy in Alpha Centauri.

The movies that he and like-minded cinephiles grew up loving, he wrote, were “about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form. And that was the key for us: it was an art form.”

Scorsese lamented “the sameness of franchise pictures” and “steady elimination of risk” in today’s moviedom. Films are fashioned to hit certain market-tested benchmarks and not to fulfil any serious artistic ambitions.

Perhaps his biggest beef, and fear, is that franchise films will push out all others from theatres because that will be what audiences expect and want:

“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 has a point, illustrated recently by what’s happening in the “Star Wars” universe, which along with the MCU is part of the expanding Disney Empire. David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the “Game of Thrones” masterminds were who set to create a new “Star Wars” film trilogy for Disney’s Lucasfilm brand, abruptly left the project, without offering much explanation.

This follows the 2017 sacking of “Lego Movie” creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” In both cases, and in other Disney partings, it was obvious to all (but never stated in the PR boilerplate) that creative differences had caused the rift.

The newcomers wanted to try new and fresh ideas; Disney and Lucasfilm wanted to stick to profitable franchise formula.

Yet creativity, vitality and interesting characters manage to thrive within franchise movies, even with the limitations and demands of such blockbuster enterprises.

I’m by no stretch of the imagination a Marvel fanboy. But there are films I really like among the nearly two dozen chapters of the MCU, including “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and the first “Iron Man” and first “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

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There are MCU characters that I and many other moviegoers care about. In particular Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, whose ultimate fate in “Avengers: Endgame” earlier this year, following on last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” made for a surprisingly emotive superhero saga.

I like some MCU movies and dislike others, just as I love many Scorsese movies (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “The Irishman” and many more) and dislike others (“Bringing Out the Dead,” “New York, New York”).

The key is you actually have to watch these movies to separate the wheat from the chaff, with Marvel as with Scorsese.

But where I think Scorsese really errs is with his suggestion that comic-book movies and other franchised amusements are forcing smaller and artier films off the big screen.

The hard fact is that without comic-book movies like “Avengers: Endgame” and “Joker” (inspired by “Taxi Driver”) — as well the upcoming, equally franchise-driven “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” — drawing the masses out of their houses and into movie theatres, there won’t be nearly as many movie theatres in the future as there are today.

You can’t keep the lights on by showing small indie films alone, no matter how good they may be, which is why TIFF Bell Lightbox often programs retrospectives of blockbusters past, including its upcoming “Magnificent 70mm” series that will screen “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Interstellar” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”

It’s harder for movie distributors and exhibitors to make a go of it these days even with multiplexes showing blockbusters, which likely explains why Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre complex, home to many press screenings during the Toronto International Film Festival, seems destined to soon become another condo tower.

Scorsese is all too aware of how tough things are out there. He had to go to Netflix to get funding for his new gangster epic “The Irishman” because studio Paramount wouldn’t pony up the cash to pay for the extensive CGI work needed for it — CGI of the type pioneered in films like the MCU ones Scorsese disdains.

I certainly sympathize with Scorsese’s main point that nobody wants every movie in theatres to be a franchise one and that we need to protect artistic vision and integrity.

But I lean more to the view of Thierry Frémaux, head of the Cannes Film Festival, who has proven himself just as eager to program a “Mad Max” movie or Pixar animation as he is the latest creation from Jean-Luc Godard, Quentin Tarantino or Jim Jarmusch.

Frémaux’s motto is one that should guide all cinephiles: “To love film is to love all of film.”

Peter Howell

TORONTO STAR

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