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Scorsese's MCU Criticisms Are Almost Right ... But Still Exhausting

Marvel Scorsese

The internet simply would not shut up about Martin Scorsese's comments dismissing the Marvel Cinematic Universe as "not cinema" and closer to theme parks. It doesn't seem like Scorsese himself is going to shut up about this subject either. At a press conference at the London Film Festival for his upcoming film The Irishman, Scorsese doubled down on his position that "theme park movies" are taking over cinemas, acknowledging the craft that goes into such movies but still annoyed with their omnipresence.

If you ask some superhero fans, Scorsese's having an "Old Man Yells at Cloud" moment. Other parts of Film Twitter think that he's speaking truth to power against Disney corporate domination. There's some sense to both perspectives. Even fans of the MCU need to admit that Scorsese is at least somewhat right about the films mostly not being great art, and that there's no need to get super defensive about one filmmaker not being a fan of the most successful movie franchise around. Still, Scorsese's comments aren't fully accurate, and the longer he keeps this discourse going, the more annoying it's going to get.

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When Scorsese says the Marvel films aren't "cinema," we can safely assume he isn't using the dictionary definition of "cinema" (if he was, he'd be totally wrong) but more using it to mean "great cinema" or "serious cinema." Specifically, he says they're not "the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being." His theme park comparison is perhaps the sharpest part of his comments, one which he might have meant dismissively but doesn't need to be taken as an insult. Theme parks are fun. The Marvel movies are fun. Most Marvel movies don't try to be anything more than fun, or if they do, any greater artistic and thematic ambitions are secondary to working as a mass appeal thrill ride.

There are exceptions, of course. You can't deny that James Gunn put a lot of his emotional experiences into the stories of broken families in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Black Panther, arguably the best MCU entry, had a ton to say about the post-colonial black experience and absolutely deserved its Oscar nominations. But it's not worth getting mad with Scorsese about not knowing those specifics because he flat out admits he hasn't seen most of these movies. If we're to assume that he got about as far as Avengers, which is delightful but also totally a "theme park movie" with barely a deeper point beyond pure entertainment, then we can't really blame him if, as one of the greatest filmmakers, he couldn't get into the MCU enough to seek out more.

That's basically all there was to say about Scorsese's comments until he returned to the subject at the London Film Festival. There, he didn't single out Marvel in particular, but complained that theaters were being "invaded" by "theme park" movies. It's in this hyperbolic talk of theaters being "taken over" that he starts to lose the thread of things.

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If he had said "theme park movies" were crowding out other films at the box office and the general conversation, he'd have a point. It's true that it's hard for other types of films to get attention in theaters up against giant Disney blockbusters. For now, though, those other types of films are still playing in theaters, and the crowding out isn't happening.

As of this writing, 89 films this year have played in more than 2,000 theaters in the United States. Only six of those are superhero films (and one of those, Joker, Scorsese almost executive produced). That particular genre of "theme park movie" is only 6.7 percent of these ultra-wide releases, a stat that's just going to go down by the end of the year. That's far from an "invasion." However, superhero movies make up 40% of the year's box office top 10, so it feels as if superhero movies are taking up more space even when there's not that many of them.

Films like Booksmart, Midsommar and Ad Astra, films one would assume Scorsese would qualify as "real cinema," still play on thousands of screens, even if hardly anyone sees them. More films like Rocketman, Hustlers and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have managed to be box office successes, proving there is still an audience for traditional adult dramas in theaters, even if that audience is far smaller than Marvel's. Us managed to be a genuine phenomenon and is currently in the year's box office top 10, though it will almost certainly fall out once Frozen 2 and Rise of Skywalker guarantee Disney box office domination.

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the irishman

It's especially rich for Scorsese to complain about movies being crowded out of theaters when his next film, The Irishman, failed to get a wide release for reasons completely unrelated to superhero or other "theme park" movies. The Irishman is a Netflix production, and Netflix notoriously doesn't get along with most of the major theater chains because of its insistence on streaming movies at the same time as or shortly after they open in theaters. This dynamic keeps all Netflix films, regardless of genre, stuck with limited theatrical releases. You're not gonna see the Michael Bay-directed, Netflix-released 6 Underground, a "theme park movie" if there ever was one, in your major multiplex either.

Does any of this discussion even matter at all? Not that much. One man's opinion on Marvel movies, even if that man is as legendary a director as Martin Scorsese, really isn't a big deal. Still, the topics of art vs. commerce and the intersection of the two inspire passion, so we expect this discussion will keep going.

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