Martin Scorsese is losing his third culture war

After he said superhero cinema is no cinema, auteur is slammed by Marvel, its fans , and a host of big names in Hollywood
Last Updated 25 October 2019, 14:00 IST

Martin Scorsese’s impressive career has seen three important culture wars; the third one is refusing to die down even as you read this piece.

Arguably, Scorsese won the first two wars. He is losing the last one.

The first was after his film ‘Taxi Driver’ came out in 1976. The hero was someone who didn’t fit into society very well and had a dangerous tendency for violence.

Some people who had watched the film thought the hero of the film, Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), may inspire some twisted individuals to unleash their inner violence.

Fears came true. In 1981, a man, in a desperate attempt to impress a child actor in the movie, tried to assassinate then US president Ronald Reagan.

Soft-spoken Scorsese became the poster boy for violent cinema, decried by worried parents who thought his films could fray their children’s moral fibre.

The second culture war was after 1988. The filmmaker, who has battled with Catholic crises across his films and in personal life, made a film about Christ that rubbed all
conservative Christians the wrong way, because it imagined Jesus, while hanging from the cross, considering the option of getting down and starting a life with Mary Magdalene. Many picketed the movie.

In comparison, the third culture war, if it deserves to be called that, looks like a parody of the first two. It started earlier this month when Empire magazine asked Scorsese what he thought about Marvel’s superhero movies, 23 of which combine to form the world’s most successful movie franchise.

Marty nonchalantly replied, “I don’t see them.” I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. 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.”

Ever since that day, Marvel Studios and its stars, media organisations and fans have constantly been thinking up ways to prove that Scorsese is wrong.

The attacks on the filmmaker are like Hydra, except that new heads keep sprouting whether or not the older ones are chopped off.

The latest development is that the Internet has dug out a video of Steven Speilberg praising a Marvel movie... as though it would decimate Scorsese’s opinion.

The most outrageous criticism was made by Marvel filmmaker James Gunn when he said that he had supported Scorsese when bigots picketed ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ and did not expect this from the filmmaker, implying that an attempt to curtail an artiste’s freedom of speech in the name of religion was the same as an individual expressing an opinion on what good cinema is.

Given the wisdom of retrospect, what strikes you is how disproportionate the backlash is to Scorsese’s original statement.

Not that there aren’t people who support Scorsese.

The two biggest names who directly got involved in the controversy are Francis Ford Coppola, who made ‘The Godfather’ (1972) and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979); and Ken Loach, who is best known for ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ (2006) and ‘I, Daniel Blake’ (2016).

Coppola called Marvel movies “despicable”.

All three of them, incidentally, are Palme d’Or winners at the Cannes film festival; Coppola and Loach are among the few filmmakers who have clinched the glory more than once.

They are known for creating an alternative to a cinema that is expensive, melodramatic and superfluous.

Challenges to the mainstream, such as Scorsese’s, have always been very common in art.

Such rebellions are often used, unlike in this case, by a later generation to react to the art of a previous generation, criticise its works and produce forms of art that ‘rectify’ the predecessor’s ‘mistakes’.

Movements such as Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave were attempts to turn the studio system on its head and bring a fresher breed of cinema forward.

Scorsese and Coppola were among the products of such subversive thinking in their heydays.

So there is no reason for Marvel and its fanbase to get this rattled; they are running the most profitable business in movie history.

The opinion pieces coming in from multiple entertainment websites need not be so desperate to prove that the words of these filmmakers — Scorsese is 76, Coppola is 81 and Loach is 83 — either come from a place of jealousy or senility.

Some arguments against them have, in fact, assumed a very patronising tone.

They claim that the anti-ageing CGI used in Scorsese’s latest film ‘The Irishman’ was perfected by Marvel, not taking into account that if the technology wasn’t available, there was always the old-fashioned way of casting a younger actor.

Another criticism is that smaller filmmakers are able to make their films because Marvel keeps the theatre culture alive.

This is strange, given that Scorsese’s original criticism of Marvel also said it has been increasingly difficult for him to make the sort of films he wants to as superhero films have dominated the screen.

Now, the debate has turned out to be so one-sided, it makes little sense who comes out in support of Scorsese.

This is a battle he has already lost, irrespective of whether his comment was justified.

It was perhaps Bob Iger, CEO of Disney which owns the Marvel brand and not Speilberg, who dealt the final blow. He said Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ was as good as anything Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola had made.

“There, I said it!” he added.

(Published 25 October 2019, 13:29 IST)

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