Forbes Lifestyle Arts Film Critic Says: Let’s Stop Treating The Scorsese-Superhero Movie Debate Seriously Mark Hughes Contributor Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. I write about films, especially superhero films, and Hollywood. Following Sep 25, 2023, 07:26pm EDT | Press play to listen to this article! Got it! Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to Linkedin Martin Scorsese is once again making headlines for reiterating his opinions about superhero movies and declaring they are killing cinema.
But it’s time to stop treating this Scorsese-superhero movie debate seriously, and for the provocations to stop. Cillian Murphy stars in “Oppenheimer” Source: Univeral I hate this whole situation and wish Scorsese would stop answering when asked about it, and that press would stop asking him about it. I love his films, as I love Christopher Nolan’s films, and spent most of my life and my professional career proclaiming how wonderful their films are and digesting their thoughts on filmmaking and storytelling.
But I am able to love someone’s art, and even have tremendous respect for them, and still also disagree with them and even dislike something they say strongly enough to argue the point. This is especially true, and in my opinion especially important, when the issue is one related to justice and fairness, and the integrity of art and artists across many mediums and genres. First, let’s lay out the many things Scorsese said that started all of this in the first place: he doesn’t consider comic book films “real cinema,” he thinks they ruin the art of filmmaking, he resents their big budgets and even bigger box office, and he thinks it’s up to older traditional filmmakers to put a stop to it (with public support, which Scorsese says everyone should provide).
Superhero film fans typical respond (since this issue keeps coming up) by bashing the filmmaker and his movies, setting off a war between Scorsese defenders and superhero cinema defenders. After his initial comments sparked backlash and debate, Scorsese has doubled down on his remarks, adding fuel to the fire, while other filmmakers — asked by clickbait-hungry entertainment journalists for their opinions on superhero moviemaking, in hopes of scoring another controversy — piled on as well. The gist of their defense is, “Great filmmakers whose movies are real art can can say whatever they want about other filmmakers’ work, but nobody else is allowed to criticize them in response.
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Marvel fans and superhero movie fans in general, meanwhile, continued to pretend Scorsese’s opinion is an affront to cinema and that it inherently destroys whatever reputation he had, rendering his own artistic output invalid or even “bad,” a cringeworthy effort that inevitably degrades into childish insults born of that special fan rage when someone dares dislike a movie they like. Neither side seems to recognize they’re both fans of particular films and filmmakers, intolerant of criticisms of those things they love, but willing to lob the same accusations at one another without acknowledging the hypocrisies and silliness. This has played out for years, with Scorsese trying to explain his remarks and merely further expressing claims that superhero movies aren’t real cinema, that they lack real characters and ideas, and that other “serious” filmmakers can’t get their films made because of superhero films.
Indeed, Scorsese has recently hardened in his position to the point he says comic book movies will basically destroy cinema as an art form, if everybody doesn’t stop supporting comic book films and instead give their investment dollars and ticket dollars to the sort of filmmakers Scorsese says have earned and deserve support. So it’s no longer a case of, “I don’t personally like those types of movies,” or even, “I don’t think those types of movies count as real cinema or storytelling. ” Rather, it is now, “Those films shouldn’t exist, cinema won’t exist unless we get rid of those films, support these other filmmakers or cinema is dead.
” Which is a beyond mere personal opinions about a work of art, and coming from a widely acclaimed and wealthy artist it receives amplification and influences a lot of people and a lot of media coverage. Everyone has opinions about movies, and those opinions are bound to be shared by some folks while being opposed by others. And everyone should be able to voice those opinions, and the rest of us should be able to take their opinions without freaking out or acting as if it is the end of the world.
Likewise, if someone voices their own opinion about films, they and those who agree with them should be able to take disagreement without freaking out, or acting like they have sole right to express opinions. Nor should they act as it’s fine to bash the work of other artists and literally claim those artists aren’t “real artists” unless they are prepared to hear responses, including comparable assessments of their own art. Scorsese admits he’s not even really seen any of the films he’s insulting (and yes, of course what he’s saying is insulting to the films and to the people who made them).
He spent a large portion of his career making gangster films usually starring several of the same groups of actors playing the same sort of characters, commanding increasingly large sums of money to finance his films (remember, he received $160 million budget from Netflix to make The Irishman and a $200 million budget for Killers of the Flower Moon ), while other smaller filmmakers had less access precisely because a whole generation of bigger-name filmmakers have taken up so much of the funding and space at studios for decades. MORE FROM FORBES ‘Expendables 4’ Is Another 2023 Flop At $50 Million Box Office By Mark Hughes Scorsese’s films are very good, and most are great. Taxi Driver and Goodfellas are among the best Hollywood films ever made.
But let’s not pretend it’s some sort of unique original concept for Scorsese to make a big-budget award-winning gangster movie with about criminal toughs with semi-redemptive arcs. Is that a gross oversimplification? Of course . Are oversimplifications only allowed when speaking hyperbolically about filmmakers who make superhero movies? His complaints about Marvel boil down to, “I used to be able to get all the money I wanted to make films, but now it’s harder and it takes longer to get big budgets for my movies.
” So let’s be very clear, he is still getting the money he wants for his films. And it’s undeniable that Scorsese getting the money he wants and making his movies is part of a system that consistently shut out other filmmakers who sought money for their own (more modest) projects, especially people of color and women in general. Like it or not, that’s the truth of how things were in the supposed golden era when men like Scorsese demanded and received big budgets to make whatever they wanted, and things are frankly not much if at all different today, regardless of this current manufactured controversy and debate.
Let me be clear: I don’t care how much you think Scorsese’s films are better. I agree Scorsese (and Nolan) makes mostly terrific films. I’ve been a dedicated fan of his work since literally childhood, when I first saw Taxi Driver at a much-too-young age and became obsessed with the hyper-realistic performances.
But that’s not the point of contention. We can like whatever we want and hate whatever we want, but if we pretend our personal preferences are objective facts, then we’re behaving just like any other fans who rage against opposing opinions. Scorsese himself has been victim of the very same sort of angry accusations from older generations.
His early films were trashed by a lot of studio folks and oldschool cinephiles who said his graphic use of violence, profanity, and sex appealed to the lowest common denominator. They said his work lacked the serious emotional stories or larger-than-life escapism Hollywood traditionally made in the decades before Scorsese’s generation rose up with more cynical and realistic street-life portrayals. To the old guard, this new group of artists seemed to be creating characters who seem mostly bad, with everyday real-life scenarios instead of big, bold, risk-taking storytelling of days gone by.
Later, Scorsese’s movies such as The Last Temptation of Christ faced complaints and accusations that they are intended to cause controversy. MORE FROM FORBES Film Critic Ranks Every Christopher Nolan Movie From Best To Worst By Mark Hughes So he’s been on the other side of this situation, and should know it’s a recurring cycle that repeats the same complaints generation after generation. Hollywood began by making adaptations, remakes, sequels, most of it escapism featuring comedy, music, or melodramatic situations and larger-than-life characters to transport audiences from the real world and entertain them for an hour or so.
Big-budget epic Biblical tales, sword-and-sandal fantasies, romantic team-ups and buddy comedies, serialized brand-name characters and actors — this was the stuff that kept cinema alive for the first several decades of its existence, and studios always treated it as a big business in which brands and IP and familiar movie star faces that could be reused and exploited for maximum profits were always the standard way of making films. And it’s always been subject to complaints that it was ruining cinema. The truth is, there are more original and indie movies being made by exceptional filmmakers today than ever before.
There are more outlets for alternative distribution of films and to get them in front of a lot more eyes than they’d ever get in theaters. But it’s access to financial backing that determines who gets to tell their stories and who gets their stories in front of viewers. And remember, the key part of Scorsese’s complaint is that the type of movies he supports and wants to see made aren’t getting enough funding — he is lobbying for big budget investment in his and Nolan’s and similar filmmakers’ projects at a higher level.
The money is central to his point. He expressly dislikes the whole “indie film” thing because it represents filmmakers with low budgets or more modest budgets, instead of big budgets. This preference is very clearly expressed, and it inherently means less filmmakers getting to make their movies because much bigger budgets are going to a smaller, more elite group of filmmakers.
Scorsese went to Netflix precisely because it’s a place that will happily invest $160+ million in a nearly four-hour gangster movie for Scorsese. So, since Netflix gave him so much money to realize his big expensive movie idea, does he feel guilty that all of that money could’ve gone to smaller films by lesser-known indie filmmakers and people of color and women who could’ve used that support for their careers? Scorsese’s point is about ensuring the money is freed up for filmmakers like him to (continue) receiving big budgets, filmmakers whom important people determine are “real” and “worthy” filmmakers. And we all know exactly what that means, and what it’s traditionally meant in Hollywood during the times Scorsese is precisely nostalgic for — mostly white older men making movies about white older men for an audience of primarily white people.
This is what’s being framed as the ideal, what’s held up and defended as the only legitimate way to make and experience and review cinema. MORE FROM FORBES Review: ‘Silence’ Is An Oscar Contender With Provocative Religious Message By Mark Hughes I’m not saying this is what Scorsese himself was suggesting, but I’m saying it’s the operating reality of the time period he’s talking about (50 years ago and so on) and the sort of Hollywood reverence for certain types of filmmakers that he’s nostalgic promoting. Bigger budgets always did and would continue to inherently go to a smaller elite group of what is mostly white middle-aged and elderly men, at the expense of more diverse voices (which are, by the way, more reflected in superhero cinema and streaming than in most other major genres nowadays).
We can’t just ignore the reasons things were the way the were, and how little things have really changed in those regards. The money that funded Scorsese’s latest big-budget project was enough to have funded five to 10 smaller movies by several creators. Instead, a well-known and successful filmmaker can walk in and take up that whole chunk of funding, after he and so many other of his peers previously turned up their noses at Netflix and said it’s not real cinema, insisting it’s just TV movies and arguing that Netflix movies shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars.
Does Scorsese feel it’s fair and good for other filmmakers to trash Netflix movies that way? Does he agree with Stephen Spielberg that Scorsese’s own movies The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon aren’t real cinema, are TV movies, and should be banned from Oscars and other feature film awards? That’s apparently Spielberg’s position on original movies made by streaming studios like Netflix and AppleTV+. Likewise, I wonder how Nolan feels about Scorsese’s position that Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy doesn’t count as real cinema, and is responsible for contributing to the death of true cinema? The current system has long been guilty of racism, sexism, discrimination, biases and favoritisms, and other obstacles particularly crafted to maintain privilege and status for those in the system who already have power — whether they themselves actively want, seek, or participate directly in the wrongs doesn’t change whether those things directly benefited them and made their careers easier at the expense of others. You either believe in institutional and systemic racism, sexism, and discrimination, or you don’t — and if you don’t, you’re either grossly misinformed or willfully ignorant of it.
It’s a system maintained and strengthened precisely by the sort of entitlements asserted by filmmakers and/or fanbases who insist they want/deserve all of the money and attention for their own art at the expense of others, and at the expense of a more equitable and diverse system. MORE FROM FORBES 15 Year Retrospective: ‘The Dark Knight’ Was The First Billion Dollar Superhero Movie By Mark Hughes I understand the vague, idealized impression Scorsese is talking about, where visionary filmmakers and storytellers get however much funding they need to tell serious, important stories about what they consider real people and real human conflicts, driven by character and dialogue so that these people and their stories are what drive the experience, as opposed to purely visual thrills and simpler appeals to base emotional reactions. The premise is, all of the money going to big-budget films could instead go to more worthy artistic pursuits not driven by things like IP or studio notes or selling merchandise and maintaining a franchise or spinoff or tie-in.
But let’s step back a moment and consider the true context of all of this. The truth is, there are more adult dramas and mid-range budgeted films and indie movies being produced and distributed today than at any point in history. There are more funding sources and more ways to reach an audience today on more platforms than ever before.
There is more freedom to create your content and put it in front of the world, with technological abilities to make it however you want to make it today than ever before. The problem is getting funding and theatrical distribution for any sort of film project, regardless of genre — those are things where branded IP and/or being famous matter and overshadow new original unknown stories and artists. Which brings us back to Scorsese and The Irishman .
He wanted to make a $160+ million gangster movie similar to the sort he’s made several times in the past, with many of the same older actors he’s worked with in the past, and this time studios balked at spending so much for that type of project. The size of the audience for it doesn’t justify that kind of expense, the studios said. And as it turns out, they were right.
But Scorsese still got his movie made, still for the same huge price-tag he wanted in the first place, and it still got some theatrical distribution before it went to Netflix, and it was still nominated for nine Oscars. Because Scorsese himself is equivalent to an IP, a brand, a franchise. Which is why even though The Irishman only made $8 million theatrically, and even though it didn’t win any Oscars, Scorsese still got a $200 million budget to make his upcoming three hour 30 minute AppleTV+ original movie Killers of the Flower Moon .
The choice to keep pursuing the biggest budgets possible and knowing he’ll probably get it (or something close to it and in the big-budget range) inherently also means knowing the funding won’t be going to a host of other filmmakers and projects that would be deserving and seemingly fall into the categories of films Scorsese is encouraging be funded and made. And that outcome would inherently do the most harm to marginalized filmmakers who are disproportionately among the least-funded or most underfunded of all. Recall that Christopher Nolan, whom Scorsese says we better show proper support in order to save cinema or superhero movies will destroy film, currently has a three-hour $100 million-budgeted blockbuster biopic Oppenheimer in theaters and on its way to inevitable Oscar nominations and probable wins.
It is the highest-grossing biopic in cinema history at north of $900 million, and could top $1 billion by the end of the year . Every studio wants to work with Nolan, and he practically gets blank checks to make his dream projects. Oh, and he also made two of the most successful superhero movies in history.
Remember those two facts — Scorsese’s budgets for his last two films, and Nolan’s current film — when considering Scorsese’s assertion that cinema is being killed by superhero movies, and that the only solution to save cinema is to support filmmakers like himself and Nolan (who personally helped start the modern superhero cinema craze with his Batman trilogy). I guess congratulations, mission accomplished and cinema saved. Can we stop having this absurd debate now? Mark Hughes Editorial Standards Print Reprints & Permissions.