Martin Scorsese and the Marvel Machine

Culture Entertainment

Image description: Martin Scorsese pictured at a film festival

In late 2019, acclaimed director Martin Scorsese remarked, in an interview with Empire magazine, that the MCU films “weren’t cinema”. Unsurprisingly, this kicked up an enormous argument as to whether his position was snobbery, valid criticism, or the outdated position of a past-it director who couldn’t recognise the reality of modern film tastes. With the MCU having basically hibernated for 2020, the release of WandaVision seems like a good time to reappraise Scorsese’s comments on the matter. 

 It’s first worth identifying what Scorsese’s critique actually was. The director clarified his remarks in a New York Times editorial, where he made it clear that his issue was more than just a petty feud with the obscenely profitable studio. His comments singled out the MCU, but the editorial was also concerned with the state of the film industry at large, which he saw as having been split into “worldwide audiovisual entertainment” and cinema proper. It’s not hard to see that as an elitist jab, or just a gripe born from nostalgia for the old face of Hollywood, but there’s more merit to his claims than such a reading would acknowledge. Scorsese attacked Marvel specifically because they exemplified the worst of the current industry: focus-grouped, risk-averse, and practically manufactured on a production line. He wasn’t aiming at superhero films in general, although obviously the MCU’s model only truly works because it’s a superhero franchise 

 The fundamental problem with the MCU, as Scorsese sees it, is that individual films are stripped of the director’s artistic vision. Marvel’s business model requires that it remove any element of risk, which in turn requires reining in creative liberties beyond a few directorial flourishes. Marvel films are made on a production line, and that means any misstep, any cinematic let-down, will lower expectations for all future films, potentially robbing the MCU of that precious momentum which sees it grossing billions of dollars per year. In other words, Marvel can’t let a single movie fuck up, and that means no risky decisions. It means every film sits on a sliding scale between “serious with light-hearted quips” and “light-hearted with serious moments”, and every original soundtrack is basically just white noise that invokes whatever emotion the script calls for with all the subtlety of a captive bolt gun. It means that every subversive theme is drowned out by a chorus of hammer-blow overtones that utterly fail to challenge the status quo – even Black Panther, easily the most openly political in the line-up, still features a heroic white CIA agent helping put down an anti-colonial/imperialist uprising before it’s even begun. 

But it didn’t do that, because DC and Warner Bros’ management are endowed with that beautiful, flailing managerial cluelessness which, under our present capitalist model, is perhaps the best possible guarantor of artistic freedom. 

 I mentioned earlier that this isn’t an issue inherent to superhero films, and that’s true. DC, for example, is very much willing to give its directors creative freedom over their work, which is why a great many DC films are dreck and their MCU-equivalent is as cohesive as a replica of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit constructed entirely from butter in the middle of the Libyan desert. Even so, I’ll happily sit down to watch a DC film from time to time, because whatever else you say about it, nobody could argue that the DCEU is hamstrung by a reluctance to fuck up. Look at Birds of Prey a fantastic box office disaster, brilliantly-made, with the absolute bare minimum acknowledgement of other DC work. Did it need to be R-rated? Absolutely not! Take out a couple of gory scenes and it’d have got a far more profitable parental guidance rating, probably resulting in far more of a commercial success. But it didn’t do that, because DC and Warner Bros’ management are endowed with that beautiful, flailing managerial cluelessness which, under our present capitalist model, is perhaps the best possible guarantor of artistic freedom. 

 So why is it that the MCU alone has achieved this perfect formula of commercial success? Part of it is in the nature of superhero media. Comics are easily split into marketable sections – you can identify a particular superhero (or, in the case of say Joker, supervillain), work out which demographics they appeal to, and tailor their sub-franchise to that demographic. You’ve got oceans of source material from which to draw inspiration, and crossovers to introduce new characters into the cinematic universe, while also bringing in fans of all your prior IPs. But the other half of the MCU’s green-screened, airbrushed technical mastery comes from its parent company, Disney. It’s Disney’s massive resources, immense prestige and long-time expertise in extracting every drop of profitable talent from its people which allows such a flawless mass-production process. Every artist is leashed, every franchise is carefully put through focus groups until the characters are distilled to their most marketable forms, and CGI is used wherever possible – not to save on set design, as there’s no real need for the company to economise on such things, but to save the company from having to commit to anything right up until it sends off the finished product. 

What Marvel films represent – what really drew Scorsese’s ire is the refinement of films as a moneymaking enterprise, a precision-engineered machine for turning out the most profitable media possible.

 Where does WandaVision fit into all of this? Well, to a degree, the show is an unprecedented step for the MCU. It’s the first time the MCU’s course has been driven by a show, and the plot is rather unusual by Marvel standards. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, appears to have created an elaborate retro sitcom world in which none of the Avengers films happened. Most notably, her cybernetic lover Vision, who died in Infinity War, appears as her (alive) husband, though presumably she’s just magically puppeteering his corpse around to try and avoid confronting the reality of her loss. It’s the sort of mysterious, genre-conscious plot you usually see in an indie game, which means it’s groundbreaking for Marvel. But it’s also a show, and it’s very noticeable that this foray into genre-defying content is relegated to Disney+. Part of the MCU’s profitability is that you don’t have to watch every film in sequence – and that’ll probably be the case for WandaVision too. 

 What Marvel films represent – what really drew Scorsese’s ire is the refinement of films as a moneymaking enterprise, a precision-engineered machine for turning out the most profitable media possible. It’s the zenith of media capitalism – Ford’s assembly line, applied to an industry rife with longstanding tensions between product and art, with predictably sterile results. Can WandaVision change this? Perhaps. Will it? Unlikely. 

Image credit: Martin Scorsese Berlinale 2010.jpg” by Siebbi is licensed with CC BY 3.0.

 

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