Film & TV

Scorsese Dissents from Comic-Book-Movie Fanboys

Martin Scorsese attends the National Board of Review Awards in 2017. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)
His conservative defense of humanism draws a line in the sand and causes uproar.

Martin Scorsese’s disconnect from the comic-book movie cult, confessed in a recent interview with Empire magazine, is the first line in the sand to be drawn by a filmmaker rather than a critic. But Scorsese’s forthrightness was met with shock only because the comment seemed to contradict his cinephile legend. We all had thought: Marty never saw a movie he didn’t like.

Here are the words, about comic-book movies, that started a quiet riot on the Internet:

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.

Scorsese was being polite as possible, but his statement opposed the media-led celebration of the most commercially successful moviemaking this millennium, specifically the Marvel Comics Universe. To challenge the moviegoing generation that has become completely susceptible to the marketing of adolescent violence and sensationalism — of comic-book culture dominating what used to be film culture — amounts to an ideological war.

It is Scorsese’s pre-millennium taste that got him in trouble, and fanboys hit back, denouncing him as an old man screaming at clouds. No matter that Scorsese was riding new currents of hype for The Irishman. Even Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Fury in the MCU, spoke out: “Everybody doesn’t like his stuff, either.” (True backstabbing from SamJack, who once bragged about his 90-second role ending up as a corpse in GoodFellas.)

The notion of “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” seems very 20th century; it’s no longer what audiences want from storytelling. (And those who are old enough have given up and try to seem hip by praising the specious “Golden Age of Television.”) This insensitivity, a consequence of the cynicism that has become popular since the Pulp Fiction–Avatar revolution, is the real disconnect that Scorsese was addressing.

Establishing his reputation with several stylish expressions of Catholic angst and pop-culture fever, Scorsese showed that film-geek dedication could encompass serious art. Surely, this guy would respect the Comic-Con sensibility. Yet, in his best films — Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver — Scorsese kept faith with the Western cultural tradition — even as his rock-and-roll-generation instincts forged a synthesis in which Federico Fellini, Michael Powell, and Elia Kazan met Kenneth Anger and John Cassavetes. (His 1974 feminist road comedy Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a worthy, gregarious exception.)

Super-geek Scorsese, who started the Film Foundation in 1990 for the preservation of classic and world movies, always looked for the moral potential in popular art. That’s how his Seventies American Renaissance colleagues from Coppola to DePalma to Walter Hill and Robert Altman advanced the art form. In that heyday, audiences expected self-examination; today’s audiences expect escapism.

By using the word “cinema,” Scorsese went beyond the ken of the comics and video-game generation. (Has game-changer Quentin Tarantino ever uttered the word “cinema”?)

Scorsese has taken an essentially conservative position, and the backlash it has raised is analogous to fiscally conservative but culturally liberal variations in social policy.

It felt like betrayal to those Roger Ebert lemmings still worshipping Scorsese as America’s greatest filmmaker simply on the basis of his love of visual extravagance and violence. MCU worshippers are encouraged to enjoy action and violence for its fantasy, not the shocking realism of the bar fights in Mean Streets, the surreal gunplay in Who’s That Knocking?, Harvey Keitel’s aggressive masculine threat in Alice, the self-punishment in Raging Bull, or the sociopathy in Taxi Driver.

Scorsese was reacting against the degradation of cinema’s artistic purpose more than against Hollywood practice itself. That his personal gangster-movie franchise suggests little more than a mob-violence theme-park ride is ironic; the repetitions of Raging Bull, GoodFellas, Casino, and The Departed have contributed to the modern viewer’s reliance on overwrought, impotent machismo and a thirst for irresponsible vicarious thrills. In other words, comic-book movies.

When Scorsese said, “I don’t see them. I tried, you know,” his apologetic demurral indicates exhaustion with formula — not excitement with visionary voluptuousness as seen in the Zack Snyder films that belong to the mythological mode of Scorsese’s hero John Boorman.

Fanboys resent Snyder as much as they now resent Scorsese because they hate the moral reckoning required of humanist cinema. (This may explainy why some Joker fans fall for the film’s glib Scorsese references (The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver); unable to process cultural meanings, they wind up easily impressed, confused. They ignore social context and take Rupert Pupkin, Travis Bickle, and Joker as one.)

Lacking the experience of cinema art is like lacking the lessons of American civic history. All the complainers must do homework, starting with Scorsese’s film-history docs: My Voyage to Italian Cinema and A Personal History with Martin Scorsese through American Movies.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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