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A Brief History of the Beef Between Martin Scorsese and Superhero Movies

James Gunn is the latest representative of Marvel to tangle with the cinema legend.
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By  · Published on August 11th, 2021

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at the feud between Martin Scorsese and the fans and creators of Marvel and DC superhero movies.  

If you have scrolled through Twitter in the last couple of days or read any movie sites, you may have seen that the hottest take of 2019 is still burning bright. That’s right, the fight between Martin Scorsese versus Marvel and superhero movies generally has entered yet another round. This time with director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Suicide Squad) at the forefront.

Here’s a brief update on the beef between one of American cinema’s greatest filmmakers and one of the world’s biggest movie franchises, and the history of how we got here:

James Gunn Fires a Shot

First, let’s take a look at the latest round in the ongoing battle between Martin Scorsese and superhero movies. James Gunn was recently a guest on the Happy Sad Confused podcast to promote his latest superhero movie, DC’s The Suicide Squad. During his interview with MTV’s Josh Horowitz (shared in video form on Twitter), Gunn was asked about Scorsese’s view that many of today’s superhero movies are not cinema. Here’s Gunn’s reply:

“I just think, you know, it just seems awfully cynical that he would keep coming out against Marvel. And then that is the only thing that would get him press for his movie. So then he just kept coming out against Marvel, so that he can get press for his movie. He’s creating his movie in the shadow of the Marvel films, and so he uses that to get attention for something that he wasn’t getting as much attention as he wanted for it.”

Wait, one of the best directors of the last fifty years needs attention for his movies? The above remarks, understandably, have gotten a lot of flack from defenders of Scorsese. And rightly so. But, to be fair, here is the rest of Gunn’s response:

“And he’s one of the greatest filmmakers who ever existed. I love his movies. I can watch his movies with no problem. And he said a lot of things I agree with. There’s a lot of things that are true about what he said. There are a a lot of heartless, soulless spectacle films out there that don’t reflect what should be happening.”

Gunn followed up that bit with even more praise on Twitter, saying:

“For the record, Martin Scorsese is probably the world’s greatest living American filmmaker. I love and study his films and will continue to love and study his films. I disagree with him solely on one point: That films based on comic books are innately not cinema. That’s all.”

Scorsese has yet to respond to Gunn, probably because he is busy making — and cares more about — Killers of the Flower Moon at the moment.

How It Started

So here’s where the beef between Martin Scorsese and superhero movies, most specifically those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all began. In October 2019, the director fired the first shot in this (presumably unintentional) war during an interview with Empire magazine. When asked if he had seen Marvel’s movies, Scorsese said:

“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.”

That seems pretty innocuous. I don’t necessarily agree with Scorsese, but I think he’s entitled to say whatever he wants. He’s earned that right. Marvel fans, however, were not happy. To put it lightly.

Avengers Assemble

Later that month, Robert Downey Jr., who plays Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, responded to Martin Scorsese’s comments while on The Howard Stern Show. The actor was respectful of the filmmaker’s view but said it “makes no sense.” Here’s more of his response on the radio show, via People: 

“I appreciate his opinion because I think, it’s like anything, we need all of the different perspectives so we can come to center and move on…I’ll tell you the truth, I didn’t expect [the MCU] to become what it became, and it is this very large, multi-headed Hydra at this point… I’ve always had other interests, and according to Scorsese, it’s not cinema so I have to take a look at that, you know?”

And Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, had this to say about Scorsese, a man he respects and admires, on Twitter:

“I first think of James Gunn, how his heart and guts are packed into Guardians of the Galaxy. I revere Marty, and I do see his point, but… Well, there’s a reason why ‘I’m always angry.'”

The late, great Chadwick Boseman, who played Black Panther in the MCU, had more to add during an interview on BBC 5 Live in November 2019. You can hear an audio clip via The Independent in which he says:

“The mystery that Scorsese is talking about is in ‘Black Panther’ … If he saw it, he didn’t get that there was this feeling of not knowing what was going to happen that Black people felt. We thought, you know, ‘White people will kill us off, so it’s a possibility that we could be gone.”

Then Scarlett Johanssonwho plays Black Widow in the MCUhad a Variety-hosted conversation with Chris Evans, who plays Captain America in the franchise. And the topic came up, albeit without bring up Scorsese by name. Johansson said:

“It’s interesting because a couple of people in the past couple of days have mentioned to me that a couple of extremely esteemed directors have been really vocal about how the whole Marvel universe and big blockbusters are really like ‘despicable’ and ‘the death of cinema.’ At first, I thought that seems kind of old-fashioned. And somebody had to explain to me. Because it seemed so disappointing and sad in a way.”

New Hollywood Acts Old Fashioned

After Martin Scorsese’s comments about superhero movies, several of his peers came to his defense. Another legend of cinema, Francis Ford Coppola, was even harsher in his critique of the genre. In October 2019, the Godfather and Apocalypse Now director said, according to the AFP:

“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema. We expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration…I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Paul Schrader Smash Hulk

In the midst of the controversy, Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk in the MCU, made headlines by adding a positive suggestion. In a November 2019 interview with the BBC, he says of Scorsese’s view:

“I’d love to see Marty create a National Film Endowment — and he could do this — that lets young, new talent come in that isn’t just driven by the marketplace, but driven by the precepts of art. That would be amazing. That’s really at the crux of this conversation, I think.”

After Ruffalo’s comments, though, people were quick to point out that Scorsese is a consummate champion of the work of other filmmakers and the founder of both The Film Foundation and the World Cinema Foundation.

Meanwhile, Scorsese’s friend and longtime collaborator Paul Schrader did not mince words. In one of his trademark Facebook posts, the Taxi Driver writer and First Reformed writer-director said:

“I never met Mark Ruffalo but ‘stupid’ is not a word that would have come to mind. But, damn, this is stupid.”

The Mighty Pen

On November 4, 2019, Martin Scorsese did the one thing legendary New Yorkers like him do in times of crisis: he penned a response to his superhero movie controversy in the New York Times. No matter what your take is on this whole feud, Scorsese’s essay is undeniably engaging, personal, and thoughtful. Here’s an excerpt:

“Many franchise films are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the screen. The fact that the films themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these pictures and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.”

He goes on to compare the Marvel movies to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, who, Scorsese rightly notes, was his own kind of franchise. Of course, Scorsese reveres Hitchcock and goes on to describe why the MCU is different, in his view. He wrote:

“Some say that Hitchcock’s pictures had a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Hitchcock himself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s franchise pictures is something else again. Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”

How It’s Going

And so, here we are, nearly two years later, and the discourse continues. A lot of it is just people firing hot takes on Twitter. But the discourse has birthed some probing analysis on the nature of cinema and moviegoing in our time. Including our own. The Martin Scorsese versus Marvel feud is only the beginning of what I’m sure will be a continuation of the decades-long debate about what is and is not cinema.

But in the meantime, can’t we all just be friends?

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.