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Martin Scorsese's essay on the preservation of cinema explains his Marvel criticism


Martin Scorsese is in the headlines for both positive and negative reasons. His most recent film, The Irishman, premiered at the London Film Festival to critical acclaim and, during its opening, the filmmaker took aim at the rise of superhero films created by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Scorsese, a cinephile with traditional tastes, has been left bewildered by the relentless success Marvel continues to enjoy with every passing release. Having been drawn into a conversation about the rise of Marvel, Scorsese was asked if he had been swept away in the surge of recent films, to which he replied: “I tried, you know?” in an interview with Esquire Magazine. “But that’s not cinema.”

He added: “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.”

His comments, quite predictably, were met with instant refutal by members of the Marvel elite and, despite the furore around his criticism, Scorsese again doubled down on his opinion by adding: “The value of a film that is like a theme park film, for example, the Marvel pictures, where the theatres become amusement parks. That’s a different experience. It’s not cinema. It’s something else. Whether you go for it or not, it is something else. We shouldn’t be invaded by it,” he said after the premiere of his recent three-and-a-half-hour film. 

“And so, that’s a big issue. We need the theatre owners to step up for that. To allow theatres to show films that are narrative films. A narrative film can be one long take for three hours, you know? It doesn’t have to be a conventional beginning, middle, and end,” he added.

While the likes of James Gunn, Samuel L. Jackson and Taika Waititi have all laughed off Scorsese’s criticism, some have joined the acclaimed auteur in agreement that the surge of Marvel films is beginning to overrun classic cinematic values. For Scorsese, a 76-year-old filmmaker who began attending the cinema at the age of eight and did so with prolific effect, the essence of film and its core values can be narrowed down into a fine art—and one he’s struggling to breakdown in Marvel.

While writing an essay for the Film Foundation entitled ‘The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema’, Scorsese details the history of cinema and references the likes of Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers, Friese-Greene and R.W. Paul as pioneers of the fine art that successfully planted the foundations of what was to come. For Scorsese, looking back on these momentous feats of artistry, Marvel is a far cry from what his true ideals of film are derived from.

In his essay, Scorsese details how traditional forms of cinematic values have “been overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere.” He writes: “Consider the famous Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey. Narrative, abstraction, speed, movement, stillness, life, death—they’re all up there. Again we find ourselves back at that mystical urge—to explore, to create movement, to go faster and faster, and maybe find some kind of peace at the heart of it, a state of pure being.

“But the cinema we’re talking about here—Edison, the Lumière brothers, Méliès, Porter, all the way through Griffith and on to Kubrick—that’s really almost gone. It’s been overwhelmed by moving images coming at us all the time and absolutely everywhere, even faster than the visions coming at the astronaut in the Kubrick picture. And we have no choice but to treat all these moving images coming at us as a language. We need to be able to understand what we’re seeing and find the tools to sort it all out.”

Scorsese’s criticism of Marvel comes from a personal, deep-seated love for cinema and the certain values he’s held dear to his heart for decades. While James Gunn, Ryan Coogler, Anthony Russo and the rest have all found a method of creating cinema in their own right, the formation of that picture has become far too removed for Scorsese to comprehend. In the same essay, while breaking down core elements such as lighting, movement and the element of time, Scorsese repeatedly references some of the earliest known films to be created before explaining a specific moment in the creation of a picture which continues to push him forward, a concept which keeps his creative flame alive. This fourth element of film, as labeled by Scorsese, is detailed when referencing a scene from The Musketeers of Pig Alley, a film created by D.W. Griffith in 1912, “a fourth aspect of cinema” occurs when two scenes meet to create a third image, an image which is created in the mind’s eye of the viewer. “That inference. The image in the mind’s eye,” Scorsese begins.

“For me it’s where the obsession began. It’s what keeps me going, it never fails to excite me. Because you take one shot, you put it together with another shot, and you experience a third image in your mind’s eye that doesn’t really exist in those two other images. The Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein wrote about this, and it was at the heart of what he did in his own films. This is what fascinates me—sometimes it’s frustrating, but always exciting—if you change the timing of the cut even slightly, by just a few frames, or even one frame, then that third image in your mind’s eye changes too. And that has been called, appropriately, I believe, film language.”

Read Scorsese’s full essay, The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema, here