Martin Scorsese famously said Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were not “cinema,” and he’s correct in a specific way. The Killers of the Flower Moon director believes a crucial element in cinema is the director’s ability to execute their specific vision. Marvel Studios is not a place where directors run the show, making it more like television than traditional feature film production.

With the release of his new epic historical film, The Killers of the Flower Moon, treasure of cinema Martin Scorsese is again being asked about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Admiral Ackbar might say, “It’s a trap.” For all his wisdom and accolades, reasonable people can disagree about the long-term artistic value of the MCU. However, a new book about the history of Marvel Studios shows Martin Scorsese is right about one aspect of the MCU that doesn’t fit his definition of cinema. The whole thing began years ago when Scorsese offered up a frequent critique of an industry he helped define but, for the first time, mentioned Marvel by name.

He said Marvel movies were not “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Further comments have clarified that he doesn’t see comic book source material as inherently un-cinematic. Scorsese pointed to Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight trilogy, as a savior of cinema. The human beings referred to in his original quote are not the characters (some of whom are literally not human) but the director and their audience. Again, the cinematic value of any film is for each individual viewer to decide. However, for the individual viewer named Martin Scorsese, Marvel films don’t represent a director’s statement on an aspect of the human condition. Uncharitably, one might call them “films by committee,” but that’s literally true in the case of Marvel Studios.

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Marvel Studios’ Directors Don’t Always Direct the Whole Movie

The meticulously reported MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios by Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales and Gavin Edwards tells the story of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific film franchise. The book makes it clear that rather than directors, it’s the producers who are driving the superhero bus. First Avi Arad and then Kevin Feige, these producers weren’t even sure these movies would work on a purely technical level. Jon Favreau had a lot of autonomy with Iron Man, and Louis Leterrier had less with The Incredible Hulk. Before The Avengers, Marvel studios assembled an in-house team of visual effects artists and production designers.

The Reign of Marvel points out that some directors didn’t like the idea of others, effectively, storyboarding and directing action sequences in their films. Other directors — like Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers who got their start in television — were thankful for the arrangement. Feige is much like George Lucas during the making of The Empire Strikes Back. In collaboration with Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner and Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas told them what he wanted and let them figure out how to do it. It’s ironic that Marvel Studios eschewed the traditional TV production model, because they make their films a lot like television.

Martin Scorsese doesn’t think TV is cinema, perhaps in part because it’s such an artistically collaborative medium. It’s also one where an executive producer is at the top of the hierarchy and the directors are, literally, interchangeable. Typically, production schedules don’t allow a single director for a series, unless it’s a very short episode count. If a vision he has is a requirement for something to be “cinema,” then Marvel Studios definitely falls short. So do franchise films like those in the DC Universe or the Star Trek series. It’s a valid perspective from a director who understands filmmaking better than almost anyone.

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Marvel Movies Are Still Artful, Even If They’re Not ‘Cinema’

Those who most objected to Martin Scorsese’s criticism of the MCU did so because they equated “cinema” with “art.” In fairness to the venerated Goodfellas director, he may have meant it that way. Originally, he described MCU movies as “theme park rides,” and more recently he surmised MCU movies don’t stay with audiences like cinema does. Yet, by his own admission, Scorsese is really only talking about the “idea” of Marvel movies, because he doesn’t watch them.

Over the lifespan of the MCU, children have grown up going to see these films with parents, friends or both. It’s the kind of cinematic experience that sticks around. Comic books have a long history of being under-appreciated and viewed as less than artful for most of their history. It’s no surprise the movies are looked on in the same way, especially because of their success. Scorsese and countless others blame the success of the MCU and other franchises for the dearth of mid-budget, original features at the box office. However, Marvel Studios saved the cinema, meaning the place where people watch movies, from financial oblivion.

Each Marvel movie released in 2021 was the highest-grossing film for the year until the next one. In 2022, three MCU movies landed in the top ten moneymakers for the year, contributing over $2.5 billion to the box office. If studios were smart, they’d let the success of their franchise films subsidize smaller-budget, original releases. However, the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike has proven the people in charge of studios are lacking, at least when it comes to what’s good for the art form or the industry.

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Who makes the final decisions about a film is very important to Martin Scorsese’s definition of cinema. Given the runtime of Killers of the Flower Moon, this is exactly the movie the director wanted to make. Countless other artists, from production design to the editing bay, contributed to its creation, but it’s Scorsese’s canvas. He didn’t mix the paints nor construct the brush, but how the film’s disparate elements come together on the screen was his purview alone.

This is not the case for many films, without even considering directors like Richard Donner or David Ayer who had no control over the film’s final cut. However, through this particular lends, The Empire Strikes Back might not be considered “cinema” either. The story came from Lucas. The script came from Lawrence Kasdan (and uncredited dialogue rewrites from Carrie Fisher). Irvin Kershner directed from storyboards by Captain America: First Avenger‘s eventual director, Joe Johnston. Real-life troubles, from inclement weather on location to a fire at Elstree studios, meant other compromises had to be made.

As described in MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, the process for making their films is similar. Writers and producers collaborate on the story, while visual effects artists begin creating challenging action sequences. The director is there to guide the filmmaking, but they don’t have the final say. Some directors, like Edgar Wright who spent years on Ant-Man or Doctor Strange‘s Scott Derrickson walk away rather than acquiesce to the Marvel method. In this way, Martin Scorsese is right when he says Marvel Studios films aren’t cinema, but the process works to make great movies.

The Killers of the Flower Moon is currently in theaters, and The Marvels, the next film from Marvel Studios, releases in theaters on Nov. 10, 2023.

 Treasure of cinema Martin Scorsese criticized Marvel movies in part because they aren’t a director’s singular vision and a new book confirms this.  Read More