Martin Scorsese, Superheroes, and the “Death of Cinema”: Fact, Fiction, or Wild Fearmongering?

Martin Scorsese argues in his latest headline-catchy quote that cinema is dying and superheroes are the reason. But hasn't cinema been dying for 100 years?
Martin Scorsese

It’s 2019 all over again (not really, of course — those were the days). Martin Scorsese is out on the field doing press for his latest blockbuster auteur-ish film with $20M paydays all across the credits and a big streamer backing it, and because he can’t really find another topic to talk about, he’s bashing superhero films and previewing the “death of cinema.”

In a recently-published interview with GQ, good-old Marty had this to say:

“The danger there is what it’s doing to our culture. Because there are going to be generations now that think movies are only those – that’s what movies are.

They already think that. Which means that we have to then fight back stronger. And it’s got to come from the grassroots level. It’s gotta come from the filmmakers themselves. And you’ll have, you know, the Safdie brothers, and you’ll have Chris Nolan, you know what I mean? And hit ’em from all sides. Hit ’em from all sides, and don’t give up. Let’s see what you got. Go out there and do it. Go reinvent. Don’t complain about it. But it’s true, because we’ve got to save cinema. I do think that the manufactured content isn’t really cinema.”

– Martin Scorsese –
Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight

The irony of hailing Chris Nolan as the savior of cinema and the antidote to the dangerous poison that comic-book movies represent is not lost on me — and nor is it lost on Scott Derrickson or other Marvel/DC filmmakers who’ve spoken up on this issue since the piece was released. Nolan, with his Dark Knight trilogy, was one of the reasons behind the rise in popularity of the comic-book movie genre. (This is also further proof that Nolan is going to win Best Director at the Oscars this year for Oppenheimer; this level of support among his peers is nearly unprecedented.)

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But I’m not here to discuss that. Here’s something the majority of the readers of this site probably won’t like hearing: Martin Scorsese is right.

It takes about five seconds worth of scrolling through film Twitter to realize that there’s an entire generation of self-called film lovers who barely know how to discuss any non-superhero film.

Killers of the flower moon

And that is not how the art form progresses; saying that “manufactured content isn’t cinema” is such a filmmaker’s quote, too. Once again, a catchy headline from an 80-year-old accomplished director who got a $200M check to do his latest film. But Marty, oh Marty, this is such a misconception of the entire industry and what it’s built upon.

Martin Scorsese and the Populist Movement

Killers of the Flower Moon Martin Scorsese

First of all, Martin Scorsese may have already had his wish granted: in 2023 alone, audiences turned on a new Marvel movie that was advertised as the “beginning of a new dynasty” while Chris Nolan’s latest has grossed nearly a billion dollars at the box office as of the posting of this article. Not bad for an R-rated three-hour historical biopic filled with black-and-white sequences. On the other side of the road, Disney is taking massive hits with The Little Mermaid and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and Universal can’t catch a break with Fast X.

Martin Scorsese argues that cinema is dying, which immediately makes me think of a recent film I absolutely adore, and one that I think will be revisited years from now with a cult following: Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. Scorsese may think he’s the only one sounding the alarm, but if there is a director in Hollywood trying to tell us that we need to save cinema, that is Damien Chazelle.

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He’s the embodiment of everything Martin Scorsese is clamoring for, making original films he wants to make, stories he’s passionate about that nobody else would be equally qualified to tell. He also knows his stuff about movies (Margot Robbie said in an interview leading up to Babylon that the only filmmaker she’d met who knew as much about cinema as Chazelle did was Martin Scorsese).

Babylon - movie still

With Babylon, Chazelle presented the following thesis, underlined for everyone to notice with the film’s epilogue: cinema is dying yes, but it’s been dying for 100 years. And yet, we’re still here. This is an evolving art form, one that’s always feared change. But when everyone thought Hollywood was doomed with the introduction of sound, we got Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, and a few years later, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Citizen Kane. Westerns came and went in the 1960s, and Hollywood survived; just a few years later we got 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, or Apocalypse Now.

The introduction of the blockbusters was done with Jaws, which we now hail as a classic, yet that was another reminder for filmmakers that this is a business first. Over the next decade or so, we’d get Once Upon a Time in America, Fanny and Alexander, or Goodfellas. There’s really no better way to illustrate my point other than to cite David Ehrich’s Babylon review for IndieWire: “[Babylon] reminds us the movies have been dying for more than 100 years, and then — through its heart-bursting, endearingly galaxy-brained prayer of a finale — interprets that as uplifting proof they’ll actually live forever.”

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If there’s something the pandemic has taught us is that TV and film are here to stay. Everyone thought March of 2020 would be ingrained in the grave of the theatrical exhibition model, yet here we are. It’s true that the box office isn’t up to 2019 levels, but that’s because audiences are living in 2023 while this summer’s movies are actually pre-pandemic.

Spider-Man Across The Spider-Verse

Another Transformers or DC movie? No, thanks. We’ll take the unconventional biopic or the movie about the doll that actually feels fresh and original despite being the oldest IP to have its name on a movie poster this summer. And that new Spider-Man movie feels quite refreshing too.

What Was the Point, Marty?

Martin Scorsese

But Martin Scorsese isn’t really against the genre, is he? In a follow-up quote, he also said the following:

“It’s almost like AI making a film. And that doesn’t mean that you don’t have incredible directors and special effects people doing beautiful artwork. But what does it mean? What do these films – what will it give you? Aside from a kind of consummation of something and then eliminating it from your mind, your whole body, you know? So what is it giving you?”

– Martin Scorsese –

I have so many counters to this. First of all, let’s get down to basics. Martin Scorsese has been name-shaming Marvel for a few years now, yet has also acknowledged he’s never seen a Marvel movie (I suspect that if you asked him off the record he’d say otherwise; it should also be noted that he didn’t name-drop the company here, I’m resuscitating old quotes for this particular argument).

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So where’s the line here, exactly? Are movies with the Marvel Studios logo on them inherently bad? Sure, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was borderline unwatchable, but for every Peyton Reed film you have, I’ll throw you a Ryan Coogler Marvel title. Do you really want to get into the “What do these films give you?” argument with the Black Panther movies? I’ll tell you this, they’re no Age of Innocence.

Black Panther

And I mean no shade on Martin Scorsese. I liked The Irishman more than most people, and Killers of the Flower Moon has been my most anticipated film of the year since it started. Goodfellas is nearly perfect, and The Wolf of Wall Street has no business being as good as it is. But that is also the point. These directors that you are now pointing fingers at as studio shills grew up on your movies.

They were inspired by them, but also by other people’s work, which is what led them to create new stories with these characters they love. And yes, there’s a clear argument to be made that Marvel Studios is directing their films instead of the filmmakers — Victoria Alonso admitted this in a quote that the studio definitely did not want out, and even Nia DaCosta essentially told Vanity Fair in a recent profile interview that she expected The Marvels to be a film she only half-directed. So, again, where is the line?

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Clearly, it’s not drawn on comic-book movies. Martin Scorsese himself considered directing Joker but ultimately passed because he didn’t have time for it (i.e., he didn’t feel that, pushing 80, was the best time for him to make a film that he wasn’t extremely passionate about like he was about The Irishman or Killers of the Flower Moon). So why bring that term up? (I have a theory about this, but not yet.) Is it VFX-heavy films? Because if so, I gotta tell you something about The Irishman you wouldn’t believe.

The Irishman Martin Scorsese

The truth here is that Martin Scorsese’s claim can be applied to any other era in film history. Martin Scorsese rose to the Hollywood Hall of Fame in the 80s and 90s, when absolutely stupid action films and nonsensical blockbusters were dominating the summer box office. Remember Jaws 3D? No? Let’s keep it that way.

Studios need these “AI-generated films” (such a 2023 quote, by the way — every review about a bad film claims the script was seemingly written by ChatGPT these days) to pay for the art-house pictures that then win them Oscars.

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And this is precisely the point of this article: every complaint Martin Scorsese has about superhero films (for instance, he’s said before that they are “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption”, all of which is true) has always been the case. In Babylon, Chazelle argued that cinema is cyclical, and this is no exception.

The rise of the superhero genre in the 2010s was met with equal force by an indie film movement that gave us directors like Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), or the Daniels (Swiss Army Man). Even in high-budget territory, for every Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in 2022 I’ll give you a Top Gun: Maverick or Avatar: The Way of Water, VFX-heavy films that were beloved by pretty much anyone. “Let’s see what you got. Go out there and do it. Go reinvent.” Did the Daniels read that quote and travel back in time to make Everything Everywhere on a bet against Marty?

Everything Everywhere All At Once

So, one last time, why? Why bring this up now? Well, the answer seems easy enough. For clout. He wants people to check out his work, and for that, he wants to poke us and make us wonder: Are you really that good? The answer is yes. He’s that good. But that doesn’t give him the right to diminish other people’s efforts to make himself look bigger.

It doesn’t mean that Martin Scorsese is not sincere about it, but there are certain ways of phrasing the same sentiment and not making other people feel bad about their work. Damien Chazelle did it right. He’ll probably say otherwise, but the truth is that he convinced Paramount to make a $200M bet on him, and making profile interviews about Mean Streets and Casino isn’t going to drive a lot of Internet traffic — he wants articles like this going around to stay relevant in the conversation.

Congrats, it worked. Cannot wait for Killers of the Flower Moon.


But what do you think about Martin Scorsese’s comments? Do you think Martin Scorsese has a point regarding superhero films being the death of cinema? Do you think Killers of the Flower Moon will be a must-see film this fall? Let us know your thoughts about the subject on The Illuminerdi’s social media.