It’s easy to view Martin Scorsese as an Old Hollywood reactionary in light of his widely reported dismissal of Marvel films as “not cinema.” But he’s really a New Hollywood voice denigrating a conventional movie-making model that’s been around for 40 years.
Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, The Irishman, is an ambitious and risky endeavor made with Netflix, the leading New Hollywood entertainment company. The movie clocks in at more than three hours with a complex narrative that will challenge viewers instead of spoon-feeding them fight scenes and spaceships. The Irishman is getting limited release in theaters because movie chains are aligned with Old Hollywood, and they despise Netflix.
Marvel operates through an Old Hollywood model made popular in 1977 by Star Wars: studios crank out action-packed crowd pleasers with predictable plots along with a tidal wave of associated merchandising tie-ins and cobrands. By drawing from well-known comic book stories featuring iconic superheroes, Marvel movies cater to a built-in fan base that will reward them no matter how good or bad they are. Scorsese is not wrong to compare Marvel films to theme parks. As Disney incorporates Marvel attractions into its theme parks, it’s hard to see the difference between the two. This is not to say Marvel films are good or bad — but they do follow a predictable formula that works financially.
Scorsese couldn’t make The Irishman in an Old Hollywood system that succeeds this way. As he said at the Marrakech International Film Festival: “People such as Netflix are taking risks. ‘The Irishman’ is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”
So when Scorsese says Marvel films are not “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” I believe he’s doing more than expressing an opinion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I doubt he’s taken the time to critique the shortcomings of Ant-Man and the Wasp or Avengers: Endgame. He even admits to not watching Marvel movies with any regularity. I believe he’s really attacking Old Hollywood on a broader scale — the Old Hollywood that once financed bold Scorsese movies such as Taxi Driver but now won’t risk the small fortune required to make The Irishman.
Whatever his reasons (and I’m clearly speculating about a deeper motive here), Scorsese’s comments about Marvel have triggered a debate about the value of superhero films, with Hollywood figures ranging from Samuel L. Jackson to Francis Ford Coppola weighing in. The debate has gotten testy. Coppola has branded Marvel movies as “despicable.” Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger fired back by saying that Coppola and Scorsese are wrong.
“Are you telling me that Ryan Coogler making Black Panther is doing something that somehow or another is less than anything Marty Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola have ever done on any one of their movies?” he asked.
But even though this debate focuses on Marvel, I think it’s about an artist with personal vision speaking out against tradition. And Martin Scorsese has company in his embrace of New Hollywood. Directors such as Alfonso Cuarón are turning to Netflix to help them finance personal, unconventional films that don’t fit into the studio system. Cuarón allied with Netflix to make Roma, the black-and-white film with no movie stars and shot in Spanish and Mixteco — a film that won three Academy Awards. When discussing the movie at the Golden Globes, Cuarón said, “My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release?”
In addition, Steven Soderbergh, Guillermo del Toro, the Coen brothers, and Damien Chazelle are among the Oscar-winning directors working with Netflix. Celebrated Indian writer/director Ritesh Batra works with both Amazon Studios and Netflix. Academy Award nominee Kenneth Longerman collaborated with Amazon Studios to make Manchester by the Sea in 2016, which made Amazon Studios the first streaming media service to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Many more established and emerging talents are joining them.
Welcome to New Hollywood.