Why Martin Scorsese’s War on Marvel and Disney Actually Matters
The legendary filmmaker is leading the charge against Marvel-Disney’s corporate stranglehold on cinema—and it’s a conversation we need to have.
By now, anyone reading this piece will have heard Scorsese’s arguments against the comic book conglomerate, which is owned by Disney: The films, while fun for many, are not cinema; they contain no risk; and offer no real stakes in their storytelling. Other artists have found them aesthetically lacking, too: Zama director Lucrecia Martel hates their soundtracks and unhinged use of lasers while actor Willem Dafoe finds superhero movies in general (though it’s possible he’s referring mainly to Marvel) “too long, noisy, and overshot.”
The point in making a distinction between what may count as cinema and what is purely entertainment, made to satisfy the affinities of the greatest common denominator, is not to make people feel bad about loving facile movies the way many of us love reality television (though we should probably feel at least a little ridiculous about it). The point is to critique a capitalist system in which value is accorded primarily to what appeases the largest swath of people with dollars to spend. If it’s not stupid (or simplified) enough for the masses, it’s not worth investing in—that’s the system that Scorsese and others are speaking out against.
But how dare Scorsese, Martel, or Dafoe have ideas about what cinema is or should be? What about people in Middle America, who according to polls and on-the-street reportage do not have taste or original ideas? What about 12-year-olds, who have learned their greatest life lessons so far from Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel? Their afterschool entertainment isn’t high-stakes?! Who, scream the critics of the critics, will speak for the simple-minded among us, whose brains are still forming?
It’s amusing that we’re still having this conversation—which has no doubt been amplified by the high-click demands of digital media—but the enduring fixation on Marty v. Marvel makes a lot of sense: Taste, intellect, and skepticism, especially about art and entertainment, is now seen as elitist, even on the left. And what’s more, it’s assumed that, in the U.S., only people who come from New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco possess the trifecta. God forbid you don’t delight in the latest corporate offerings, produced by a Chinese-funded machine from on high. Maybe you’ve just lost your childhood sense of magic. Maybe you went to NYU.
In 2019, to be pretentious is the greatest societal curse, except it seems that those who most often lob the accusation don’t know what the word actually means. To be pretentious would require that you don’t actually possess the intelligence or taste that you purport to have. But if you’ve devoted time to learning and then, as a result, have developed strong opinions about the subject or subjects you’ve learned a lot about, are you a close-minded snob, or do you perhaps know a thing or two about what you’re talking about?
Avengers: Endgame directors the Russo Brothers, the aforementioned “two guys from Cleveland” who claim that “‘cinema’ is a New York word,” believe that “no one owns cinema” (miraculous that they are able to use the word in a sentence given that it is unknown in Cleveland). I’d argue that, in fact, with the acquisition of major production companies and release of Disney+, Disney is making an attempt to own cinema. The company is even withholding classic Fox titles from repertory theaters that depend on many of the films for their screenings. This is precisely what Scorsese laments—if we are all satisfied by the fantastical mortality depicted in Thor: Ragnarok, then Disney might as well buy up everything and program their executive picks directly into our VR headsets while we weep with gratitude.
If you don’t care about non-commercial movies, good for you. You’re well taken care of by the current system. But for those who actually love films, and not just Marvel or Disney, a corporate stranglehold on production is infuriating. Talented directors sign onto major franchise productions so that they might be able to continue making movies at all, many of the most popular independent movies translate Marvel formulas to funnel in viewership, and corporate shills like the Russos praise their overlords precisely because they lack the depth to do much better. And I don’t just mean that they lack depth artistically, but politically and socially as well. If it were true that the major corporate offerings are acceptable because they are successful vehicles for entertainment, then there would be no remaining hope for the arts as expressed through movies.
In fact, Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street struck me as a commentary on this very idea. Jordan Belfort, an increasingly fraudulent and hedonistic stock trader, begins the film as neither idealistic nor knowledgeable, but as a person endlessly deferential to the promises of wealth. All of his decisions, which go from shady, to reckless, to violent, follow this logic: Money brings opportunity, which brings more money, which brings happiness, and so it must be worshipped. This is not only a line of thinking that leaves no room for morals but also intelligence. Belfort ends up in jail not precisely because of his crimes, but because of his inability to let go of the sense of social control financial success gives him. Belfort points out to the Feds that Goldman, Merrill Lynch, and the other big-gun financial companies are doing the same, if not worse. But ultimately, Belfort’s working-class background doesn’t justify his distortions and manipulations.
Today, the entrepreneurial, get-money ideology that permeates both sides of the political aisle is at the center of Wolf of Wall Street. As a society, we are not safe from its ugly consequences simply because our affinities—for lasers, low stakes, and corporations—are not deemed criminal.