There are many building blocks of the internet, but the cornerstones are think pieces, offhand lists, and other hollow provocations meant to stir arguments and, therefore, briefly redirect web traffic. Engaging such material is utterly pointless. Then again, it’s not like I have anything better to do.
Many years ago, before there was such a thing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had big dreams about how some of my favorite characters from my misspent youth might make the leap to movie house screens. In animated conversations with fellow fans, we speculated about possible casting choices for the costumed do-gooders, but I expended most of my mental energy on selecting unorthodox directors to translate the feats of superhuman derring-do from static panels to twenty-four frame per second. All this excitable jabbering place in the early nineteen-nineties, so I don’t remember most of my selections, but I do remember one of the wilder notions. I eagerly put forward the theory that Martin Scorsese was the perfect filmmaker to preside over a movie version of Marvel’s Merry Mutants, the uncanny X-Men.
At the time, my theory didn’t seem quite as crazy as it does now. Tim Burton brought his iconoclastic outlook to Batman and Batman Returns, the features that arguably lit the long fuse that lead to the dynamite that was Marvel Studios, and Scorsese had recently directed Cape Fear, a remake of a classic film, but also a raucous genre exercise that seemed to be a test of what he could do with pulpier material than he’d chosen previously. And the emerging business model for serious directors called for alternating between splashy commercial entertainment and trickier, more personal fare: a one-for-the-studio-and-one-for-me-scheme. If Clint Eastwood wanted to make an odd drama about a flamboyant movie director who gets sidetracked by a safari hunt while on location, he was going to follow that quickly with a lowbrow buddy cop movie. To get the green light for Schindler’s List, it helps to put Jurassic Park on the studio’s desk, too.
By now, anyone paying even a sliver of attention to current film discourse is well aware of the unlikelihood of Scorsese sitting through a Marvel movie, much less signing his name to one. In an interview with Empire magazine, Scorsese opined on the output of Marvel Studio, dismissing it as “not cinema.” That’s led to a seemingly endless cycle of other directors being asked to weigh in on the debate, and every actor or executive with a connection to the Marvel movie machine rising to different levels of defense. It’s been absolutely exhausting and an unwelcome diversion from Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, which is reportedly masterful. Scorsese should be taking a victory lap, and he’s instead stuck writing a New York Times op-ed about why Ant-Man and the Wasp just isn’t his thing.
I hope — futilely, I’m sure — that the New York Times piece is the end of all this hubbub. Scorsese shouldn’t need to clarify, but his arguments, expanded and explained, are compelling, especially because he concedes the way he’s being forced to adapt, making his latest film under the Netflix banner rather than a studio that will provide for a traditional theatrical release. He writes about a repetitive structure to the Marvel movies: “They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way.” I like many of the Marvel movies, some of them quite a bit, but I recognize the truth of Scorsese’s assessment. I consider it a relief when the latest Marvel spectacle deviates even a little from the origin story and world building templates. That’s a thin, miserable cause for celebration.
There’s also some truth to any pushback Scorsese might get to painting the past as a time of unbounded artistic achievement. Yes, the halcyon days of Hollywood boasted grand achievements from the likes of Chaplin, Ford, Wyler, Wilder, Hawks, Capra, and on and on. And Scorsese was blessed — and we as filmgoers were arguably more blessed — to enter the business at a time when the studio system fell apart and strictures on content were lifted, leading to a boom in edgy achievement by U.S. filmmakers. But all through those eras, there was a lot of garbage threaded through projectors. In the same rough stretch of time that Alfred Hitchcock journeyed from Notorious to Vertigo, ten Ma and Pa Kettle movies were released. The sublime has always taken sharp elbows from the subpar.
There are plenty of villains to point out in the current climate for cinema: the studios that have fearfully dwindled their release slates down to skeletons, the inattentive audiences that have turned the moviegoing experience into a nightmare of competing distractions, and the exhibitors whose furious resistance to a natural evolution in distribution is more responsible for Scorsese’s inability to get The Irishman projected onto big screens coast to coast than anything Marvel is doing. Rather than take a few weeks of box office receipts for a major film by a known filmmaker, the National Association of Theatre Owners wails about the shortened theatrical window that Netflix has determined beat suits their business model, calling it “a disgrace.” Most movies see their box office experience precipitous drops after the first weekend anyway, and a lot of theaters would probably be happy to shuffle The Irishman out the door after four week run to make room for the parade of kid-friendly releases for the holiday. But exhibitors routinely fight to preserve before they evolve, complaining about broadcast television, cable networks, VCRs, DVDs, streaming, anything and everything.
The Irishman is available for streaming on Netflix at the end of November. Three days before it shows up on the service, I’ll be seeing the film on a big screen. I already have my tickets.