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Scorsese’s Marvel Critique Explained, the ‘Barbenheimer’ Revolution and the Future of Cinema

By Sarah Arsalan, LLB Law

The controversial New York Times op-ed left the online community perplexed, prompting film bros to purge their Letterboxd accounts of any film featuring jumpsuits and superheroes.

In the wake of Martin Scorsese’s eyebrow-raising takedown of  “superhero films,” labelling Marvel movies as mere “theme park” escapades, the esteemed filmmaker takes centre stage to shed light on his perspective. The discourse was initiated by his 2019 New York Times article titled ‘I said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let me Explain.’

In this exclusive op-ed, Scorsese not only holds his ground amidst the backlash but embarks on a discerning analysis, providing a glimpse into his mindset at that pivotal juncture. From a wistful journey through cinema’s golden era to astute commentary on the contemporary film industry, Scorsese unfolds a nuanced perspective on the ever-evolving landscape of the movie business. Moreover, in a recent interview with the Hindustan Times, Scorsese delves into the captivating dynamics that have sparked newfound enthusiasm among moviegoers.

The controversial New York Times op-ed left the online community perplexed, prompting film bros to purge their Letterboxd accounts of any film featuring jumpsuits and superheroes. Conversely, zealous Marvel enthusiasts criticised Scorsese, accusing him of excessive “pretentiousness” and “dismissiveness.” The ensuing online debates dismantled the op-ed, evolving into a contentious discussion on the legitimacy of superhero blockbusters as true cinematic works. So, what was Scorsese’s definitive stance?

At its core, Scorsese’s critique centred on the prevalent “sameness” within the film industry, challenging the notion that “nothing is at risk.” He went so far as to refer to Alfred Hitchcock as an early trailblazer in contributing to this phenomenon. 

Delving into the article, Scorsese reminisced about his youthful experiences attending films, portraying them as grand spectacles and captivating “events.” He highlights that Hitchcock’s films resembled theme parks, citing ‘Strangers on a Train’ and ‘Psycho’ as prime examples. He underscores that during that era people sought to be genuinely surprised and thrilled, and in this regard, they were never left disappointed. 

Continuing his analysis, Scorsese elaborates that while Hitchcock’s masterpieces exhibited a certain “sameness,” they were distinguished by “elegant compositions” and profound emotional underpinnings at the core of each narrative. However, he draws a sharp contrast to the “sameness” prevalent in today’s franchise films. While Marvel pictures contain certain cinematic elements, what is notably lacking are the crucial elements of “revelation, mystery, or genuine emotional danger”signifying an absence of risks.

Scorsese proceeds to draw a connection between the contemporary lack of risk in films and the transformation of the film industry. He asserts that the industry has shifted towards producing films as flawless products crafted for instant consumption. This evolution has contributed to the prevailing uniformity and absence of daring artistic choices, sacrificing the unpredictability and creative risk-taking that characterised earlier cinematic eras.

He concludes the article on a sombre note, expressing the harsh reality faced by aspiring filmmakers. In his poignant closing statement, he describes the current state of the industry as brutal and inhospitableto the essence of art. The simple act of articulating these sentiments evokes a profound sense of sorrow.

Two years after the New York Times op-ed, Scorsese calls ‘Barbenheimer’ a “perfect storm” in a recent interview with the Hindustan Times. Scorsese praised ‘Barbenheimer’, emphasising its potential to usher in a transformative era in cinema differing from the prevailing trends of the past two decades. He expressed admiration of audiences going to theatres – a sentiment echoing his earlier observations in a New York Times article. This resurgence suggests a potential shift in the movie scene, aligning with Scorsese’s anticipation of a changing landscape in cinematic preferences and consumption.

In pondering over the intricate dance between cinema’s future and past, Scorsese’s fervent call strikes a chord as more than a mere plea—it’s a heartfelt reminder to preserve the core of filmmaking amidst the ever-evolving scene. Take ‘Barbenheimer’, for instance, a cultural touchstone that seamlessly blends tradition and innovation, pushing the boundaries of what we thought cinema could be. Its box office success isn’t just a win on the commercial side; it’s a signal that audiences crave authenticity in storytelling. Now, as we dive into the cinematic offerings of 2023, there’s a buzz around groundbreaking releases that are setting a fresh benchmark for storytellers. These films, whether from foreign territories or Hollywood, are redefining the game in terms of narrative depth, cinematography, and overall impact. The future of cinema seems to be taking shape right before our eyes, with these upcoming releases playing a crucial role in shaping the ever-evolving landscape of this art form.

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