American Cinema’s Civil War: Martin Scorcese vs the MCU

Image Credit: Jake Hills on Unsplash

Following the release of Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Film & TV Editor Ciara Whelan overviews the discourse that followed and the state of the cinema industry that it infers.

He might be almost eighty-one years of age, but Martin Scorsese is showing no signs of slowing down as one of Hollywood’s most esteemed filmmakers. This is not in the least exemplified by his daughter Francesca’s hilarious TikToks or his official Letterboxd account launched in early November, but is largely apparent by his most recent theatrical release Killers of the Flower Moon, also distributed by Apple TV. October’s Killers of the Flower Moon press tour was to a great extent centred around Scorsese as a legendary American auteur and filmmaker, and also given the conditions of the SAG-AFTRA strike at the time that meant Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro among many others were unable to promote the film themselves. The comments made by the director in recent interviews echo earlier criticisms made of Marvel’s ‘rollercoaster films’ in 2019 that established an infamous rift between the filmmaker and proponents of that contemporary cinema. 

In an interview with GQ, Scorsese spoke again of these films and their effects as cultural products; “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.” He heralded the work of contemporary filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and the Safdie Brothers and their contributions to cinema in recent years, and concluded stating that; “I do think that the manufactured content isn’t really cinema.” Multiple media outlets immediately jumped at these comments following their publication, despite the fact that this conversation was one among several talking points in this interview; Scorsese discussed at length his childhood trips to the local picture house, home and family life in his older age, his working relationship with long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and the legacy of his filmography. Nonetheless, the filmmaker’s commentary was quickly made a controversy among film fanatics. 

'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.'

Marvel and its fans have an expressed sore spot around Scorsese’s comments over the last few years that have apparently diminished its status as cinema. Joe Russo, director of Captain America: Civil War (2016) and both Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019), hit back at Scorcese with a side-eyed post of his dog sarcastically named Box Office, after Scorsese had uploaded a snap of his pet, Oscar. The picture was clearly a clapback, referencing the enormous box office returns that have come to be expected from a Marvel release as evidence of their cinematic significance. An article by Ray Greene of the A.V. Club publication argued that Scorsese is fighting a ‘losing battle,’ and explained his bitterness as merely a product of his historic inability to find an audience. The last line of his article landed a colossal misreading of Scorsese’s filmography, that quickly stirred controversy across social media; “When Marty is gone, and an entire body of work steeped in the belief that toxic masculinity is the organising principle of the cosmos is reassessed, it will be interesting to see if his highly personal oeuvre can stake the same claim.” For many, these kinds of comments appeared to be reaching in their condemnation of the filmmaker with little sound success. 

Moreover, it is significant that this debate is resurging during a period of rising uncertainty in the popularity of Marvel cinema in the last year. The tagline of a recent Variety article; ‘Is Marvel in Trouble?” speaks to instability, and raises questions about the future of the MCU. With The Marvels projected to open November 10th to lacklustre box office figures, and even rumours of Robert Downey Jr.’s and other original Avenger’s willingness to return, it appears that the MCU might be projecting a bit of their insecurities. Scorsese, on the other hand, is credited with yet another hard-hitting film that grapples with the evils of American capitalism.

Killers of the Flower Moon is three-and-a-half-hours well spent. While many might not like to admit it, the film is worth the watch given its stellar story, pacing, and performances among other key elements. Lily Gladstone is a tour-de-force and she is unmatched throughout even in this film’s star-studded cast. Scorsese shows a consciousness of his limits as a white American filmmaker speaking with a largely white American audience by bringing the taboo subject to the mainstream big screen. Osage language consultant Christopher Cote shared his complicated feelings for the film at its premier yet highlighted Scorsese’s political consciousness of his own audience; “This film was not made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody not Osage.” The film is an ode to the tragic slaughter of the Osage people at the hands of rapacious white settlers, carefully delivered by Scorsese to mainstream audiences that would be largely unaware of the extent of this historical bloodshed. 

In light of yet another Scorsese smash hit, the filmmaker has had plenty of support in the face of criticism, thereby cementing the debate between the cults of Scorsese and the MCU across media platforms. Many supporters feel that his significant contributions to cinema entitled him to such criticism, and with legendary films like Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) under his belt, even the most ardent critic would be hard pressed to argue otherwise. In the context of his conservationist approach to cinema, it’s clear that Scorsese’s comments are less of a condemnation of superhero and ‘rollercoaster’ blockbusters at large, but a lament for the cinema industry before its mass commercialisation to the detriment of creativity and innovation. There is space enough for these varied cinema types, but Scorsese’s legacy will ultimately foreground the importance of protecting powerful and personal cinema from the passionless logic of late-capitalism.