Kevin Smith, Taika Waititi and James Gunn reject veteran film-makers dismissal of superhero movies as theme park fare while his output exposes a debt to spectacle and innovation

Who decides what qualifies as real cinema? Martin Scorsese, possessor of perhaps the most potent reputation (as cineaste and film-maker) in Hollywood, has apparently decided that it is him. After describing the Marvel movies as theme parks and not cinema in an interview with Empire published earlier this month, the celebrated director of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas doubled down this week at the London film festival, where he is promoting his highly anticipated feature The Irishman.

What has to be protected is the singular experience of experiencing a picture, ideally with an audience, Scorsese opined. But theres room for so many others now, and so many other ways. Theres going to be crossovers, completely. The value of a film thats like a theme park film, for example, the Marvel-type pictures, where the theatres become amusement parks, thats a different experience. I was saying earlier, its not cinema, its something else.

To say that Scorseses comments have inspired a furious backlash would be to ignore the reverence in which the Oscar-winner is held by many of those who find his recent comments unpalatable. So let us say merely that there plenty of film-makers out there, most of whom have worked on superhero movies at one time or another, that disagree with him fiercely.

Christians protest outside a Manhattan cinema, in 1988, at the screening of The Last Temptation of Christ Photograph: Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Kevin Smith reminded Scorsese that his own 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ resembles a superhero flick for those who are not religiously minded. Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, currently picking up Oscar buzz for his Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, said simply: Of course its cinema! Its at the movies, while Guardians of the Galaxys James Gunn tweeted: Martin Scorsese is one of my 5 favourite living film-makers. I was outraged when people picketed The Last Temptation of Christ without having seen the film. Im saddened that hes now judging my films in the same way.

There are a million ways to unpick Scorseses argument. For a start, the film-makers attempts to label superhero films as corporate entities rather than examples of high art would appear to ignore almost every big-budget, special effects-laden film that has been made since Steven Spielbergs Jaws and George Lucass Star Wars ushered in the blockbuster era in the mid 1970s. That is to wipe a lot of other peoples filmgoing experiences from the history books, purely on the basis of the directors own view of film as human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

A more cogent unravelling of Scorseses argument can be obtained by examining the film-makers own movies, as well as the history of film that the King of Comedy director cherishes so deeply. Let us take for an example 2011s Hugo, the whimsical Scorsese fantasy set at a railway station in 1930s Paris. The movie is obsessed with the films of Georges Mlis, and particularly the French pioneer of early cinemas classic space fantasy A Trip to the Moon.

If there was ever a film to evoke a sense of childlike wonder in audiences much like comic-book movies, some might say it is this one. Astronauts travel to the moon, where they encounter a phantasmagorical lunar landscape of Carrollian mushrooms, cosmic rain showers and bizarre extraterrestrials. There is not much here in the way of narrative sophistication, frankly, and yet this was the film that Scorsese chose as the central pivot in one of his essential arguments within Hugo that we need to preserve and celebrate both the history of film and the film-makers that helped make it.

The director would no doubt point out that Mliss work comes from a different place, that it is inspired by magical inner reveries rather than the prospect of selling theme park tickets and toys. But it is hard not to see more than a hint of A Trip to the Moon in films such as Gunns own Guardians of the Galaxy 2, in which our heroes head find themselves trapped among the psychedelic flora of Kurt Russells Ego the Living Planet.

Moreover, technical innovation itself, as much as storytelling, is surely a valid element of cinemas capacity to manifest as high art. Mlis hand-painted individual cells to create some of the earliest colour cinematography, while his techniques were extensively copied by the earliest Hollywood film-makers, at a time when the fledgling US film industry was still lagging behind its European counterpart.

Marvel, funnily enough, is known for pioneering the art of digital de-aging, in films such as Captain Marvel and Captain America: Civil War. Those same techniques are now being used by Scorsese himself to deliver younger versions of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in The Irishman. Would such technologies have ever entered the conversation without the vast funds that the Disney-owned studio has to work with? That scenario seems as unlikely, sadly, as the prospect of Scorsese ever making a superhero film though Todd Phillips Joker at least teasingly suggests what might have happened if he had ever taken a crack.



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