Scorsese Says Marvel Movies Are 'Not Cinema' As 'Joker,' Based on His Work, Opens Wide

Scorsese Says Marvel Not Cinema
The timing of The Irishman director's comment is fascinating.  

Martin Scorsese is one of the most prolific and critically-acclaimed living filmmakers. He has a big new movie, Netflix's The Irishman, coming out this fall. But beyond that, he's a filmmaker's filmmaker. A lover of the craft, a fan of the greats, a man who has devoted a ton of his time and energy to film preservation. He also champions the classics and makes sure they are available to future generations for study and enjoyment. 

According to, in an interview with Empire, Scorsese was asked about the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has taken the box office by storm in recent years and he had this to say: 

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema... Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

So, based on this, what does qualify as "cinema" and what is Martin Scorsese really trying to say here? 

There has long been a battle between the idea of movies being about real "substance" or human drama -- movies that strive to be art and movies that are made largely for commercial reasons. Recent changes to the entertainment industry at large have really highlighted the value of IP, intellectual property. The shift has been a long, slow one, taking place over the better part of a generation -- and starting arguably in the mid-late 1970s with the release of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977.  

Scorsese, in a sense, has been on one side of this battle almost since the moment he got in the game. The Oscar-winning filmmaker does have the benefit of a long and acclaimed track record, so he can still find the money for an epic period piece like The Irishman (though it wasn't the easiest path). Younger filmmakers today would be hard-pressed to find much mainstream financial backing for a period movie, based on a book, starring actors in their late 70s, the way Scorsese has. The clout he and his cast have (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci) make such a spend possible, even for a streaming title with a limited theatrical release. 

If one is to break in as a writer-director in the current landscape, that person's next project will likely be a large franchise picture. 

Some filmmakers thrive with this assignment -- look at Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. Or even Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

But for others, it seems to be a process of frustrations, creative differences, falling outs, and eventual replacement. 

What's really fascinating about the timing of Scorsese's comment is that it comes just as we approach the release of Joker, Todd Phillips' obviously Scorsese-inspired take on the Clown Prince of Crime from the DC/Batman comic books.

Joker is getting raves, backlash, and inspiring its own wave of hot takes and furor on #filmtwitter. The R-rated movie inhabits a strange new space where, while it's based on a popular comic book hero, it's most definitely NOT for kids. 

There are other things going on with Joker, like the social and political buttons it pushes that seem, by design, from the filmmakers and the marketing team. It's worked. People have been talking about this movie for months, it's already won awards, and all of it despite being... a comic book movie. Is this the place where the theme park ride crosses over into Martin Scorsese's definition of cinema? 

Well... almost literally yes

Many are saying Joker is more of a Taxi Driver/King of Comedy rehash than it is a new take on the often-utilized comic book villain. We've had now four "buzzworthy" performances from major movie stars in the role of The Joker in the last 30 years, with Heath Ledger posthumously winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal in Dark Knight . That's not quite James Bond-level representation, but the character is definitely a pop-culture fixture. To the point where every time a new Joker is cast, everyone talks about it. 

It's hard to categorize Joker as an original movie, or on the level of cinema Scorsese seems to prefer, due to its conceit or content. It's based on massive IP and it's also based thematically -- and structurally -- on some of the most celebrated movies in Hollywood history. It feels like another very good example of post-modernism in filmmaking. A Xerox or mixtape of the best moments from truly great films put through the lens of a DC comic book movie. 

The argument about art vs. commerce in movies isn't new. Scorsese discounting Marvel's landmark output, and judging it to be "not cinema,"  is just the most recent skirmish in this long conflict. There are gray areas, middle grounds, and compromises. Joker seems like a particularly interesting one, given the timing. 

What gets lost in all the back and forth, all the takes, is that nothing involved in any of this feels particularly original.

A creative spin on existing property isn't really what you'd call Joker, either. After all, Scorsese made Taxi Driver and King of Comedy 40 years ago and they're still great. Even Scorsese's latest effort is based on a book, starring his famous collaborators, and retreading some of his most familiar ground: The gangster epic. 

We're spilling more ink on these topics as well, so we're not exactly helping solve the problem. But you know what would be really cool? If more filmmakers at Phillips and Scorsese's level, those with the ability to get big movies made, would endeavor to show us things we've never seen before.      

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I mean, it's his own point of view, so in those regards he's not wrong. And you take cinematography, film literacy, and visual story telling and comic book movies aren't the best display of those a lot of the time. They're different, that's the thing. Can many people say they're into french new wave, or Italian neo realism? It's like food, comic book movies is a lot like going to McDonald's, while a Scorsese film (or his taste in film) is more like a 10 course dinner made by Wolfgang Puck. You're going to get tired of one of those real fast, and the other has way more substance.

October 4, 2019 at 12:28PM

Josh Wolf

I have always said it, so I completely agree with him.

October 4, 2019 at 12:56PM

Paolo Mugnaini

I agree with Scorsese, the sooner comic book films stop being the tentpole films of studios the better.

They are so stupid, the superpowers, the outfits... cliche plot points, and the stupid humor.

And the marketing, that makes every lame comic book film an EVENT, even for fringe characters.

It's all so lame, I hope this trend ends soon.

October 4, 2019 at 1:07PM


Marvel movies are exactly like the WWE (world wrestling entertainment). It’s all about Special FX and action. People go to see the CGI and hear the surround sound. It’s all green screen. I know for fact ,Marvel has hit its peak. It’s only a matter of short time when something new and bolder comes out. We become desensitized to even the same type of movies.

October 4, 2019 at 1:21PM


Alternate headline-- Old man hates movies made for children. The world is somehow shocked.

October 4, 2019 at 1:37PM


The problem is that "movies made for children" is now 90% of movies in the Box Office, and that it's hardly just children and teens watching them. It's a society where 40 year olds await "excitedly" for the new superhero in spandex movie, with the same trite plot, gratuitous VFX and bad performances, and as 20 previous ones...

Joker is in another league of course. But even the best non-Joker example I can think of now, Logan, was young-adult-fiction level at best...

October 4, 2019 at 2:55PM


I don't see the point of the title as Joker is NOT a "super-heroes movie".

October 5, 2019 at 9:53AM

Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer

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October 6, 2019 at 9:11PM

Betty Cox
Senior News Editor

Saying that comic based movies aren't cinema is like saying that Marx Brother's or Laurel and Hardy films, or the entire silent movie output aren't cinema. Scorsese seems to be saying that only films closer to reality, with complex plots, subtle dialogue and little in the way of obvious special effects can be called cinema.
The DC and Marvel comics are a product of their time, written for kids and young adults. Comics are heavily graphics biased with relatively simple dialogue. If you make a film based on that source material the result will generally be heavily biased towards spectacular fantasy visuals and the writers have to do the best they can with the storyline and dialogue.
Scorsese's preference seems to be for films representing gritty 'reality', although he did make Hugo.

October 11, 2019 at 4:28AM

Terry Relph-Knight
Freelance video maker

This is a business, pure and simple and yes, for better or worse, clearly. I'm no lover of DC tentpoles, but some have defo been palatable, and I'm looking forward to seeing Joker if only for Joaquin Phoenix's performance.

Mr. Scorsese is a genius, as we all know and Todd Phillips is no slouch either, but the fact remains that it's bums on seats; let the people decide.

Actually, I find it a tad sad when filmmakers criticize our beloved art from from lofty heights that we in the trenches might never reach. We can, and should, all have a voice but for most of us, it's obtaining the ever elusive funding that is the bane of our existence; streaming is the new indiefilm. Instead, I prefer to admire both filmmakers, learn from them, and press on with my own films that someday might be seen by others, and, perhaps, even admired.

October 11, 2019 at 1:19PM


Joker was really a cinematic masterpiece.

April 29, 2020 at 12:38PM, Edited April 29, 12:38PM