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Jeff Simon

Don't invite Martin Scorsese to the next Marvel comic book movie

Jeff Simon

I like Marvel Super Hero movies.

Not all of them, certainly, or even most. Let's just say quantifying my affections over the years would result in "quite a few." Though those I "love" would be few and far between.

At the least, I tend to like it when smart writers smuggle some wit in through the back door. Wit smuggling is one of Hollywood's oldest skills. It's an occupational activity that, by now, probably ought to have its own trade union.

I thought "Black Panther" was a ringing triumph of both theme and visual design. And the first time I saw Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow smirk through their lines in an "Iron Man" movie, I was happy to be in a theater seat watching.

Not Martin Scorsese. He's not a fan, as the fanboys and fangirls of the internet discovered more than a week ago when the world at large started getting an advance peek at Scorsese's upcoming film "The Irishman." Scorsese was interviewed by Empire Magazine and quite pointedly had this to say about Marvel's hugely successful Super Hero franchise:

"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." (Neither really are the films of Terrence Malick, but let that pass.)

We are here talking about an old smackdown for a certain kind of movie -- that they are like theme parks and their rides rather than they're like Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and Kazan's "On the Waterfront." For decades now, critics of the gosh, golly gee, wow school have been favorably calling a lot of movies a "ride," like the Roller Coaster and the Wild Mouse.

As a huge fan of Crystal Beach's Comet and Wild Mouse when I was a kid, I certainly understand the comparison.

But Scorsese and I are of an age (he's two and a half years older). When I was covering the Woodstock Festival for this newspaper, Scorsese was right in front of the stage as one of filmmaker Michael Wadleigh's editors. Great Kazan and Hitchcock movies were primal for me, too. When a man talks about "the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experiences to another human being" he might be launching into telling you about seeing Kazan's "On the Waterfront" and "East of Eden" in the '50's.

Boy do I ever know where he's coming from. I could have been in the theater row right behind him.

This is the guy who first made a big noise with "Mean Streets" and whose magnificent career has, thus far, given us "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas," "Raging Bull," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "Casino," "The Color of Money," "The King of Comedy," "After Hours," "Hugo" and many others. A truly great cinematic humanist if ever there was one.

His upcoming film -- seen and praised by many already at film festivals and screenings -- is "The Irishman," a movie about a mob hitman and his connection to the enigma of Jimmy Hoffa's fate.

It will open in Buffalo's North Park Theatre and other theaters around the country Nov. 22. On Nov. 27, the three and a half hour film will be available on Netflix, the bastion of creativity that originally ponied up the dough.

Scorsese's professional nuptials with Netflix, you understand, put him in direct stout opposition to Steven Spielberg who, along with some other filmmakers, has publicly argued that Netflix movies aren't movies that, for instance, should ever be in contention for Oscars.

That hasn't stopped any movie-savvy audience member in America from being hugely interested in seeing "The Irishman." Not only did Scorsese coax Joe Pesci out of life comfort that distinctly resembled retirement, but Scorsese's star in "The Irishman" is, once again, his primal partner Robert DeNiro. For the first time since the consummately forgettable "Righteous Kill," a Scorsese film will also star Al Pacino, who is making his first appearance with DeNiro since Michael Mann's "Heat." (To see what can happen when Scorsese has an actor he should have worked with decades ago, take a look at Jack Nicholson in Scorsese's "The Departed.")

There's no telling when -- or if -- these guys are going to be passing this way again. "The Irishman" -- Netflix or no Netflix -- is a big budget Scorsese endeavor that couldn't possibly sound more as if it fit right into the man's life work. We're not talking about a corporate movie theme park here, we're talking about a film that's purely human and personal.

Here's something interesting about Scorsese and his hostility to comic book movie hoo-ha. Don't look now, but Scorsese was among those who originally got Todd Phillips' current smash hit "Joker" off the ground. He was once one of the film's producers. Scorsese is widely thought to be the guy who crucially interceded on Phillips' behalf to get Warner Brothers to sign on the dotted line. He threw around whatever weight he had for "Joker's" benefit.

Meanwhile, the film's star, Joaquin Phoenix, has openly said the way writer/director Phillips got him to sign on the dotted line was to promise it wouldn't be just another big, empty, overly busy super hero noise machine of the kind that causes international revenue to roar in like Niagara Falls. They'd be able to smuggle a real movie into the mythology.

"Joker" may be a comic book movie about a constant, much-performed figure in DC comics' Batman mythology, but it is, when you see it, close to an art movie. At the least, it's almost as anti-comic as a comic book movie could be. It's nevertheless reasonable to assume a lot of those anti-comic people helped "Joker" become the biggest October movie opening of all time. (Only $93.5 million, that's all. Big money by any standards.)

While I'm certainly fond of quite a few Marvel comic entertainment machines, I also know exactly what Scorsese is sneering at. So often in the Marvel Movie Universe, there will come a point when the CGI takes over and grandiose apocalyptic mayhem goes on and on and on and wipes out whole cities like matchsticks. There's destruction everywhere and God help you if you're really interested at every second in just who is killing whom (sometimes, you just have to guess).

It is, all too often, just empty movie noise with a colored light show attached along with a mythology no one gives a hoot about. At its worst, you just hang on and hope all the hoo-ha will be over quickly so that a complex human being or two might amble onscreen while the dumb-down ranks aren't looking.

Crucial to know is this: Martin Scorsese started out in the late '60's as an instructor in NYU's film school. Among his students was Oliver Stone, a fellow back then who would soon become known for going his own way when he jolly well wanted to.

It would be presumptuous, to put it mildly, for Scorsese to be teaching the Marvel Comic Books factory how to put a few more complexities into their movies and a few less computer graphics for money's sake. Never mind how all that CGI begins to look alike after a while.

You never know. Last weekend's box office for Warner's "Joker" may teach comic book mythologizers to start doing things a big differently -- Scorsese's way.

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