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I WENT ON A junket for The Irishman in late 2019, where 10 journalists had a sort of mini-press conference with Martin Scorsese. We only had 30 minutes, so a colleague from Spain suggested, very reasonably, that there was no point asking Scorsese about Marvel again. Everyone agreed.

First question: something about Robert De Niro. Second question: “So, you’re not a fan of Marvel?”

The Spanish journalist gripped his seat very hard. But that was perhaps a pointer to the way that the Martin Scorsese-Marvel scrap would become something nobody could leave alone.

Martin Scorsese at the premiere of The Irishman in 2019
Mike Marsland

Tom Holland was still getting asked about it last December, a full two years later. Even Kevin Smith, the Clerks writer and director who’s a huge superhero fan but isn’t getting behind the camera for an MCU film any time soon, chipped in recently.

For those that don’t remember the origin story, this particular barney all broke out in October 2019 when Scorsese told Empire magazine that he’d tried to watch some superhero films, not much enjoyed them and decided that they were “not cinema”. That would have stuck in the craw as it was, but he went on. For Scorsese these films were built on a crass impersonality.

“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,” he told Empire. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

It was a big deal. There used to be a kind of omertà around the comic book juggernauts from serious cineastes, and certainly from the old guard. Suddenly, the gloves were off.

Ken Loach called superhero films “boring”. Francis Ford Coppola, one of Scorsese’s generation, went harder, calling them “despicable”. “I hate them,” said Jane Campion last year, “I actually hate them.” If you’ve got a ouija board to hand, you can bet Cecil B Demille will drag the glass around to spell “ANT MAN IS WANK”.

The Marvel machine defended itself. The late Chadwick Boseman gave the most erudite reaction. “If he saw it [Black Panther], he didn’t get that there was this feeling of not knowing what was going to happen that black people felt,” he told Simon Mayo in an interview with Radio 5 Live. “We thought, you know, ‘White people will kill us off, so it’s a possibility that we could be gone.’ We felt that angst. We felt that thing you would feel from cinema when we watched it. That’s cultural. Maybe it’s generational.”

But Scorsese’s criticisms – along with the ones he expressed in the New York Times essay that followed the backlash – are particularly relevant again now. It feels slightly odd to say it, but Marvel is in its flop era. Or, at least, as close as Marvel is ever likely to get to a flop era.

The Thor: Love and Thunder London premiereAlberto E. Rodriguez//Getty Images

Most studios would bite your hand off for a flop era which yields six films in 12 months grossing well over $4.5 billion. Yet while Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder was one of the highest grossing films of 2022, it also just drifted by. Critics were lukewarm, and mass audiences noticeably less excited than for Thor: Ragnorok.

A tweet from @Avenjedi81217 which went viral summed up how some Marvel fans are trying to rationalise the sense of anticlimax. Jim Halpert from The Office points to a whiteboard reading: “Thor love and thunder is a comedy. Don’t go in expecting a groundbreaking work of cinema. Just shut off your brain and enjoy the movie for what it is.

It was only a couple of years ago Marvel fans were getting hyped about the idea of a Marvel film winning an Oscar. It’s quite the switcheroo and, naturally, there’s been a lot of crowing from the sidelines. But this has been coming. The arc of history is long, and it turns out it bends towards Scorsese.

Four years on, the discourse continues. Not from Scorsese, of course. He’s long since exited this group chat. But he’s still there. Now when someone invokes ‘Scorsese’ in this polarised debate he stands either for snotty old boomers who don’t like new things – he’s the guy who made Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, and he made them again and again, runs the argument – or the moral and aesthetic purists misty-eyed about paying a shiny tuppence to watch the new Jodorowsky six times in a row.

That Scorsese’s original comments landed so hard was perhaps because they came at the end of Marvel’s strongest run. Black Panther gave it genuine game-changing credibility and six Oscar nods. Avengers: Endgame gave it $2.8 billion. Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel might not have seeped into the cultural fabric, but together they took $1.7 billion. More than that, there was a galloping sense of going somewhere.

Now, though, the ride is over. The perfect confluence of things that made that sprint towards Endgame feel exciting – that by going to the cinema, you were actually part of a massive cultural thing that loads of people cared about – dissipated.

Martin Scorsese on set, circa 1975
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Perhaps conscious of not being taken seriously, Marvel bolted indie darlings like Chloe Zhao and Waititi onto projects. But when Scorsese critiqued Marvel he was talking as much about the system which produced the films as the films themselves, and it’s that quest for total cultural dominance which has put the studio in this odd position, rather than individual directors or films.

In 18 month, to mid 2022, we had six films and seven TV series; in the following 18 months, another four films, four series and two specials were slated. With such a jammed pipeline, every new announcement feels weightless. On top of that, the gradual loss of the characters even people who went to the cinema twice a year knew – Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow – makes the lack of direction even more obvious.

So while Scorsese has come to symbolise a pretentious dismissiveness towards anything involving jumpsuits and superpowers, what he was actually saying – that Marvel’s approach made for beautiful but emotionally empty films – is roughly what audiences have suddenly been hit by.

How Marvel gets out of this funk isn’t obvious. But perhaps after Killers of the Flower Moon is wrapped, they might see what Marty’s up to.

This article originally appeared in Esquire UK.