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Martin Scorsese Is a Genre Unto Himself

‘The Irishman’ director enraged certain fans when he stated that comic book movies lacked “emotional, psychological experiences.” Regardless of the validity of his comments, though, the master of cinema has more than earned the right to make them.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What would a Martin Scorsese superhero movie look like? This is undoubtedly a stupid question, but given the inane discourse around Scorsesegate—which began with the Oscar-winning filmmaker likening the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Six Flags en route to widespread social media outrage and James Gunn and Joss Whedon being Mad Online—it’s not exactly lowering the bar too far. Some might suggest that that’s exactly what we got in Joker, which grafted Gotham mythology onto the New York backdrop of The King of Comedy. There is, however, a difference between playing the notes and making the actual music, and while Todd Phillips may admire Scorsese, he’s got a tin ear; as Pulp sang, a bad cover version of love is not the real thing.

What’s really at stake in the furor over Scorsese’s reluctance to canonize the likes of Thor: The Dark World has less to do with a critique of Hollywood’s present—whose spoils, both in terms of pop cultural currency and actual box office receipts, have been well and truly ceded to Bob Iger and Kevin Feige—than with an attempt to maintain continuity with a film history whose glorious, hectic sprawl is receding as streaming services are either strategically withholding or phasing out older catalog titles in favor of original content. Scorsese’s collaboration with Netflix on The Irishman shows that he’s willing to operate inside this new environment and use it to his commercial and artistic advantage, but his comments about Marvel’s dominance marginalizing unique filmmakers weren’t about himself. He’s worried about what’s going to happen to younger directors trying to do fresh work in the shadow of the monolith, and the consequences of a market saturated with so much branded, intricately interlocking comic book product. A grimly prescient line from Brad Bird’s The Incredibles comes to mind: “When everyone’s super, nobody is.”

If The Incredibles holds up 15 years later, it’s mostly because its portrait of toxic fandom was so ahead of the curve. Bird anticipated the viral nature of online exchange when he named his fanboy-turned-sociopath bad guy “Syndrome.” It’s hard to say what was more fascinating in reading through the Twitter reactions to Scorsese’s comments: the number of people who believed that the issue was a 76-year-old man being out of touch with movies being made for an adolescent audience or the reactions of those who disparagingly reduced his filmography to “violent, formulaic genre fare”—a dismissal pivoting on the pernicious and easily disprovable idea that Scorsese’s true legacy lies in his gangster movies, as if titles as varied Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and Hugo didn’t exist.

These are all movies of very different kinds: a road movie about an emotionally wounded widow; a show business romance; a paranoid comedy about a straight arrow lost in bohemia; an Edith Wharton adaptation; two religious epics; a 3D childrens’ movie. The range of subjects and styles is remarkable, and yet the point is not so much that Scorsese is adaptable as that he bends categories to his will. Like other genuine masters who’ve managed to produce a wide, popular filmography, Scorsese functions as a genre unto himself. Anything he makes will, by its very nature, bring his temperament and obsessions into view. The idea that the ideal genre filmmaker is one who self-effacingly hides inside the conventions and expectations of their chosen genre is contradicted by all the ways Scorsese announces his presence, an assertiveness that transforms potentially run-of-the-mill material into an event.

In the 1995 documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese expresses his belief that the most important thing about the three foundational Hollywood genres—Westerns, musicals, and gangster movies—is their spaciousness, the room within them to experiment. “They remind me of jazz,” he explains, “[because] they allowed for endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse variations. When these variations were played by masters, they reflected the changing times [and] gave you fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche.”

Scorsese is himself responsible for some of those complex, perverse variations. Think of the way that Taxi Driver reworks the plot and themes of John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers, transposing the action from post–Civil War Texas to 1970s New York while studying the same brand of possessive, paranoid machismo: Travis Bickle’s desire to wash the scum off the streets updates Ethan Edwards’s frontier mentality. Raging Bull explodes the vintage genre of the boxing movie by steeping it in the long, impenetrable shadows of film noir; four years after Rocky’s more benign revisionism, the film’s study of a man so defined by his brutal profession that he comes to see his loved ones as opponents felt like a jab at Sylvester Stallone. And then there’s Goodfellas, a gangster movie that is also a musical, with every plot point and character beat synced to a significant song: Henry Hill’s arc can be eloquently summed up in the journey from Tony Bennett crooning “Rags to Riches” to Sid Vicious snarling through “My Way.” The film’s final shot, though, is a nod to one of the first Westerns, 1903’s groundbreaking The Great Train Robbery, aping Edwin S. Porter’s immortal image of a gun being fired at the audience—a direct reminder that crime doesn’t pay.

It’s hard to remember this nearly 30 years later, but in truth, Goodfellas was Scorsese’s first “gangster” movie in a long time: arguably since the one-two punch of Boxcar Bertha in 1972 (superbly analyzed in The Ringer by Keith Phipps) and Mean Streets in 1973. It was also the most commercially successful movie Scorsese had released since The Color of Money in 1986, a movie that was widely understood as a “one for them” deal, a studio venture to shore up Scorsese’s box office track record before dropping the incendiary passion project The Last Temptation of Christ. The story goes that Scorsese’s big plan for the 1990s was to make Schindler’s List, but that he “traded” the project to Steven Spielberg in exchange for the latter’s proposed remake of the classic 1962 thriller Cape Fear, a switch that would go on to have crucial implications for Spielberg’s career. Not only did Schindler’s List win Best Picture and Director at the Academy Awards, but it forever reversed the idea of Spielberg as a genre specialist—more than any of his previous attempts at prestige pictures, Schindler’s List showed that American cinema’s great escapist could deal compellingly with reality.

Cape Fear did not have a similarly seismic effect on Scorsese’s career, and it’s now seen largely as a throwaway—an exercise in style best known for a note-perfect, extended parody by The Simpsons. It’d be a stretch to claim it as one of Scorsese’s greatest works, and yet in its abundance of style—the pure, pulpy exuberance of everything from its camera movement to its color palette to Robert De Niro’s performance as the paroled backwoods rapist Max Cady—it’s a test case for the question of what happens when an artist hotwires a potentially rote piece of formula. Starting with its psychedelic Saul Bass title sequence and Bernard Herrmann musical score (adapted from the first Cape Fear’s soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein), the film proceeds as a thriller made under the sign of Alfred Hitchcock, but with a more contemporary appetite for gore, as if the shower scene in Psycho had been reshot in florid technicolor.

“You’re going to learn about loss,” Max mutters to Nick Nolte’s Sam Bowden, a prosperous Midwestern attorney with plenty to lose, although in Scorsese’s vision, his grip on the American dream is already slipping: His marriage to Leigh (Jessica Lange) is shaky and his teenage daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is prematurely eluding his protective grasp. One can imagine Spielberg’s version of the film, in which Sam and his clan would’ve been painted as pure victims to Max’s emotional and physical terrorism, but Scorsese’s intervention is to implode the nuclear family from the inside-out. As played by Nolte, Sam is less a straight shooter than a guy who loves bragging about his aim, and we’re aligned at times with Max’s sick satisfaction in humbling him, never more so than in the brilliant sequence when a group of thugs hired by the harried lawyer attack the ex-con in a parking lot only for him to kick the shit out of them single-handedly—a superheroic feat that terrifies Sam from his hidden position while placing his comparative weakness (and cowardice) in sharp relief.

De Niro’s acting in Cape Fear comes from a slightly different place than his turns in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull—because Scorsese doesn’t put us in his head, he’s ultimately more a cipher than Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, and by the end of the film, he might as well be an unkillable monster like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, stalking the Bowdens on a houseboat in the middle of a lightning storm. The thrill of seeing a filmmaker with Scorsese’s gifts throw decorum to the wind and orchestrate such an over-the-top action set piece can’t be overstated, and however difficult it may be to take Cape Fear fully seriously, it’s a mistake to dismiss it.

Scorsese’s only other foray into horror is 2010’s Shutter Island, a Dennis Lehane adaptation that, like Cape Fear, is to some extent bound by its potboiler narrative, though it makes up for it with a giddy abundance of technique. The opening shots, describing the arrival of a boat at an island dock in Boston Harbor circa 1954, are almost comically ominous, as well as weirdly artificial: The sky and sea don’t seem real, which is perfectly in keeping for a movie punctuated by its protagonist’s hallucinations.

In his fourth collaboration with Scorsese after Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal charged with investigating the disappearance of a patient from a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane, a premise right out of the exploitation films of Sam Fuller. Even more than Cape Fear, Shutter Island plays like an inventory of Scorsese’s favorite genre movies and directors: Besides Fuller and Hitchcock, there are nods to Val Lewton, David Lynch, and even his own Taxi Driver in the form of a cameo by Elias Koteas as an inmate who looks, sounds, and acts suspiciously like Travis Bickle—as if Scorsese’s cinema was haunted by its own history. The patchwork aspect of the movie is heightened by its phenomenally interwoven soundscape, which takes a page from Stanley Kubrick by using modern classical composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti but also finds room for a crucial interpolation of Dinah Washington’s 1960 R&B standard “This Bitter Earth.”

Shutter Island is at its best when Scorsese uses his allusions as boldly as possible: A conversation between Teddy and a menacing prison security guard with a predatory view of human nature is made hilarious by our knowledge that the latter is played by Ted Levine, the actor behind The Silence of the Lambs’ malevolent Buffalo Bill. Like Cape Fear, Shutter Island plunges deeply into the murky, impure waters of genre, wearing its immersion as a sacrament rather than a stain. As the film goes along, it somehow grows even more unhinged than Cape Fear, which at least has its basic, elemental good-versus-evil setup to keep things grounded; Shutter Island has the floating, ephemeral texture of a nightmare, and its final passages represent Scorsese’s most sustained attempts at surrealism. If, in the end, the film isn’t much more than an aesthetic flex, its muscularity is impressive, like Travis Bickle posing in the mirror to show he’s still got it 35 years later.

If there is a common denominator between Cape Fear and Shutter Island beyond their pulpy excess, it may be the idea of secret identities—of characters harboring thoughts and fantasies unobservable to the naked eye. Sam Bowden’s refusal to reckon with his own ethical lapse conjures up the monster that is Max Cady—a righteous, resentful reminder of the dangers of repression. Teddy Daniels’s inability to come to terms with his own transgressions, meanwhile, transforms him into an entirely different person, an upstanding hero only in his own mind. Scorsese’s comments that superhero movies aren’t cinema because they don’t convey “emotional, psychological experiences” is debatable, but his ability to do precisely those things while working within the boundaries of genre suggests that he knows what he’s talking about—and that maybe he could take a crack at it himself, if he were ever so inclined. Which, of course, he isn’t.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.