‘Joker’ Director Todd Phillips Breaks His Silence on Martin Scorsese’s Marvel Criticism

For years, the movie business has pondered the possibility of “superhero fatigue.” Yet, the billion-dollar successes of 2019 releases Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Captain Marvel, and Joker don’t indicate any fallout on the horizon. But the backlash has begun to gain some steam.

Martin Scorsese’s decrying of Marvel movies as “not cinema” has been considered by some to be a rallying cry. Other filmmakers have put their two cents into the debate, and those involved in comic book movies — such as Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige — have stepped up to defend their work. Now Joker director Todd Phillips has added his voice to the mix.

Todd Phillips at the premiere of 'Joker'
Todd Phillips at the premiere of ‘Joker’ | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Martin Scorsese and comic book movies

Scorsese’s status as one of the greatest living filmmakers has only further complicated the conversation over superhero storytelling. Those who admire and respect Scorsese’s work have heeded his words as a warning toward the growing monopoly of blockbusters. Meanwhile, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have accused the director of being out of touch.

Ironically, Scorsese’s comments were timed not only to the release of his new film, The Irishman, but also that of Joker. That film has a very loose basis in DC Comics. Instead, director Todd Phillips famously drew inspiration from Scorsese himself.

Even more incredibly, Scorsese once considered working on Joker directly. On the one hand, he criticizes films based on comic books but makes the distinction that Joker isn’t among those he’s referring to. The resulting discourse only creates more confusion around what filmmakers like Scorsese and Phillips consider “comic book movies.”

‘Joker’ director Todd Phillips responds

Scorsese is such an obvious inspiration for Phillips that one might assume the two directors share similar views on cinema. However, it turns out Phillips doesn’t entirely agree with Scorsese on comic book movies. At a Q&A following a Joker screening, moderator Michael Moore asked Phillips for his take on Scorsese’s comments.

My only issue with what he said — and I have no issue with anything he ever says, I literally worship the man — is that he’s lumping a lot of movies into one thing, and I think that’s a tough thing to do. I think if we lumped in gangster movies and put in Goodfellas and Casino with some shit that’s not quite the same…

Indeed, as Phillips points out, not all superhero or comic book movies are created equal. Joker certainly has little in common with Avengers: Endgame et al. In fact, the genre has made great strides in recent years — on both Marvel’s and DC’s sides — to diversify the types of stories it encompasses.

The meaning behind Scorsese’s critique

While not all the projects are on the same level, Phillips goes on to say he respects the amount of effort that goes into making comic book films.

What I know is a lot of great artists work on those movies, not just directors but actors and craftspeople. So I didn’t love that [Scorsese] lumped a whole group. It seemed rather reductive. But I do know what he was meaning. Really, what he’s talking about is exhibition. He’s talking about how they take over the theaters, the multiplexes, the screening spaces, and it does [not] really leave room for some of the other stuff. The only issue is movie studios are going to make whatever movies people show up to. In a weird way, the audience holds the power.

And therein lies the point about comic book movies that most cinephiles can agree on. Whether someone personally considers the MCU to be “cinema” is immaterial. Any creative project is, essentially, art and, as such, is subjective to each individual’s experience.

Yet, the fact casual moviegoers only now head to the theater to see blockbuster releases — yes, including those released by Marvel — makes it harder for other types of films to excel. The blame isn’t solely on Marvel, but as the highest-grossing franchise in cinema history, the company is an easy scapegoat for a much larger, more complicated issue.