Why Robert Downey Jr. Wasn’t Insulted by Martin Scorsese’s Marvel Comment

Legendary director Martin Scorsese kicked up a firestorm of controversy when he threw shade at Marvel films. Scorsese said Marvel movies were “not cinema.”

Many fans have rashly interpreted this as “old fogey director disses movies he can’t or won’t understand.” The reality is more complex than that.

Robert Downey Jr. speaks onstage during the 2015 Jaguar Land Rover British Academy Britannia Awards.
Robert Downey Jr. | Mark Davis/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for Marvel vets Joss Whedon and James Gunn to chime in that they were disappointed in Scorsese, a director widely viewed as a genius and an authority on film history. While Scorsese’s sense of recent history may not be up to scratch, his statements were more sympathetic than the internet outage culture allows. Robert Downey Jr. seemed to understand this.

What exactly did Martin Scorsese say?

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The 76-year-old director, while promoting his new film The Irishman, responded this way when asked by Empire magazine what specifically he thought of Marvel films.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” he said. “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.”

Note that Scorsese said “tried” Marvel movies, but we wish that Empire had asked him to be more specific about what he meant. What exactly did he try? Which movie? Was there more than one? Did he make it all the way through a Marvel movie and not like it? Or did he give up on one?

We can only guess, but the context of Scorsese’s answer shows he was not trying to be mean about it. He called them “well made,” which hardly seems like an insult, although he did say they were not “cinema” in the way he defines it – cinema to convey human emotion above all else.

Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson react

Radio host Howard Stern asked Downey about Scorsese’s comments, and the actor struck a conciliatory tone. He mentioned that Scorsese helped preserve Downey’s father’s movies. 

“I appreciate his opinion because I think it’s like anything,” he told Stern. “We need all of the different perspectives so we can come to center and move on.”

Downey seemed to be inviting the director to kind of meet Marvel in the middle. Entertainment Weekly suggested that the Marvel movie Scorsese might like best was Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which many critics praised because it felt like the kind of paranoid political thriller that was made in the 1970s, like All the President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor. The latter starred Robert Redford, who was in Winter Soldier.

Even more intriguing were the comments by Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either,” Jackson said reportedly. 

But many fans missed the next part of the quote, which was: “I mean, we happen to, but everybody doesn’t … Everybody’s got an opinion, so it’s okay. It’s not going to stop anyone from making movies.””

Many reports also missed the fact that Jackson once worked for Scorsese, and in one of his best-known films to boot: Goodfellas, in which Jackson had a small role as a criminal who meets a very nasty end at the hands of the mob.

Is Marvel vs. Scorsese much ado about not much?

Scorsese has not responded to controversy or attempted to clarify his remarks, and he may not really need to. The director has withstood much more intense controversies, such as religious groups protesting his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which dared to depict Jesus imagining a sexual life, even as he was dying on the cross.

Scorsese can withstand angry Marvel fans, who will probably now move on to Jennifer Aniston’s comments about Marvel’s dominance squeezing out smaller movies. 

Film writer Scott Weinberg noted that rather than criticizing Marvel films in general, Scorsese was lamenting that as far as he saw, they’re more about sensation than anything else. A lot of superhero movies are “just” theme park rides, but some cut deeper and wring a few tears. 

Yes, Scorsese might do well to dig a little deeper, but some MCU fans would also do well to check out Scorsese films they might have missed, like the black comedy After Hours or the thriller Cape Fear. They just might find they like each other more than they thought.