Still killing it: even after his Marvel comments, Martin Scorsese is more relevant than ever

After 60 years of success, Martin Scorsese just had one of his most talked about months ever in Hollywood

ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 22:  Martin Scorsese walks the red carpet during the 13th Rome Film Fest at Auditorium Parco Della Musica on October 22, 2018 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

What a month for Marty. First it was the triumphant premiere of his new movie, The Irishman, at the New York Film Festival. Then along came a Joker, a movie Scorsese didn't actually work on, but that had been inspired whole-black-heartedly by his filmmaking legacy – and had then gone on to smash box office records.

Which only made what happened in between all the more awkward. In an interview with Empire magazine for The Irishman, the conversation happened onto the current state of cinema, and Marvel movies in particular.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” the legendary filmmaker 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.”

Headshot of American film director Martin Scorsese speaking, 1973.  (Photo by Gene Maggio/Getty Images)

The internet, as you'd imagine, very nearly imploded. James Gunn, the director of Guardians Of The Galaxy, said he was "saddened". Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., was majestically passive-aggressive. "I appreciate [Scorsese's] opinion," he told Howard Stern. Even if, "it makes no sense to say it."

In shock news, Samuel L Jackson was having none of it. "Everybody doesn't love his stuff either," he said when prompted on a red carpet.

How Martin Scorsese inspired 'Joker'

The thing about Joker, of course, is that it may itself be based on a comic-book character, but it is also pretty much the polar opposite of the vibrant confections of Marvel, inspired as it is by some of Scorsese's most nihilistic work.

Specifically, by 1976's Taxi Driver, in which a troubled loner turns murderous on the mean streets of a city that shuns him, and 1982's The King Of Comedy, in which a wannabe comedian and dangerous fantasist kidnaps his idol in the desperate pursuit of recognition. The latter, was described by the late, great critic Roger Ebert as, "One of the most arid, painful, wounded movies I've ever seen… an agonising portrait of lonely, angry people with their emotions all tightly bottled up. This is a movie that seems ready to explode."

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Joker'. Nico Tavernise / Warner Bros

And explode is precisely what Joker did, across both the newspaper front pages and the box office. Does its grim worldview somehow encourage terrorism? Is Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck, the isolated, increasingly disassociated man who becomes Joker, some sort of twisted poster-boy for lone-shooter fanatics? Could the film, in fact, spark copycat violence?

In the run-up to release, family members of the 2012 mass shooting at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises sent an open letter to the movie's studio, Warner Brothers, outlining their concerns. The FBI even identified threats from incel extremists, leading the US military to warn of possible attacks at screenings.

"It's a difficult film. In some ways, it's good that people are having a strong reaction to it," Phoenix told Vanity Fair when asked about the situation. Then added about the character: "You can either say, 'Here's somebody who, like everybody, needed to be heard and understood and to have a voice.' Or you can say, 'This is somebody that disproportionately needs a large quantity of people to be fixated on him. His satisfaction comes as he stands in amongst the madness.'"

Ray Liotta, Martin Scorsese and Paul Sorvino during "Goodfellas" New York City Premiere at Museum of Modern Art in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

In the same interview, the film’s director, Todd Phillips, stated: “We’re making a movie about a fictional character in a fictional world… and your hope is that people take it for what it is. You can’t blame movies for a world that is so [messed] up that anything can trigger it. That’s kind of what the movie is about. It’s not a call to action. If anything, it’s a call to self-reflection [for] society.”

Why the success of 'Joker' shows Scorsese is more relevant than ever 

One thing is undebatable: Joker has been a bona fide hit, its record-breaking $247 million global launch, off the back of winning the audience award at the Venice Film Festival and in spite of its R-rating, landing it the biggest October opening of all time.

"If this proves anything, it's that audiences today should be given credit for wanting their art to be challenging, and not just watered-down or easy to digest," box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told The Hollywood Reporter. "It feels like the late '60s and '70s all over again, with the type of Raging Bull and Easy Rider filmmaking fearlessness that made those decades so essential and ground-breaking in the annals of film."

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Or, put another way, the likes of Martin Scorsese are more relevant than ever. Asked by Phillips if he'd executive produce the Joker movie his work had so directly inspired, Scorsese reluctantly passed, but did love the script so much that he allowed Phillips to approach Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Scorsese's producer on every movie he's made since The Departed.

"She's the Queen of New York," marvels Phillips, still fanboy-delighted she said yes to producing Joker too. "She runs New York movies, because she works for Marty." In fact, the main reason Scorsese didn't come on board as a producer of Joker was that he was too busy editing The Irishman, the picture he had just finished shooting with Koskoff himself.

'The Irishman' could be Scorsese's most important work yet

The Irishman is as big as it gets when it comes to genuine movie events. A gangster epic set over multiple timelines – landing it the, not incorrect, label of "Scorsese's Godfather Part II" – it stars a borderline ridiculous pantheon of A-list mob movie maestros, such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.

Robert de Niro in Scorsese's latest film 'The Irishman'. Netflix

"We wanted to go through a journey again," Scorsese told Empire about trying to reunite for a ninth time with his ultimate leading man. "[De Niro] told me in the early 2000s, 'I only really feel comfortable doing something like we used to do.' Like GoodFellas or Casino. But I just didn't know what story would make me want to live in that milieu again. I knew it would have to be from an older person's point of view…"

So, when De Niro read I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt's astonishing account of the life of Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran, a WWII vet who handled more than 25 hits for the Mob and for his friend, the powerful labour leader Jimmy Hoffa, the touchpaper was lit.

"When he [told] me this story, he reacted with a great deal of emotion," Scorsese continued. "Having taken a cue on Raging Bull that way, I knew that when Bob says, 'There's a movie in there,' you gotta make the movie."

It's fair to say that the movie he has made is pure Scorsese, a brilliant, brutal, sprawling and symbolic saga of power and death, loyalty and friendship and the decisions we make that will haunt us forever. With its state-of-the-art de-aging technology showcasing that stellar cast across the many years played out in the story, The Irishman may be a technological leap into the future, but it's also – like Joker – a celebration of Scorsese's unrivalled past, and a prime example of his potency today.

"That's the thing with movies," Scorsese laughed at the press conference for The Irishman at the New York Film Festival. "You think you're out, but then they pull you back in." And boy is he still in business.