The press leading up to the release of The Irishman has been all about Martin Scorsese. The Oscar-winning director has had a storied career, creating some of the most famous films in cinematic history. The Irishman is the culmination of a fifteen-year fight he’s been waging in Hollywood, along with fellow producer Robert De Niro. Now that the film is here, it is right to recognize the man who, more than anyone else, made it a reality.
But the focus around Martin Scorsese lately hasn’t been around everything he had to do over the last fifteen years, fighting for the film. Nor has it been about his reunion with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci either, who both appeared in Scorsese’s Raging Bull in 1980. It hasn’t even been highlighting the fact that The Irishman is Scorsese’s first-ever project with Al Pacino. No, instead, much of the coverage has been about Martin Scorsese’s opinion on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In early October, Martin Scorsese told Empire Magazine that the Marvel movies are “not cinema.” Instead, he went on to compare them to other forms of entertainment saying “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.”
And, honestly, that should have been the end of it. It’s hardly a shock that the director of Gangs of New York wasn’t a big Ant-Man guy. There are probably dozens of 77-year-olds who don’t know The Vision from Vormir. Plus, he seems like more of a DC fan anyway. But the story caught fire, leading Scorsese to pen an Op-Ed in the New York Times explaining himself.
I Heard You Make Movies
Meanwhile, it turns out that the well-known MCU critic had actually directed a movie that was soon to be released. And not just any movie, but the biggest movie of his career. Even adjusted for inflation, the $200 million price tag on The Irishman makes it his most expensive movie ever. On top of that, the film reunites him with long-time collaborators Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. It’s also the first time Scorsese has ever worked with Al Pacino. The three powerhouse actors had signed onto the film in 2007. So why the delay?
While Scorsese and company may have been on board for the film in 2007, it took considerably more time to convince a studio that the film was a sound financial bet. In the years immediately following the start of development in 2007, movies like Avatar, Avengers, and Deathly Hallows were changing the way Hollywood thought about movies. In executive offices across Los Angeles, the decision calculus suddenly became “Why should we settle for making a million dollars when we could make a billion dollars?”
On top of that, no one involved with The Irishman could afford to fight for the movie full-time. While he continued to stump for his passion project, Scorsese went on to cash in his reputation as one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood by directing some other movies he’d had his eye on for years: Shutter Island (2010), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and Silence (2016).
A Decision of Paramount Importance
Then, for a brief moment in 2017, it looked like The Irishman had found life. Paramount Pictures, a longtime Scorsese distributor and bank-roller, seemingly had no way forward with any of its major franchises. Star Trek, Jack Reacher, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had all under-performed in 2016. So Paramount Pictures and Fábrica de Cine came together in an agreement to co-finance The Irishman. But when the CGI cost of de-aging the three main actors ballooned the budget from $100 million to $200 million, the companies pulled out less than a year into production.
According to Fábrica de Cine producer, Gaston Pavlovich, the film wasn’t worth the investment. “We quickly realized that Marty and De Niro really thought that the aging process was going to be a very important aspect of this film. The traditional model was not going to work with this new vision of the project… [we could not] risk that amount [of money] when all our data was telling us that it was not going to come back.”
Their hesitation was justified. Paramount had taken a bath on Scorsese’s previous film, Silence. They financed the picture to the tune of $50 million. The film only made $7 million domestic, and a measly $24 million worldwide. When they hadn’t even made back half their money on their last Scorsese venture, it’s understandable that they would balk when the price tag doubled.
Netflix Presents… The Irishman, A Netflix Film
Fortunately, Netflix stepped in and the film went ahead as planned. As a company continually looking to make their mark as a prestigious home for cinema, Netflix added The Irishman to their already impressive 2019 slate of pictures. And Scorsese found financing from the only company willing to take the risk on his movie.
But the story of The Irishman‘s troubled production isn’t just an interesting tidbit about the changing landscape of Hollywood. It is crucial to understanding what the possible Best Picture nominee is all about. At its core, the story of The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s own story.
The Irishman is a story about a man at the end of his life. When the audience is first introduced to Frank Sheeran, he isn’t the aged down version of Robert De Niro the advertisements promised. He’s a man in his eighties. In poor health, at the end of his life, Sheeran starts the film by introducing the story of his life to the audience. Over the next 210 minutes, the film flashes back to various important moments in Frank’s life.
But while the film exists in the form of brief vignettes, the overall narrative is clear. When he’s in his twenties, he meets a team of guys who he goes on to work with throughout his entire adult life. He lives an exciting life speckled by casino interests, mob-affiliated wise guys, and gang wars. But when he gets to the end of his life, he can only look around and realize that the world has left him behind. As Frank bemoans, “Kids today don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa is.
“Aren’t Mob Movies A Little… Old Fashioned”
Which, perhaps, brings us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Scorsese’s apathy towards the MCU is born out of the same frustration that Frank feels about Hoffa’s fading reputation. Both men look around and see that their place in the world is fading if not entirely extinguished. The Martin Scorsese who made Casino shouldn’t have to wait fifteen years for a tech company to agree to finance his dream project. Similarly, the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa shouldn’t have to ask his priest to leave the door open, because he doesn’t like to sit alone in the dark. But here we are.
I don’t think that Scorsese has anything against Marvel. Honestly, The Irishman could be most accurately described as “Martin Scorsese Presents… The Avengers.” But I do think he has a problem with the way that Hollywood is changing. Studios don’t have time for movies that won’t break the billion-dollar mark. Avarice has ousted art. And the result is a sea of intellectual property, calibrated to maximize showings per screen while still drawing in the largest audiences possible.
Which is certainly not The Irishman. The film may very well be Scorsese’s masterpiece. It is certainly his opus. But the three-and-a-half-hour mob movie is a far cry from what modern cinema is looking for. Even its savior, Netflix, is only providing it with a limited theatrical run before bringing it home to roost on the streaming platform (something that both Scorsese and De Niro dislike). But what more can they ask for? The 2019 movie market is a lot different from the market that turned Raging Bull into one of the most well-known films of all time. And, besides, kids today don’t even know who Jimmy Hoffa is.