Who creates better characters: Marvel or Scorsese?

De Niro’s Frank Sheehan: less complex than a comic book hero?

I recently read a review by Dan Sanchez of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (Netflix), “Why the Marvel Movies Are Better than Scorsese’s The Irishman.” Sanchez was ticked off by Martin Scorsese’s recent dismissal of Marvel films as “not cinema”. Scorsese may be guilty of exaggeration, but Sanchez makes himself sound silly.

Sanchez states, without embarrassment, “I recently rewatched all 23 interconnected movies of the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe].” Compared to The Irishman, he asserts, “Marvel’s epic is vastly better than Scorsese’s,’ and it not only tastes better, but it is better for you.” “Better” as in moral benefit? After seeing Ant-Man or Captain Marvel, if some guy in the lobby were to earnestly claim, “This film has made me a better person”, I would look him up and down very closely before laughing out loud.

Sanchez makes it personal; he quotes a New York Times interview with Scorsese where the director explains his attraction to filmmaking: “Cinema was about revelation – aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation.” There’s no “revelation” in The Irishman, says Sanchez, whereas the figure of Tony Stark (Iron Man) possesses “far more complexity and undergoes far more revelation” than Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheehan. Anyone who could make such a claim has spent too much time trying to find profundity in pop culture. Stark is a predictably cardboard character whose inner good-guy, we all know, will inevitably prevail. Marvel films are no more than what they’re meant to be: frothy, highly profitable entertainments.

What intrigued me about The Irishman was the relationship between Jimmy Hoffa, fully realised by Al Pacino, and Frank (spoiler alert). We watch the development of what appears to be a friendship, and when Frank is ordered to kill Hoffa, we hope friendship will prevail. As Aristotle says, criminals have no friends only associates. Frank hesitates but pulls the trigger without emotion. He did not sign on to be loyal to any person or his own family, but to a heartless code.

We’ve been lulled into forgetting that Frank Sheehan lost his soul the day be began running “errands” for mob bosses.

In the final scene, a priest, played by Jonathan Morris, asks an aged Frank if he feels anything at all. He says “no”, and camera slowly leaves the room as Frank is left sitting waiting to die. His family could care less for the man who deserted them decades ago. If not quite revelation, the film reminds us of what CH Sisson describes in his poem “Good Day, Citizen”:

“The supervening graces of domestic virtue / Everything paid up, honest as the day.”

Deal Hudson is arts editor of the Catholic Herald. His latest book is How to Keep From Losing Your Mind (TAN Books)