The other week during a discussion of Pacific Rim (which I had not yet seen at the time), I said "I suspect that there's a core issue of dissonance when you try to make a movie for what you think are forty-year-old 12-year-olds."
I wasn't speaking about that film specifically, but rather about the whole phenomenon of trying to appeal to people who do not consider themselves children, but also don't seem to be appealed to by the same things we used to aim at adults. What we now call an "adult audience" has mutated drastically. The people who sell this stuff (as opposed to the people who actually make it) have a different idea of what the adult audience is than the consumers themselves do.
This isn't a matter of people from decades hence being far less lowbrow, or anything like that. I suspect it's more a matter of venues, of there being that many more ways to get things, and having the folks who consider themselves smarter than your average cathode ray test dummy gravitating towards the channels (pun intended) where thy can get such things, and by and large staying there. If such folks don't watch movies like Three Days of the Condor anymore, it might well be because they get their fill of such stuff through TV like The Wire. (Apologies for the arbitrary examples.) But it also means the chances of delivering stuff of that level of intelligence through other venues is drying up.
The good news is, the average adult audience of today has a bigger and more vocal percentage of people who do things that twenty years ago were considered kid stuff at best. I knew I had crossed some kind of generational Rubicon when a co-worker at a former journalism gig admitted in front of others at dinner that he, too, had grooved on Sailor Moon. No shame; why should there have been?
It was heartening, but at the same time it made me wonder if that had actually changed anything — whether we'd just swapped one set of touchstones for another, without having any broader understanding of why we have them in the first place or to what end. Then The Big Bang Theory came on TV, and ended that discussion with a thud.
Now I know such things are largely the province of students of popular culture rather than its audiences; not everyone will care that the Rolling Stones got their influences from blah blah blah. (One of the sure signs you're talking about a music geek is when they mention influences.) But there's no question even our casual appreciations of popular culture in general are getting more savvy, even amongst audiences that don't consider themselves geeks but have acquired some of the attributes. And as a result, my fellow geeks like to tell themselves that they've "won", that nerdism is the new cool or what have you.
But I'm not buying it, and here's why. For all of this improvement in how media is appreciated, there's been correspondingly little improvement in the way the appreciators themselves get treated. A grown man who collects anime figurines and gets into arguments about whether or not retconned canon should actually be considered AU material is not "immature" if he pays his bills, gets his ass into the voting booth, and cleans his room. But we can't see any of those things from where we stand, and so we judge accordingly.
Still, we're swayed too easily by the power of an image, any image, and so we look at such a man and see a Sheldon, whether we really want to or not. And so we assume that he's just a nerd after all, that we're not one bit like that, even if we snack from the same cultural buffet he does. Well, fine, but at least we don't dress up in costume or anything weird like that. Hey, where's the facepaint for the Rangers game?