The other day a friend of mine linked me to a piece about how bad the Marvel Cinematic Universe is. Sour-grapes pieces about popular culture are not my cup of chai, not least of all because they're a little like complaining about the bad food at gas stations: they tell us nothing we don't already know.
Most of the complaints I see about popular culture revolve around how they're not successful as entertainment. I don't think that's the problem. I think most of them work perfectly well as entertainment, but set a bad example for other creators. They work under the assumption that the storytelling mode to strive for is one optimized for ticket sales. They reach lots of people, but not very deeply; when they reach people deeply, that seems more a by-product of the goings-on than the result of any actual effort on the part of the people responsible.
I hate to sound like I'm putting down the hard work of a lot of people, many of whom ostensibly care a whole lot about what they're doing. But very rarely do I get the impression that anything created with this kind of collective effort has anything personal to say. it's a common slap at pop culture to say they're created by committee, and one of the consequences of that is it's nearly impossible for any one person's actual point of view to come through in the end.
A note. When people say a major blockbuster "speaks to them" on a personal level, I don't think they are deluded. Some of those people might well be gloriously literate, and the thing in question might just be a happy accident (Mad Max: Fury Road) or something that hits a random sweet-spot with that viewer. The problem is assuming that just because this can happen, it's the optimal way to reach people because you reach so many of them at once. Creating culture isn't a lottery.
Not long ago a friend linked me to a video essay titled something like "The Epidemic Of Passable Movies." The essay itself is not very good; it peters out about halfway through and doesn't really seem to make much of a point. What insight I managed to mine out of it goes something like this: consistent, predictable mediocrity in entertainment is always a good goal to aim for when $100 million is on the line. In other words, anything remotely risky isn't going to exist at that level; anything that doesn't have a chance of connecting with the broadest possible audience is deep-sixed.
This kind of attitude is not by itself toxic. It is toxic when it becomes the dominant, preferred, and ultimately singular way to do things, and when it's regarded as a suitable default mode to emulate as a creator.
There was a piece the other day about how many projects on Fox's slate have been canned in the wake of the Disney acquisition. These weren't even David Lynch-level experiments; these were, I guess you could call them, second-tier projects. Disney's game is all or nothing; they don't do "curation." It's tentpoles or bust all the way down. That was bad enough when it was Disney that did it; it's now incrementally worse, since there is that much less competition at the top to go around.
Most people shrugged. It's not as if there's only one studio in town, you know. And there's always Netflix, or what have you. Fine. But my unease about all this is not really about the consumer suddenly having that many less things to watch. There's more to watch, or play, or read, than ever before.
The problem is when an aspiring creator looks around for examples to learn from and sees only things built by and for the massmind. If something like Aquaman sold oodles of tickets and will continue to appear in just about every media format ever invented, while something like Roadside Picnic is barely known even to the hardcore SF buffs who keep word of it alive, which one of those two is going to seem like the appealing model to a creator?
A quote I stumbled across the other day seems illuminating here: Choice is not the same as agency. If your choices amount to variations on the same batch of bland formulas, they aren't choices. That's bad enough if you're drawing on that stuff as entertainment; it's an order of magnitude worse when you're drawing on it as inspiration, because you simply don't know what else is out there. Or why it exists.
I come down fairly hard on how this stuff makes aspiring creators' jobs difficult because it seems like a token assumption that they will know how to find the things that will feed their creativity well. Not all examples are worth following. They can be entertaining, they can be even inspiring in their individual details. (You could make a whole subgenre of movies out of nothing but the discarded dog-ends of the ideas brought up in the MCU and then left behind so the cast can go punch things.) But they are not necessarily good models, and we have for a long time now been living in a world where it can be very hard to realize that.
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