or The Infantilisation of the Adult Cinema-goer
Recently I was sorting through some old comics to sell (part of a protracted campaign against my ‘pile of denial’, which I have been lugging from house to house for years now…) and smiled fondly as I leafed through the fragile, garish titles. It was like looking down a well – one that was forty years deep. Back when I was a child, growing up in the Rad-Lands of the East Midlands, part of the ‘boring dystopia’ (to nick Mark Fisher’s phrase) of Thatcherite Britain, comic books seemed to be the most exciting thing in the world (which tells you how exciting my world was…). I wanted to be a comic artist &/or writer (knowing local hero Alan Moore was an inspiration) and enthusiastically worked my way to art college. Foundation was fab, but Fine Art unfortunately acted as aversion therapy, disillusioning me about the art world (obsessed back then with wankily solipsistic concept art and the cult of the ‘Brit art’ personality). However, it did turn me into a writer (non, je ne regrette rien). Over the last few years I have observed with amused bafflement at the advent of the Superhero Movie (back when I was a feckless youth it was always a hit-and-miss affair – more often than not, a miss, though Donner’s Superman and Burton’s Batman were thrilling to see the first time around). From being strictly a Geek niche, the Superhero ‘genre’ (if you can dignify it as such) has come to dominant Hollywood. Nobody was expecting the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, aka ‘some films about spandex’) to become the billion dollar juggernaut that it has mutated into – like some oversized green angry infant… As an adolescent I would have been excited to see big screen movie versions of Stan Lee’s (and Jack Kirby’s; and Steve Ditko’s; and the rest) four colour pantheon. But … then I grew up. Got interested in other stuff – novels with decent writing, deep characterisation, complexity of plot; movies that explore the human condition in a nuanced, non-essentialist way – shit like that. I realised the world was infinitely more complex than the Manichean mummery of the comic books. Some of the better, more ambitious ‘graphic novels’ did start to tackle this (Maus; Watchmen; The Dark Knight Returns; Love and Rockets…), and nowadays there is a whole thriving industry in ‘graphic memoir’. Boundary-pushing books like Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland or Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (and many others) show what can be done with the medium. The comic strip is an infinitely adaptable form. It doesn’t have to be dumbed down, obsessed with body types, super-tight outfits, and salacious poses. Yet that ‘Charles Atlas’ aesthetic and ideology of comic book is dominating cinema (when so many other great works of sequential art could be adapted), and along with it the questionable power discourses and politics (it is interesting to note America obsesses about superheroes just at a time when its status as a ‘Superpower’ faces an existential threat: it doesn’t like being the weedy kid getting sand kicked in its face by the musclehead Putins of this world). Superhero Movies often assimilate the cosmetics of rebellion, of celebrating ‘difference’, and the self-determining individual, while actually all they are doing is: selling popcorn and increasing share-holder profit. Like the ‘V for Vendetta’ mask now owned by Warner Brothers, the aesthetics of protest have been co-opted by the multinationals to accumulate wealth. The MCU – now owned by that ultimate iteration of the Neoliberalist ‘Borg’, Disney – is the ‘perfect’ example of that cynical commercial imperative: marketplace dominance through transmedia storytelling. The ‘Avengers’ superhero team merely originated as a way to sell more comics. Some of the individual titles weren’t performing so well, others were – so, team up the respective characters and benefit from respective fan bases buying other connected titles: Excelsior! Earth’s mightiest heroes real ‘origin myth’ was simply arithmetic. And this model has been expanded vastly by the MCU marketing ‘vision’ – with each ‘feeder’ movie adding ‘value’ to the subsequent iterations, like individual franchises within a mall. The Avengers movie series is the artistic equivalent of the ‘Mall of America’ – Late Capitalism’s end-game. It is borne out of the (American) fantasy that ‘bigger is better’ – which in itself is Crispy Creme version of the NeoLiberalist project of infinite progress: the rapacious development that is instrumental in Global Warming and ensuing Climate Crisis.
Woah, better dial back then before you think I’m some kind of conspiracy theory nut – not allowed to talk about anything too serious, are we? That’s a breach of etiquette. And that’s part of the problem…
Whatever we think about the hidden discourses and agendas behind such behemoths as the MCU, what does seem evident to me is how the cultural hegemony of the Superhero Movie infantilises us – arresting the development of conscious individuals into ‘Fan-boy adult-lescents’ (and we’ve seen the worse iterations of that horrible entitlement in recent years, e.g. reactions to diversity in Star Wars). It amazes me how many ‘adults’ seem caught up in the whole phenomenon of the MCU franchise – how many spend serious cash on the whole bullshit ‘universe’. Of course, with the collapsing of ‘high’ and ‘low’ brow in cultural studies, us academics are expected to treat any cultural artefact with the same seriousness – presenting sober-faced conference papers on cynically commercial juvenilia, writing peer-reviewed articles on our anoraks, and Ph.D. theses on our OCDs (or Obsessive Narrative Disorders, in my case…). And thus, with our scholarly attention, we legitimise the Machine which sucks up our dreams and makes us pay-to-view. The ‘academic streams’ take place in smaller meeting rooms while the main venues are taken over by the real business – the buying and selling, glutting upon, and ogling of, the commercialised dream-stuff which serves as a surrogate for the real nutrients of Fantasy that can derived freely from the source: the Imagination. There will always be traders in the temple place until we stop being happy shoppers – so many Pac-men and -women. The first challenge is to wean ourselves off the titmilk. As ‘consumers’ we, are told, have power. Let’s all stop watching infantilised fodder (I know it won’t happen) and maybe they’ll start making movies for adults again. But that won’t wash with the infant tyrant entitled teenagers who now run the show. They will demand a rewrite if they don’t get the ending they can jerk off too.
But we can choose to walk out, or, better still, go and see an original film at an independent cinema. Hell, even read a book.
Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2019