crossposted from here
I’ve had a couple requests on here to talk about my feelings towards comic book movies. I’m gonna try to make this as direct and simple as I can.
There are a lot of wonderful things that art made for children can do. We all have beloved books and movies that moved us as children that still move us, and I certainly would never want anyone to feel shame over continuing to access them. But there are also many things that child-appropriate art cannot do. Yes, there’s the obvious in terms of sex, violence, and language, but that’s not exactly what I mean here. I mean that there are themes and subject matter that are not typically found in art for children, even though precocious children can sometimes enjoy them. I am thinking of topics like infidelity, the meaninglessness of existence, loneliness, perversion, the pain of the absence of god, the crushing boredom of adult life, and so on. These topics matter, but both the culture and economics of art for children prevent them from being encountered there, at least in most cases.
There are aspects of the human condition that can be explored through art, that must be explored through art, that are not conducive to stories about superheroes, wizards, cyborgs, monsters, or similar. And, in those cases where such themes are explored with genre tropes, they are generally unattractive to (some would say inappropriate for) children. And so adults should look beyond art intended for children, in order to deepen their understanding of life and the world and grapple with what it means to live a mortal life in a universe without meaning.
Here I think of a film like Michael Haneke’s Amour. Among other things, it’s about the horrors of aging and the inevitability of death. These are heady topics, to be sure, and perhaps not ones that we want to expose to younger children, if only because they should probably enjoy the fact that they are blissfully unaware of these sad conditions. But adults need to access them; we need to process them, and art can help. Unless you’re unlucky, you too will grow old. You will inevitably die. So you have to do the emotional and intellectual work of coming to terms with those things, and for that reason you turn to a movie like Amour. You cannot find those things in Narnia, nor are you meant to.
Beyond the goal of art that is morally edifying is the goal of art to induce various kinds of pleasure. Different kinds of art impart different kinds of pleasure; it’s no insult to either to say that Carly Rae Jepsen and Merzbow intend to produce different feelings in their listeners. In life we have both cookies and kimchi, both lemonade and whiskey. There are, in other words, acquired tastes as well as obvious ones, and the former are some of the best stuff in life.
Now the common rejoinder is to say “do both!” And indeed – watch both, read both. I can’t complain about that. But the entire point is that people aren’t watching both. Do you know how many people consume literally nothing but superheroes, sci-fi, zombies, video games, and so on? Very, very many. And how could there not be? Any sense that we should feel embarrassed to remain fixated on art for children in existence that once existed – and I have never been convinced that it ever did – has long since been utterly obliterated in our current moment, a time when art populism manages to both be utterly commercially and critically dominant and yet cast as a perpetual underdog. Precisely because they need to be acquired, acquired tastes have a higher barrier to entry than others, and so their embrace by the public will always be more tenuous. But there are treasures there. Think of how much is lost for so many when there is no social pressure at all to try new things, new types of things.
It is no coincidence that we are all living in the digital world alongside a cadre of angry, embittered, activist nerds who rage out endlessly about all of the perceived slights against them. After all, there culture has told them to never leave their fantasies behind, so how can we be surprised that they react violently to the difference between those fantasies and their reality? That’s what all of this does, after all – it gives us an excuse to remain in the numbing bubble of fantasy, forever. Sometimes you have to force yourself outside of the comforting worlds you can find in fiction. There are people who spend their whole lives waiting for that letter to come from Hogwarts. And sometimes, when that doesn’t happen, they snap, and that’s how you get the toxicity of online fandom.
In life you should want there to be an arc to your tastes. Just as you moved on from a mac’n’cheese and popsicle diet as a child, you move on to a more varied, more complex, more challenging diet as an adult. But in art, so many people like the same things at 40 as they did at 10. That can’t be healthy. But it is understandable, in a world where the likes of Stranger Things tells you to be 10 years old forever.
Also I just don’t think comic book movies are any good, when we aren’t grading them on a huge curve. Every Avengers movie is a bloated mess. Logan was good, up until the ending. But your tastes will be different than mine. So knock yourself out. Just understand all that you might be missing, if you’re not careful.