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Let us now see how all this emerges from show business. The box office seems to be growing exclusively on the strength of pricier tickets, as fewer people go to the movies. Fewer movies are made every year, counting movies with any kind of broad release — not 4,000 theaters, but say more than 500. The number of studios and the number of sources for stories are also decreasing. In the business, the idea is called intellectual property. In that sense, a minuscule oligarchy sells what a massive democracy wants to buy. The view of America you get at the movies is concentrating, ignoring more and more of the country. So, let us look at what we buy or, rather, buy into, while only really renting.
Today, cinema is dominated by three genres:
- Superhero movies.
- Animation, mostly about cute animals, often about redeeming villains.
- Teenage horrors-with-a-happy-ending, that is, political paranoia.
These are replacements for, respectively, action movies, family movies, and social criticism movies. There are many changes to speak about, so far as society is concerned. The audience for all these stories is getting younger; the knowledge of American society required to follow the movies is itself decreasing. Observations on life in America are constantly replaced by symbols.
Now, about the types of story I mentioned. The shift from action movies to superheroes has meant — although it needn’t have — throwing away moral virtues and blue-collar heroes — and replacing them by super-intellectual oligarchs.
The shift from family movies to animation has completed the tyranny of American children over their parents at the movies. The children are right, the parents wrong, the ones daring, the others guilty. The absence of the social boundaries implicit in a recognizably American milieu — abstracting from community to principle or caricature — has effected the evacuation of parental authority. There is no punishment among cartoons.
Finally, the shift from social criticism to political paranoia inflicted on adolescents has completed the disillusionment of artistic moralism. Post-war America has always had some kind of artistic pretension to shame the audience by showing American injustice. It’s a kind of speaking truth to power; mostly, these were movies made by holier than thou liberals, but they were not all deluded or lacking in worth. Now, however, outrage at injustice has turned into hysteria — disbelief of the reality of reality. If you want to know what Twitter would be if it were a real world — any of these stories where young Americans are torn apart because of monstrous adults — that’s what it would look like. That’s the world of political paranoia. In social terms, it completes the separation between adults and children once thematized in vaguely romantic movies about misfit youth — John Hughes made a bunch of them in the Eighties. Their earnestness and common sense recommend them for understanding the problems with how young people see America today.
The theme throughout is social decay. This is best seen in Disney-Marvel. The moralism of these stories — liberating the young from the old — is always secretly a hope that society will fall apart so that those who can manage can ignore the majority with impunity and without a bad conscience. Excitement about the heroism implicit in technology and its liberating power is not a common-good concern. The complaints involved in these stories, which come down to saying that America isn’t good enough, tend to resolve in the direction of individualism. They do not bind people, but sunder them. The secret wish of upward mobility is to abandon one’s community. Moralism then offers the added advantage of putting the blame on the community. It deserves abandonment. Heroism or achievement is somewhere else — we have to go away to find it — but there is no coming back. An incapacity for love and friendship typical of most of these superheroes is seen as the springboard to achievement. The stories of political paranoia also do their part to complete America’s age segregation — turning youth into victimhood and adulthood into cruelty and exploitation. Of course, I don’t mean that say, America’s Boomers are not giving the Millennials a rotten deal, worse maybe than anything since the Great Depression. That may be true. But political paranoia is not thereby more plausible or reasonable.
I will suggest to you that the abstraction implied in animation means the same thing: Youth is the same as saying there is no past. That’s where freedom starts. I note that these genres never require or offer detailed or deep knowledge of any part of American society. The inability to take what matters to actual lives seriously is very important. All that is replaced by a search for meaning elsewhere. In the case of the superhero movies, two phenomena require attention. One is the belief that the only problems worth considering are scientific. Even evil has to come in the guise of science, like a puzzle with a solution. Tricky, surely, but not mysterious or inscrutable. The doing of scientific heroes, admittedly, but not part of the human heart. An accident, really. You can fix it.
The other is the related fear that monsters are coming upon us. This is where the fascination with evil shows in superhero movies and I fear these stories have no way to deal with that. There are dark passions of the soul that are acted out in story, but not thought through or educated. The ugly truth is that what you see is what you get and we all know it. Nobody goes in all innocence to see yet another American metropolis — usually NYC — destroyed violently, lives treated like mere matter to be robbed of form. The only thing I can reasonably say in defense of these strange spectacles, so strangely acceptable to Americans, is that there is now no alternative. No one dares speak — no one feels responsible to speak to Millennials about what 9/11 meant to America and where they fit in that story.
Disney, therefore, seems to be the future of American entertainment, especially its Marvel division. It is also the best example I can summon of a corporation moving in many different ways toward what the media are actually supposed to achieve: To create a new identity for Americans. People do not merely watch Marvel movies — the stories may not matter much, but what you could call the poetic effect, properly considered, is very important. I happen to have a very low opinion of most Marvel movies, but I have a high opinion of their effectiveness and coherence.
- To understand Marvel’s effect on America, we have to put together the money involved in this venture;
- The willingness of consumers to sign up, in their hearts, years in advance;
- The introduction of advertising into the endings of movies, which massively undercuts the dramatic effect of a conclusion;
- The further marketing of the stories as always leading to some big revelation;
- The social phenomenon of celebration, admiration, incessant gossiping and ugly remarks about the competition;
- The superlative epithets by which loyalty is pledged in the guise of expressing pleasure;
- And the domination of Disney-Marvel by Iron Man, both economically, thematically, and as a mood. That done, you will see the model of sarcastic broken people turning from human concerns to vaguely paranoid or aspirational — cannot quite tell them apart — tech innovations or discoveries. Monstrous invasions perpetually get in the way of humanity or introspection. One begins to suspect that these nightmares are self-inflicted — that they are the self trying to dramatize and moralize the failure of acting like a human being should. This is the idealization of individualism.
I have recently had occasion to write on the new Spider-man movie, which shows that young Americans finally have found the surrogate father they looked for in Barack Obama. It turns out, it’s a sexier, wittier version of Steve Jobs, ultimately. That’s who gives you your gadgets — your superpowers. That’s who gives you your costume — your identity. That’s who gives you access to the few people who matter. Being a fanboy is now morally approved by the superheroes themselves! That movie, of course, fails to give Spider-man his old origin story — instead, you get the origin story that fits with loyalty to this particular corporation.
This may surprise you, but it shouldn’t. As the various institutions of America lose their reality, their legitimacy, their efficacy, or the respect of the public — Americans are turning more toward corporations to learn who they are by what powers they can wield. Americans are increasingly tied together by networks rather than other things. There is a relationship between evacuating reality from the lives of Americans and their moving toward fantasies to search for solutions, descriptions of the problem or ways to make it worse.
Corporations are reassuringly real, thriving, and ordered. They can require loyalty and reward patience or moral investment. What else has a future in America? What long-term projects are there? As people get lonelier and feel more pushed around, what common experiences do Americans have to compete with the opening weekend of a blockbuster? Or putting a new gadget on sale! That’s the future and it’s real!
That’s power, and it’s at your command. Secretly, it ties you up to everybody else and feeds your desire to be known as who you are — and loved for it. This desperate hope, constantly disappointed, is what drives social media. Everything turned when Americans were separated from anonymity, which is a requirement of adulthood — an internet form of privacy. They were offered ways to put themselves on display and it turned out, that’s what they had always been waiting for. You may not get right with God, but Facebook will offer you a chance to see others and be seen by them not as through a glass darkly. You can be justified by popularity or even celebrity.
I will not go on talking about corporations, because it would take me beyond my subject. But understanding that movies are part of a corporate system of business that depends socially on loyalty and love is essential to understanding the changes in American society. This is just the most obvious example of how corporations create identities people feel comfortable with and excited about — but of course, in the great economy that is America, there are other, stranger examples.
With Marvel, Americans get the breathtaking opportunity of getting in on the ground floor of a new business empire. Most of them will never see a dime for all the dollars they spend, but the intensity of the experience — stretching forward into the future — feels like greatness, and therefore feels great. Americans who like Marvel can be happy in their hatred of DC, too. That’s how real this feels to them — it might as well be a spectator competitive sport. Success in this case can be believed to be its own justification, because everyone believes themselves to be in control of participating in these popular phenomena, crazy as that seems from outside. People feel like they are both witnessing and making something great. They can be part of the majority opinion even as they try to form it. They can be together with everyone else while not feeling too derivative or imitative. I would not find it easy to give you examples of experience of citizenship that feel as real as this to the many millions involved.
A certain part of justice — merit — is involved in the Marvel enterprise at every level. It sells Americans the same illusion Silicon Valley does. To the many who are not plagued by disruptive ambitions, it gives them novelty and the vague reassurance that technological progress is happening. They feel they deserve better than they have, but do not want to bring the moment to its crisis. This reassurance suffices to make people feel good about America. To the few who are feverish with some kind of ambition, these enterprises give the illusion that they can earn their success and win their freedom from your fellow Americans — who just don’t value them as they should! Moving apart from everyone else feels like an adventure — it is attaining a certain superiority. New gods or at least demigod heroes are the idols here, forged and fashioned by science. I cannot stress enough that this view of America, in many ways tacitly accepted, is all about separating the productive, who will make their future, from most people, who don’t even deserve mention: cinematically, they’re treated like an admiring audience or collateral damage. This is the common understanding of progress by technology now and it is deeply shameful. There is no honest public discussion of it, although among people who talk politics, it is not infrequently discussed. Most of the country is behind the news, and behind the times. So far as I know, nobody has taken it upon himself to come up with any public discourse to persuade Americans to stand up for their dignity. That would be a reflection on American society for the benefit of the public; we know how badly it is needed primarily by how badly we lack it, which is to say that it’s difficult even to imagine it.
So far, I have talked about what everyone can see on screen. But a man of sense should also concern himself with what is missing from a picture. To speak briefly, superhero stories in this sense speak to the catastrophe of manliness and, with it, the dying away of friendship between men in America. Consider that at the same time that the dark fantasies of manliness of America’s nerds became the biggest box office draw and the only future for the industry — the typically manly business of agonizing over the end of the world began to be dominated by doe-eyed girls. Americans can hardly enjoy conspiracy thinking and political paranoia without involving underage girls. This fails to say anything worthwhile about being a woman in America while invading the last precinct of manliness.