For the last few mornings, I have been gritting my teeth while my bus passes a billboard which advertises a film by the charming title Kick-Ass 2. As I am an avid cinema-goer, I saw the trailer for the first masterpiece in this series. That made me grit my teeth too. There won't be much left of my teeth at this stage.
Can there be any greater indictment of our culture than superhero movies? (Yes, there can-- superhero comics. But forget that for the moment.) It isn't just the sheer volume of these infantile productions that offends. It isn't the fact that they are increasingly taken oh-so-seriously, often treated as profound dramas in their own right.
It isn't even just that every superhero movie is exactly the same. It's exactly the same themes, over and over again-- the conflict between the private individual and the public persona, between personal hopes and dreams and the stern Call of Duty. But even the monotony of the genre is beside the point. The point is that the whole thing is so agonizingly, maddeningly puerile. Men and women dressed up in bright colours and skin-tight outfits, going by ridiculous names like Batman and Daredevil and Cyclops? Fighting villains who are also dressed in bright colours and have ridiculous names like Dr. Octopus and the Penguin? Doesn't anyone see how ludicrous all this is? Doesn't anyone see how debasing it is? Doesn't anyone find something jarring about it?
More than anything else, what nauseates me about the superhero genre is how it is such a pathetic power fantasy. It is as though our culture has no greater aspiration than to have perfect abs and to beat the living daylights out of other people. I'm well aware that the superhero genre tries to balance the power fantasy with a moral about responsibility and duty and the dark underside of having such phenomenal powers. Big deal. A little bit of pseudo-intellectual or pseudo-artistic seasoning hardly takes away from the sheer, inescapable childishness of the basic premise.
It's not just the superhero genre that exasperates me, though. Increasingly, it's popular culture as a whole. I'm sick of it, and I'm especially sick of it when it tries to be serious and thoughtful-- only then is its sheer superficiality most obvious. The Sopranos (which I've never seen) is a wonderfully complex and human drama, you say? Well, why is it about the Mafia? Why not make a drama about an ordinary family? Why do we need guns and violence and fast cars and vast wealth to sugar the pill of serious artistic intent?
More than anything, though, I resent all the popular culture that I've swallowed myself, usually with the sauce of nostalgia. I have a post on this blog analysing Star Trek in depth. Star Trek is trash. The Transformers comic that I read in childhood was trash. So was the Eagle comic. So were the Indiana Jones films that I went to see in the cinema, despite the golden glow of those childhood memories. Sherlock Holmes is trash-- I don't just mean any of the films or the TV series, but the stories themselves, which provided the template for so much detective drivel. Conan Doyle was quite right to disdain them. All the horror films I watched and analysed so avidly for so many years were and are trash. It's all trash. It's all stylized, caricatured, episodic, babyish, day-glo, puerile, developmentally arrested, vulgar, glib trash.
(I make an exception for Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day is a great work of serious art.)
I am hereby checking out of the popular culture theme park. Henceforth I plan to read only grown-up books-- mostly poetry, especially long poetry. Nobody reads long poetry anymore, so that is a good sign. Anything that is ignored by our trash culture has to be good. Currently I am reading The Faerie Queene, which I'm finding tough going. But of course I'd find it tough going. I find it tough going because I've been infantalised by thirty-five years of trash culture. Finding it tough going is a very, very good sign.
(Note: There is some interesting discussion in the comments section, below).