There always seems to be some ongoing discussion about geek culture happening online nowadays, whether it’s diversity in representation in genre movies and TV shows or the sociopolitical overtones of the latest blockbuster release (see: the many examinations of Mad Max: Fury Road as a feminist action film). Many geeks enjoy reading such food-for-thought pieces and thinking about related issues in the latest popular genre film release or a current popular TV show (a la Game of Thrones) – and thus, they become (understandably) frustrated when public figures seemingly dismiss much of geek culture as just “dumb entertainment,” on principle.
People such as James Gunn (co-writer/director of Guardians of the Galaxy) have stood up for popular geek culture genre entertainment – like superhero movies – at times when it seems to not be so much receiving actual criticism as just cheap-shots or unnecessary complaints. Interestingly, geek culture staple and proud nerdy writer/actor Simon Pegg recently seemed to make similarly dismissive remarks about the very area that he’s long worked in… but has since clarified that this is far from the case.
For context, here are some comments previously made by Pegg about geek movies/TV shows as well as culture in general, during an interview with Radio Times (via The Independent):
“Obviously, I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!
“It is a kind of dumbing down because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys. Now we’re really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”
However, Pegg later published a lengthy post (cheekily titled “Big Mouth Strikes Again”), clarifying exactly what he meant by this. Here’s a telling excerpt from the article, with regard to blockbusters and mainstream cinema:
Before Star Wars, the big Hollywood studios were making art movies, with morally ambiguous characters, that were thematically troubling and often dark (Travis Bickle dark, as opposed to Bruce Wayne dark)*. This was probably due in large part to the Vietnam War and the fact that a large portion of America’s young men were being forced to grow up very quickly. Images beamed back home from the conflict, were troubling and a growing protest movement forced the nation to question the action abroad. Elsewhere, feminism was still dismissed as a lunatic fringe by the patriarchal old guard, as mainstream culture actively perpetuated traditional gender roles. Star Wars was very much an antidote to the moral confusion of the war, solving the conundrum of who was good and who was evil. At the heart of the story was an ass kicking princess who must surely have empowered an entire generation of girls. It was a balm for a nation in crisis in a number of ways and such was that nation’s influence, the film became a global phenomenon.
Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.
Basically, it appears Pegg is getting at what many people before him has expressed concerns about: that geek culture is in danger of losing its creativity and “heart”, now that it’s firmly become part of the mainstream pop culture consumed by adults and kids alike – and thus, as studios and businesses look to cash-in on this, “spectacle become the driving creative priority,” as he puts it.
It’s something that we talk about all the time, whether it’s with regard to the importance of upcoming superhero movies being unique and different from one another – or how CBS’ upcoming Supergirl TV series has the potential to provide a much-needed female representation in a genre that’s dominated by male protagonists. That is to say, that’s it’s important to examine these aspects of geek culture and make sure there’s some real creative drive behind them – as opposed to them just being “product” meant for consumption and little else (a topic that’s been discussed and debated a lot recently by our editors on the Screen Rant Underground Podcast with regard to things like the Marvel/DC Cinematic and/or Television Universes).
Pegg, in his post, cited two recent critically-acclaimed films (Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road) as “brilliant exponents of the genre” – and proof that geek culture can give rise to “very grown up films” that are, at the same time, strikingly different from one another. He also expressed his hope that the upcoming Tomorrowland from co-writer/director Brad Bird – whom Pegg collaborated with on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – will likewise be a work of entertainment that is both fun, yet thoughtful and thought-provoking.
It’s also worth noting that something like Avengers: Age of Ultron (which Pegg appeared to reference with his Hulk comment) has also prompted a whole lot of interesting discussion, regarding the film’s artistic merits – with many fans defending Joss Whedon’s movie against criticisms that make it out to be an example of the very problem that Pegg’s talking about here.
Pegg followed this with two more well-known examples of storytellers who use popular genres to explore very intricate and intriguing subject matter (despite the compromises that come with that approach), before summing his whole point up as follows:
… It’s interesting to see how a cerebral film maker like Christopher Nolan, took on Batman and made it something more adult, more challenging, chasing Frank Miller’s peerless Dark Knight into a slightly less murky world of questionable morality and violence. But even these films are ultimately driven by market forces and somebody somewhere will want to soften the edges, so that toys and lunch boxes can be sold. In that respect, Bruce Wayne’s fascistic vigilantism was never really held to account, however interesting Nolan doubtless found that idea. Did he have an abiding love of Batman or was it a means of making his kind of movie on the mainstream stage?
Fantasy in all its forms is probably the most potent of social metaphors and as such can be complex and poetic. No one could ever accuse Game of Thrones of being childish. George RR Martin clearly saw the swords and sorcery genre as a fertile means to express his musings on ambition, power and lust. Perhaps it milieu makes it more commercial though, would a straight up historical drama have lasted so long? Maybe Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been made at all ten years ago. A world without Game of Thrones?! if Baudrillard had predicted that, I probably would have dropped out of university and become a cobbler**.
The point of all this is just to get my position clear. I’m not out of the fold, my passions and preoccupations remain. Sometimes it’s good to look at the state of the union and make sure we’re getting the best we can get. On one hand it’s a wonderful thing, having what used to be fringe concerns, suddenly ruling the mainstream but at the same time, these concerns have also been monetised and marketed and the things that made them precious to us, aren’t always the primary concern (right, Star Trek OST fans?)
Also, it’s good to ask why we like this stuff, what makes it so alluring, so discussed, so sacred. Do we channel our passion and indignation into ephemera, rather than reality? Not just science fiction and fantasy but gossip and talent shows and nostalgia and people’s arses. Is it right? Is it dangerous? Something to discuss over a game of 3D chess, perhaps.
In short: those who love geek culture but recognize the importance of not just consuming it mindlessly, don’t worry: Pegg is still on your side. (Sidenote: Pegg also referred to Star Trek 3 – which he’s writing – by its rumored titled Star Trek Beyond, but we’d advise against taking that as “official confirmation” for the time being – if only because he also cracked jokes about which actors are playing stormtroopers in Star Wars: The Force Awakens too, without skipping a beat.)