(A slightly edited version of a series of posts on Twitter)
There’s something to this take by Dan O’Sullivan, but I actually think part of the appeal of Marvel movies etc. is that they’re complex. In fact, I think one of the defining characteristics of popular 21st century film/TV is complexity.
Lost, Game of Thrones, the MCU, Star Wars, they’re all complicated world-building exercises, and that’s what people love about them. They revel in the web of plot and characters.
It reminds me of an observation that Chomsky made once about sports talk radio:
When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.Noam Chomsky: Why Americans Know So Much About Sports But So Little About World Affairs
The people who call in to these shows are not necessarily highly educated, but they’re able to give very sophisticated and well-thought-out analysis of baseball or hockey, or whatever, but ask the average person, even a well-educated person about world affairs, and you’ll get some very shallow platitudes. People are smart. They like understanding complex things. And, more importantly, they like debating and engaging with complexity.
The governing principle of most “democracies,” though is that the political and business bosses do the thinking, and the rest of us should butt out.
Any attempt on our part to engage with, debate, or affect anything that matters is met with ridicule at best and tear-gas, truncheons, or bullets at worst.
So, the MCU didn’t make us dumb. It merely absorbed our natural impulse to engage with complexity, and, in doing so, distracted us from the complexity that really matters.
Coming back to O’Sullivan’s point: With complex works of fiction created by massive corporations, the choice of which aspects are simple and which are complex is up to their creators. So naturally, they’ll make those choices according to their own interests.
Conflict is between individual heroes and villains, and we can identify with or revile them, but certainly not the mass of people threatened by the villains or defended by the heroes.
Video essayist Evan Puschak, AKA The Nerdwriter, gives a similar analysis:
Of course, there’s another question lurking: Don’t the more artsy films serve the same function? Doesn’t SILENCE or THE LIGHTHOUSE just distract us from the real problems too? Maybe, but, if it’s done well, I think not.
I think the key ingredient of fiction that subverts that function is ambiguity. World-building fiction presents a complete closed system. nothing in or out. Ambiguity forces us to actively interpret, and to do so under uncertainty.
To resolve such ambiguity, we have to bring our experience (of the real world) into the fiction, and that necessarily means examining our own experience, to some extent.
It doesn’t give us the tools to understand geopolitics, it gives us the tools to be okay with the ambiguity.