Sci-fi/fantasy author Charlie Jane Anders has a column in today’s WaPo that really resonates with me: Grown-ups, it’s okay to love pop culture for kids. Stop being embarrassed about it. Its thesis: the fans of children’s properties have aged, and, wanting to continue enjoying their favorite characters, have dragged the properties along with them. While this has produced some good works, it has also seen the removal of a vital sense of whimsy and, well, cartoonishness. You may have noticed that we’re now drowning in dark, gritty, sexy takes on everything from Transformers to Batman to Cruella de Vil (who even has a tragic backstory now–it’s been requested that I say this is a spoiler, so learn about this ridiculous idiocy at your own risk).
This has overtaken pop culture to the degree that it extends to non-children’s works that were quite dark and gritty enough already. I’m particularly disheartened-in-advance by the new Dune movie, which appears to be tragically dichromatic and same-y. This is a story written by a man who was tripping his face off half the time, which shows and deserves to shine through; it inspired a whole generation of counterculturistas–so why does it look and sound like it was directed by Christopher Nolan?
What happened to us?
We never wondered why Peter Parker, in addition to his radioactive spider-bite, was capable of inventing miraculous technology like his web-shooters. Or why Batman chooses to throw bat-shaped boomerangs called “batarangs.” We didn’t ask how, exactly, a group of mutated turtles managed to learn martial arts from a sewer rat.
These stories never worried about being taken seriously, or about being “realistic.” That freedom allowed them to take truly beautiful detours, and to defy expectations. To read Golden Age and Silver Age comics, or to watch the original “Star Wars,” is to be intoxicated by a draught of pure imagination, and to feel as though wonders are possible.
Good can defeat evil (and we can cleanly separate one from the other), miracles are commonplace, and lessons are everywhere. A great children’s story has a set of rules that you have to follow — and a sense of gleeful anarchy. Weapons don’t draw blood. Friends and family always come back together.
When adults claim dominion over these stories, they get darker, at the expense some of their innocent fun. Primary colors dim to crepuscular shades, and sexual assault, mutilation and torture become commonplace tropes. Superman once had a pet super-monkey named Beppo who’d stowed away aboard Kal-El’s rocket when he was a baby. In 2016’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Kal-El was beaten to death in a gory fistfight with a bone-knuckled zombie alien.
Her op-ed is not, however, a cranky lamentation. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a dark, gritty superhero movie. The problem is that they are eating up all the big-money resources. It has led to a self-reinforcing stagnation in the industry. From a thread about her piece:
In the article I talk about the rise of the direct market for comics, and the “four quadrant” movie for teens and adults. A lot of structural changes happened starting roughly 40 years ago that helped push formerly kid-focused properties to lose their innocence.
— Charlie Jane “VICTORIES GREATER THAN DEATH” Anders (@charliejane) June 2, 2021
So what’s to be done? Nothing, she argues, that we aren’t already doing, at least as an industry. While the biggest studios may be stuck in a rut, young upstarts like Netflix are investing heavily in fantastical children’s properties. This will help ensure that children have stories to inspire them, just like aging nerds used to, before we collectively decided that whimsy is cringe.
This brings us to what truly troubles me: I feel like it reflects a broader cultural shift away from the fantastical, the non-tragic romantic, the optimistic, the whimsical. We live in a pessimistic era, even as, for most of us, there has never been a better time to be alive. We live longer, we have magic-grade technology, and while we face our share of challenges, humanity always has. But saying this out loud isn’t very hip.
I read a lot and watch a lot of TV. By far the finest piece of fiction I’ve encountered since COVID began is Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I watched for the first time when Netflix picked up the license. For those who don’t know, it’s a children’s cartoon. And it’s got the best storytelling I’ve seen for over a year. The kids, I’m told, will be all right; it’s the adults I’m worried about.
It occurs to me, now that I’ve hit publish, that this is a malaise mostly felt in the US. This might explain the ever-rising Western popularity of anime, a famously romantic art form.
(If you like Avatar, by the way, the head writer has a new original Netflix series, The Dragon Prince, which is also fantastic and fantastical.)