What I Figured Out About Movies and Popular Culture in 2018

A lot of “10 Best Films of 2018” articles are popping up in people’s social media feeds right now, and I’m not going to write one of those because every time I look at one of those lists, I think, “WOW. I didn’t see ANY of those movies.” I enjoy movies, books, and TV, but I am definitely not a cinephile. I will never be one of those people who considers movie theaters sacred ground. Theaters are all right, but I like consuming media in the comfort of my own home, too. I will also never be one of those people who feels culturally and morally superior to other people because I watch/read/listen to obscure pieces of media. I’m just someone who loves stories, some obscure and many mainstream, and I’ll watch/read/listen to anything that piques my interest.

With that said, here are a few insights I had about popular culture in 2018:

  1. Professional reviewers’ opinions are not the last word on any piece of media. I think part of my brain has always known this, but 2018 was the year I realized that this is definitely true. One revelation I had is that professional reviewers probably don’t like Marvel movies and other blockbusters is because those films are designed to be escapist on a certain level (though I would argue that the MCU films are becoming more thematically complex as that series progresses). Professional reviewers don’t want escapism because when they’re consuming media, especially new films, they’re not trying to escape or de-stress like the rest of the movie-going public is. They’re working when they see new films. That’s why they’re generally unimpressed with films that contain CGI, explosions, or anything that is not aspiring to be True Art. They don’t get a choice in what they consume, so they tend to gravitate toward stuff that most of the public would consider inaccessible or strange because it appears more unique and interesting to them than it does to the rest of us.
  2. Straight white men do not have to be core audience for everything, nor are they in any danger of being oppressed if everything isn’t made for them. It took me until this year to really realize this because I had been bending my own thoughts about fiction and popular culture to match the opinions of the straight white men I went to graduate school with, the ones who were my graduate professors, the ones who write movie and TV reviews, etc. But doing that narrows my own enjoyment of popular culture, and it ignores that possibility and the actuality that my own thoughts and opinions are valid. Additionally, I have noticed in 2018 that straight white men have a tendency to flip out when they realize that characters who don’t look like them can be powerful and amazing (like Princess Shuri in Black Panther); when story lines prominently feature women in leadership roles (The Last Jedi is a major example of this); and when they realize that certain works of fiction are not aimed at them. (This last point usually appears in the form of memes that declare that Blade is a cooler/better hero than Black Panther, or that point out that Ripley from Alien, Xena, and Buffy Summers existed before Gal Gadot played Wonder Woman. I’d like to point out that in her comics form, Wonder Woman predates all three of those characters by many decades, and indeed, those three might not exist if she didn’t come first.) I would like to point out that I’m terrified as I type out this point because I have got harsh insults on social media for far less pointed comments. However, I refuse to stop writing because it might hurt some random dudes’ feelings. Straight white men are not going to be hurt by a lack of representation–they’re already represented in leadership positions and other positions of power far more than any other group. It’s time for an increase in representation. POC, women, non-straight people, trans people, and other marginalized groups get to see themselves represented in fiction without worrying about whether it hurts straight white men. Because it doesn’t hurt them at all.
  3. Superhero fiction is popular because it’s fun, and because it reflects our world in ways that genres like highbrow literary fiction don’t. With releases like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018 showed that the superhero genre is evolving, as all genres do. Black Panther definitely showed that political discourse can be well-done in a superhero film and that both critics and normal people can take it seriously. I think part of the reason that this genre evolution is happening now is because we’re finding out day by day that supervillains are all too real. In the real world, they don’t have names like Kingpin, Vulture, Joker, Riddler, Killmonger, or Ares. They have names like Donald J. Trump, Vladimir V. Putin, and Kim Jong-Un. In fact, I’d bet that if you put those three guys into comic books or movies exactly as they are, people would probably say that they’re too cartoonish. Superhero stories capture the exaggerated, absurd quality of our modern world as well as our wishes to stop the bad guys and make the world better. Stories about people thinking supposedly deep thoughts and frowning at each other don’t do that.
  4. I am 100% done with superheroes stories about straight, white brooding billionaires. I’ve grown to dislike characters like Iron Man, Batman, and Green Arrow because I think they encapsulate and promote the worst aspects of American culture. They also tend to validate and promote the hero/idol-worship of people like Elon Musk, and I don’t think Elon Musk has humanity’s best interests at heart as much as his fans think he does. Also, these characters tend to isolate themselves from the people around them and wallow in darkness, which is quite disturbing when you think about it. Thankfully, the CW’s recent Elseworlds crossover actively pointed out how unhealthy a person Oliver Queen/Green Arrow is, so I guess that progress.
  5. I will never be the kind of cultural elite that most highbrow pieces of fiction, art, and music are aimed at, and that’s completely fine. 2018 was the year that I finally began to embrace the fact that I am, to quote Kate McKinnon, a Midwestern toad. I will never be particularly fancy-schmancy, and I will always like some stuff that’s mainstream. My self-worth cannot be derived from what I consume. And you know what? I like my silly, overly analytical, whimsically romantic Midwestern self. I also realized what I really want to do as a fiction writer: entertain people and give them something to think about. It is possible to do both.

So those are my extremely abridged thoughts on 2018. I hope 2019 is better and feels slightly less like it’s 75 years long. Happy New Year!

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