Is this the new classroom? Sort of...
Pop culture is getting smarter, and so are you. Bear with me for a bit, because I know how crazy that sounds.
Conventional wisdom suggests that television and movies are becoming mired in a cesspool of sex, violence, and absolute idiocy: a perfect storm of lowest-common-denominator entertainment guaranteed only to make you dumber. But do franchise reboots like this summer’s Iron Man
or The Dark Knight
(an extension of 2005’s Batman Begins
reboot) really seem like an infantile regression?
The cesspool argument hinges on the accurate observation that so much of what Hollywood produces today is crap. However, it neglects an important corollary: in spite of what some nostalgic film geeks maintain, Hollywood has always
produced a lot of crap. Accepting that shit-stained schlock is a constant of the industry, we might still ask: are the pop-culture blockbusters of our day actually getting any smarter?
I would argue, for the most part, yes. In fact, there’s a good chance that the recent trend of franchise reboots is actually making you
Big-budget blockbuster? Yes. Decline of
Western culture? Not quite.
You don’t have to believe just me. In his bestselling book, Everything Bad is Good for You
, cultural critic Steven Johnson lays out a persuasive argument for how modern pop entertainment is training our minds, by virtue of being more complex, obscure, and demanding of its audience. While Johnson’s focus is primarily on television, it’s an argument that immediately resonates in the context of franchise reboot films, as well.
Let’s take this summer’s juggernaut, The Dark Knight
, as a test case. Sure, The Dark Knight
is dark, weighty, and frequently philosophical, making it, more than any other blockbuster reboot, amenable to intellectual analysis. But that’s actually only one way in which it challenges its audience. I’m just as interested, in fact more interested, in the more subtle ways it engages viewers’ minds – techniques that one can discover in much lighter, pulpier fare like Iron Man
A film doesn't need to be as intellectually weighty as
The Dark Knight in order to make you smarter.
For example, there’s a moment in The Dark Knight
when the camera briefly shows you that Harvey Dent’s coin – the same coin he’s been using to make decisions throughout the film – is actually two-headed. This has vast, retroactive implications on the story: we realize that he’s actually left nothing up to chance this whole time. And yet, there is no dialogue addressing this fact. There are no brief flashbacks reminding us of the various times Harvey used the coin.
The film trusts us to fill in the blanks and make the appropriate adjustments; it trusts us to recognize the importance of the two-headed coin without it being explicitly addressed. Johnson notes how today’s pop entertainment challenges the audience more and more by refusing to offer obvious clues to the action on the screen. We enter the theater anticipating complexity, and the film, in turn, expects us to perform some of the narrative legwork. This is a shift not just in what we’re watching, but how
Compare this even with Burton’s 1989 Batman
or the 60s television series
, and it’s not hard to see how the franchise asks more and more out of its viewers as you approach the present day. Put simply, these films are becoming harder
, even if we’re not apt to realize the cognitive workout each new version offers to our brain.
If this seems stupid by today's standards, it's because, well, it is.
The cult of realism that lays at the heart of most franchise reboots is the most important factor in driving this intellectual complexity. A dedication to realism – a better word, addressing obvious departures from real life, might be “plausibility” – necessarily demands high levels of viewer engagement in order to payoff.
Consider the intellectual legwork required to investigate a film’s plausibility. Characters’ motivations must seem realistic given their personal histories and the dozens of social interactions and relationships they hold (as another mark of complexity, consider The Dark Knight
’s enormous cast of characters). Every event in the narrative must be fact-checked against every other event in order to guarantee internal consistency. One’s attention to detail must be enormous.
And yet, despite these cognitive demands, we all enter movie theaters today as “plausibility skeptics.” Reboot films invite us to approach with a critical stance. At every moment, we have to challenge them to remain reasonable within the fantastical boundaries of their franchises. In fact, the second something doesn’t fly, it’s one of our chief criticisms of the film. Need I bring up a certain nuclear-resistant refrigerator in order to illustrate my point?
By looking at this image, it should be patently obvious that Lucas and Spielberg
think you are dumb.
Moreover, our standard for acceptable plausibility has gotten more and more difficult to satisfy over the years. Even a lighter film like Iron Man
would be greatly impaired by some of the plot contrivances and loopholes that populated blockbusters of yore. Watch your average action film from a few decades ago and it’s hard not to feel like it was deliberately made for a dumber audience. Films today know we’re expecting more, and, in turn, expect more of us.
Now, not every new reboot places such intellectual demands on its audience in order to succeed (*cough* Transformers
*cough*). However, the shift to greater realism is a trend that characterizes most recent reboots and nearly all that have been announced to come. In fact, it’s a trend we see broadly across all pop entertainment, in the maturation of the graphic novel medium or in new, “geek” television shows like Lost
. Clearly, these works are expecting more out of their audiences than ever before; they’re also training them to become better, smarter viewers at the same time.
Remember when I said Hollywood always produces
So we’re back to the start: are these reboots, with their movement to greater narrative complexity and plausibility, actually making you smarter? Or are you, as a smarter member of the audience, just demanding better films?
It’s probably a bit of both, but there is good reason to believe that these films, or rather pop entertainment in general, are making you smarter more than you might think. Johnson notes how the average IQ has been steadily rising ever since we started measuring it, even when one adjusts for economic, educational, and nutritional factors (all known to have a powerful effect on IQ scores).
Call me (and Johnson) crazy, but a lifetime of watching increasingly more challenging television shows and movies might just be the practice our brain needs in order to smarten itself up. Put simply, just like basketball disguises exercise as an entertaining game, The Dark Knight
disguises an intellectual workout as an entertaining film. You may not realize it, but you’re doing quite a bit of thinking in the theater these days. And that’s how franchise reboots are making you smarter.
Well, what are your thoughts? Am I insane? Or insanely brilliant?
I'll settle for insane.