Stop Marveling

matt werbach

I am deeply concerned about the level of intelligence displayed by America’s adults. This is not a slam on the Millennial generation; they are America’s best hope, and they are doing a better job than almost all who came before them. This is a condemnation of the contemporary American consumer. And I will give you the good news upfront: All of this could change and improve almost instantly. The capacity of the mind, the potential for creativity, problem solving, insight, and most importantly, for asking questions, is as profound and inspiring as it has ever been. People today simply aren’t using their minds.

Take a deep breath. I am not talking specifically about you. I am a member of the generation that bridges the gap between the Millennials and the group with the best name of them all, Generation X. My peers make up both groups. I was born in January of 1982 to a couple Baby Boomers. I began high school and college with members of Generation X and graduated with Millennials (quite literary, I was in the high school class of 2000). AOL Instant Messenger was new in high school. Nobody I knew of was using Myspace at Wittenberg University in 2004, and Facebook was just invented—available only at Harvard and then to only students with .edu emails.

What I am saying is that I am part of the generation responsible for setting this current cultural tone, and I recognize my complicity in this generation of Marvelers. Can we all do the same for a few minutes?

Today’s most popular films are almost exclusively centered around comic book superheros (and very rarely, heroines). This summer alone saw a dozen or so hero films based on Marvel or DC characters. The companies have charted their movie releases well into the 2020s, and each main character will be inspiring its own spinoff and series of films. These films are grossing millions of dollars each.

Warner Bros. and the other superhero film studios would be morons of the highest order to turn away from these films for one reason: They make money. We are talking billions over a decade.

It is in the groupthink-driven stupidity of showing up for these same films over and over again that must draw our scrutiny, lest we socially devolve any further.

The visual quality of today’s movies has been given far too much credit. CGI and green screens are still easy to spot. We willingly suspend our disbelief, a trick we learned unknowingly from literature as we learned to read and understand plots. This suspension is the first consolation to the directors flinging these films at the public like monkeys tossing feces at the zoo-going crowds. Michael Bay and his friends would be better served to figure out how to make it look like two actors are actually conversing in a moving car before they try to blow up any more U.S. landmarks or cities. We can video chat by bouncing signals off of satellites orbiting Earth, but when we go to film someone inside the car, it’s still Driving Miss Daisy, repeated still-images passing fake windows.

We have storytellers, in this case movie makers, trying to innovate before they master the basics. That is nothing new. What I think may be new is that we ignore this and embrace the story. Actually, we celebrate these stories as the modern representation of our culture to the world abroad. These superhero phenomena are not unique to America, but the way we are drawn in the tens of millions to them, the way our children dress up as Batman long before they are allowed to watch Heath Ledger drive a pencil into someones head, the way our young boys sport Superman underwear and Spiderman sheets—these things are a hallmark of our contemporary culture.

Yes, I have read Lethem and Chabon, and I have tried to find worthwhile literary or philosophical undercurrents to comics, but I am calling bullshit. These tales of masculine heroism are much more closely related to the stories of pagan gods and early religious saviorism than they are to the 20th century American novel or French film. Superhero films focus on core themes like “With great power comes great responsibility,” that go about as far in forcing one to contemplate or learn as the tale of the boy who cried wolf. That is to say they are not of a literary quality. Superhero movies are John Grisham novels, grossing millions from American consumers interested mainly in an air conditioned room, a couple of beautiful people, and a distraction from day to day life. There is a difference between entertainment and art. Entertainment delivers exactly what it promises: distraction. While it still strives to entertain, art also challenges, confounds, provokes, and dramatizes, all in the name of the artist and consumer learning or experiencing something.

So what? Americans like our distractions. And we have mastered the act of simply shrugging our shoulders and saying, “So what, I like it,” but this modern apathetic Americanism has its dramatic costs, not the least of which, is the loss of any real dramas in our lives.

What is more likely, that all the stories worth telling have been told, leading us to find the ones we like best and live them over and over again, or that people are comfortable with what they know and understand, leading film studios and directors to take the easy cash churning out the comfort and simplicity craved today?

There is no profitability in telling good stories unless there are consumers of those stories. As a young author, I have already watched this simple truth tear my industry apart in under twenty years. Hollywood has always been more focused on sex and explosions than drama and philosophy. But why is that? Are we, American consumers, demanding sophisticated storytelling? I am not an economist, but my elementary understanding of supply and demand always lead me to believe that one could impact the other through either scarcity or surplus, desire or satisfaction.

So I am not blaming the studios for churning out the same shit. I am questioning our level of intelligence as we sip that shit in supersized plastic cups and ask for refills. It comes back to comfort and apathy, or to distraction versus progression. How do we increase the demand for films that challenge us, that tell original stories, that make important philosophical inquiries while meeting the need, concurrently, for entertainment?

Baby Boomers and Xers have more to pass on to Millennials and their every increasing legion of children than the blandly prophetic Herculean tales spiraling out of tinsel town and onto screens across the country. We will never run out of stories, and if we can course-correct our culture soon, we will not run out of good storytellers either.

It is our fault. We accept this as art and we pay a premium for these distractions on a regular basis, but we don’t stop there, either, we buy the lunch boxes and e-comic books and we put the BlueRays in our queues.

I question the intelligence of this non-decision making not just with films but in so many facets of our lives. What would be gained if consumers stopped Marveling and started questioning, probing, thinking? What if we stopped accepting distraction and started demanding art? We cannot risk the ever increasing possibility that an entire generation of Americans is going to grow up thinking of their parents and grandparents as pagan-god-worshiping simpletons, easily entertained by flashing lights and pretty faces. There is no advancement in distraction, no progress in repetition. I must challenge the intelligence of a generation of people willing to embrace an entertainment form crafted to bypass the brain and tickle the senses.