Being the most asinine thing to come out of a discussion about pop culture is a truly monumental achievement. After all, we’re talking about a subject that has people obsessing over the politics of Ghostbusters, whining about how journalists ‘bully’ certain comic-book corporations, and fretting over the horrific injustices of some incredibly rich, famous people not winning shinny awards. To top the stupidity league in this particular climate is no easy feat.
And yet, there’s one argument so mindbogglingly imbecilic, so utterly devoid of nuance and so blatantly flawed, that it would make Llyod Christmas shudder in embarrassment. That’s right, this notion is even more cretinous than using Rotten Tomatoes to ‘prove’ that a film is bad.
You’ve probably heard this argument a 1000 times before, you might have even used it yourself. Either way, and irrespective of the context, it is categorically inane.
So in order to introduce this point of contention, let’s properly set the stage. You’re talking to someone about a film that they happen to enjoy. Over the course of this conversation, it transpires that you happen to conversely think it’s a little bit shit. So you engage in a mature back-and–forth, discussing the issue like the well-adjusted adults that you are. No one yells. No one hurls insults. No one makes unspeakable threats about anyone’s mother. It’s all very civil. Well done you.
Then, in the middle of this constructive debate, you make the fatal error of mentioning a fault with the film’s story. Maybe you assert that the narrative is a tad shallow, or that the tone is slightly uneven. Perhaps you even dare to venture that the characters are bland and uninteresting. All of which should be totally valid criticisms of mainstream movies, but unfortunately your friend doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he dismisses the idea, responding with that all-too-common phrase; ‘well what did you expect? Shakespeare?’
Shakespe-….. Hang on. Shakespeare?…. Where the hell did that come from!? No one mentioned Shakespeare! No one was asking for profound artistic themes, or nuanced character studies. Nor did anyone request rich visual symbolism or intellectual philosophising. No. I don’t expect Shakespeare at all. I just expected, you know… ‘good’.
But for some inexplicable reason, insisting that films have engaging screenplays and coherent narratives is now stigmatised as some kind of elitist snobbery. Indeed, asking for even the tiniest sliver of substance is instantly equated to demanding high art. For some people, it seems like passable has become the new good, and anything that is basically competent, should be exempt from criticism. So if you want blockbusters of the same standard as Jaws or even The Dark Knight, then you are regarded as a smug prig, with delusions of sophistication and refinement.
See when I criticise Kong: Skull Island, I am under the impression that I am saying something along the lines of ‘I just wish that the characters were a bit more likeable’. Evidently everyone else is hearing is; ‘Why isn’t there a 3 hour-long sequence focusing on the domestic lives of Iranian housewives?’ It’s my fault really, I should have realised that having fundamental standards means that I’m now part of the art-house crowd and write for the Cahiers du Cinéma.
As far as I am concerned, disparaging something like Rogue One for having a dull, dull, unspeakably dull plot, is not the same as asking for the Seventh Fucking Seal! Nor is it the same as anticipating Oscar Wilde levels of eloquence. And it’s certainly not the same as expecting Hamlet. All I’m asking for are some dynamic characters that I can connect with, maybe a bit of quotable dialogue, and a semi-decent story. Gosh, I’m so unreasonable.
But if a film’s just ‘a dumb popcorn flick’, then that seemingly gives it license to be either ‘fine’, or even flat-out brainless. Which is totally ludicrous! Why should we be encouraging these films to be as empty and vapid as possible? If we do that, then we are actively fostering a climate of complacency and laziness.
Just because something is meant to be fun, doesn’t mean that it cannot be good at the same time. I don’t know when those two concepts became mutually exclusive, but I always believed they could work in tandem. They can help each other, and they can also hurt each other. I mean okay, a piece of popcorn entertainment doesn’t need to be Shakespeare (whatever that means), but there’s still no reason why it can’t be as great as the works of Shane Black, Guillermo Del Toro, Christopher Nolan, or Joss Whedon.
Most of the time I’m not even asking for complexity, just some creativity or personality. The original Star Wars trilogy utilises very basic one-note characters and incredibly straightforward storytelling, but it still works because it nails those fundamental components and carries itself with a sense of magic and charm. Han Solo didn’t waltz out of a fucking Ibsen play, but he’s still strong enough to hold your attention. That’s all that I want.
If you’re one of these people, like me, who has a deeply held love for mainstream movies, then shouldn’t you be holding them to a higher standard? And no, before you even start, that ‘higher standard’ is not Shakespeare. That higher standard is Die Hard. It’s Indiana Jones. It’s Inception. It’s Jurassic Park. You wouldn’t liken any of those films to the poetry of the Bard (at least I doubt that you would), but at the same time they are all well written, inventive and strongly executed. That should be the fucking standard. And aspiring to that level should not be met with accusations of pretentiousness!
Not only that, but this argument is more-than-a little belittling to Shakespeare himself. After all, it basically posits that his greatest accomplishments were being able to construct basic characters and offer up ‘decent’ writing. I think we can give him a little more credit than that. It’s not like the The Walking Dead would suddenly rival Othello if it only introduced a couple of half-way bearable protagonists. If asking for ‘good’ stories is your idea of demanding Shakespeare, then you clearly have a much lower opinion of the man than I do.
Furthermore, it simply baffles me that this argument is so commonly accepted for film, when it obviously wouldn’t hold water in any other circumstances. If you disparaged the latest Pitbull album, then you wouldn’t be met with a hostile responses of ‘Well why don’t you go suck Beethoven’s cock you smug prick?’ Equally, if you went to a hotel, only to discover that your room was missing one of its crucial load-bearing walls, then you’d be right to raise that issue. You wouldn’t expect the staff to tell you to ‘fuck off to The Hilton if you’re gonna be so picky’.
But for no apparent reason, when it comes to movies, it’s an entirely different ball game. With cinema, we are ostensibly limited to two types of product; either ‘quality films ‘ or ‘fun films’. This frankly baffling argument would have you believe that there’s no overlap between these two extremes. A film must be boring and good, or trashy and entertaining. Where exactly something like Lord of the Rings sits in this dichotomy is anybody’s guess. It has to be one of them, because you certainly can’t expect it to be both!
It’s time that people noticed that movies can be smart and fun at the same time. Equally, we should start acknowledging that, regardless of purpose or intent, some films are just fundamentally bad. I don’t care if Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t meant to be an homage to Macbeth, it is still meant to be watchable and on that account it fails spectacularly.
Surely it would be better for everyone if films could be entertaining and still maintain a certain level of quality. It’s definitely an attainable goal. For example, unlike its notorious predecessor X-Men Origins, the recent Logan was an absolutely fantastic franchise instalment, with well rounded characterisation, a strong emotional core and an excellent script. At the same time as this, it managed to function perfectly as an exciting ‘popcorn flick’.
When a film can succeed like this, by being both good and enjoyable, then why shouldn’t we be allowed to voice criticisms of something like, say, Suicide Squad? To clarify, I am not saying that you can’t enjoy a flawed film, that’s not my point at all. What I am saying is that, just because a movie is fun, doesn’t mean that someone is stuck up for acknowledging its shortcomings.
To conclude, I have a question for anyone out there who thinks that’s it’s pretentious to criticise ‘dumb fun’ movies. And I’d sincerely love to hear the answer to this by the way. Okay, here goes; why do you hate Batman and Robin so much? Oh and, in your answer, you aren’t allowed to mention the characters, the script, the story, or anything like that.
After all, it’s not meant to be Shakespeare.