My lament over the enduring popularity of superhero movies (“Who can save the box office from superhero movies?“) was met by some incredulous responses. Chief among them was “Bryan L” who offered a stinging rebuke:
“Who checks box office numbers? And who cares? Go see what you want and stop fretting that others don’t have the same taste in high art that you do.”
Bryan L’s rebuke consists of two parts. The first part can be readily dispensed with: Many people check box office numbers (and reviews, and Cinemascores). Indeed, box office numbers are the engine that drives the film industry.
It is the second part that deserves close attention. Bryan L says: “Go see what you want and stop fretting that others don’t have the same taste in high art that you do.”
Rhetorically speaking, this comment is brilliant for two reasons: first, it equates my distaste for superhero films with elitism; and second, it invokes the spirit of libertarianism (i.e. the personal liberty of the individual to choose the kind of cultural products they will consume). To be sure, Bryan L doesn’t make any direct claim that my criticism is in any way connected to any ideological commitments to constrain public access to cultural products deemed substandard by an expert board of philosopher kings. But then the mere invocation of personal liberty may be enough to make the association.
Given that I have no interest in curtailing access to popular culture, we can leave the invocation of libertarian choice to one side and focus on the more direct charge of elitism.
According to dictionary.com, elitism is “consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group.” So, for example, it could be elitist if one takes pride in their penchant for champagne and opera when the common rube prefers straw lagers and football. Who am I to say the general public shouldn’t prefer Spider-Man to Meryl Streep?
But let’s try looking at things a bit differently. To begin with, let me clarify that I hold to a relativistic-genre approach to film criticism such as Roger Ebert famously endorsed. Ebert reviewed films on a four star system, but he did so with respect to genres. Thus, a romantic comedy could get four stars as surely as an ensemble drama, though each would receive their rating relative to their genre. And so, “Batman Begins” and “Nebraska” might be equally good films relative to their respective genres. Moreover, they might be, strictly speaking, incommensurable across genres. As you don’t compare a main course to a dessert, so you don’t compare a superhero film to an ensemble drama.
Even so, the fact remains that milquetoast superhero movies will almost inevitably garner vastly larger audiences than outstanding exemplars of other genres (e.g. ensemble dramas). I lament this fact, and there is nothing elitist about that. By the same token, I might reasonably lament the fact that vast numbers of people prefer a quick bite at McDonalds to a slow cooked meal of locally grown vegetables and free range, hormone free meat shared with friends. Is it “elitist” to lament this fact? I don’t think so. The choices we make about food are results of a complex nexus of factors and when I lament the choice for McDonalds, I lament that complex nexus of factors. I don’t simply lord my superiority over the poor plebeians munching on their Big Macs.
In a couple months the next Transformers movie will be released. In all likelihood it will be complete crap like the previous Transformers movies. It won’t be a stellar contribution to its genre. Rather, it will be a $150,000,000 cinematic Big Mac. Meanwhile, many outstanding ensemble dramas and dark art house comedies and riveting documentaries will languish unseen, far from the bright lights of the Cineplex.
Why shouldn’t I lament that fact?