This one’s going to get controversial. Let me preface it by saying these are just my own thoughts and that you will probably have different opinions. I’m not interested in right or wrong. I’m hoping to throw some comments out onto the internet because that’s what we do these days.
My generation has a problem with nostalgia. We’ve never really experienced it. We are probably the first generation to have near complete access to everything we loved as kids. It’s an unintended consequence of the information age, but almost nothing from the 80’s onward has ever really gone away. And if absence makes the heart grow fonder and familiarity breeds contempt, then that’s more troubling than we immediately realize.
Traditionally, nostalgia comes from a longing for something you used to have. It’s that warm fuzzy feeling we get when we’re reminded of something we haven’t thought about in years. It’s remembering something, usually through the positive spectrum of faulty memory, in a fond way. It’s a movie you haven’t seen in over a decade. Or a toy you threw away when you were twelve. Or a TV show that you can’t quite remember the title of but you’re pretty sure at some point somebody fought a dragon with a laser gun and that it was the greatest thing you’d ever seen up to that point.
That is gone now. If you are 40 or younger, nearly everything you like, everything you held dear, is available for you to watch, buy, or otherwise experience again. And while that shouldn’t be a bad thing, it’s also time to acknowledge an unintended consequence.
Nostalgia also used to mean you were allowed to outgrow something. It also meant popular culture would evolve and change as creators and corporations were required to market and sell new ideas, if only to win over the next generation. This is almost a thing of the past.
There’s really very little “youth” culture anymore. Everything young is usually either a repackaging of an older idea (and usually not even that old) or aimed at a much wider audience than mere kids. Aside from purely pre-schooler entertainment like Dora the Explorer and her ilk, there’s little aimed at children. And even Dora has a bad habit of putting on princess dresses to get the much desired tween buck.
The danger is two-fold.
First, it doesn’t allow us to let anything fall to the wayside. Once we become a fan of something, we’re supposed to be a fan forever. It’s The Firefly Effect. In the early 80’s, a failed and canceled show like Firefly might be remembered by a few. It might even sit quietly in the shadows of obscurity for a few decades before getting a reboot. But it would most probably be a footnote, no different than Manimal or Automan. A cool idea that just didn’t go anywhere. Yet in this day and age, when people can watch and rewatch DVD sets a thousand times, when they can just log onto a search engine to find a thousand websites all devoted to not letting it go, when comic book companies can’t wait to ride a wave of undeserved pre-nostalgia toward easy money, a show like Firefly keeps going on. Even when it should be allowed to just go away and let something else get a shot at being culturally important.
I don’t dislike Firefly by the way. I just don’t believe it’s earned the rabid loyalty it’s gotten. It’s a failed TV show. Yes, the network did screw it. The networks screw lots of shows. That’s just the way it works. Time to move on.
The pre-nostalgia is so common nowadays that it even appears before the show is on the air. The cult of Firefly was born the moment the idea was first whispered by Joss Whedon. It was ready to exist before pen was put to paper, before a single character was created, before a single episode aired. We’re so ready to serve this pre-nostalgic impulse that many of us are actively looking for something to be beholden to, to hail as wonderful and forever awesome, even before we know what it is.
I know this view will be a bit controversial, especially among Firefly fans, but it’s something worth saying because, frankly, I’m annoyed by the entire concept. Six episodes on network TV do not make a “classic”. Calling yourself a “browncoat” doesn’t put you on the same footing as a “trekkie” or “trekker”. Creating a fandom through sheer willpower and desire to have something to be a fan over is an exercise in circular logic. Firefly is great because it has so many fans. It has so many fans because it’s great.
Heck, I love Kolchak: The Night Stalker like nobody’s business, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was only on for a single season. Although it did end up with more episodes than Firefly so I guess I’m more justified. Still, you wouldn’t expect me to call myself a “blue suit” and tell you over and over again about how awesome Kolchak is. And it is awesome.
The second, more damaging effect of this obsessive nostalgic impulse is that the next generation isn’t really getting any new toys to play with. Even if we accept (as we probably must) that pop culture will suffer from certain levels of stagnation, we have a deeper problem. The only thing worse than a generation refusing to let go of childish things is one that expects those childish things to grow up with them.
Kids like dumb things. Silly things. Things that require child-like wonder to enjoy. And most adults simply don’t possess that wonder. This isn’t a problem when you just admit it and move on, but when you insist on taking silly, wondrous childish things and stuffing them into a “mature” box, more often than not something is lost.
Transformers are a line of toys built on the premise that kids like robots and kids like cars and why not put both together in one package? There’s a storyline that comes with them, but at the end of the day, it’s about toys. And it’s stupid. Do I really need to point out that the notion of alien robots that change into cars, jets, and dinosaurs is about as silly as you can get. Even on the most forgiving level possible, it’s goofy. No amount of justification can really make it work.
Or how about an entire military organization whose sole purpose is to fight a single terrorist organization. Everyone on both sides gets distinctive costumes, code names, and gimmicks. Oh, and both teams get a ninja because . . . why the hell not?
And then there’s the emerald space cop with the magic ring who makes objects out of green energy. This is a character designed with twelve year olds in mind. The biggest mistake the Green Lantern film made was actually being a movie that understood this. It’s only sin was in realizing just how goofy the entire concept is and still trying to make a film out of it.
In comparison, The Dark Knight takes the concept of a man who dresses as a bat to fight crime and turns it into a maudlin, depressing, unexciting snoozefest. It does so in the name of sophistication while entirely missing the point of what makes Batman work. He works because he’s ridiculous. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but to me, a Batman film that you don’t want to take your kids to is worthy of mockery. It’s like a Care Bears movie with ritual murder. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.
Though my objections to The Dark Knight exist mostly because it represents everything I hate about modern comic book superheroes while Green Lantern represents everything I love and it can be a bit disheartening to see the public’s reaction to both is the opposite of my own. Not because I care if one gets all the praise but because it’s always discouraging to see something you enjoyed mocked for the very qualities you love about it.
Then again, I could start my own Green Lantern movie fan club, find a bunch of people that agree with me. It wouldn’t be that hard in this day and age.
I’m not suggesting that we can’t have “mature” superheroes. Or that our only two choices are shallow fluff or grimdark grittiness. But I do think that pre-nostalgia is a real cultural problem. I just don’t have a solution for it yet. I’ll let you know when I do.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,