SHIFTING SANDS: For a short bit, our hosts discuss The New York Times paying a large amount for the popular website-based word game, Wordle, as well as the announcement that Sony intends to buy the former Microsoft-owned studio, Bungie.
WEEK IN GEEK: This week, Andrew peruses the rule book for Renegade Game Studios’ new licensed tabletop RPG, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, while D. Bethel is intrigued and impressed by the newest release from Klei Studios, Griftlands.
ALREADY OBSOLETE: This is a short episode––you could even call it a “shortcast”, but why would you––because Dan had to have a little procedure that knocked him out a bit. However, they don’t leave you hanging as they talk about things that have drawn their attention this week. D. Bethel is impressed with the first two episodes of David E. Kelley’s new show, Big Sky, while Andrew dives deep in to the Zyuranger pool.
Andrew and I do our best to steer away from politics or politically-charged issues if only because those topics––no matter the side you stand for––can be frustrating discourse. Of all comic book figures used to translate the world of political friction, the X-Men seem most ripe for such utility if only because they were born from it.
I’m not going to speak to the thesis of this article, though it is well-written and cogent, but it shows a technique that I appreciated and of which I would like to see more. Comic books––well, comic book characters, at least––have jumped the divide between niche and the mainstream. If we want the source material to make that same leap, I think using these properties as lenses through which we can explain and analyze the crazy world around us––like we do with literature and movies at this point––should be done more. Whether you agree with Jon Barr’s article or not, take note of what it’s doing and you’ll see the sketch of an important step to improving the cultural validity of comic books.
The incredible point the article makes has to do with a dangerous side-effect of using fiction as allegory or critical lens:
The biggest disparity between the X-Men universe and the gun control debate is this concept of a ‘good guy.’ The world of the X-Men have those heroes to rally behind as an example of how powers should be used.
For the sake of storytelling, clear lines sometimes need to be drawn between things like “good” and “bad,” even when those distinctions are either blurry or rare in real life. The growling of political discourse has done a lot of vilification of the “other” side when, if we were all at a barbecue together, we would all probably have more in common than not. Though there may be more “good guys” than “bad guys” on either side of any debate, it is nice to use popular culture as an avenue for intellectual investigation. As the article admits, using the X-Men as spokespeople for only one side is not only irresponsible, but the X-Men themselves have been figuratively on both sides of what is arguably the same issue as gun control. But I like that possibility. If the X-Men are about anything, it’s giving anybody who feels on the outside a place to belong.
As I progress further and further into nerd culture commentary, a major thesis that continues to bubble to the surface is my strange and possibly nebulous feelings about nostalgia. Specifically, I am kind of appalled at the persistence of the idea that hardcore fans of a property deserve even a modicum of ownership over its evolving direction in popular culture. Respect and rightful say are two very different things.
I want to say this basically started with the spark of superhero cinema––with things like the first few X-Men movies and their proud abandon (at the time) of the technicolor, exaggerated costumes of the comics in favor of matching padded leather or, more specifically, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005 which really spearheaded the movement toward “gritty” and “grounded” nerd cinema. You could even argue that it started with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, but it didn’t hit a fever pitch until the turn of the century.
Since then, we have also seen reboots of properties from the 1980s that received similar “mature” treatment with efforts like the 2011 Cartoon Network Thundercats show that added liberal dashes of The Lord of the Rings to the popular ’80s toyline. Similarly, G.I. Joe made the tonal shift in 2009 with an animated series, G.I. Joe: Resolute, which pushed the beloved and silly franchise into serialized storytelling more commonly found in prime time drama, and did so to much acclaim. Similarly, the Arkham series of Batman games not only revolutionary gameplay but showed the players an even darker world than what we saw in the Nolan films with Gotham being a true den of sin and the rogue’s gallery being more grotesque and twisted than we’ve seen since the Burton films. Arguably, this is also what happened with Casino Royale which killed what little was left of the classic camp during Pierce Brosnan’s tenure. While these examples are the more well-regarded ones, the dark side of the trend has been things like the Michael Bay Transformers series and their dudebro Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cousins.
Benjamin Bailey’s Nerdist article confronts an idea I’ve longed wanted to approach, but couldn’t really find my thesis without sounding petty and bitter (when I didn’t want to––I do love nostalgia trips). The idea that the franchises of our youth are nigh required to meet our adult sensibilities as they met the sensibilities of our youth is a strange request from rebooted or extended franchises. These properties spoke to us because they tapped into a piece of the zeitgeist that others couldn’t find or hold onto. Why should we expect or want anything different when reexamined for modern audiences thirty years later?