The most recent issue of Marvel’s Captain America had a last page reveal of the titular hero declaring that he was a Hydra agent. The implication of this particular twist was that he had been a member of Hydra all along, making the Captain America we’ve known for 75 years a lie. If those last two sentences made no sense to you, try this: What if you discovered that your favorite father-like comedian had been drugging and raping women for decades?
At the same time, DC Comics decided to hit the reset button on their universe (This is happening so regularly that it might as well become a fifth season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Crisis). In the process of rearranging their established properties, DC decided to fold in one of its most sacred works, Watchmen, into its continuity. If the last two sentences made no sense to you, try this: What if the American politicians decided to use the Bible when creating new laws?
In response, comic book fans — recognizing that they have seen these kinds of gimmicks before and implicitly understanding that comic book storytelling is ephemeral and that the status-quo will always prevail no matter how earth-shattering the change — banded together to reasonably discuss this new revelation.
Oops. My bad. Actually, in response, comic book fans revealed a twist of their own: they had been crazy all along.
So far the responses have involved death threats and good old fashioned book burnings. If we were to distill the reaction, it would translate to “Captain America would never belong to a Nazi-like organization, so let me react by using Nazi-like tactics.” The only silver lining in all of this is that the writer of Captain America isn’t a woman.
As an observer of pop culture, the last week has been an absolute delight. I even took the time to create a meme, combining an image from Watchmen with “Hail Hydra!” that looked like this:
I put it up on Twitter and Facebook, as you do, and then I waited for all the money to come pouring in. But then I noticed people were essentially cutting and pasting the image on their own feeds rather than sharing or retweeting it. This was particularly disheartening because I didn’t put my name or anything on the image, so the joke was running around the Internet without any attribution.
I admit that I was swimming in a stew of resentment and annoyance for a good hour. I thought of sending death threats to Dave Gibbons and burning a stack of old Garfield books, but that would have meant that they had won. I was disappointed that no one would be able to recognize my brilliance in copying an image from the Internet, cropping it, copying and pasting the image three more times, and then adding some dialogue through the complex wizardry of Microsoft Paint. People were cutting and pasting my work without credit, which was in itself cut and pasted without credit. This was the Inception of misattribution.
The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that I used a 30 year old piece of pop culture as a shortcut to make a topical joke about the current iteration of a 75 year old property. The frustration the image might reflect, the humor it might illicit, it’s lazy. In an attempt to add something to the online discussion, I rehashed what everyone already knew while reinforcing DC’s belief that Watchmen is recognizable and profitable and encouraging Marvel to continue to shock readers. I had essentially contributed to the conditions that will make sure that this kind of feedback loop continues indefinitely.
But that’s the nature of modern pop culture, isn’t it? A perpetual regurgitation of properties overstaying their welcome like I did at every party I attended between 1996 and 2005? When exactly did this become the new norm?
I miss the futurological approach to pop culture used in most of the 20th century, that is the majority of the content was original, seeding the imagination of the generation it was created in. A lot of this had to do with the simple fact that nearly every format that we take for granted today was literally being built from scratch by some amazing people. Sitcoms, dramas, comic books, stand-up, movies, it goes on and on. Starting in the 1980s and continuing today, a more archaeological approach to pop culture was utilized, where creators mined the past and dusted off old properties in an attempt to reboot, remix and share-universe it into discrete billion dollar properties. This is what happened when all those kids from the futurological era of pop culture became adults and started deconstructing all those old toys.
That isn’t to say it can’t work. A young creator with a fresh take on an old property can create magic (I’m still waiting for Jon Favreau to tackle my Manimal House script — “A college student can transform into any kind of animal, but he only wants to be a party animal!”). Remixes like Hannibal and Fargo spring to mind, where they have taken the purest pieces from the respective pre-established properties and re-imagined the board for them to play on. Looking at FOX’s television schedule for next year, with offerings like Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist, I’m wondering if they truly understand what made those particular properties special to begin with. But even failed reinterpretations can still offer something new. For instance, even though Flash Gordon has all the awkwardness of a Thanksgiving family meal devolving into a drunken game of strip poker, I can’t imagine living in a world without the Queen soundtrack.
The archaeological approach to pop culture comes with the warm embrace of nostalgia, which feels pretty good especially when pressed up against the futurological approach’s cold uncertainty. But all of this cutting and pasting of the past and transplanting it in the present comes with an enormous cost: the potential for an entire generation of children raised on their parents’ recycled pop culture.
Now I understand that there is new quality content being created in various media, but I’m measuring value in terms of the property’s ability to be a part of the zeitgeist, the global pop cultural conversation, as well as being wholly original, that is not based on previously existing material. This means that the whole world is simultaneously sharing the process of discovery. For instance, two good examples of zeitgeist achieving television shows are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, both of which have a huge international following and essentially dominate the global conversation for about 24 hours after airing. But these two shows are based on printed works, which means that its audience is divided into two camps: 1) those who are experiencing the property for the first time through the show, and 2) people who are the worst. The true genius of the sixth season of Game of Thrones is that it completely destroyed the latter.
On the plus side, despite being adaptations, both Games of Thrones and The Walking Dead are fairly new properties. I’m more concerned about the fact that a 75 year old fictional character still has the power to create such a visceral reaction in the pop culture. Keeping in mind, we’re talking about a copy of a copy of a copy of the original idea. The Captain America we see today, while still retaining the basic original ideas of the character, is a distortion, as pretty much every property that has managed to outlive its creator(s).
Can you imagine people losing their minds because someone decided to publish a story of Gilgamesh where he didn’t have a brother?
Or if someone decided to race swap Jesus from a man of Middle Eastern descent to some boring white guy?
Isn’t the pop cultural dominance of some of these huge properties a little weird? Is Star Wars really meant to go on forever? How many times do we need to see Doctor Who regenerate? How many James Bonds do we really need? Did anyone who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark when it originally premiered walk out of the cinema saying, “I can’t wait to see what his adventures are like when he’s 80!”? Most importantly, where are all the great female heroes at?
Many of you are probably shrugging your shoulders right now because you think that a lot of these new interpretations are pretty good. Maybe The Force Awakens wasn’t what you were hoping for, but we can mostly agree it was a step in the right direction. Doctor Who has a whole new set of regenerations now, it would be a shame to waste them. It would be a tragedy to end James Bond when there are still so many clichés to exploit. An old Indiana Jones is better than no Indiana Jones, right? And seriously, where are all the great female heroes?
We are cutting and pasting the past at the expense of the future, and no one seems to be noticing. And the worst part about it all is how lazy it is. It’s no accident that the best comfort foods also happen to be the easiest to prepare. Going back to the meme I created, consider the assumptive nature of how it worked. The repeating image of Doctor Manhattan sitting on Mars and finally saying “Hail Hydra” was the shortest distance I needed to cover. You reached the destination on your own. I showed you the tip of the iceberg and you knew what was underneath. It’s shorthand.
These all-encompassing pop cultural properties work the same way, not only covering the shortest distance needed for profits, but the shortest distance needed to get your emotional investment because they know they only have to do half the work.
As much as I love the Marvel movies, I’m bringing with me decades of investing in these characters. Iron Man 4: Avengers 3: Captain America: Winter Soldier 2: Civil War is a smorgasbord of providing emotional experiences in the easiest and safest way possible. Because of my knowledge of the characters, I have a specific expectation for each of them which will be fulfilled. Because of my knowledge of the original Civil War in the comics, I have a specific expectation of what the story will achieve. This isn’t to say the story can’t surprise me (Oh look, Black Panther! Spider-Man!), but at the end of the day, it’s not the story that will stay with me, but the emotions I felt. Stories are vehicles for delivering emotional content and Marvel has streamlined those vehicles to near perfection.
It’s hard to get mad about it because they keep giving us what we want. We don’t revisit these works to be surprised by the stories, but because we are seeking that first high we felt. Nostalgia is not about playing with the toys you miss, but reclaiming the feelings you had when you played with those toys. Remember how buzzed you were when you came out of the theater after seeing The Matrix? You will never get that feeling again. Our only hope is that something else comes along and surprises us. Watching Uncle Ben die again on the big screen is probably not going to be what we are looking for.
You want to know why Captain America really joined Hydra? Because he is 75 years old and they need you to keep talking about him. He’s already been killed (if you’ve read more than three comic books in your life then you know that death is just the hero’s next obstacle he/she has to overcome), reborn, replaced, aged, de-aged, Liefield-ized, made into a werewolf and so on. There is only so much you can do to the character before people start getting distracted again, especially in an age where the amount of entertainment feels infinite (which is why it is so jarring to see us returning to the same properties over and over again). Making him Hydra was the shortest distance they needed to travel in order for you to feel something about the character again.
And I’m really not disparaging Nick Spencer’s work on the book. I remember people freaking out when Ed Brubaker brought Bucky back to life and I think most people would agree that his run on the title was a high-water mark. We might be saying the same thing about Spencer before his run is over.
You want to know why the characters from Watchmen are suddenly in the same universe as Batman and Superman? Because they were sitting in a corner collecting dust and by having them play with characters in a different universe then suddenly ALL of the characters are interesting again. And you can complain all you want, but you have to confess that the possibility of Blue Beetle throwing down with Nite Owl scratches that weird itch that comes from the same place your younger self would have had your G.I. Joe figures fighting with your Transformers.
Captain America will eventually return to the status-quo you know and love, but that doesn’t mean you have to. You can change. If the water keeps giving you a stomach ache, stop going back to the same well. Cutting and pasting the things we’ve always loved is never going to bring us the high we felt when we first discovered them. You don’t need to read the reader comments to know that nostalgia creates more anger than happiness these days.
So instead of getting angry and threatening to kill strangers, take a chance on the seemingly endless amount of stories out there waiting to be discovered, whether it’s comic books, novels, television shows, video games or whatever. There is a story out there waiting to make you feel like a kid again.