Isn’t it fun when a public figure puts their foot in their mouth? Fans of that person or of the thing they’re seemingly decrying feel hurt or betrayed and the internet explodes with the “Get him!” furor of a torch-wielding mob. It’s nothing new, and surely it’ll happen again. This time, however, it concerns one of Geekdom’s godfathers, the self-professed Nerd-Do-Well Simon Pegg. Pegg has been a symbol for nerd culture since his TV series Spaced in 1999 and through the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), which are all in their own way about prolonged adolescence and stunted adulthood. He’s also gained huge nerd props for portraying Scotty in the updated Star Trek movies, even co-writing the forthcoming third installment.
All of this is why his recent remarks to the UK publication The Radio Times seem not only out of place but possibly hurtful to his fan community. io9 certainly raked him over the coals for his below comments:
Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie And Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed … I don’t know if that is a good thing.
… Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.
It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever.
Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.
Now, he’s certainly simplified a lot of things, but on the surface, he’s not wrong. There was a period of time from about 1967 until 1977-ish (give or take) when films were being made by a younger, angrier stable of filmmakers who had something to say about America and the world as a response to the loss of innocence accompanied by the murders of positive figures like JFK, MLK, and RFK — as well as the betrayal felt from Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. It was a more politically charged period of time and films reflected that and, to its credit, or because it didn’t have much of a choice, Hollywood embraced it.
Nowadays, Pegg also not-incorrectly states, comic book movies and big-spectacle science fiction are the largest and most successful movies (in the grand sense; obviously other types of movies do well too) and that thinking about these big comic book and sci-fi movies does, in a way, stunt adulthood inasmuch as it keeps us thinking about things we loved as children. I can’t disagree with this outright; Hollywood is 100% cashing in on the now-in-their-30s people who were kids in the ’80s and ’90s because we have money and we like the stuff we liked as kids. Nostalgia is a very powerful and lucrative thing.
So, in those respects, Pegg isn’t wrong. At all. What people can and should object to is the tone with which he’s saying these things, as though they’re a bad thing and that because these movies are huge spectacle and money-making endeavors they are completely devoid of anything of value to say. That they are, in fact, “dumbing down” the adults of today.
Some comic book and spectacular sci-fi movies are in fact guilty of this, by virtue of their being dumb movies. There are also plenty which don’t do this and engage with today’s society in a way that might make people think more about it than they hadn’t in the past. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is all about the dangers of the government having too much power, having surveillance on their own people, of becoming a police state, and the ease of which a hostile group could enact their own plans from within. This is something plenty of movies were doing in the ’70s, as the filmmakers themselves have admitted, and while Cap 2 is housed within the same universe as a giant rage monster smashing a god or a robot, it doesn’t diminish the fact that it engaged with a topical issue intelligently.
There are also many examples recently of science fiction movies being both smart and spectacular. Last year was what I considered the Summer of Good Sci-fi and it contained movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Snowpiercer which were big, spectacle movies–a comic book movie in the first case–that also engaged with societal issues like racism, segregation, rights for “others,” fear of “others,” and classism.
Will Star Wars deal with these heady issues? Probably not, but many others do. If anything, it gets some people who wouldn’t normally think about the world in these terms to think about the issues and ingest the knowledge because they think they’re just going to see Magneto move a baseball stadium with his magnet powers. In the 1950s, science fiction was used to comment on everything from McCarthyism and the Red Scare to overpopulation and nuclear annihilation. Films are doing much the same today, even if they have a huge behemoth like Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, or DC Comics as their backdrops.
To be fair, and probably because of all the negative reactions he received, Pegg wrote a rebuttal to himself on his own site this morning, wherein he clarified a lot of the statements and take out much of the pull-quote harshness. It’s a very good piece you should certainly read, but some of the takeaways are things like Travis Bickle was real-person-dark as opposed to Bruce Wayne’s kind-of-dark, that more people were talking about the Star Wars and Batman V Superman trailers than they were the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election, and “the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become.”
People want an escape; they want to be entertained, and studios are banking on 15-50 year-olds wanting to be bombarded with awesome, recognizable characters and properties. While Pegg’s initial statements seemed blanketed and dismissive, he didn’t mean them that way, and whether or not the tone was dismissive and haughty, the statements aren’t entirely false. But within that cynicism, there’s still plenty of room for science fiction and comic book movies to make us ponder our own world even as we’re watching a galaxy far, far away.
What do you think? Are you still mad at Simon Pegg? Do you feel betrayed, or do you think he had some interesting things to say? Let us know in the comments below.