Rachael Sternlicht | Sun Graphic Designer

Rachael Sternlicht | Sun Graphic Designer

November 5, 2018

YANG | The High and the Popular

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In early September, my friend and I went to Syracuse on a Saturday morning to see the IMAX re-screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that both of us love and have seen countless times. As we were walking out of the theater, I turned to her and said, “It’s is not even just a good superhero movie. It’s a good movie.”

My friend nodded and said, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

Of course I meant it as the highest of compliments — I absolutely adore the film, and it’s what got me truly invested in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe ordeal in the first place. I said the same thing again recently when the topic came up over text with my mother, who’s always been curious about my obsession with superhero movies and wants to start watching them. Unlike my friend, however, my mom didn’t quite understand what I meant, and responded with a question: “What’s the difference?”

I was thrown off by that. What is the difference? Why is there a difference, anyway?

I didn’t really have an answer until this past weekend in New York City. As I walked through the Theatre District, I realized with a start that I hadn’t seen anything on Broadway for over a year, having been bored and somewhat exasperated by the way Broadway has been saturated with transatlantic imports and movie-turned-musicals. As much as I admired designers, I believed that flashy costumes and expensive special effects do not make good theatre. In fact, I was of the opinion that if a show’s storyline was derived from a popular movie and its delivery reliant on special effects, it should not have been adapted for the stage in the first place. In other words, it’s not “real” theatre.

That’s when it dawned on me why I’d described The Winter Soldier the way I did — it’s because the way I’d been looking at superhero movies as a whole had been misguided. It’s a trap that I didn’t think someone who loves Marvel as much as I do could fall into: I didn’t see superhero movies as “real” movies, the same way I didn’t see Frozen, Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as “real” theatre.

Back in August, when the news about the creation of the Best Popular Film category for the Oscars broke, the Internet slammed the Academy for what seemed like a desperate attempt at relevancy. Many also pointed out the bitter irony within the fact that the category comes out just in time for Black Panther to win as a “separate but equal” award. Indeed, by relegating the most commercially successful movies to this category, it delegitimizes them as potential candidates for Best Picture. The Academy is essentially saying that superhero films do not have the prestige to belong in Best Picture, because they’re blockbusters adapted from comic books, because people actually, God forbid, love them.

At the heart of the issue is ultimately the age-old contention of “high versus popular:” the belief that there is something inherently contradictory about serious art being well-received, and that being overwhelmingly loved by the public undermines the prestige, value and meaning of the art itself. Beyond film and theatre, it is also responsible for the rift between literary fiction and genre fiction, and for the difference in status between canonical and contemporary literature. There’s a certain degree of snobbery that comes with it. The implication here is almost insulting — if we like something, it’s more likely to be bad, or at least shallow. And whether I like it or not, such underlying assumption has been etched into my subconscious by my education and everyday life, to the point where I judge pretty much everything I read or see by it.

But how true is it, really? Are superhero movies fundamentally a “lesser” genre of film, when some of the recent ones we’ve seen best exemplify what Tom Hiddleston, in his 2012 column in The Guardian defending The Avengers, called “a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out”? Can movie-turned-musicals and special effects really be inherently inferior to the theatrical form, when they’re actually all about engaging and experimenting with the form itself? Is it really fair that writing about teenagers, romances or the apocalypse automatically strips a novel of its literary merit, especially if we consider the fact there was a time when the whole concept of the novel was scorned upon?

The answer is easily: No, no and no.

That is certainly not to say that what’s hyped-up and loved by the public is necessarily good all the time, but rather that we should be cautious about our assumptions and biases when we evaluate what we see. It’s about time to let go of the notion of “high versus popular,” and start embracing all the shapes and forms that impactful art could take on. Let’s reconcile the high and the popular, because they never should’ve been mutually exclusive in the first place. After all, not all art is good, but good art can come from anywhere.

 

Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at ayang@cornellsun.com. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.