Cynicism, Entitlement, and Critique

Cynicism is not healthy. I don’t know how else to start this little essay without laying that out up front. Cynicism can be overtly damaging and yet I see so much of it with regard to the media we consume.

Allow me to provide context; in 2013 I started a weekly podcast about bad movies called Pop and Schlock. It evolved over time to be a many-headed beast, but in my mind our driving focus was always a blended analytical/critical evaluation of pop culture past and present. My belief was, and still is, that anything can be viewed, analyzed, critiqued, and come out the other side unscathed. Art and media are subjective entities after all, and sometimes it is important to look at the lens that we view these pieces through just as much as it is to examine the work itself.

In the wake of a few major pieces of pop culture, I have found myself looking at the mindset of certain groups within larger fandoms and trying to examine the greater purpose behind the perceived cynicism that seems to dominate the landscape. For the sake of this writing, I will center my discussion around two entities; The Last Jedi and Infinity War.

Now, I do not wish to argue that criticism or even dislike of a piece of work is inherently a negative. Far from it. As stated above, art is subjective. What I have determined to be an issue is the growing divide between thoughtful, analytical criticism and a sense of entitlement on the part of the consumer.

Exhibit A; The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi was, admittedly, a divisive entry into a franchise that had more than its own fair share of baggage. But many of the critical reactions to the film had little to do with meeting the work on the terms set by the creators and more to do with hypothetical interjections of what certain fans wanted to see done with the narrative itself.

Disliking The Last Jedi because it was oddly paced, or because there were issues with plotting at the script level are all well and good. I’ve read some convincing critique myself. The major conversation however has been more heavily pointed in the direction of disappointment not in what was created but how it did not align with expectations. Not expectations of quality, mind you, but expectations of narrative direction.

The question that this creates is whether it is valid to dismiss a work because it turned left when the audience expected the road to bank right. Honestly, I think it is okay to be disappointed when a story doesn’t tick the right boxes for the audience. The discussion can then go forward and address whether the creator understood the audience for the piece and create an interesting dialog going forward. In the case of something like Star Wars, which has decades of history attached. Dissecting the choices of Rian Johnson with regard to The Last Jedi in a manner that addresses the significance of audience expectations would be enough to fill a dissertation.

In terms of modern media consumption, The Last Jedi is essentially old news at this point. We’ve moved on. It’s all about Infinity War now. And yet the arguments and the cynicism surrounding Marvel’s latest echo some of the same things I encountered in the wake of The Last Jedi’s release.

More ink seems to be being spilled on adverse audience reactions to the way the narrative played out than addressing the work on its own merit; the standard arguments that the film doesn’t stand on its own or that it doesn’t justify its own existence within the grand scheme of Marvel’s plan don’t engage with the presentation in any meaningful way.

What this reeks of, ultimately, is entitlement. Entitlement on the part of the consumer to dictate the worthiness of any given work. You can see this in every major corner of fandom. Comics. Film. TV. Music. Name it, you will find this mindset prevalent in the critical landscape. And while examining something in this way isn’t necessarily a complete negative as a component of critique or analysis, using it as one’s only basis for critique is largely damaging as it devalues critique and analysis as a whole. It also has the side-effect of rendering segments of the associated fandom somewhat toxic. It is largely why I no longer find myself actively engaging with the comic fandom, because critical response to current publications make enjoying anything something of a chore.

Is there a point to all this? Not really. I don’t think anyone who feels that looking at media in the way I’ve rallied against is going to discontinue to do so after reading a random blog post, but I feel as if I needed to articulate this feeling for the sake of anchoring my own attempts at critique in the months coming forward.

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Thinkpiece Thursday -Addressing The Dismissal of Authorial Intent In The Critique of Media in the Modern Age

LauraMangold

I happened upon a series of tweets from someone whom I do not recall earlier this week that argued Logan was a poor film because Laura’s existence only served to provide Wolverine with an arc. I do not dispute the argument regarding Laura’s purpose. I do however refute the idea that it nullifies the effectiveness of the film as a whole. I have noticed as of late that there is a growing contingent of critics who believe that if a film does not tick every box in their personal criteria it cannot be labeled a success. This zero-sum approach to media criticism is ultimately detrimental because it creates an environment in which media of value is set up to fail and perpetuates a system in which creator purpose is devalued.

I do not argue against the idea of critiquing a particular piece of media’s shortcomings. That is the bedrock of critique. When a critic says that they feel a piece of writing or a particular film lacks development of certain characters or that the story would be better serviced by an uptick in diversity, those are constructive bits of criticism that can be defended and argued in meaningful ways. What is not helpful are critics who make a declarative statement that a piece of media loses the total of its value because it doesn’t hit a benchmark set by that critic when they sit down to examine that same piece of media.

This is closely tied to my feeling that creator intent is being largely devalued in the modern age. Media must be examined on the terms set by the piece itself, not those which critics draft of their own accord. Whatever rubric that critics utilize to gauge the effectiveness of media should always include the creator’s purpose. If we take the example of Logan then; that Laura exists as a means to engender an arc in Wolverine is perhaps a worthy critique. Perhaps infusing her with a greater sense of internal motivation would enhance the overall narrative. That is indeed a possibility. However, to argue that a secondary character being utilized as a means to push forward the narrative is cause to dismiss the whole of the work is utterly absurd. In this case, the film is titled Logan. All things in the film are generally constructed to give value to his journey. While the film is filled with a cadre of characters, Logan is not necessarily what I would consider an ensemble piece. Not in the same manner that the X-Men films or the Avengers franchise are, anyway. This is not the same as arguing that Black Widow is used largely to further the arc of Bruce Banner in Avengers: Age of Ultron, as part of a team they ostensibly have equal value to the narrative. The difference between the two comes with the intent of narrative delivery. This is something critics need to be mindful of when they approach any given piece of media, lest they risk devaluing their own analysis.

I certainly understand the desire to see problematic elements of media addressed. What I simply cannot understand is casual dismissal of the whole due to a single flaw in its construction. We as consumers of media need to be mindful that authorial intent and creator purpose are still worth examining when engaging with the analysis of media.