Pop Will Cycle Itself: The Repeating Nature of Entertainment

Pop Will Cycle Itself

The Dark Knight, sociological barometer

Call it the “20 Year Pop Cycle”. For years, journalists, educators, critics and authors have pontificated on the tendency for pop culture to enter into a period of nostalgia or revivification roughly every twenty years. In his 1981 non-fiction work, Danse Macabre, Stephen King noted how this related in particular to the punk explosion, equating acts like The Ramones to the “dirty white boys” of rockabilly from the 1950s. Another noted writer on scary stuff, esteemed critic David J. Skal, spends large portions of his books (like the terrific The Monster Show) discussing how our entertainment mirrors social concerns and frequently recycles tropes as time moves on.

Of course, those two notions (the 20 year cycle and social-concern reflections) can be, and are, separate entities. However, there occasionally comes a confluence where those things can overlap. We’re going to look at a few stand-out pieces of both from the past few years or so, and see if we can predict the shape that things might take in 2009 and beyond.

The Dark Knight: Batman is a prime example of this. Recall that the summer of 1989 was dominated by the Keaton/Nicholson Batman film. It went on to be the largest grossing film of the year, triggered massive awards buzz, and ultimately earned an Oscar for designer Anton Furst (who actually contributed the look of Gotham in the comics in subsequent years). Now, obviously, the spur for Batman’s development then was the success of The Dark Knight Returns, and the derailment of Batman in film came at the hands (or rubber nipples) of Batman and Robin. It’s possible that a successful fourth entry in the original cadre of Bat-films could have kept the train rolling just like James Bond.

However! As DC’s cinematic fortunes waned, Marvel’s exploded. First was Blade in 1998, followed quickly by X-Men and Spider-Man and more. Clearly, Warner was going to respond. After some false starts, Batman Begins arrived. While the first film, clearly a solid work, went back to the origin and touched on some deeper themes, it merely laid the groundwork for what we’d see in The Dark Knight.

What makes The Dark Knight so significant in the social context is the way that it maps particular underlying concerns onto the story of Batman’s conflict with The Joker. Essentially, one reading of the film is that the Nolans and Goyer are posing the question: “How far does one go in the pursuit of terrorists before one becomes as evil as the evil that they’ve beheld?” Think about Batman’s conflict with Lucius Fox over the location technology. Remember Batman versus The Joker in the interrogation room. Elements of discomfort and lines of mores play heavy roles there as, even if it’s just subconsciously, we recognize that American society itself had been wrestling with those same questions.

Ultimately, The Dark Knight crests a wave on the 20 Year Cycle, and becomes a vehicle for social concern. Unfortunately, it also resonated on another level with the death of Heath Ledger. At a time when many young stars appeared bent on self-destruction, Ledger’s passing sent shockwaves through the community. We’ll never know how his accidental death might have affected other young stars, but it’s clear that in its wake, some of those young people have pulled themselves out of their own nosedives.

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24
Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24
24: Though only tangentially related to comics (due to the presence of some mini-series and specials), television series 24 has become an ongoing social mirror during its run. In fact, if you recall, the initial premiere of 24 was delayed in the wake the September 11th, 2001 attack. There was also some concern regarding audience sensitivity, as the first episode featured a plane destroyed by a terrorist.

24 doesn’t realize a Cycle 20 perfectly, though it was can be argued that it’s the Cycle 20 ancestor of one of the most famous screen lawmen of all time: Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood first essayed the role in Dirty Harry in 1971. Four more films followed, ending with The Dead Pool in 1988. While only 13 years elapsed between that film and the debut of 24, 24 itself continues some of that series themes.

24 did arrive about twenty years after First Blood, itself a part of the ‘80s action boom. Those films, driven by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, Van Damme, and others, ruled the screen for more than a decade. Dirty Harry was likely their immediate father, and the others his rowdy offspring. All of those heroes were shoot-first, quip-next, forget-questions types that audiences rallied to in a time of rising crime rates and heated Cold War rhetoric. With the collapse of communism and the arrival of the super-hero and the uber-fantasy (due in large part to special effects advancements), the conventional gun-toting hero was pushed off the screen a bit.

Jack Bauer, the spiritual descendant of Harry and the others, found purchase on TV, where huge effects were not the expectation. However, Bauer’s propensity for shocking acts of violence, intimidation, and, frankly, torture, actually found a huge audience on the back of America feeling quite threatened by uncertain times and a devastating historical moment. Whereas in years past, the audience might have squirmed (as they did when Dirty Harry stepped on the leg of a man that he’d shot), audiences applauded as Jack Bauer tore through terrorists and criminals. Here was a guy who would do what had to be done for America, dammit! Viewers were even willing to go along with the famous “I need a hacksaw” moment because Jack Bauer was out there protecting them.

As 24 begins a new season, it will interesting to see how Bauer fares. Honestly, the tide of hawkish sentiment has turned, a new administration enters, and terroristic concerns have been supplanted by economic fears. Bauer may do well with his ongoing action base, but he may lack the resonance that he carried just a couple of years ago.

Secret Invasion #8
Secret Invasion #8
Secret Invasion: Interestingly, Marvel’s big summer blockbuster stood in the crosscurrents as well. Clearly, the parallels between the Skrulls and real-life sleeper agents need no further explanation. Combine that with the Skrull religious fanaticism, and you can see the commentary on the state of affairs as they’ve existed the past few years.

The irony of its Cycle 20 place is that the most obvious antecedents would be a pair of DC Comics events that occurred roughly 20 years earlier. 1987’s Millennium dealt with the DC Universe being infiltrated by agents of the Manhunters; the ’88-’89 mini Invasion! showed what happened when an alliance of alien worlds invaded the Earth. In no way are we saying that Secret Invasion was based on this; it’s most likely inspiration was S-F chestnut Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Still, it does float in the region that Alan Moore calls ideaspace, the notion that certain ideas seep into the cultural firmament; said common ideas often wind up finding their expression in the Cycle 20.

Pause and think about that for a moment. Some of our common myths and legends find new expression every 20 years; some even do it every 10. Look at Robin Hood. Current BBC series, leap back to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, leap back to the Praed/Connery BBC series, leap back to Robin and Marian, etc. There’s a version every ten years. The same can be said of Zorro, Tarzan, Hercules, Sherlock Holmes and more; some ideas just get reinvented for each generation.

Final Crisis #5

Final Crisis: A more prosaic version is DC Comics’ big 2008 event, Final Crisis. The original ’85-’86 Crisis on Infinite Earths already had a sequel, Infinite Crisis, but Final Crisis attempts to put a bow on some of those ideas while at the same time more or less commemorating Grant Morrison’s own Cycle 20: it’s a realization of the two decades since he first becam

e a writing force for DC. Somehow, I think that Morrison would enjoy the idea that he’s his own pop culture cycle.

Transformers: Transformers reappeared in cinemas last year, reimagined into a live-action/CGI hybrid. The first big-screen adventure for the robots in disguise actually came in 1986; that animated film, Transformers:The Movie become an iconic piece of work for fans. The ’86 film was groundbreaking in its own way, since American children weren’t used to seeing characters die in the regular animated series. And here, characters died by the score. If anything, this was a realization of what was actually occurring in anime in Japan at the same time, and just became the backdoor that demonstrated what was actually possible in animation to a lot of young viewers. The new movie (and its forthcoming sequel) runs on an engine of nostalgia combined with modern effects, though subplots involving the military and government secrets do provide some incidental resonance.

Looking Forward

G.I. Joe: Set for release this year is the film version of the franchise. Rooted in the mythos established with the 1982 G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toys, comics, and cartoons, an expansive cast will bring to life the right between G.I. Joe, “America’s daring, highly trained special missions force”, and Cobra “a ruthless terrorist organization, determined to rule the world.” However, some adjustments have already been made to even the above statements. The G.I. Joe team is now a multi-national force, given the dim view of the American military held in some other parts of the world. Also, given the somewhat cartoony nature of the violence in the ‘80s animated series, it’ll interesting to see how questions of killing are handled in a world where real American heroes remain in dire combat situations on multiple fronts.

JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN as Comedian in Warner Bros. Pictures
JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN as Comedian in Warner Bros. Pictures
Watchmen: When the seminal series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was released in the mid ‘80s, it pretty much WAS the comics zeitgeist. Government conspiracies, psychologically broken heroes, and dystopian panic (among a thousand other themes and ideas) all fed into what became a classic work of the medium. Now, the project that many said (and some still say) was unfilmable is set to hit screens in March. If it overcomes various studio legal woes, that is. Nevertheless, Watchmen embodies the present world quite clearly. What’s the price one pays for security and peace? How far would a hero go to save the world, even if it meant death after death? And, of course, who watches those that are supposed to watch over us?

The Cycle 20 in 2010: If we take a look at the biggest movies of 1990 according to IMDB.com, we’ll . . .cringe? Well, honestly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles already had a recent film resurrection in CGI form. Principles of Total Recall can be found in the memory replacement drama of Joss Whedon’s new Fox TV series Dollhouse. The Spirit sort of attempted to replicate the look of comics in a way similar to Dick Tracy. So really, what’s left? Maybe we’re due for another Jack Ryan film, since it’s been awhile since the Ben Affleck reinvention. Or maybe there will be a new Home Alone? Okay, perhaps not.

Really, it’s hard to predict what older piece of culture is going to inform the next wave. This is when the social currents really have their impact. Maybe the hope that many felt at the close of this year’s elections will usher in an era of more optimistic films. Then again, the grim economic tides could pave the way for a resurgence in horror; just as Universal owned much of the ‘30s with their flood of monster movies, a few well-timed scares could take American minds off of the terrifying thinning of their wallets.

If there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that 2012 will be the Cycle 20 year for Batman Returns. And some things, mirroring society or not, just seem to arrive at about the right time.


<li> 9 to Watch in 2009 - Television

<li> 9 to Watch in 2009 - Comic Book Characters

<li> 9 to Watch in 2009 - Video Games

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