Don't Panic, Simon Pegg

The actor and self-proclaimed “poster child” for geekdom has accused Hollywood of infantilizing audiences, but it isn’t quite that simple.

There’s something simultaneously exhilarating and tiring about a celebrity biting the hand that feeds. When the actor and writer Simon Pegg—a fixture in the worlds of comedy and genre films for the past two decades—told the British magazine Radio Times recently that cinema’s trend towards sci-fi and spectacle had “infantilized” the viewing public, to the point where “we’re essentially all consuming very childish things,” it was easy to understand both the fan outrage that followed and the knowing nods that maybe he had a point. After all, Pegg—who’s a member of the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises—knows the world he’s criticizing intimately.

“It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way,” he said, “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 reevaluate how you felt … Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

It’s tempting to wonder where Pegg, the self-proclaimed “poster child” for geekdom, might be without the popular and acclaimed movie series that have made him personally wealthy and successful, but it’s also beside the point. While he’s right to ask questions about the moral and emotional complexity of the majority of films hitting the multiplexes, he’s ignoring the bigger picture. Comic-book adaptations and sci-fi franchises used to cater to a niche demographic and now seem to equal box-office gold, but that doesn’t mean the genre is totally devoid of deep meaning, or that its ascension threatens the kind of “challenging” filmmaking Pegg thinks more audiences should benefit from. Rather, tentpole movies and superhero series tap into a desire for spectacle that’s been inherent in cinema since its earliest days.

Before he was Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films (a series for which Pegg is currently scripting the third installment) or the comic anchor Benji in Mission: Impossible III and IV; even before he was the star of cult British genre flicks like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Pegg was an up-and-comer in Britain’s 90s alt-comedy TV scene. He was part of the ensemble of the cult sketch show Big Train, and appeared in episodes of the news-magazine spoof Brass Eye, and the largely forgotten sitcom Hippies. All three trafficked in absurdity, cynicism and black humor, but it wasn’t until 1999 that Pegg found his true calling when he co-created the sitcom Spaced with Jessica Stevenson.

Spaced remains a brilliant love letter to the fandom of Pegg’s adolescence—Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, horror films, video games—that simultaneously poked at the arrested development of a generation that filtered everything through their experience of pop culture. In a follow-up post on his website expanding on his comments, Pegg noted his long exploration of this dichotomy in his work. “One of the things that inspired Jessica and myself, all those years ago, was the unprecedented extension our generation was granted to its youth, in contrast to the previous generation, who seemed to adopt a received notion of maturity at lot sooner,” he said. “This extended adolescence has been cannily co-opted by market forces, who have identified this relatively new demographic as an incredibly lucrative wellspring of consumerist potential.”

Indeed it has—and Pegg would surely be the first to admit he’s benefitted greatly from that market adjustment. Watching Spaced now, you can easily detect the visual verve of director Edgar Wright, who would go on to make three films with Pegg and the terrific comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, even if you’d hardly have predicted in 1999 that Pegg would be writing Star Trek movies for Paramount Pictures. But in the 21st century, Hollywood has learned to cater to a subculture previously treated as an irrelevant sliver of the box-office pie, and it shows no sign of wanting to stop. Fans used to cross their fingers that an attempt at a big-budget superhero movie—say, 2000’s X-Men or 2002’s Spider-Man—would do well enough to convince Hollywood to produce more along the same lines. Now, when a comic-book film is announced, it comes with a handful of sequels and spinoffs already in the pipeline.

“I guess what I meant was, the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become,” Pegg wrote, while allowing that he’d been buoyed by the quality of the recent movies Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road. Much like the author and Grantland contributor Mark Harris, he points to the 1970s as a golden age where Hollywood explored real issues such as the Vietnam War with films like Taxi Driver—challenging films produced by major studios for big budgets.

But as Katherine Trendacosta noted at io9, Hollywood has always enjoyed spectacle, from the silent era on, and there’s plenty of genre filmmaking that has grounding in real-world issues. The Vox editor Todd Vanderwerff recently wrote a fascinating analysis of the 21st-century superhero movie’s inescapable connection to 9/11 and America’s response to that tragedy, and his argument doesn’t feel like a stretch. Yes, the Hulk fights a robot in Age of Ultron, but in a sequence of city destruction that spurs him to go into solitude to avoid further catastrophe—making a point about the relative value of the heroes’ immense power compared to the threats that power inevitably conjures. Pegg should know that Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed that film, is a thoughtful writer and director—after all, Pegg’s character in Spaced frequently prayed to a life-size cardboard model of Whedon’s most famous creation, Buffy Summers.

Perhaps most ironic is Pegg invoking the name of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, specifically his 1986 book America, which Pegg says advanced the idea “that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in.”

Indeed—and there was a film that explored those themes in some detail that had a fair amount of cultural impact, produced by a Hollywood studio in 1999, that even spawned a couple of sequels (it’s called The Matrix). The Wachowski siblings, who directed that sci-fi benchmark, praised Baudrillard for inspiring the work; their sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, delved further into dense philosophical debate, though perhaps at the cost (most critics would argue) of enjoyment for the viewer. The issue with Pegg’s argument, or Harris’s, is the issue with almost any sweeping statement about an industry as large as Hollywood—it’s not hard to find exceptions.

But there’s no value in shouting down Pegg for sparking worthwhile discussion on the limits of this kind of commercialism. Hollywood constantly works to strike a nervous balance between art and commerce—trend too far in one direction, and audiences will lose interest, the thinking goes. Marvel’s films succeed not just because they’re empty spectacle, but because they’re presenting an exciting kind of long-form storytelling movies haven’t seen before. Still, at a certain point, just as with television or comic books, audiences will want a definitive conclusion, not another post-credits teaser. Pegg’s comments might have angered fans (and possibly studios) but they’re part of an ongoing conversation that can only help culture if both sides are willing to engage.