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Anyone who's spent any time in what's called "geek culture" is, of course, familiar with this kind of targeted myopia. The guy who can draw the Enterprise schematic by hand but turns up his nose at overhearing an exchange about Doctor Who. The comic aficionado who can't believe how much floorspace Manga now gets in the shop. The Generation NES gamers who - eh, let's not open that can right now.
You get the picture. The same phenomenon exists in criticism, in the person of those for whom the idea that "this stuff" is just so much inside-reference for pre-existing fans is an irresistible excuse for them to take it even less seriously than they already do; and it's only been exacerbated by the Marvel "shared universe" approach, with some critics rather demonstrably taking an "I'm not some loser who can still remember everything that happened in Thor, so I might as well doze off in the middle of The Avengers since I won't be able to follow it anyway." This, despite the fact that each of these films (even the sequels) have gone to great pains to still work independently of one another.
I've discussed elsewhere the adherence some have to an ideal of "pure criticism," and that plays a part here as well: "I shouldn't need to know X to get into X's movie." There's something to be said for that, in the abstract, but forgive me if I look askance at it when its coming from a profession so rife with "serious" practitioners who all want to sound like Doris Kearns Goodwin when reviewing historical dramas - even though it's hard to be an expert in film and an expert in history. And geography. And literature. Or science. Or world religions (that faint rumble of clicks you'll hear a week before Darren Aronofsky's Noah movie comes out next year is the sound of a thousand film critics frantically logging onto Wikipedia to find something pithy to say about Old Testament Apocrypha and adaptations.)
And that's without even getting into the uglier side of the coin. The notion that catching an Eisenstein shout-out in a DePalma movie is a mark of sophistication while knowing that Tim Blake Nelson's character in The Incredible Hulk will eventually become The Leader is a sign of wasted brainpower is an amusing situational hypocrisy, but its inextricably tied to an arbitrary scale of high/low culture that also holds cinema originating from certain nationalities, subjects, classes and cultures more "worthy" than others.
It's the very same basic mentality, just on different level of damaging, that says all Asian movies can be ignored ("just a bunch of kung-fu crap!") with the exception of Kurosawa of course. That all Indian cinema can be dismissed as pablum ("Bollywood? Why are they always dancing?") so long as you can namedrop Satyjit Ray. That stories about the male psyche are "powerful" but the same focus on female-driven narratives are just "issue flick" melodrama.
In summation: Yes, my critic brethern. Much the same as "white music" journalists eventually had to suck it up and acknowledge hip-hop as a legit genre, "nerd culture" is now simply part of "culture." And the Marvel/DC/etc arcana are now right there next to Golden Age Hollywood, Elmore Leonard novels and the history of American and British rock music of the 50s and 60s on The List of things we're now expected to pretend we have a working knowledge of. And so it goes.
I'm glad we had this talk. Now, let us adjourn to P.L. Travers' Wikipedia entry, so we can all sound like smartypantses when Saving Mr. Banks comes out.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.