The Secret Knowledge

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It happens at least twice a year now: I’m sitting in the press row at a preview screening of the week’s new big blockbuster (people imagine movie critics being comfortably feted at special just-for-us showings. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!) watching a surprise final story beat, or a mid-credits bonus scene, or a post-credits stinger. A moment later the scene wraps, and the entire row of fellow critics heads snap around in my direction wearing expectant, puzzled expression:

“Okay, Bob, who was that?”

“What was that supposed to mean?”

“Bob, explain.”

As you’ll have likely guessed, the twice-yearly occasion in question is the release of Marvel Studios movies; which have turned the climactic reveal of continuity-expanding easter eggs and teasers into miniature art-forms in their own right. And as “the comic guy” in this particular circle of associates it’s expected that I’ll clue them in to what this or that moment that had 1/3 of the audience gasping was all about.

For the most part, this kind of attention is harmless. Benign. Sometimes it can even be fun. Increasingly, though, I’ll admit that it can also be wearisome. Especially when you get the sense (however slight) that the quizzing is less about genuine interest and more about a journalist version of chuckling adults throwing impossibly big words at a spelling-bee champ niece or nephew at Thanksgiving, or people whose first instinct on meeting a high-functioning Autistic is to ask them to quick-count toothpicks. The sense that someone is looking less for clarity and more for a chance to feel quietly superior: “Ha. This dweeb actually KNOWS this stuff.”

I’m not, let me stress, projecting this assumption onto all or most of my colleagues; and even if I were I’m not presuming any intentional malice or cruelty on their part. Criticism, like all journalistic “communities” populated by folks who think of themselves as intellectuals, gets insular after awhile and the introduction of new backgrounds – new pools of common reference – to the conversation will always have its hiccups. It’s only been almost two decades since The Tarantino Revolution swept through movie academia, after all, bringing with it the clash between an Old Guard of Hollywood/Euro-arthouse centered writers and a new crop for whom Run-Run Shaw and Samuel Fuller were just as (if not more!) important as Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman.

But, it’s not really something that angers or even bothers me all that much; and not only because, let’s not kid ourselves: The sort of person who already knows who or what The Cosmic Cube, Thanos the Mad Titan and Taneleer Tivan “The Collector” are on sight is almost certainly the sort of person who isn’t a stranger to be looked at like some odd quirk of nature. And rest-assured, fellow critics, I find the idea that my adolescence spent memorizing The Official Handbook of The Marvel Universe is now a useful job skill even more absurd than you do. Which is why I try my very best not to pull jerk moves like being all smug about it, or giving fake answers to see if it gets repeated anywhere: “Oh, that’s King Floobdiboop of Grumpud XII. His people shape-shift into office-supplies. Did you notice Chris Evans picked up that stapler in the second act? No? Well, that’s actually him. It’ll be important in the next one.”

On the other hand, what does actively get on my nerves are the instances (exceedingly rare, I’ll add once again, among my own circle of critic pals) where it’s apparent that someone is mainly looking for confirmation that they were justified in not paying attention. Like clockwork, I can trawl through negative reviews of this or that “geek property” film and find dozens of instances where the critic in question either failed to grasp a plot point or obviously “checked-out” during the watching and smugly chalks their confusion up to some version of “I guess that part was just for the fanboys!” Naturally, this tends to come from the same guys who’ll get carpal tunnel patting themselves on the back for catching every literary or classic movie reference in the latest Woody Allen piece.

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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.

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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.