Remember the ’80s? Those were my formative years, so their influence is hard to shake, but I can’t help but feel like the ’80s were the last time in Western culture when fun was generally acceptable.
I grew up reading comic books like Batman and Spider-Man, and watching cartoons like G. I. Joe and Transformers. And while each of those entertainments occasionally intertwined with “adult themes” — like Crisis on Infinite Earths, or Kraven’s Last Hunt, or the trippy 2-part “There’s No Place Like Springfield” episode of G. I. Joe when Shipwreck is brainwashed into believing he has a wife and child who then dissolve into ectoplasm and drive him insane — their tone was generally upbeat, optimistic and action-packed.
Sure, bad things might happen, but you were always a “G. I. Joe-teams-up-with-Cobra-to-defeat-a-mutual-enemy” moment away from overcoming cynicism with the possibility of a bright new future where our differences weren’t so great, and everyone could just get along — at least until the next episode.
Then the ’90s happened.
Suddenly, the garish burlesque of hair metal was rendered immediately irrelevant by grunge, and pop culture never looked back. The rarefied ’80s tendency by some artists to take cultural icons more seriously — Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Batman: Year One — was just the preamble to a new generation of brooding, tortured anti-heroes incapable of enjoying life — and, by extension, making the enjoyment of life seem childish.
And now, here we are at the dawn of 2010, a quarter-century removed from the heyday of Saturday morning cartoons and stories with happy endings. Movie superheroes are barred from wearing multicolored costumes. Video games have evolved from technicolor adventures into something more sinister. Grunge and gangster rap have never truly relinquished their grip on the pop radio culture, resulting in the enduring popularity of ’80s nights — the last time anyone could dance without feeling guilty.
Recent cinematic reboots of Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men, G. I. Joe and Transformers have maximized the eye candy, but they consciously eschew any semblance of fun, instead focusing on survivalist action. To be “cool” in this new era is to be as emotionally detached and battle-ready as possible, which means there’s no time for friendship, romance or self-expression — unless all of these happen as desperate accidents while you’re doing something more important, like saving the world from giant killer robots. (Even the new Freddy Krueger lacks the vaudevillian sense of humor that made the original Nightmare on Elm Street series worth seeing through covered eyes, now reduced to another joyless exercise in pathological revenge.)
It’s not like others haven’t noticed, either. Half the humor from ultra-satires like South Park, Family Guy and Robot Chicken is derived from contrasting the innocence of youth with the stark vagaries of reality. But as cynical as their humor is, it’s also wistful, reminding us of a time when high school wasn’t a hotbed of sociopaths and families were at least semi-cohesive.
Sure, the ’80s were absurd. But they wouldn’t resonate as strongly as they do today if they weren’t also one thing that modern culture refuses to be: unashamedly, unabashedly and unironically fun.
Then think back a moment to the cultural icons of our recent past. Would Star Wars have been a generational touchstone without a heart at the center of its android shell? Sure, Luke’s the brooding one with the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders, but Han Solo’s the rule-breaking class clown who gets the girl.
Didn’t we learn anything from that?
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Eric Williams · October 29, 2009 at 8:41 am
I think some of the shows on USA capture the “light” feel of the 80’s – Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, White Collar, etc.
Chris Hall · October 29, 2009 at 12:55 am
It’s interesting to think about our individual lens evolving over time and thus changing our perception of the world.
If I were as carefree now as I was growing up, would I sense the seriousness packed into the media that surrounds me? Or would it escape me?
Matthew · October 28, 2009 at 9:18 am
Justin, I wonder if the same set of people who are nostalgic for that sense of carefree drama are also the people who slam that type of product when it comes out in todays entertainment space because they crave realism. For example, Castle on ABC is a great example of a show that can be serious, but above all is just fun. Wacky? Yes. Implausible, obviously, but that has the same feel as an A-Team or (what Castle is often compared to) Moonlighting. Eureka on Syfy is another great example of a show that understands how to have fun with its premise and be playful, which give the moments of real drama on the show that much more impact.
Maybe you’re just not looking in the right places? Or not giving shows like this a chance because they come across as typical network fluff?
And I’ll give you the Batman and maybe the X-Men flicks, but Spider Man? The first two movies were a lot of fun, and you could hear that reflected in the character every time Tobey Maguire squealed as Spidey was slinging across Manhattan.
Fun, carefree entertainment is still there, you just have to take the blinders off and look for it, then embrace it for what it is when you find it.
Sumant · October 28, 2009 at 2:39 am
We’ve started to take ourselves way too seriously. The ideal solution to this problem is for Michael Bay to make another half-dozen Transformers films in which everything explodes, except Megan Fox. Or maybe she can explode, and then get put back together. Hmm…
Anand · October 28, 2009 at 2:07 am
Standing Ovation. Bring back ‘Knight Rider’! No, wait . . .
Chris Hall · October 28, 2009 at 12:38 am
Although they weren’t cartoons, both the Dukes of Hazard and the A-Team epitomize the concepts you speak of, in my opinion. You only say, “I love it when a plan comes together” with a half chewed cigar in your mouth if you’re having fun doing what you do for a living…
Having grown up in the 80s myself, I’m wondering what you think the catalyst for change was once the 90s rolled around? Was it the seriousness associated with addiction to recreational pharmaceuticals? Was it the finality associated with the HIV virus?
Finding the answer to why things changed, may uncover a way to bring fun back. Even if in some small way.
Justin · October 28, 2009 at 8:51 am
Chris: Why do I think pop culture has been dragged to the dark side? I think it’s a combination of artistic exploration, cynical marketing and the public zeitgeist.
Since so many of our cultural icons are ciphers, it’s easy for artists to transpose them into new situations as a way to comment on society. For example, Neal Adams had Green Arrow and Green Lantern battling drugs and racism in the ’70s, and Captain America got his start fighting the Nazis. Just because a medium is consumable by kids, that doesn’t mean the artists involved will always be content to write kids’ stories.
Meanwhile, from goth to grunge to gangster rap to emo, the music scene has trained 30 years of youth to reject the positive and embrace the grim reality of their own inevitable tragedy. Is it any wonder that the X-Men’s movie costumes are indistinguishable from the jet-black technoleather of The Matrix?
SexCpotatoes · October 27, 2009 at 12:59 pm
Two words: Astro Boy
The new movie seems very “fun” without being too serious or dark.
Dave P. · October 27, 2009 at 12:33 pm
I constantly refer to the ’80s as a golden age. I often assume most people would refer to their childhood era as such, and dismiss my own thoughts correspondingly, but you have nailed my feelings of the ’80s in this post.
I find it difficult to find anything that I would actually recommend children watch or enjoy these days when it comes to modern media. It all seems so dark, or adult themed, or just plain violent. And I look back on cartoons of my childhood and realize there was loads of violence in them, but they never seem as pathological and dark as current shows.
Thanks for articulating your thoughts of the ’80s in this post. I will definitely be passing the link around to my friends for their opinion as well.
Ryan Miller · October 27, 2009 at 10:49 am
Dug this post. It’s funny because I’ve never thought about it that much. In fact I loved the fact that some of the characters I enjoyed as a kid have been rebooted with more adult themes (The Dark Knight, Watchmen) and I still hold out some hope that Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland remake will be a darker interpretation of the story.
But you make a good point that all these reboots have come with a cost, and that we may be depriving ourselves and kids of the same kind of plain fun that we enjoyed with these stories.
Looking forward to more great posts.
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