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?