Let me share something with you that’s not going to come as much of a surprise: I love pop culture – and, more importantly, I love analysing it. Indeed, like a decent-sized chunk of the online community, I’m obsessed with picking apart films, TV shows, books, and comics in an effort to see what makes them tick and to find deeper layers of characterisation and thematic subtext.
But I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about pop culture analysis lately, I’m starting to wonder whether the “deep dive” approach taken by hardcore fans to unpacking their favourite stories might not be such a good idea. In fact, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that – rather than adding to our overall enjoyment of a movie, show, book or comic – there comes a point where pop culture over-analysis actually destroys what we love about them, instead.
We love a whole story, not its pieces
This all started when I read The Multiversity, writer Grant Morrison’s most recent experiment with pushing the boundaries of mainstream superhero comic books. Specifically, it was the moment I arrived at the scene in the fourth issue, “Pax Americana” (masterfully rendered by artist Frank Quitely), where the god-like Captain Atom uses his otherworldly powers to dissect a dog.
Why would he do such a thing? To see if he can locate the source of his affection for the poor animal (makes sense). Almost immediately, though, Atom tearfully realises that whatever makes him love his four legged friend isn’t something that can be found by looking more closely at its individual components – in matters of the heart, the sum is always greater than the parts.
Now, on the face of it, this is simply a harrowing illustration of just how disconnected Atom is from conventional human thoughts and emotions. But it’s about more than that too; at its core, “Pax Americana” is a story that Morrison designed to be scrutinised repeatedly – as a sly comment on the tendency for fans and critics to analyse a story to the point where (like the dog Atom dissected) it loses its original appeal.
And you know what? he’s right. I can say from experience that mining a well-constructed film, TV show, book or comic for every hidden symbol and subtextual nuance does eventually dampen your emotional connection to it. There’s an obvious irony here, since these stories’ richness and texture is what makes us want to delve deeper into them in the first place!
Worse still, constantly digging through the same movies, shows, comics and books leads you to unearth their various flaws. Before you know it, you can’t unsee technical or creative blemishes that would otherwise have gone unnoticed had you just left well enough alone. You also tend to find that more than a few of them don’t hide as many layers as you initially thought, either.
And trust me: there’s no downer quite like discovering an ostensibly deep dissertation on weighty themes is, in reality, just a superficially clever tale that only seemed smart on first blush.
Some stories need to be analysed to be fully enjoyed
Of course, a considerable amount of pop culture not only invites analysis, but was designed for it. Off the top of my head, I can name Life of Pi, Watchmen, The Sopranos, and 2001: A Space Odyssey as examples of stories that were intentionally constructed in a way that meant only intensive study could fully unlock their mysteries (and delights) fully – and that’s barely scratching the surface.
Yet creative intent aside, can even these multi-faceted works stand up to our continual scrutiny without withering? Are pop culture fans like the villains in an Indiana Jones movie: doomed to be brought undone by our ruthless quest for knowledge (except without, y’know, being Nazis. Or Thuggees. Or Commies).
Maybe that’s a bit extreme, though. Instead, maybe we’re more like Jack Black’s Carl Denham in the 2005 King Kong remake, who ultimately makes the same mistake as Captain Atom, but for different reasons.
When Denham hauls jumbo-sized ape Kong back to civilisation, he makes good on his promise to bring what remains of the world’s mystery to the masses. However, there’s a hollowness to it all, a crass commerciality that suggests that by taking something special like Kong and wringing every last dollar out of it, Denham has somehow managed to rob it of its wonder.
They’re two sides of the same coin, Captain Atom and Carl Denham: one kills what he adores by trying to engage with it further, the other by excessively exploiting it for his own ends. So, is pop culture fans’ relationship with pop culture itself ultimately a reflection of Captain Atom and his dog, Denham and his ape? Regardless of our intentions, by overanalysing pop culture, are we also guilty of destroying the thing we love?
The truth is, I don’t know. Like most pop culture fanatics (including Morrison himself), I can’t see myself ever giving up on pop culture analysis. Nor do I think I necessarily should; like I said earlier, so much of pop culture encourages – even demands – greater consideration, and the fruits of this sort of labour can be very rewarding.
So having had time to reflect on it, I think the trick might be not to fixate too much on the same old classics, and to constantly expose ourselves to new things. By not obsessing too much over any one movie, comic or film, we free ourselves up to enjoy and examine other stories, spreading the searing focus of our scrutiny across several targets and minimising its impact.
We’re also allowing ourselves the opportunity to re-discover our original favourites later on down the road with fresh eyes. This gives us the chance to fall back in love with these stories all over again as we peel back fresh layers of meaning over the gentle course of decades, not days and weeks.
It makes sense to me. But who knows – maybe I’m wrong? Perhaps I’ll analyse it awhile longer…