When Avengers: Endgame premiered and began breaking endless box office records, I saw a lot of people on social media declare the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be the great pop culture symbol of their generation. Indeed, it wasn’t just the pinnacle of the zeitgeist for them; it was an experience many felt genuinely privileged to have seen unfold from beginning to end over the course of eleven years. That elicited a few groans and skeptical comments, but it got me thinking about my relationship with pop culture and the things that made me feel that sense of pride. What does it mean to feel true honour at something so seemingly frivolous as a movie or book?
So a lot of people post-Endgame said that they were genuinely honoured to have been alive to witness the MCU. That inspired a lot of cynicism but made me think:— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) May 2, 2019
What piece of pop culture did you feel truly privileged to have seen in real time?
For me: Twin Peaks s3. pic.twitter.com/PwRHxztv3O
I tweeted out the question to the world: ‘What piece of pop culture did you feel truly privileged to have seen in real time?’ It was a pretty vague comment and I didn’t force any specifications on what people could reply with. I just wanted to see what people, stories, ideas and cultural ephemera impacted others. The responses were varied, passionate and often surprising, although many of the usual suspects popped up - Harry Potter, The Matrix, the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Game of Thrones, and so on. I never got into Game of Thrones but I wholeheartedly understand the thrill of being there week by week for a show that overwhelmed pop culture discourse from beginning to end.
For me, my equivalent of that was the return of Twin Peaks. I hadn’t had the agonizingly long 25 year wait that other fans had for season three, but as a die-hard David Lynch fan who had grown content with the knowledge that he would probably never make anything again after Inland Empire, how could I not be completely consumed by the return? When it premiered, I had just begun my career as a pop culture writer and Twin Peaks was the show I wanted to talk about the most. I was desperate to be part of those conversations week by week, but not the ones that wanted to ‘figure out’ what was happening. That’s always a futile endeavour with David Lynch, but with Twin Peaks: The Return, I merely wanted to submerge myself in his mind and be open to whatever happened. Every week, I tuned in with the knowledge that what was happening was utterly new and would probably never happen again. The sheer lightning in a bottle experience of a major cable network giving David Lynch of all people a blank cheque and total creative control was nothing short of a miracle and I wanted to absorb everything while I could, comforted by the knowledge that this was something truly special. Watching episode 8 alone was a privilege, one I knew I would likely never see again.
As with the MCU’s evolution, for many, the pride came with seeing something evolve and take root in our imaginations as a genuine triumph of artistic achievement. Regardless of what you think of Marvel movies or how hard you were hit with superhero fatigue, there’s an undeniable fascination to be found in seeing this franchise get more entangled in its own mythos, evolving beyond the traditional confines of movie sequels and prequels. Film is still a relatively new medium, given that it’s only been a defining cultural force for over a century, but seeing how the MCU completely rewrote the rules of blockbuster film-making in less than a decade still proves dizzying, so it doesn’t surprise me that many feel privileged to have seen it unfold.
A lot of responses pointed to those water-cooler moments, the stories everyone just had to experience so they could participate in the growing community that obsessed over them. At a time in our entertainment sphere where such things are dying out on television but becoming the driving force of film, it was fascinating to gather a timeline of sorts on those people, narratives and fads that shaped lifetimes. For some, there was that sense of excitement that came with being the first or one of the earliest people to latch onto a film or series before it blew up and became a worldwide phenomenon. I had a hell of a lot of people cite the Harry Potter books and make that point, and I couldn’t judge them because I had the same response. One of my clearest childhood memories is of seeing a segment on the kids show Blue Peter where J.K. Rowling was asked about her first two books and much was made about the growing popularity of the series, so I asked my mum if she would buy me them. To my surprise, she did, and I used to steal my dad’s torch so I could feverishly read them under the covers at night. If I woke up early enough, I could pull the book from under my pillow and read a few more pages. Harry Potter shaped me indelibly, but it was also my first experience of pop culture smugness, because I had read the books when so many people at my school hadn’t and boy was I a jerk about that.
My feelings on Harry Potter are often difficult to parse. For all of my genuine appreciation for what those books gave me as a kid and how they moulded me into someone better, I struggle to balance that out with my growing frustration towards J.K. Rowling and the exhausting charade of her dragging this series out well beyond its original shelf life and purpose. Every time Rowling tweets about wizards sh*tting or there’s more Johnny Depp news to further render the Fantastic Beasts movies pointless, I wonder how my younger self would have reacted to it all. The present can’t take away from the past but it sure can make it a little greyer.
What piece of pop culture do you feel genuine pride or delight that you got to experience in real time? It can be absolutely anything, from a movie to a book, a TV series, a musical movement, the evolution of an entire medium, and much more. Go wild!
Header Image Source: Disney // Marvel Studios