On Thursday night’s Parks and Recreation, Patton Oswalt played a Star Wars-loving Pawneean who mounted an epic filibuster under a little-known provision of the rules governing the City Council. It’s a great meta cameo for a guy who’s a nerd icon. But watching the whole thing, which Parks and Rec wisely released online several days in advance of the episode’s air date, I got to thinking that Oswalt’s pitch for a new Star Wars movie, which would mash up Thanos, and Tony Stark, and the X-Men, not to mention Robot Chewbacca actually says a lot about the state of nerd franchises as geek culture has taken over the world and become big business:
Oswalt’s grand mashup speaks to the mass enthusiasm that has made comic book movies and science fiction franchises such generally dependable moneymakers for studios despite the significant upfront costs required to make and to market them. But it’s also a reminder that there is enormous corporate consolidation of geek properties, particularly in Disney, which owns Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, and in the form of J.J. Abrams, who now controls both the Star Trek franchise and the core narrative of the forthcoming Star Wars sequels. These companies—and Abrams and Joss Whedon, is acting as an overall creative consultant of the Marvel movie universe—are absolutely capable. But this consolidation does represent a narrowing of perspectives.
And in Oswalt’s monologue, the things that fit together about all of these universes is their gee-whiz elements, their Infinity Gauntlets and jets and X-Wings and Iron Man suits. They’re all worlds in which amazing things can occur, of course. But this kind of enthusiasm strikes me as besides the point, and makes me a little sad. X-Men is an engine for exploring ideas about collective identity, about genetics as a source of identity, about the Holocaust, about the regulation of extraordinary abilities. The toys are extras, not the point. Ditto for Star Trek, where things like warp drives and beaming are a way of getting the characters rapidly into a lot of different situations that are about opening up everything from interracial relationships to the question of whether artificial intelligences have rights. If those ideas get lost in the rise of geek culture as a massively consumed corporate product, we’re losing a lot of what made those franchises so deeply engaging, and objects of such deep identification and debate in the first place.
Corporate consolidation, in other words, is the Infinity Gauntlet. It’s granted beloved geek figures like Abrams and Whedon enormous amounts of control over Time, Space, Mind, Soul, Reality, and Power. But we’re at a critical point where we’ll see if the concentration of all of that creative and financial power actually lets science fiction and fantasy conquer pop culture in all of its multifarious inventiveness, or if it just means that a narrow, relatively homogenized set of stories and set of characters takes over the world, bringing a narrow set of ideas with it.