With the news over the weekend that Guardians of the Galaxy has become the highest grossing movie of 2014 in the US, it feels like we're seeing the start of something new in sci-fi and fantasy media - you don't have to hide your properties inherent 'weirdness' to find mainstream success any more.
It's been a long-held thought by executives across the TV and Film industry that when it comes to pop culture, big audiences don't go for the strange stuff. The huge success of films like The Dark Knight trilogy have shown that in order to give an out-there premise (and as straight-laced as he is compared to the likes of DC's other characters, the idea of a billionaire socialite part-timing as a gritty brawler dressed as a bat fighting crazy supervillains is still honestly pretty weird!) a wider audience, they need to be serious and tone down the oddities, in the all-encompassing race for realism, and through it, relatability. Even Marvel, regularly championed these days for taking the big risks with some of their stranger characters like Thor and Captain America, played those characters fairly straight at first - and even then, they could only come off the back of the success of the first Iron Man movie (perhaps more of a success as a Robert Downey Junior vehicle than it was as a superhero movie, at least at first). It took a lot of smaller steps before Marvel could go as out there as something like The Avengers.
Image Credit: Olly Moss
But it took something as zany and bizarre as Guardians to finally really hit home that being weird isn't an instant death knell for a genre property any more. Of course it's not just weirdness like a talking tree-man and a trigger happy sentient Raccoon that GOTG has going for it - there were plenty of other reasons it worked so well - but the fact that characters as weird as that are now some of the biggest hits of the year, shows that as long as it's done well, people are more than willing to accept more than a bit of weirdness from their media. Hell, the fact that Man of Steel failed to light up the box offices last year might even be an indicator that the general public are willing to punish a film when it doesn't go as weird as it should with its properties.
Gif Credit: r/HighQualityGifs
It's not just in films that we're seeing this steady acceptance of all things odd about our pop culture. Game of Thrones' fourth season earlier this year also started delving into some of the more bizarre elements of the book series it based on, and it didn't freak audiences out. If you cast your minds back to the heady days of 2011, when GoT was just starting to make its mark, all the buzz wasn't just about the great actors involved or the exciting political intrigue elements - it was also about how Game of Thrones wasn't your 'typical fantasy series'. It was lauded that this new fantasy series didn't have elves or monsters or magic, it had human, relatable characters. The message was that fantasy didn't have to be weird, to be 'just for geeks'. This was fantasy without those 'ho-hum' fantasy trappings.
Fast forward to 2014, and you've got creepy little tree-girls flinging magic-Molotovs at ice zombies straight out of Harryhausen. And not just that, but that happens in an episode that almost broke ratings records for HBO, in a season that dominated HBO's ratings history. The same season that depicted Dragons running rampant, and Giants laying siege to a gigantic Ice wall that wouldn't have looked out of place in a scene from The Lord of The Rings. Yes, it's taken a steady build up of the series more out there elements, but could you imagine Game of Thrones' attracting that same sort of 'not your typical fantasy show' headlines these days? In fact, writers are more likely to leap to the series defence when someone comments they'd rather not watch a 'fantasy' series. It's a pretty bizarre turnaround in both the public and critical conciousness.
I think the change was most recently typified for me in Doctor Who's recent première episode, Deep Breath. Doctor Who itself is a show that, like Game of Thrones, has become more accepting of some of its bizarreness as its modern day revival has progressed (okay, so it did still happen to start out as a show about a centuries old, two-hearted time traveller fighting nazi pepperpots and flying around space and time in a wooden phone box, sure) - it started with its characters grounded in a reality of Council estates and chip shops, The Doctor himself given a gritty, dramatic past whilst his companion was 'the ordinary girl' of the 21st century. The 'soap opera' side of Rose Tyler's family life was just as important to the series' mainstream success as the time-travelling adventure.
But coming into Deep Breath, we have this new, older lead for the first time in the revived series, with the marketing emphasising in the run-up to transmission that this was the show harping back to its classic roots - a show unafraid of being weird, old-school Doctor Who. It's a change symbolised brilliantly in a scene early on in the episode between between Madame Vastra (a married lesbian victorian Lizard detective, so that's some extra weirdness starters for ten!) and Clara Oswald discussing the latter's attitude to this grey-haired Doctor:
VASTRA: But he is The Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold, he has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range!
CLARA: I did not flirt with him.
VASTRA: He flirted with you.
VASTRA: He looked young! Who do you think that was for?
CLARA: ... me?
VASTRA: Everyone. I wear a veil as he wore a face, for the same reason.
CLARA: What reason?
VASTRA: The oldest reason there is for anything: To be accepted.
Many have interpreted the scene as something of a 'takedown' aimed at fans perceived only to be into the show for an attractive young lead (a 'judgement on the quality of their hearts', as Vastra says - a ridiculous notion in and of itself, but that's for another day), but if anything it's about Doctor Who itself. Vastra notes that The Doctor wasn't just appearing young for his companions, it was for everyone - even the audience itself. The character and the show wanted to be accepted, either in-fiction by his travelling associates but also in the real world, by a new generation of viewers. He had to hide his age, his quirks and his weirdness, as did the series - until now, where he can cast of his façade and show who he really is to both Clara and the audience.
But it's in Clara's, and therefore in this analogy, the audience's furious retort, that its made clear:
I am not sure who you think you are talking to right now, Madame Vastra, but I have never had the slightest interest in pretty young men - and for the record, if there was anybody who could flirt with a mountain range, she's probably standing in front of you right now!
Just because my pretty face has turned your head, do not assume that I am so easily distracted.
If Vastra's speech is a supposed 'screw you' to people unwilling to accept an older, weirder Doctor for who he is, Clara and the audience are replying with 'Well screw you for thinking we'd act like that'. It symbolises both the shows willingness to get a bit more bizarre, and the audience's willingness to accept and enjoy that. I think we all had a bit of Jenny in us after Clara got that one out, and engaged in some damn fine clapping.
Times have changed, and are evidently still changing, for Pop Culture's place in the mainstream - and in all honesty, that can only be a good thing. As great as serious and gritty fantasy, Sci-Fi and comic book media can be, the strength of popular culture is in its variety. It doesn't all have to be serious and realistic, eager to hide its more out-there aspects or self-deprecatingly joke about them. Properties don't have to be afraid of letting their freak flag fly a little more - there's clearly a wide, wide audience out there equally welcoming to see it these days.
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