The conflation between high drama and seriousness, like the one between pop-culture and frivolity, is nothing new. It’s a surprise, though, to find it being made by the actor and writer Simon Pegg, who has form in both areas. Promoting his new comedy, Man Up, he told the Radio Times this week that “part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste… Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously! It is a kind of dumbing down in a way. Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about… whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”
He has since elaborated on these points in an interesting and articulate post on his own site in which he links his remarks to the infantilisation of culture that he helped explore in the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced. But it’s still the case, I think, that his initial comments depend on some old assumptions about different types of cinema.
Pegg is best-known for comedy, especially the kind with a geeky, fanboy sheen (such as Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto” trilogy, which began in 2004 with Shaun of the Dead, and which Pegg co-wrote and starred in), or else for big-budget franchise instalments (the third, fourth and fifth Mission: Impossible movies, the first two entries in the Star Trek reboot). But he is also a former drama student, so he must realise that the distinction he makes is slightly bogus. It isn’t exactly the problem that superhero movies are detracting from our engagement with moral issues – the two are not mutually exclusive, as anyone who has seen the first two X-Men films, or Superman II, or has studied Greek mythology will attest. Complex moral and philosophical conundrums can be wrestled with adeptly in those arenas. If cinema can be at its most mature when the cast is filled with plastic figures (Toy Story) or headlined by a rubber alien (E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial), superheroes aren’t going to be much of an impediment. Genre itself is not the issue so much as what filmmakers do within it.
It’s also interesting that Pegg admits to missing “grown-up things” and says he would “quite like to go off and do some serious acting”. He’s trading in some invidious distinctions here. Whenever this particular actor has taken on so-called “grown-up” or “serious” projects, they have usually been striking in their lack of sophistication. A Fantastic Fear of Everything was a comic thriller that felt like the end result of a brief course of psychotherapy: any drama was theoretical, any conclusions jaw-droppingly banal and lifted straight from a textbook. Still, it wasn’t as bad as another of Pegg’s “grown-up” projects, Hector and the Search for Happiness, a self-help manual in cinematic form, full of zany characters and smug homilies.
It would be perverse to claim these movies were more intelligent or skilful than, say, the Star Trek films or Shaun of the Dead, or that Pegg himself was anywhere near as accomplished as he is in The World’s End – sure, that’s a comic fantasy about a small town taken over by robots from outer space, but his performance as a recovering suicidal alcoholic stuck hopelessly stuck in the past is nuanced, moving and funny. If growing up means leaving behind work like that, I would advise strongly against it.
Pegg isn’t the first comic who has felt he might like to be taken more seriously, or has experienced ambivalence toward the very audience who gave him his success. When I interviewed him three years ago, he told me: “People deserve a poke in the face. Maybe not a poke in the face. But the ribs, at least. I like the idea of confounding audiences to a degree, challenging their expectations. We are given what we expect so much now. There’s this desperate fear of upsetting anyone. All we get in the cinema are 3D fireworks displays. But interaction is more important than passive watching; that’s just a waste of the art form. My attitude goes back to Howard Barker’s book Arguments for a Theatre, and his insistence that it should be painful and awkward and difficult for the audience.” Hear, hear. The mistake would be if Pegg equated this with putting away childish things. Keep them by all means. Just keep putting some thought and cunning into how you play with them.
Man Up opens 29 May