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Stagnation of creativity in media

Too much of the media ecosystem is swamped by the dull and derivative products intended to do nothing but continue the profit cycle.

Has the world finally had enough of superheroes?

Ever since its release of Iron Man in 2008, garnering massive success, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has released virtually two dozen more superhero films and is in the process of developing at least 15 more. As the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, Marvel Studios is essentially rewarded for pumping out the same movies year after year. 

However, this pattern of repetitive and uninspired entertainment goes beyond Marvel or film — it is a manifestation of culture industry, which critical theorists Thedor Adorno and Max Horkheimer analyze in their book, Dialectic of Enlightenment. In essence, as mass production separates products from their creator, mass media generates homogeneity. Unlike pre-industrial artisanship, manufactured goods are void of any signs of human labor, touch or expression. Instead of intense and personal art, mediums of expression become vehicles for entertainment.

Subsequently, products are reduced to a standard formula of creation, which only entertains minor changes to increase profit. This is why the white, male-dominated MCU has only recently begun to introduce leading female characters or people of color: the concept of diversity has seeped into mainstream culture. But when exactly did art begin to imitate the bleak products of mass production, forming the entertainment industry?

Perhaps this happened when the consumers of unoriginal commodities became unimaginative themselves. When entertainment becomes the only way we can imagine expression, it is impossible to break out of such undisruptive means of leisure. As a result, the entertainment industry today is saturated with “kitsch” — the repetitive art that thrives on references and recycles the old without contributing anything new — more than ever before. This exists given the competitive nature of capitalism, the value of dominance, market control or the basic need for survival outweigh that of innovation. Thus, it comes as no surprise that franchises opt for reboots, crossovers and spinoffs instead of creating something new: there is simply too much risk involved.

Furthermore, American media is notably controlled by just five conglomerates — ViacomCBS, Newscorp, Comcast, Disney and Fox Corp. — which concentrate 90 percent of media ownership. The monopoly on what media Americans consume further exploits human emotion through the process of democratic unfreedom. As explained by German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse, though we may perceive our freedom as inalienable, impersonal forces of domination in society rationalize what is actually oppression.

The idea of freedom has been reduced to the freedom to consume, rendering the passivity and obedience of the masses to the culture industry. According to the theory of the alienation of labor, one is resigned to consumption outside of their labor because the means of production is owned by someone else. Providing the masses with opportunities to essentially purchase our identities, the culture industry is the invisible dictator of taste.

Adorno and Horkheimer sought to explain why this notion is in direct opposition to the concept of spontaneous action. With the culture industry working in tandem with the drudgery of capitalist labor, the consumption of popular culture plays a key role in preserving the status quo; genuine emotions challenge the repetitive and dehumanizing lifestyles to which we are subject. And as we unravel the monotony of pop culture — from commodified aesthetics to artificial political personas to marketing campaigns around “social justice” movements — the culture industry is anything but authentic. 

With entertainment at our fingertips, it’s easy to fall back into routines of passively consuming pop culture. Before you watch the newest Marvel movie, however, perhaps consider why it seems so appealing to begin with. After all, no amount of superheroes can save the world from mindless entertainment under capitalism.

By Emily Cao, Feature editor
Photo courtesy of Pix4free