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A Na’vi warrior sitting at water level on the ocean, riding a submerged sea creature, is seen from behind, looking at an immense mechanical human ship covered with rotors and engines in a shot from Avatar: The Way of Water Image: 20th Century Studios

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2022 was pop culture’s year of violent denial

Everything’s fine

In the final season of The Good Fight, unrest is always present. On one side, there is a crowd protesting. On the other, there is police. Across all 10 episodes, it’s never said what the assembled crowd is angry about. The only thing that’s clear is that it’s growing: steadily, constantly, exponentially. Yet inside the office building where the Paramount Plus legal drama largely takes place, it’s business as usual. There are cases to win. The show must go on.

The highest-grossing film of 2022, Top Gun: Maverick, is a movie with a giant void in its center. Critically acclaimed for its craft and verisimilitude in a world where blockbusters thrive on unreality, the film features Tom Cruise reprising his role as the ace pilot Maverick to train a new generation of hotshots on a mission of vital importance. Someone has a terrible weapon of mass destruction, and it must be taken out. Who has these weapons? It doesn’t matter. The film doesn’t say. Naming them would be worse than the film’s heroes failing in their mission. It would rob the audience of something to feel good about.

Taking in 2022’s popular culture often felt like an exercise in denial. Much like in our real-world lives, as institutions of government and public health continued to erode in the face of an authoritarian-conspiracy–addled minority and a continuing pandemic, the already-shaky structures undergirding the business of entertainment began to collapse even as the executives in charge attempted to power through as if nothing was wrong.

Maverick stands in profile with his class of young bucks in a hella dramatic sunset shot for Top Gun: Maverick Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

The movie industry, still reeling from the pandemic and a shareholder-fueled focus on streaming, attempted to return to a world where people would show up for movies in theaters — despite real-world circumstances that rendered this expectation foolish, and a dizzying number of COVID-era shifts in strategy that left audiences unsure of what they could even expect anymore. Even Disney, the de facto box office champion, failed to make an impression, as its most acclaimed animated features, like Turning Red, were relegated to streaming while mediocre or poorly marketed films flopped in theaters. Taken in conjunction with a Marvel Cinematic Universe phase that felt aimless and a Star Wars brand that once dominated theaters retreating to television series documenting its past, even the megafranchises seemed less dependable than before.

Meanwhile, streaming television began to implode, as Netflix entered an era of desperation and the bill for the massive Warner Bros. Discovery merger came due. Both of these monumental upsets manifested in alarmingly similar ways — sudden, drastic, and barely justified cuts to animated programming, and to a bastion of shows that both featured diverse characters and employed diverse creators. In WBD’s case, entire streaming films and shows were yanked from HBO Max, both undermining the mission statement of the streamer and calling into question the value of its one and only product: streaming television.

In response, audiences turned elsewhere: Among this year’s biggest stories in cinema is the runaway success of the Telugu blockbuster RRR. Franchise TV found its biggest success in revolution, as House of the Dragon and Andor took familiar iconography and fashioned it into stories of rebellion. Reflecting a moment of nationwide unrest, labor took the spotlight in acclaimed dramas like Severance and comedies like Abbott Elementary. And hating the rich might even be cool again, as Succession gave way to The White Lotus or films like The Menu, Glass Onion, and Triangle of Sadness.

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc standing in a pool holding a drink in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery Image: Netflix

The disconcerting thing about being a passive observer in all this — either as a casual viewer of entertainment, or as a critic — is the resolute insistence on carrying on as if things were normal. Fretting over box office numbers feels odd when the reason said numbers were depressed in the first place — a pandemic — is still an ongoing concern. When films did connect, like Top Gun: Maverick, the sleeper horror hit Smile, or the year-ender Avatar: The Way of Water, the reason cited was often the very thing Jordan Peele’s Nope cautioned against earlier this summer: the all-consuming maw of spectacle. A critic bemoaning franchise dominance is old hat, but in 2022, that franchise dominance began to crack the spine of the entire business, remaking it into something that seems hard to walk back from.

A challenge of marking time in the digital era is a form of temporal inflation — an hour just won’t get you as far as it used to, with the multiplicity of things competing for your attention, and a creeping expectation that you are supposed to do more with said hour than you did in years prior. There’s an argument to be made that this reached an inflection point in 2022, as franchise bloat hit a peak, producing insular stories that required all manner of extracurricular work, from the exorbitant largesse of The Rings of Power to the dodgy cynicism of “the multiverse” as explored in the MCU after Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that’s built on stolen franchise valor. Taken concurrently with the shrinking animation field and fewer venues for stories not based on massive IP, it’s hard to feel good about what’s in store for 2023. Looking back, all that’s clear is chaos, as art is gutted in favor of machinery built to extract time from audiences, if it can’t have money.

The series finale of The Good Fight, ominously titled “The End of Everything,” builds to a dark metatextual joke. One of the striking things about the show is its lengthy opening credits sequence, in which office furnishings — phones, desks, coffee thermoses — all blow up in a studio environment. “The End of Everything” makes this figurative imagery literal, as the episode depicts the seasonlong protest crowd swelling into a full-on riot, one that’s then exploited by white supremacists as an opportunity to open fire into the offices of the show’s predominantly Black law firm, Reddick Boseman. In the gunfire, the show recreates its opening: phones, decanters, vases, and laptops shatter. No one dies, but the show is over after this — closing the loop on a tongue-in-cheek credits sequence by recasting it as a warning unheeded for five years.

Distilling a year in art into neat takeaways is often a disservice to that art, on a base level. Doing so in 2022 feels exponentially more laughable, as art was treated as a frivolity by its stewards, and empty commerce stripped it bare. It’s hard to feel as if the bright spots are footholds for optimism, as much as they are the bittersweet tune the band plays while the doomed ship sinks.

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