I believe in the importance of popular culture, and am committed enough to the analysis of culture that I regular assign texts in my classes that are more popular than canonical. And I don't think of pop culture as interesting "merely" in a cultural context ... I think the best is worthy of detailed textual analysis as well. (I think one reason my dissertation was oddball is that I took popcult "junk" like Mickey Spillane and examined it via close textual readings as much as I put it in its cultural context.)
Having said that, there is always a danger that an interest in popular culture makes us vulnerable to marketing. Deciding what is important enough to consider critically ends up too closely tied to what is popular, which isn't so bad in itself but which is a problem in a world where marketing drives the box office as much as does "quality." (This isn't just true for movies. I write a lot about television, and many assume I must be interested in the popular simply because I like TV. But what I like on TV is rarely what sits atop the ratings. I don't watch reality shows, to note the most obvious example. People like me are obsessing about Mad Men right now, but the truth is, hardly anyone actually watches that show. Buffy was perhaps the #1 example of a show that intrigued critics while remaining near the bottom of the ratings charts ... and lasted seven seasons nonetheless.) The movies that get talked about are almost always those that get the most pre-release advertising. The buzz created by such marketing has little to do with "populist" word-of-mouth ... the only mouths passing along words are those of the marketers.
It is certainly possible for mass entertainment to be both popular and profound ... this happens all the time. But when most of the energy behind a production is devoted to marketing, too little is leftover for the actual cultural product itself. As Pauline Kael wrote (28 years ago!):
The studios no longer make movies primarily to attract and please moviegoers; they make movies in such a way as to get as much as possible from prearranged and anticipated deals. Every picture (allowing for a few exceptions) is cast and planned in terms of those deals.... [T]he project must ... have an easily paraphrasable theme, preferably something that can be done justice to in a sentence and brings to mind the hits of the past. How else could you entice buyers? Certainly not with something unfamiliar, original....
There is an even grimmer side to all this: because the studios have discovered how to take the risk out of moviemaking, they don't want to make any movies that they can't protect themselves on. Production and advertising costs have gone so high that there is genuine nervous panic about risky projects. If an executive finances what looks like a perfectly safe, stale piece of material and packs it with stars, and the production costs skyrocket way beyond the guarantees, and the picture loses many millions, he won't be blamed for it — he was playing the game by the same rules as everybody else.
If, however, he takes a gamble on a small project that can't be sold in advance — something that a gifted director really wants to do, with a subtle, not easily summarized theme and no big names in the cast — and it loses just a little money, his neck is on the block.
I thought of this while reading Andrew Tracy's article on Hellboy II:
Talking faux-seriously about juvenilia has become a marvelous way to avoid talking seriously about the serious. The slew of hyperbolic, overheated critical rhetoric that follows in the wake—hell, in advance of—the latest high concept blockbuster is enough to make one gag. In these cases, critical investigation has by and large become a matter of repeating verbatim the films’ stridently announced surface-level themes with some linguistic curlicues and intellectual tumbling tossed in. As it has so often, commercial calculation finds a willing handmaiden in critical laziness, even (or perhaps especially) that evinced by those more intelligent and discerning writers who devote their efforts and talents towards designing elaborate intellectual justifications for films that neither require nor deserve them.
What’s most obscene about this pop-cultural mythmaking is that it works so resolutely against expanding taste or knowledge about movies. By focusing so obsessively and voluminously on the most readily, tyrannically available items, critical discussion is not simply reflecting the commercial film distribution situation in North America, but actively contributing to it. By elevating the latest pop detritus to the level of godhead, by implicitly declaring the centrality of pop moviemaking (most often bad pop moviemaking) above all else, it only further occludes those films that don’t have the advantage of being relentlessly drilled into our consciousness by the marketing machine. Why bother wrestling in print with films that are challenging, strange, obscure, or entertaining in different and novel ways when The Truth is playing in 2500 theatres?
I agree with most of this. What I would add is that there ARE popular works that deserve "elaborate intellectual justifications," that are challenging, that reward serious talk, that help expand our horizons. (Mr. Tracy, meet Battlestar Galactica.) The problem isn't that there are popular movies; the problem is that popular movies are crappier than they used to be. This isn't a paean to the good old days, exactly ... I'm not saying that movies in general are crappier than they used to be. I'm saying that Spider-Man 3 is crappier than movies used to be. The best of the Spider-Man movies ... take your pick, they're all the same to me ... is nowhere near as good as the worst of the Evil Dead movies, which surely says something about how today's blockbuster mentality affects even good filmmakers like Sam Raimi. (What makes Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies and King Kong so remarkable is that they are as good as the splatter-core stuff he made before he was famous.) I shudder to think what The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II might be like if they were made today. Instead of being the greatest movies ever made, they'd be ... well, they'd be The Godfather: Part III.