#145: The Diamond Sea

In April of last year, as the final season of “Game of Thrones” approached its finale and “Avengers: Endgame” had just arrived in theaters, critic Matt Zoller Seitz identified the confluence of the two events as a pivotal moment in the entertainment industry, marking “the decisive defeat of ‘cinema’ by ‘content.’” He writes, “Both are mega-entertainments that are meant to be experienced on the largest screen possible (theatrical or home) in the presence of others. Both will ultimately be viewed on the handheld device that 65% of you are using to read this essay. They're just two more pieces in the content stream, bigger and shinier than all others, but ultimately things to discuss on social media, bond over, and quickly move beyond.” In the year and a half since, the distinction between movies and television has continued to blur, nearly to the point of indistinguishability, with the pandemic-driven closure of movie theaters providing the final push. As that industry threatens to collapse—Warner Brothers has announced that it will start releasing all its movies on HBO Max—so does the idea of “content” as something viewed in a specific place or a specific context, like a theater. That content has thus completed its transformation into a utility—a serialized, fluid resource that flows through the digital pipes toward any domestic faucet that can dispense it.

This process parallels the ongoing expansion of extended universes like those of Marvel and Star Wars (both owned by Disney), but anyone else can seemingly carve out their own little universe in the interstitial spaces. Last week, I wrote about Kyle Chayka’s essay on ambient TV and the increasingly functional nature of media. Chayka describes a Netflix reality show called “Dream Home Makeover” whose protagonists, the design firm Studio McGee, post their own material on Instagram that is indistinguishable from the show itself: “TV is social media and social media is TV—an ouroboros. The McGee ambient universe sprawls across platforms, perpetuating the hallucination of the normal.” This proliferation of small, cross-platform universes pushing their way outward suggests a land grab in which all digital real estate and unclaimed attention must be absorbed by one universe or another. And the word “monoculture,” which gets tossed around a lot these days, is another way of saying that the biggest universes are getting bigger—particularly the ones owned by Disney, whose Marvel and Star Wars release schedule keeps accelerating. As the pandemic pushes us deeper into virtual space and the traditional strongholds of mass shared reality continue to weaken (Seitz identified “Game of Thrones” as “one of the last series that people watch as a group, episode by episode, week by week, experiencing big moments as a single unified audience”), we will increasingly find ourselves in environments that turn out to be someone else’s extended universe. Marvel characters have already begun to populate virtual worlds like Fortnite.

The internet seems to commoditize everything it touches, transforming individual objects and even people into fungible units for efficient exchange within various marketplaces. Ironically, extended universes (as a subset of branding) counteract this, adding a new layer atop what has been commoditized to make it different and unique once again. Eugene Wei has written that “narrative is a hedge against disaggregation and unbundling, and that is a critical moat in this age of social media and the internet.” But for juggernauts like Disney, this is probably too lenient: The Marvel and Star Wars brands feel more and more like skins that thinly veil intellectual property and defend newly claimed territory against encroachment by outsiders, making creative assets impervious to free exchange. If a given story can take place in our own “real” universe or that of Star Wars, the latter grows more viable as the Star Wars universe itself expands. Meanwhile, can we even all agree on what our own real universe is right now? The content will keep flowing to our homes to sustain us, just as water and natural gas do, but once we turn on the faucet, someone else’s proprietary reality will come pouring out of it.

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