Metaverse, Cinema, and the Death of Storytelling

The magnitude and significance of the ‘metaverse’ has been spreading rapidly. Some of the esoteric promises bundled with it include VR / AR, NFTs, and generally digital worlds closer to our experience of reality. As an American, I can proudly say that it seems like most of the discourse on these possibilities centers on entertainment. It then seems prudent for anyone with an interest in popular culture to get a sense of our cultural trajectory going into this perceived technological leap. Many conceptions of the metaverse are limitless crossover events, imagining the possibilities of any character or piece of pop culture in different digital universes. In this sense the ethos of the metaverse is already here, and it is found in the blockbuster movie rather than the internet.

The last decade has seen a broad trend of abstraction and commodification of your favorite superhero or video game character. It’s much easier and more efficient to make media this way. It’s also inevitable as individuals become more empowered to create alongside their consumption. Entire communities have emerged around fan-made fiction, art, mods, and entire games that sometimes outdo the original. We see a similar trajectory in software. Modular libraries and APIs can stitch applications together without ever really having to know what makes each component tick, internally speaking. Your average Marvel or Star Wars movie today relies so heavily on the cultural capital of its characters that if you can’t similarly see ‘under the hood’ you’ll often be left with very little of substance. These characters are brands like never before, leading to crossover events that feel like more of a Dior x Jordan sneaker collab than a more traditional movie[1].

The problem with this is that brands are not people[2] and artistic integrity and disinfected corporate communication are often incongruous. This leads to homogenized, formulaic media that rarely has any reason to take risks. Another factor is the trend of stagnation in North American cinema adding pressure to expand into foreign markets. Thus, a single product for a global crowd is demanded, which usually translates as lowest common denominator entertainment.

These franchises have accumulated a huge amount of residual influence over the years, and usually for good reasons like consistent high-quality source material or legitimately good early entries. It’s cool to trace the lineage of a character through different eras and experience new ones for yourself. Dr. Who and James Bond, some of the most defining franchises of the last century, are a couple of good examples of this on an individual character level. At their worst they are full of masturbatory fan service and nostalgia bait. They can also be transcendent works of art spanning decades, etching cultural sensibilities like tapestry on film. In these franchises each entry acts as a snapshot in time, and through this history fans gain a standard by which to measure each iteration.

Of course video games and virtual environments are less so snapshots as opposed to constant streams of information. This describes the Marvel industrial complex pretty accurately- the pressure to keep up from the consumer, and the pressure to bring everything into a wider narrative from the creators. They are also different in that much more agency is given to consumers- in video games you become a character instead of just watching them. Content (both visual and interactive) has the capacity to be hyper-specialized, even eventually such that no two experiences of a piece of media would be the same[3]. But a triumph for personalization could be a real loss for our shared experience. We already see this to some degree, anyone who’s been on their parent’s computer can attest to the radical difference in our online lives.

The biggest loser here is the art of storytelling, increasingly given way to templates and commercialism. One could certainly argue the generalization of many famous stories, the hero’s journey being the most well known / high-minded[4] one. But it’s hard to see the superhero wave ending up any other way than it has, a logical conclusion of capitalistic cinema.

Criticizing Marvel, the biggest and most popular movies in the world, is probably the easiest thing ever. Especially criticism for not being bastions of artistic integrity. People want explosive, shiny superhero movies and Marvel delivers, and this is all fine. Its popularity doesn’t spell the end of storytelling but rather serves as a signifier of what will happen to art if we let the human element slide. Especially in a meta-blockchain environment where everything can be priced, charted, and traded, It may be even harder (and more important) to tell new, meaningful stories through art. Maybe great art doesn’t scale in a digital sense, or the capabilities of online space never reach the level I’m considering. The internet has shown us that its capacity for connection and beauty also shines throughout the filth.

This is not a cry for the good old days. This is the best time in history bar none for quality television, movies, video games, and (perhaps more arguably) the arts in general, largely through sheer volume and lower barriers to entry. There was probably just as much crap in the cinema or bookstore fifty years ago as there is today, and all of this lineage is seen and subconsciously romanticized through the lens of survivorship bias. This is also not to say that traditional film or other media is dead. This makes the value of more episodic self-contained works even higher. The problem is more so that it has never been easier to mass-produce and distribute crap, sweeping terabytes of crap, and sifting through it is a decidedly nontrivial task. Whatever happens to this conception of the ‘metaverse’, it seems inevitable that our interactions with the internet will increase and evolve. We should do whatever we can to maximize the humanity of what we populate it with.

Art[5] has always been informed by its medium and technology. There isn’t a consensus on what the metaverse even is, nor what will populate it. Yet the ideals of the coming internet landscape have already permeated some of our largest pieces of media, and we can better shape the worlds of culture and entertainment by understanding its behavior.

[1] - I say this as big fans of both
[2] - Despite the declaration of the U.S. government
[3] - For now, this is limited to certain video games with a high degree of customization and player agency. Think more like a sitcom with your specific favorite actors, jokes, style, setting, etc. made to order.
[4] - A rosier interpretation might say that the monomyth is a set of commonalities found in many great stories rather than a template by which they are created. Ultimately two sides of the same idea.
[5] - ‘Content’ might be the more apt-internet term here, my issues with it being nicely described in this video.