What’s the point of pop culture references?


Like a huge percentage of people, I went to go see Black Panther last weekend. It’s a pretty damn good movie and I had a ton of fun watching it. It’s probably up there in my Top 5 favorite Marvel movies if only because it had a great conflict, solid action, some legitimate drama, and a villain who actually has emotional depth to them. But if there was one moment that really confused me, it would have to be early on in the movie when T’Challa visits his sister. 

While his sister, Shuri, is showing the newly appointed king of Wakanda all of her tech and his new Black Panther suit, she stops in the middle of her conversation just to say “WHAT ARE THOSE?!?!?!” at T’Challa’s sandals. He says that they’re traditional footwear for newly appointed kings and… that’s it. There’s nothing else that aside gives us. I didn’t laugh at it. I didn’t even roll my eyes at it. I was just confused as to why we got that line. Why did Shuri say that? Why was that line still in the script? It didn’t ruin the movie for me, I would be a moron if it did, but it got me thinking about pop culture references in movies and how pointless they really are at the end of the day. 

Oh sure, we may laugh at them now, but take a look back at them a few years later and it’s just going to date the movie. Pop culture is something that is inescapable in media, especially when it comes to film. No one movie exists in a vacuum and other movies can impact not only other movies, but an entire genre. Since this is something that we can take years to discuss, I’m just going to boil down this discussion to pop culture references and why the hell people think they’re a good idea. 

So pop culture references have been around for an eternity. We’ve always had them in movies, whether we’ve known them or not. Do you like Sapceballs? It works as a comedy because it makes fun of not only Star Wars but Aliens, Looney Toons, and Pizza Hut. In order to really get the joke, you need to be familiar with what they’re referencing. If you put someone in front of Spaceballs and they never saw Star Wars, it’s possible they could enjoy it, but probably not as much as someone who got the references. 

As much as it hurts to say this, I’m also going to give a good nod to the Scary Movie franchise and its creators, the Wayans brothers. On paper, it’s a great concept. Take all of the most popular scary movies of the past couple of years, make fun of them in one massive parody, and reap the rewards. All of the movies that they chose to reference were huge successes, and even if you didn’t get the references, the story and atmosphere still provided the laughs. The first Scary Movie is usually called the best one because of how it’s self aware of the jokes that are being made, but chose the jokes selectively. It didn’t just throw random movies into a blender and play connect the dots with the jokes like in Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans, The Starving Games, Scary Movie 4, Scary Movie 5, or anything else that Seltzerberg might touch. It was deliberate what they chose. 

Now do these movies hold up today? Spaceballs still does because Stars Wars is still massively popular thanks to our supreme overlords over at Disney, but Scary Movie? Unless you remember I Know What You Did Last Summer pretty easily, not so much. That’s because pop culture references date your movie to a specific time period. If you’re parodying something that’s timeless, the references can work. If the jokes are great without the need for a reference like how Blazing Saddles parodies Westerns effortlessly and examining race relations, the references can work. If your movie doesn’t fall into either of these two categories, and more often than not they will, your movie will feel dated on future viewings. 

If you want to look at dated pop culture references and how they can drag a movie down, just take a look at a majority of Dreamwork’s library. Ever since the success of Shrek, Dreamworks has tried to make the lightning strike twice again and again with little success. I can’t really recall any animated films before Shrek where a majority of the humor were pop culture references. Oliver and Company was set in modern New York (or at least 80’s modern New York), but the pop culture featured in that movie were all for the setting. They weren’t anachronistic. The pop culture references in Shrek are designed to be anachronistic. Why are classic fairytale creatures at Starbucks? Was there a Starbucks in the middle ages? Does Shrek get a Grande Bold and Pike? Was what I even said English?

If you look at all of the agreed upon “bad” Dreamworks movies, you’ll notice a trend of lame pop culture references strewn about in an attempt to be hip and cool with the youths, yo. Shark Tale has a Will Smith fish, Shrek the Third pushed the references too far, Home had some of the most cringe worthy dancing to pop songs I had ever seen, Mr. Peabody and Sherman had Zumba, and Trolls went with a Justin Timberlake song that I’ve tried to repress for years (side note, I know that some people liked Trolls, but it’s definitely on the meh side for me. To each their own). Watch them and see if they’ve aged. If pop culture references are all you have to support your movie, you’ve got a problem. 

For the better Dreamworks movies, like How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, Kung Fu Panda, and Prince of Egypt, they rarely rely on pop culture references to engage viewers. They rely on good characters and an interesting story to get people to care. Now does that mean that pop culture references are dirty in kids films and lowers the enjoyment of them? Of course not. Shrek 2 is still a great movie. The pop culture references work there because they’re still being delivered by characters that would be just as enjoyable without them. If the only character trait of the Will Smith fish is that he’s the Will Smith fish, your references are going to flounder and date your movie.

So just based off of everything so far, you’d think that a good pop culture references can only be used in parodies. Poke fun at the thing by referencing the thing. On the other side, a bad pop culture reference would be used anywhere else. Reference a popular thing in our world in a world where it isn’t popular. Why are the squirrels in The Nut Job doing the Gangnam Style in a world that isn’t set in 2012? You get the idea. 

Well there’s also another way that pop culture references can be used to enhance a movie, and these are probably the most complicated ones to implement; pop culture references as world building. 

You may think to yourself “Oh but Jesse, you Star Wars hating ne’er do well, all of the pop culture references you’ve listed before are examples of world building!” Yes, the pop culture references used in Shrek 2, Spaceballs, and Scream do inform us about the world that the characters inhabit, but that wasn’t their original purpose. The purpose of most of those references was to get a reaction out of the audience. Pizza the Hut is not meant to be a smart introduction to the world of Spaceballs and show us the cynical and commercial nature of the criminal underworld, it’s literally just a jab at how disgusting Pizza Hut pizza is. 

And you know what kind of movies love to throw out pop culture references as elements of world building? Movies aimed at nerds, or techies, or Millennials. Movies that are completely reliant on pop culture. 

I don’t think I need to remind everyone how terrible The Emoji Movie is and I’m pretty sure that it’s a cardinal sin to even talk about that here, but let’s just try and examine it under a microscope. One of the biggest problems that critics and humans had against The Emoji Movie was that it put the pop culture references first in order to sell a product. You weren’t watching characters go on an adventure, you were watching advertisements for Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Dropbox, and a whole host of apps. But if there’s one thing that The Emoji Movie did right, it was established it’s setting immediately. Roll me with on this.

We knew that we were watching characters in a phone. The characters were all emojis that people use regularly and their characters are defined by their emoji. We know what these emojis represent to us, so we already know their characters just based off their design. We know when we’re in the world of Candy Crush because of the bright colors and we know when we’re watching Youtube videos because the Youtube in the movie is the same Youtube as the one that we use. Pop culture references create the world of The Emoji Movie. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is everything wrong with corporate Hollywood marketing to children based on what’s cool with the youths, but at least they decided to use references that we understood to create the world. 

In that case, pop culture references are neutral. They serve their purpose to connect use to the world and the characters in it. So, what’s the downside to that? Well it substitutes characters and meaning behind what we see. The smiling emoji always smiles, and that’s her character. Never really goes above and beyond that because it’s mired to the reference. If you break that reference, then theoretically, the audience won’t be able to understand the character because they’re doing something different than how we perceive them. It’s a dumb theory that trashes writers because it believes that iconography is ore important to character development and personality than, you know, actual good writing. 

And that brings us to Ready Player One. Full disclosure, I’m not looking forward to this movie. Nothing in the trailer has impressed me, I find the story to be okay at best, and I think the world looks dull and could have been much more interesting than “generic sci-fi future”. Now I haven’t read the book and I’m fully open to the movie surprising me, but I kinda doubt it. But Ready Player One is weird with how it uses it’s pop culture references. You can see the Iron Giant, Tracer, Chun-Li, and the RX-78 pretty clearly in the trailers… but what do they mean? Why are they there?

Now I’m fully aware that my questions or my problems may be addressed in the movie, and I’m fully expecting them to be, but consider this as a reading from an outsider looking in. Really think about the pop culture references shown in the trailer and how they relate to the world created by them. This is a fully online world where people have opted to immerse themselves in VR and takes place in the year 2044. Why would people care about characters from a then 50 year old kid’s movie and a 2016 video game? It’s because those references don’t actually relate to the characters or to the world itself. The plot of the book, from what I could gather, has more in common with arcade games from the 80’s than it does modern nerd culture. The pop culture references are window dressing to me. They’re to appeal to generations that grew up with those franchises and sucker us into seeing the movie because we think we’re going to see the Iron Giant live again or see Tracer on the big screen when in actuality, they may not serve a real purpose in the movie. Hell, they may not even get a line of dialogue. They’re there because we recognize them as a part of nerd culture, not because they’re fundamental to the plot.

That’s the vibe I’m getting from it at least and maybe I’ll be wrong. Maybe the OASIS can only be saved by watching Lara Croft steal a weapon from the villain to give to our hero. Maybe in a race against time, our heroes need to hitch a ride on the RX-78 to get to a place before the world explodes. But I doubt it. Pop culture references are tools that can be used for a variety of purposes. You can make a parody with them, a movie that’s trying way too hard to be relevant, a love letter, a farce, a good movie, a bad movie, funny jokes, lazy jokes, a cynical way to get people into seats, or a way to show how much you care about the properties you’re mentioning. Are pop culture references bad? It depends on how you use them.

So going back to Black Panther, why does Shuri yell “WHAT ARE THOSE!?!?!?” at T’Challa? Probably to help connect us to the characters of Black Panther easier. They’re just like us. They make the same jokes as us. We can relate to them. Marvel could have really forced a lame pop culture reference on us, but thankfully they just went with a one-off joke that didn’t really land for me. I’ll take that over them having her telling T’Challa to “Cash me outside, howbow dah.” Then I probably would I have cut my losses and go into the fetal position.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.