So Jesse Lab on Flixist posed the question "What's the point of pop culture references?" in a recent Flixist article and well it inspired me to write this piece all about them and to try and answer that question.
Pop culture references have kind of got a bit of a bad rep as of late because of their use often in comedy to reference something people will likely know about as some kind of absurdist gag as a cut away from the main part of the show.
These cut away jokes are often seen as overused and the basis for a lot of the jokes or lack of creativity in being able to make new jokes.
(Ok I'll stop deliberately doing it for no real purpose now)
However this isn't all they've been used for and in fact they've been used for years in more or less subtle ways as a way for creators to give a shout out to things that they like or have inspired them. The evolution of references you could say is thanks to the invention of the internet, now it's not only a friend who happens to know the reference who can introduce you to something new but also other people who get the reference who can talk about it online. The purest goal of a reference is to bring attention to other media properties and maybe introduce new people to them via other people mentioning the reference.
Jesse brings up Ready Player One as examples of pop culture references, mentioning The Iron Giant being there. Now oddly enough there's an actual video explaining the reason a lot of Spielberg films are or will be referenced in Ready Player One:
I'd like to stick with the Iron Giant being there to answer the question why in the year 2044 would people care about by then a 50 year old film. Well you may not know that The Iron Giant is actually based loosely on the book The Iron Man which by in about 2 days time from me putting this C-blog out will be 50 years old. It differs quite a bit in the end from the film so it's well worth a read. Here's the big twist to all this the Iron Man was 31 years old when it got made into a film, now here I am nearly 50 years on from the first publication telling you reading this about it. Will the Iron Giant be relevant in 50 years? Well The Iron Man is relevant to bring up.
With the exception of Tracer from Overwatch the other characters Jesse mentions have endured. Lara Croft is 22 years old, Chun Li from Street Fighter has been around for 27 years.
The Simpsons has referenced media such as 2001 a Space Odyssey in one of the Treehouse of Horror Episodes and The Prisoner in the 1998 episode Joy Sect, at the time The Prisoner as a series was 38 years old. Want to know who brought up The Prisoner in 2017 a full 50 years since it had been on? Extra Credits recommending it, as that in part is what references in their purest form are, recommendations. A creator going "Here's the things I find great and that inspired me now you've checked my stuff out maybe give them a look too."
The strange thing is a lot of references are far more subtle or lesser known than people realise and it's now I get to show why references can be fun, because they can create weird co-incidences.
In the past few seasons of Game of Thrones we got a character fans loved and dubbed the Queen of Thorns, Lady Olenna Tyrell. She was played by Diana Rigg. Diana Rigg is previously best remembered for playing Mrs Emma Peel PhD (to give her full title) in The Avengers.
No not that Avengers, these Avengers
Which because of the existence of a UK tv show which oddly enough the movie rights presently reside with Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers who presently also own the IP rights to DC comics. All this resulting in the film you in America simple call The Avengers being retiled in the UK to Avengers Assemble to avoid any potential disputes with Warner Brothers. All this is getting off the main point but hopefully interesting.
The Avengers episode A touch of Brimstone featured some scenes with Diana Rigg in a corseted outfit.
(Before any-one says anything apparently she helped design the costume herself too)
This actually inspired part of the Dark Phoenix saga in the Xmen comic books with Dark Phoenix being revealed at the Hellfire club and well her look shows the rather clear inspiration.
However this doesn't end here you see this year assuming there are no delays we're getting the Dark Phoenix saga played out in the next Xmen film, if we'll get the hellfire club who knows but who is the one playing Jean Grey in the most recent Xmen films? Sophie Turner, and if that name sounds familiar to you well.
She plays Sansa in Game of Thrones.
A TV show episode first shown in 1966 that 10 years on inspired a comic book story which is going to be made into a film 42 years after it was first written and the actress from that original TV show episode has actually met and has been in the same show as the actress who is set to potentially act out the comic book scene she helped inspire 52 years ago.
Want to go deeper and into even stranger levels of references. Let me introduce you to the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, or more correctly Moviebob telling you about it.
On the more cynical end of references, companies can place references in merely to test the market to see how recognisable a name still is and if it's worth creating a spin off or whole new movie about following that character on the brand name alone. It's one of the suggested reason Guardians of the Galaxy Volume1 ended on a shot of Howard the Duck. Another of the more cynical moves can be to inspire interest in or merely remind audiences of other franchises, why did Black Panther appear in Captain America Civil War? Because they got to introduce Black Panther to audiences and basically go "You want to know more? Well wait for his movie and we'll tell you more." These more overt references or in the case of Black Panther complete crossovers are designed to generate audience interest in other products also owned by the same IP rights holders.
Generally though Pop culture references are a way for a creator to express a shared love of a property with their audience or to introduce said audience to new shows and movies that said creator liked or felt audiences should watch. One of the best examples of this in recent memory the love of horror movies and video games Joss Whedon presented in The Cabin in The Woods which for video games include references to the Fear franchise Left 4 Dead franchise and Silent Hill franchise. Oh and in case you thought I noticed them myself you can thank Good Bad Flicks for pointing them out.
At the end of the day the point of references is to let people know about something. If it's some cynical studio trying to tell you about other properties, or merely a creator sharing their inspiration and things they love it's still the same basic idea. With creators they're telling you a bit about what helped them create their works or subtly sharing recommendations of things they think you should get to know about if you don't already know them.
(Well done to the 2 people who will likely know the two shows I referenced right at the start of this Cblog, for those who didn't, well feel free to ask in the comments.)