In a classic 30 Rock moment, corporate loyalist Jack Donaghy tells corporate skeptic Liz Lemon “You can’t fight synergy, Lemon. It’s bigger than all of us.” It turned out to be a particularly prescient line, as corporate consolidation in the entertainment industry has accelerated since that episode aired.
There’s been no bigger consolidator than Disney, which has been on a spree of mergers and acquisitions. Lucasfilm, Marvel, Fox: all huge names in entertainment with huge amounts of content that have created huge opportunities for synergy. The Marvel-themed episode of Disney-owed The Simpsons slated to air this Sunday is a perfect example, but though it hasn’t aired yet, we’re feeling a bit queasy looking at the poster promoting the episode.
— Matt Selman (@mattselman) February 26, 2020
The Simpsons debuted over 30 years ago on Fox, a brash show on an upstart network. This art, with its clear references to Marvel characters, can’t help but make you think that The Simpsons is now just another cog in the machine, a property whose main utility is promoting other Disney properties. Like it or not, if you tune in to The Simpsons on Sunday night you’ll also see a half-hour long Marvel commercial.
Now this might be forgivable if the show, as it often did when it was owned by an independent Fox, took the opportunity to mock the flaws of its powerful new owner. But the plot of the episode and its guest stars strongly suggest that we’re in for a half-hour of finely tuned satire.
In the episode, titled “Bart the Bad Guy,” Bart accidentally sees a brand-new superhero movie a month before it comes out. This gives him a particularly modern superpower: the power to spoil. Naturally, he becomes Spoiler Boy, a super-villain, and it’s up to movie executives to stop him from spoiling the movie for everyone.
Spoiler culture is one of the more annoying things about modern superhero movies. Great films are great even if you know the ending, and depending too much on wild plot twists means more interesting, complex aspects of storytelling are neglected. It’s also something that Marvel and Disney have gone to great lengths to encourage, as it’s a useful marketing tool. Every MCU film that ends in a cliffhanger gives you a strong incentive to see the next MCU film, but that incentive disappears if you find out what happens first. So framing an entire episode on how bad it would be for a movie like Endgame to be spoiled feels empty, That it makes rich movie executives into heroes is simply a bummer, as they would be vapid stock characters in a show with sharper edges.
Now, about those guest stars: A Marvel actress (Cobie Smulders), two Marvel directors (The Russo Brothers), and the head of Marvel (Kevin Feige). So in addition to exposing you to more Marvel content, the subtext of the show will likely be dependent on your knowledge of who Kevin freaking Feige is, and not because the show has anything interesting (read: skewering) to say about him.
Call us old-fashioned, but knowledge of Disney corporate VIPs should not be a precondition for enjoying an episode of The Simpsons.
It’s an extra bummer because the show didn’t used to be quite so blandly corporatized. Take the season 8 episode, “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer).” In it, Homer goes on a hot pepper-fueled psychedelic trip complete with visuals inspired by psychedelia and Native American art. It’s a completely original episode of television that is chock full of references as disparate as Salvador Dali and Twilight Zone. And on top of that, Johnny Cash guest stars as a talking coyote who becomes Homer’s spirit guide. It’s awesome because Johnny Cash is awesome, and the episode as a whole is great because it’s so completely off the wall, unmoored from the often boring creative choices that come with mandates to be synergistic, choices like casting a studio executive — and not an American icon — as a guest star.
Of course, we might be wrong about the new episode, but that would contradict pretty much everything we know about how the Disney Goliath operates. It would also contradict Jack Donaghy, which is never a good idea. So if you find yourself looking for something to watch on Sunday night, why not stream a classic episode instead of a half-hour Marvel ad?