[Jason was talking about Claremont and the internalization of a conflict that was external in the Phoenix saga, and it got me thinking about this.]
Harold Bloom had this idea back in the late 60s called the Internalization of Quest Romance. It was a way of characterizing what happened to poetry around the time of Wordsworth: Wordsworth, argues Bloom, took all of the poetic machinery of epic poetry that culminated in Milton -- heroes, villains, battles, the quest for some object or person -- and made it internal: the conflict portrayed in post Wordsworth poetry is not with an external figure, but with whatever mental blocks are getting in the way of access to your own imagination, for example.
The problem with the idea, interesting on a lot of levels, is that I am not sure I want to deny a big internal world to Homer and Beowulf and Spencer, but still. Maybe it is just a shift in emphasis. I am going on memory with the Bloom as well, and I may be over-simplifying. Since both Bloom and I have that habit it is hard to tell who might be more at fault on this point.
But it occurs to me that the shift in emphasis from external conflict to internal conflict is maybe the key factor in what appears to me to be these major jumps in storytelling quality in pop culture, and a lack of this shift often the reason for dramatic failures. Pop genres are all about external conflict so they are not going to go as far as Wordsworth -- who can write a major epic poem where virtually nothing HAPPENS. In pop culture, internal conflict is set alongside external conflict to either make us care about the external conflict more by providing a point of emotional identification. Sometimes the internal conflict becomes so important that the external conflict is little more than allegorical window dressing for telling stories about emotional states.
The advent of the Silver Age: superheroes with internal conflicts, like the Thing on the Fantastic Four.
Star Trek vs Battlestar Galactica: the latter takes the former and makes the conflicts internal rather than external. Stories are about emotional conflicts between -- or often within -- people more than they are about space battles and space politics. One of the reasons the premise of Battlestar is so compelling is that there is so much personal responsibility for the external conflict: the Cylons (unlike in the original, I think) are the endpoint of our technology, technology that we abandoned, and since they look just like people -- since we may be Cylons without knowing it -- existential crises are huge.
The original Star Wars movies drew on sources like King Arthur and German legend that "predated" the Wordsworth shift so the conflict was mostly external, like Star Trek. Fair enough. But as pop culture shifted into fancy stuff with internal states, the prequels pretended the shift never happened, and so it felt like we were watching dumb kids stuff -- the Star Wars Prequels should have been to the Original Star Wars movies what Battlestar is to Star Trek.
Kill Bill gave us that external/internal shift between the two volumes: volume on is all sword battles and violence and the body count is huge. In volume two Thurman kills only one person, almost bloodlessly and the final "battle" is a conversation with Bill, who is repentant, nice, and an excellent dad. The "battle" is between the temptation to be a family again and the warrior's sense of duty to the mission, no matter what.
The Sopranos begins with Tony the Mob Boss seeing a psychiatrist -- the show takes the mob genre and creates the drama by emphasizing the internal over the external, Tony's emotional states over power plays on the streets. This is a show that often holds out the possibility of some big gun battle but finds all the real "battles" in Tony's home and his therapy.
Joss Whedon tells stories about Cute Girls who fight Vampires, but -- revising old vampire stuff -- he creates an emotional core by making the vampire stuff just allegories for high school conflicts, conflicts that are more often than not internal. A witch's curse makes Angel go evil after a moment of perfect happiness but this is really just a story about a girl who looses her virginity and then finds that her true love has just become this completely different person who did not care about it as much as she did and, having got what he wanted, blows her off.
Our own Streebo made a great Zombie film that I won't ruin for you, but it involves a shift of this kind.
The Wire is a big exception here -- that is a show that goes as external as you can go -- away from people and into systems.
I do not know if this is a good model for thinking about the evolution of pop culture, because I feel like you can go into anything from any period -- especially if you know some psychoanalysis -- and demonstrate how it was always already internal. Is the shift I am talking about more putting the internal conflict on the surface, where before it was merely subtext?