Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Noah Berlatsky doesn't quite make a case that superheroes aren't modern myths but melodramas


But does Captain America punching Iron Man in the helmet really resonate for us today with the same archetypal force as Oedipus stabbing out his eyes because he finds out he has slept with his mother (and the ancient Greeks frowned on that sort of thing)?

Okay, sure, Superman is superstrong, and Hercules was superstrong. Yes, there was a mythological Thor, and there is also a Thor played by Chris Hemsworth. But these are superficial similarities.
In their basest structure, superhero stories simply don’t follow in the footsteps of ancient myths.

In fact, they deliberately refute them.

Well, that's the basic category mistake Berlatsky makes from which his argument can't recover.  There's no reason that the function of mythology in pop culture today has to conform to ancient Greek or Roman or Norse mythologies.  We can get to why this is a little bit later.


Because myths, Eco argues, present characters with “immutable characteristics and an irreversible destiny.” Hercules always performs his labors, and then dies in the grip of a poison cloak. Thor, in myth, always dies at Ragnarok after killing the Midgard serpent. Orpheus can seek to defy death with his super-powered singing, but ultimately his human weakness and lack of faith will get the better of him and Eurydice will be dragged back to hell.

In myth, the existence of powers beyond the ken of mortals doesn’t mean those bestowed with them get to have awesome adventures and defeat the bad guys; it means they are locked in tragic narratives, against which struggle is futile.

 Orpheus, Hercules, Agamemnon, Oedipus, even Thor, they don’t control their own fates – because myths, with their sweeping backdrop of the divine, are meant to show that human beings are small. ”

In Greek tragedy, film scholar Linda Williams writes, “Tragic heroes may rail against injustice, but in the end they must accept it.”

Yes, and in the sense that American narratives seem to constantly subvert the possible European counterparts, right down to the American variants on Faust having the Faust character making a deal with the devil but getting away scot free that might tell us something about American approaches to mythology if Berlatsky were open to that. 

There are many myths from many traditions and you can’t sum up the entirety of human religious tradition in one easy definition, but one common characteristic of myths is the focus on the divine and on forces and powers beyond the human.

Superhero films and comics, in contrast, are relentlessly focused on the mortal.

They are about what humans can do, or could do, given just a little more strength, or speed, or oomph. Jessica Jones can save her sister and kill her rapist; Captain America can defeat the fascists who have infiltrated the government. People, like you and me, can put on a suit of armor or a batsuit and hit things until there is justice for all.

But those aren’t myths.

They’re narratives about how we don’t need myths. ....

But who says that American myths have to conform to the fatalism of Greco-Roman polytheistic beliefs?  What if American mythology doesn't derive from polytheistic fatalism so much as post-Enlightenment panentheistic Pelagianism?  Whether we're talking about a John Steinbeck novel where every man shares one soul, or George Lucas' the Force of which Yoda says "life creates it and makes it grow", or how about the phrase Dwight Macdonald so loathed from Thornton Wilder's Our Town? "There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” When Americans have retold the Faust legend so that the American can make a deal with the devil and not lose his soul for it that tells us a lot.  Sure, Berlatsky's right that Americans don't believe in Greco-Roman mythology, but to say that we don't believe in those myths as a nation doesn't mean we don't believe in other myths.  It seems like a fairly easy case to go by pop culture that what we believe in is the power to break or interrupt or postpone the cycle of death that characterizes other mythologies.  I've been riffing on this idea this year but when we look at which pop culture franchises keep in rotation in Hollywood people keep coming back to the utopian and dystopian genre fictions of the Reagan and JFK eras, whether it's Star Trek and Planet of the Apes or whether it's Star Wars and Terminator or Robocop. 

We keep coming by to the idea that whatever the future of the whole world is going to be, it's going to be decided by US, by the U.S.  Star Trek envisioned American style liberalism and democratic principles saturating the galaxy.  Even when the pop mythology is explicitly secularist it's arguable that the relentlessly anti-fatalistic optimism still permeates the pop cultural myth.  There's no fate but what we make. The Force can guide your actions but it can also obey your commands, the perfect panentheistic kind of deity that is one with us and submits to our will and gives us the kind of destiny we want based on whether we choose the Dark Side or the Light Side of the Force.  Sure, Oedipus may have been doomed by decree of the gods and the fates ... but Yoda's ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.

But Berlatsky's got some points about how superheroes aren't myths in any traditional sense, and there's arguably a point that could be made about this in connection to why some people disliked Nolan's Batman films, those Batman films gave us a Bruce Wayne who decided he'd done enough to save Gotham and retired and left the city behind to build a new life with Selina Kyle.  That reduced Bruce Wayne to the level of a normal mortal man who never wanted to be Batman the rest of his life to begin with, and that ending subverted the mythological tropes that have been credited to Batman. 

That the superheroes are never ultimately defeated and never permanently face death can be construed as actually truly mythological about America in the sense that if Star Trek could imagine the galaxy working on American style progressive thought centuries from now the assumption behind that is a kind of endless American empire, benign and benevolent like no empire before it.  The level of self-confidence in American goodness and superiority during the peak of the Cold War displayed by Star Trek is pretty amazing if you step back and look at it.  It's not even the kind of thing that could be construed as cultural imperialism by people who take it seriously.  I mean, in the earlier Trek chronology it says we bounced back from World War III.  We may mythologize the future more than we mythologize the past, though we surely do a ton of that, too.

And what makes the American version unique is that the champions of the American empire won't even grant that's what it is, because liberal democracy just can't be an empire by definition.  The revolution of the proletariat can be imagined as the perfect future in much the same way that the Secret Rapture can, so in a sense Americans who are Marxists and Americans who are fundamentalists can keep up the business of avidly anticipating a great apocalyptic eruption of a utopia that we will get to witness just around the corner.  The American mythology seems to be optimistic in the face of certain death and determined to deny that any one choice we make individually or collectively could have an unrecoverable opportunity cost.  In that sense, as a moderately conservative Presbyterian, I'd agree with Berlatsky that Americans don't believe in a Greco-Roman mythology in which it could be recognized that some decisions are fatal and irreversible.  The Romans and the Greeks and the Norse weren't going to put on their best smiling Botoxed face in the face of impending doom ... but they didn't have the Force as their ally like we Americans do.


chris e said...

Somewhat tangential to the post above - but I'll take the opportunity to link to Andrew Rilstone's latest series of posts - assuming you aren't aware of his blog:


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Interesting. :)

I read through it and I thought about how if Stan Lee's epic capacity for mythologizing has been to mythologize himself he may have a cinematic counterpart in George Lucas, another guy who has been so adept at building legends about himself that if he'd spent that much time and effort on making the Star Wars films interesting stories in the prequels he might have succeeded.

For some reason, maybe the character design, I always got this sense that norman Osborn was a not-even-remotely subtle stand-in for Richard Nixon.

Cal of Chelcice said...

I thought that Nolan's trilogy, and particular channeling of Batman, was much more interesting because it didn't confirm, exactly, to this kind of American optimism. The end of Dark Knight and the major plot axle in Dark Knight Rises is the fact that whether they tell the truth or offer a "noble lie", Batman dooms Gotham to the cycle of instability. In fact, there's that grit that Batman never gives up on his hopelessly corrupted city, even though he knows it is hopelessly corrupt.

And the fact that Bruce Wayne retires at the end to live with Selena Kyle fits in with the idea of myth. Bruce didn't see himself as necessary, but created a myth that would be an extra-governmental figure to police Gotham. In this way, Batman is a secular myth, a kind of Grimm-esque fairy tale told for the 21st century. Hence why kids are graffiting bats on walls.

And then of course, there's the alternative theory that Alfred didn't see Bruce in that cafe, but hallucinated it. I don't want to believe that because I always like the Bruce-Selena relationship. But it's another additional interpretation to see Bruce as a symbol of hope in Alfred's life, a symbol that even tragedy can be redeemed. Maybe that's a stretch.

Also, it doesn't seem that Berlatsky fully understands how Greek tragedy worked. The poets played with the mythos in order to emphasize different aspects, whether lighter or darker. The Hercules story is more akin to an American myth (he ends up as a god), until Euripides gets his emo claws on it. Truly, it's one of the most stirring and deeply troubling tragedies from Athens.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I was writing earlier this year about how what I liked about Nolan's trilogy was that it imagined a Bruce Wayne who could abandon the Bat, realize that he'd done as much as he could and that it was okay to leave that behind. Since all the training he got from Ducard was from the one who turned out to be Ra's al Ghul (aka the Head of the Demon) Bruce had been using methods learned from the surrogate father to fight crime in ways that led to its inadvertent escalation. Part of what makes The Dark Knight an interesting central film in the trilogy is that in the conversation with Joker Batman is confronted with a criminal who subverts everything he was trained to expect of criminals from Ducard. And by film's end, Joker turned out to be right, Batman was going to break his "one rule" when he saved Gordon's son but in the process killed Harvey Dent.

So we got a Bruce Wayne who had to unlearn what he learned from Ducard and find a way to save the city that more closely resembled what his actual father would have tried doing. That (Robin) John Blake takes up the mantle of the Bat keeps the mythic element going in another way, where the aging hero discovers he's inspired a protégé he didn't know existed.

It seems a shame film critics kept looking at Nolan's trilogy exclusively through the lens of the superhero genre without looking at his other work--if there's an easily discerned pattern in Nolan's work it's that he tells stories about men who do terrible things and delude themselves into thinking they're doing the right thing for the right reasons. Bruce Wayne knows Batman is a monster but believes that monster is what Gotham needs to be saved. By the end of the trilogy Bruce finds out that's not necessarily what Gotham "needs", even if he wouldn't listen to this message from Alfred in the first third of Dark Knight Rises. Nolan's trilogy as a whole could be construed as Bruce Wayne discovering, at length, he doesn't need to be Batman. That's part of what made it fun for me.

Cal of Chelcice said...

They certainly play with the whole notion of myth and the mask in a way that is unique for a super-hero movie. Unlike any other super hero presentation, Bruce Wayne actually steps away from the mask. I remember that scene in the Watchmen where, in Night Owl II's feverish dream, he and Silk Specter II take off their skin, which, underneath, is the costume, their true face. But Batman actually does take off the mask, he realizes that he does not need to 'be' the myth, but only present it, or participate in it.

So, one of the central dramas of the Batman trilogy is the question of religion and myth. Bruce is trying to build a new myth, a monstrous symbol to confront the darkness. This actually has strange correlations with Christian theology (the sign of the cross becoming one of hope even though it is wretched).

But Bruce is caught in a particular confusion of becoming the myth. He wants to be able to quit and be with Rachel, but she doesn't think it's possible. Batman is critical of the impostors in hockey-pads, but, in the end, this is the hope of Gotham. I think most people watch each movie alone, or take its punch-lines too seriously, to watch the evolution of Bruce Wayne through the trilogy.

In all of this, Nolan's Batman is much more interesting and conscientious than all the other super-hero movies that merely reflect the spirit of the age rather than critically interact with it. No other movie really deals with the idea of the mask as symbol and the question of whether there is a gap between mask and face, persona and prosopon.

You've inspired me to rewatch them :)


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

There's a series of essays that might be of interest to you over at Mockingbird about the Nolan Batman trilogy


Search for "A Path Through Three Prisons". It was a lengthy three-part series of film criticism discussing Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy written by ... somebody back in 2012. One of the things the author likes to do is to review trilogies and shows with long-form character arcs in mind. There's also a sprawling series called Batman: the Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire over there that was basically a series of critical essays/homage to Batman: the animated series written for its 20th anniversary.

When The Dark Knight trilogy wrapped up in 2012 my impression was that we got a gigantic story about people from the aristocratic and bureaucratic walks of life in a major urban center debating the nature of a just and civil society while a handful of memorable characters committed infamous crimes--which is to say that I think of all the directors since the dawn of cinema who have tried to adapt Dostoevsky's literary concerns into film Nolan is one of the few who actually succeeded and that it's not "merely" a coincidence that he managed this feat through the superhero genre. Guys who do crazy and ethically questionable things because they're convinced it's actually the thing to do kind of fits with a Dostoevsky (or Melville) approach.

Cal of Chelcice said...

I'll check out the Nolan series on Mbird. I read your series on the Animated Series. That was a childhood favorite of mine, and your series actually reinvigorated my love for it (not to swell your head).

That's interesting, I've not thought about the Dostoevsky angle.

Truly, Batman possesses grit and realism, which I enjoy. But its genius is, I think, that is allegory. In Greek form, Gotham is the modern, industrial (though American) society, and such reflects mankind's place in the world. The polis reflects the cosmos. And of course, the polis also reflects anthropos. The story of Batman is a story of Gotham and Gotham is the world.

I could talk about these movies forever, but I'll resist and go check out the articles.