Saturday, June 10, 2017

on superhero narratives, formal and informal--how Wonder Woman and Spotlight can both be superhero films about awesome Americans defeating un-American hierarchies

Reading reactions to the new Wonder Woman film have been interesting.  I admit to being partial to superhero stories since childhood.  There might be something about wish-fulfillment to it, yes.  There might be something about being able to do things that you know that normal people can't do or even simply things that you know from experience that you can't do that has endless appeal. The idea that people with unusual power or knowledge can and do decide to help those in need and to fight on behalf of those who have fewer inherent or intrinsic advantages will never get old so long as there are humans who realize nobody is born into this life with the proverbial playing field ever having the slightest chance of being level.

The funny thing, though, is that for those whose professional and vocational interests involve discussing cinema this kind of observation is most distasteful when it is most obvious, which is to say there are film critics who resent that superhero films exist and that they have enough market saturation to have to get reviewed by mainstream publications.

For those who didn't catch this, David Edelstein's review of Wonder Woman was a mixed review and he, along the way, made it clear he thinks superhero films are a blight on cinema and that he doesn't like them at all.  He also managed to come across as though the only reason he gave the new movie even the mixed review he did was because he was so awestruck by the lead actress, inspiring a number of women to ask for the record, "Did he really just admit the only reason he gave this film two stars instead of one star on a scale of one to five was because of his boner for the lead?"  It's not that you can't be attracted to Israeli women if that's what you're into, it's that even the few nice things Edelstein had to say about the new superhero film seemed to be nice things spurred entirely by the tingly nethers. 

There's a lot that could be said about how, when and why admissions of the conflation of observable beauty (whatever its form) and erotic drive could still seem in bad taste on a hypothetically global (but really first and second world) mass media network.  There may always be a time in which there are feelings and thoughts that are either best expressed between the two mutually consenting parties who have some together-time or never expressed in any directly documentable way.  But what's more interesting to me lately is something else, and by way of transition I should mention I finally saw the film Spotlight. Edelstein wrote a review that, perhaps hamstrung by a lazy title for the movie, itself had a lazy title, "Spotlight shines."

Of course it did, it's a superhero movie.  It's the Justice League against the Legion of Doom, only the Justice League is the Boston Globe Spotlight team and the Legion of Doom is the Catholic Church and its lawyers.  A period piece drama about a band of intrepid but at times unsure misfits who feel that there's something wrong with the world they live in that needs to be put right?  That's both Spotlight and Wonder Woman, isn't it? Yes, I'm aware of all the details of how one film is based on real events and real journalism but "based on a true story" films tend to be prone to self-congratulatory moralizing, more or less to the same degree as ... superhero films.  In fact it seems that World War II period pieces are actually a preferred trope through which Hollywood can celebrate its own virtue vicariously through sharing stories of the virtuous deeds of men and women of the past.  It even helps the story more if the protagonist who does some great feat of kindness also has some unsavory character flaw, or even a vice.  Spielberg's Schindler's List, anyone? Of course if a person is virtuous and also luminously beautiful that doesn't really hurt, either.  The Zookeeper's Wife, anyone?  What is stranger than superhero films being popular is that members of the critical caste that resents their existence seems so readily fooled by the most cosmetic trappings to hide the fact that films like Spotlight or The Zookeeper's Wife have the same self-regarding moralistic perspective that we see in superhero films.

What makes the superhero genre slightly different is that, as someone put it at Slate recently, the eye candy aspect is expected because it's legitimately a requirement. We expect Thor and Wonder Woman to be ridiculously attractive. The difference between a superhero film and a self-congratulatory Hollywood period piece is that the remarkably superior providential blessings possessed by the protagonist is in education or some other variant of social prestige rather than in necessarily having dashing good looks.  Still ... Spotlight had that one woman reporter played by Rachel McAdams ... .

It's possible to enjoy Spotlight for what it was and enjoy Wonder Woman for what it is. It's also possible to see that once you parse through the period piece trappings and factor in the class distinctions of who is "supposed to" like this stuff, they're more or less the same story.  In earlier blog posts I was musing upon how in the earlier days of opera we had an aristocratic class bankrolling operas in which the aristocratic class celebrated its own virtue.  The royalty may be more Hollywood than landed gentry these days but the creation of spectacular spectacle art that celebrates the unique virtues and resources of the elite of our day has not necessarily changed.   There are still superheroes and supervillains.  Perhaps now a supervillain could be a hacker or the hacker could be a superhero.  With a show like Mr. Robot it could go both directions at the same time.  After all, think about it this way, Mr. Robot is just a 21st century variant on Batman.  When Batman was invented he was willing and able to use the most advanced technological and scientific methods available to his day.  So to see the protagonist of Mr. Robot as simply an early 21st century iteration of a robust heroic trope, albeit the trope of the barely socially-acclimated do-gooder whose preferred methods of do-goodery involves committing tons of crimes.

The temptation to cast political contests in apocalyptic terms is irresistible and now that we're here in 2017 it's interesting to remember that back in 2008 Frank Schaeffer wrote about President Obama ...
Obama Will Be One of The Greatest (and Most Loved) American Presidents

Great presidents are made great by horrible circumstances combined with character, temperament and intelligence. Like firemen, cops, doctors or soldiers, presidents need a crisis to shine.

Obama is one of the most intelligent presidential aspirants to ever step forward in American history. The likes of his intellectual capabilities have not been surpassed in public life since the Founding Fathers put pen to paper. His personal character is also solid gold. Take heart, America: we have the leader for our times.

I say this as a white, former life-long Republican. I say this as the proud father of a Marine. I say this as just another American watching his pension evaporate along with the stock market! I speak as someone who knows it’s time to forget party loyalty, ideology and pride and put the country first. I say this as someone happy to be called a fool for going out on a limb and declaring that, 1) Obama will win, and 2) he is going to be amongst the greatest of American presidents.


Obama did win, but whether he's among the greatest of American presidents seems debatable for two reasons. The first reason is because it's not clear that Obama has really achieved the things he set ou tot achieve on the one hand and the second reason is, to invoke the observation of Lord Acton, great men are rarely ever good men and there's room to doubt whether any of the "greatest of American presidents" could ever be actually good people. 

While Frank Schaeffer modified his spiel to be the atheist who still talks to God 2008 was apparently back when he concluded that he was still a believer in Christianity so he said:

Speaking as a believing Christian I see the hand of a merciful God in Obama’s candidacy. The biblical metaphors abound. The stone the builder rejected is become the cornerstone... the last shall be first... he that would gain his life must first lose it... the meek shall inherit the earth...

Frank Schaeffer has managed to be merely a blue state variant of the red state demagogue he's said his father was.


A hundred years from now Obama’s portrait will be placed next to that of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Long before that we’ll be telling our children and grandchildren that we stepped out in faith and voted for a young black man who stood up and led our country back from the brink of an abyss. We’ll tell them about the power of love, faith and hope. We’ll tell them about the power of creativity combined with humility and intellectual brilliance. We’ll tell them that President Obama gave us the gift of regaining our faith in our country. We’ll tell them that we all stood up and pitched in and won the day. We’ll tell them that President Obama restored our standing in the world. We’ll tell them that by the time he left office our schools were on the mend, our economy booming, that we’d become a nation filled with green energy alternatives and were leading the world away from dependence on carbon-based destruction. We’ll tell them that because of President Obama’s example and leadership the integrity of the family was restored, divorce rates went down, more fathers took responsibility for their children, and abortion rates fell dramatically as women, families and children were cared for through compassionate social programs that worked. We’ll tell them about how the gap closed between the middle class and the super rich, how we won health care for all, how crime rates fell, how bad wars were brought to an honorable conclusion. We’ll tell them that when we were attacked again by al Qaeda, how reason prevailed and the response was smart, tough, measured and effective, and our civil rights were protected even in times of crisis...

We’ll tell them that we were part of the inexplicably blessed miracle that happened to our country those many years ago in 2008 when a young black man was sent by God, fate or luck to save our country. We’ll tell them that it’s good to live in America where anything is possible. Yes we will.

A person could get the impression Frank Schaeffer was describing Obama in terms that might be applicable to ... a superhero.

Never mind the election of Trump in 2016 for a moment, how much of Frank Schaeffer's would-have-been prophecy came to pass?  How much of that really happened?  In the last twenty years I've found myself unable to take seriously the civic religion of America in either its red-state variety or its blue-state variety.  Nor does it seem as though either the left or the right will be able to do more than potentially preside over the decline of an empire.  Whether it was Francis Schaeffer in one generation of Frank Schaeffer in another generation the temptation to the idolatry of a Social Gospel whose end goal was not proclaiming the risen Christ but restoring the "greatness" of the United States and reviving the birthright of American "leadership" seemed to be the real goal.  Ironically, when in the comics superheroes have steadily tilted in the last half century away from American exceptionalism the members of the fourth estate and the entertainment industries, particularly at critical cycles of electoral activity, can't help but strike up the band.  Weren't we supposed to get the first woman president last November because there was just no way that guy could win? 

The idea that evil could be defeated by throwing a few cars around seems silly, but it's no less silly than believing that the world works the way it does in Aaron Sorkin scripts where the right kind of person saying the right kind of words with cameras rolling can "change everything" and put the world as we know it to rights.  In genre fiction the kind of guy who pulls off that hat trick tends to be called a wizard, sometimes a wizard named Gandalf.  If a woman then maybe we've got ourselves a Galadriel.  Some person who's travelled all over and seen the world and shares stories of what has been seen and of what remarkable things have been said and done ... that could be a wizard but in our day and age that's more likely to be a journalist. 

And yet when journalists scoff at superhero movies what, exactly, are they scoffing at?  Unrealistic expectations about how good triumphs over evil?  Is that really it, though?  I've come to have my doubts that a movie like Spotlight and a movie like Wonder Woman are really as different as a film critic such as David Edelstein might think they are.  Or, for that matter, someone like John Podhoretz over at The Weekly Standard

The new Wonder Woman film is fun.  It has its issues like any film will, but it's fun.  It's been fascinating to track some of critical responses to the film, particularly some of the negative reactions.
Even with a successful opening weekend and a generally warm critical reception, it's like Wonder Woman can't win.  It was essentially the dramatic irony central to the plot of the film, that even in victory Wonder Woman discovers that defeat and failure are implacable.

What makes her heroic?  I would suggest it's that she refuses to embrace the contemptuous view of humanity held by the gods and demigods in her story.  Given the Miltonian gloss on Hellenistic mythology, Wonder Woman decides to see the spark of the divine nature reflected in humanity rather than see them as lumps of clay who should be beaten down back into the earth from which they came. Told all her life she was fashioned from clay, she identifies with the humans she was told were fashioned by a god from earth rather than with the immortals she's told she really belongs with.  Francis Schaeffer may have claimed the United States was a post-Christian nation but even a 2017 Wonder Woman adaptation can't go full pagan and has to completely rewrite Hellenistic myths into Miltonian Paradise Lost narrative to sell the superheroine to a contemporary American audience.  What's fascinating about the film is that the gender essentialism and the idiosyncratic view of Hellenistic mythology Marston had were problems that were far more easily solved than the problem Diana wears into battle, her costume. 

I think that the actually offensive jingoism of Wonder Woman's origin story can never be completely overcome.  What's paradoxically is that while Wonder Woman has been the favorite of many feminists, queer theorists and leftists for what is formally her commitment to fighting evil with love, anyone who actually reads the early Marston/Peter comics will find it impossible to escape noticing just how jingoistic those comics were.  While Batman and Superman had a legion of moments that connected them to the war effort, neither Superman nor Batman were given origin stories that inextricably tied them to American exceptionalism and pro-war propaganda. I think the most recent Wonder Woman film probably did as much as could be done to disentangle Diana's origin story/character arc from American exceptionalism and jingoism but it's ultimately not possible.  It's right there in her costume design, even if the movie's script took pains to explain aspects of the costume in ways that referenced Amazonian culture rather than the flag of the United States of America.

If the Cold War histories have a chance to "teach" us anything it's possibly what Solzhenitsyn told us decades ago, that the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are ultimately no better than each other, both materialistic imperialist empires set on pleasure or glory.  It's not that Solzhenitsyn himself never came up for criticism, obviously, but it can be easy to forget that he at length had the same complaints about both sides of the Cold War while the two respective sides were convincing themselves that because they had the right ideologies and fiscal policies there were, in fact, better than the "other" side was.   You don't really need a god to have a civil religion, though, you just need a party.

Here we are twenty years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the advocates of the cult of Joss Whedon seem to have bought precisely what Whedon said he set out to create, a cult following for a character who is a symbol of girl power. The reason a man like Joss Whedon could have a preacher dude be the hand of the big bad might be because Whedon is himself a propagandist by profession.  The transition from Buffy to the Avengers was merely one of branding, the aim to create a giant multi-media integrated brand that plays the role of a cult in sociological formation remains in place.  You can be an atheist and still invent what amounts to the cult of a civic religion, whether you're a Joss Whedon creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a Gene Roddenberry creating Star Trek. If anything these sorts of men are honest enough to admit that the cult-forming means and ends are actual goals for them. 

The history of highbrow attempts to fashion an art that replaces the cultic roles of religion in society are easier to forget because you apparently have to go do grad-level reading in art history and literary theory to find out who those people have been.  When Wagner was theorizing about the total work of art college professors probably did not want to imagine that this was ever going to take the form of the Marvel cinematic universe, or Star Wars, or DC Comics, or Star Trek, or My Little Pony, or toy lines.  Sure, it's easy for some on the left to complain that the total work of art has traction with the culture industry of capitalism ... but the total work of art can also take the form of ideology itself.  Marxism and capitalism could both be iterations of a higher, more grad-school worthy conception of the total work of art. 

Neither of these etiological myths necessarily bring a lot to the table to entertain people.  Just as the alternative civic religious concepts of the Enlightenment proved too cerebral for mass appeal in the 18th and early 19th century, neither "side" in the Cold War seems to have an ideology that translates very effectively into a substitute for older belief systems (yes, cal, I'm reading Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God, thanks for the recommendation :) )  The superhero genre may be one of the most effective contemporary stand-ins for what used to be played in social cohesion by religions, these or perhaps Star Wars and Star Trek, yet these franchises seem to inspire the most resentment in the elite knowledge elite classes because Yoda isn't Mallarme and Optimus Prime isn't Thoreau. 

That certainly seems to be the case but if the proposed alternative is negative dialectics how surprised "should" we be that people will watch Wonder Woman?  If apophatic theology is challenging for the actually religious person what difficulties may accrue to a person who tries to have a kind of apophatic aesthetics? In a way ti's hardly a surprise at all that we're here I n2017 and Wonder Woman has a feature length film.  And to think it only took three quarters of a century for her to get her first movie after the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader have both had so many. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

I liked Spotlight a lot, though I do like Superhero stories too. Of course, watching the movie, we tend to think that it is Keaton, McAdams et al. who are the real heroes, walking the beat, asking the tough questions. But the real hero? Liev Schreibner, though he gets little air-time. All we are given is a kind of implacable support for the Spotlight team, with a whiff that his Jewish iconoclasm is this force of nature that drives him to support his team and want to uncover the truth. This gets to your point about middle-managers who are the most telling, and, really, actually make things go. But, the whole story contains quasi-mythic elements, namely that journalism is, at its core, about telling the truth and democratic participation. That sounds like a civil religion origin story, if ever there was one. But at the end of the day, it's hard to sympathize with the Boston Archdiocese, or the Vatican, for its self-defense, secrecy, Machiavellian ruthlessness in utilizing its legal privileges etc. But how is this different than the military, most corporations, even, dare I say it, news organizations? Of course, it's a common trope to play the pure individual against the corrupt institution: the cop against the police dept, the lieutenant against the generals, the priest against the hierarchy. Maybe it's the myth of Individualism we buy into, the idea that the autonomous individual is the source of good and reform. Superheroes seem to fit into this form as well.

Maybe part of the disgust with superhero movies is a sense that these are American values placed in totally fantastical shape, unlike the semi-realism of WW2, journalism or traditional westerns. It's too close for comfort when our values are openly discussed as mythological. But another approach might argue that's the way they get ingrained even more, hidden in plain sight.

Also, have you watched Birdman? Keaton is a wonderful self-parody and it seems to deal with many of the themes in this post.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I have a hunch that film reviewers hate superhero movies because the myths of rugged individualism and the purity of the one against the corrupting conformity of the crowd is so explicit whereas period piece detail or plausibility of setting allow a film like Spotlight to import these same myths in through the proverbial backdoor and the patina of historicity allows film reviewers to focus on the authenticating details in ways that let them either 1) forget that the myths are the same or 2) explicitly read themselves onto the myths.

There's an extra level of the diocese application you mentioned, the entertainment industry itself. The headlines about Cosby, for instance, or belated revelations about Lance Armstrong come to mind. When South Park did their episode "Stanley's Cup" it infuriated some people because of its brutal ending but as a satire of the sports movie I thought the episode was brilliant. It's admittedly vicious punchline was that the standard-issue underdog sports story isn't really about underdogs but incompetent losers who use thuggish game-rigging to get their "shot" at greatness. By the end of the episode Stanley finds that games get rigged by corrupt men who feel like THEY are the underdogs in life. Even a John Galt can feel like he hasn't gotten what he's deserved in life, after all.

With all that was going on with MH and documenting that in 2014 there were a fair number of movies I wasn't catching in so I haven't actually seen Birdman. I'd read a bit about it, though. I bet it's in the city library system by now.

Cal of Chelcice said...

Well, have you heard this quote that gets put on memes etc.: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. (r) Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has"? To butcher Milton, small group change is only Individualism writ large. I can reference plenty of role-playing video games and fantasy to back up the trope. It's the same ignorance of more complicated factors (namely the backing of established authorities and some variety of capital). To cite a sadly brutal example, why did Hus burn, but not Luther?

I love the Stanley's Cup episode. Stone and Parker are brilliant social commentators. I haven't watched South Park since the episode with BP and Cthulu, I've heard it's still punchy and good.

Also, Birdman is fantastic. Reading this post has inspired me to rewatch it.