Writing at Salon, Richard Cooper expresses dismay with recent superhero movies. Here’s a sample:
I was reminded of this by Jor-El’s speech in “Man of Steel”:
You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.
How, though? Those watching him can’t fly, topple buildings or fire heat rays from their eyes. What else does Superman do other than these purely physical feats? The 1978 version of Jor-El warned: “It is forbidden for you to interfere with human history. Rather let your leadership stir others to.” Can you really inspire others with steel? At this point it’s interesting to reflect on the real-life leader who chose a name meaning “Man Of Steel”: Stalin.
Fascism also reduces the role of anyone who isn’t Superman to that of an adoring onlooker. Anyone who has ever daydreamed about heroic activities as a child might remember the passive role the imaginary spectators take on while you rescue them, display superpowers or battle your antagonists. As China Mieville said of Frank Miller’s earlier celebrated comic-book miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns”: “The underlying idea is that people are sheep, who need Strong Shepherds.” Throughout Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the people for whom Batman is fighting are absent. There are some awed children, and a couple of people foolish enough to think that they could dress up as Batman, but they put in no more than fleeting appearances.
Fascism also relies on people who must be crushed. The Batman films — and indeed the entire Batman mythos — are based on the idea that what criminals really need is a damn good thrashing, because it’s the only language these punks understand. The vicarious thrill in seeing Batman yell “Swear to me!” at some pitiful creep who swears to God he doesn’t know anything is for the nasty-minded child in all of us: an innocent pleasure until you start to think about the politics. Always lurking in these movies, too, is the assumption that whether or not we should torture people is actually a question, surely the most obscene symptom of the cultural shift toward right-wing ideas in a liberal coating (seen also in “Homeland” and “Battlestar Galactica”).
Cooper makes some interesting points, but I also think he is overlooking something pretty obvious. Let me build up to my point with a few anecdotes.
A while back, a casual acquaintance of mine decided I must be a political neoconservative. This conclusion was based on my refusal to condemn Harry Potter for using the cruciatis curse against one of his enemies. This indicated my support for torture, you see.
There was an episode of the original Star Trek in which some aliens on planet something or other decided they wanted to better understand the concepts of good and evil. So they gathered together four exemplars of evil (as I recall, Genghis Khan was one of them), and four exemplars of good (Kirk, Spock, Lincoln, and some other Vulcan) to fight it out. It was a pretty forgettable episode, but there was a memorable moment near the end. After the inevitable victory by the forces of good, one of the aliens points out that in the end they resorted to the same tactics as the forces of evil. “How are you different?” the alien asks. Kirk asks the alien what he offered the forces of evil to make the cooperate. The alien says he offered them what they wanted most: money, glory, power, fame. Kirk replies, “You offered me the lives of my crew and the safety of my ship. There’s your difference.”
And then there was the political science course I took as an undergraduate. It was a course in political ethics. Included in the extensive reading list were several novels and short stories. One day, the professor asked us why we thought he included so much fiction. We stared at him. Then he explained that fiction is a wonderful vehicle for illustrating and clarifying ethical dilemmas. In the fictional world of the story, the outlines of the situation and the motivations of the characters can be stipulated unambiguously. There’s far less of the messy grey areas that plague the analysis of real-life situations.
So what has Cooper overlooked? It’s not fascism when an unambiguously good guy kicks the ass of an unambiguously bad guy. It’s not the nasty-minded child within us that cheers when Batman says, “Swear to me!” Rather, it’s the mature, decent adult that celebrates good triumphing over evil in a movie, since it so often fails to in real life. And it’s not right-wing to understand that good and evil are real things, and that there are some people in the world who really do need something more than a stern talking-to.
And then there’s the fact that within the fictional world of the movie, the superheroes really are legitimate objects of admiration. Batman is a prime example. Bruce Wayne is richer than God. He could live a life of leisure and relaxation and not worry at all about the little people beneath him. Instead he goes to considerable personal cost to fight for people even when, High Noon-like, they are not always worthy of such sacrifice.
Likewise for Spider-Man. He hates being Spider-Man. He is not out there lording his power over the little people and longing for the admiration of his subjects. Instead he is motivated by his uncle’s last words to him: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Am I not supposed to admire someone whose faultless moral compass leads him to fight the bad guys, at considerable personal cost?
And Cooper’s overlooking the significant fact that we are talking about fictional stories here. Those of us capable of distinguishing fiction from reality understand that you can indulge fantasies in fiction that you cannot indulge in real-life. Cheering Harry Potter when he sticks it to someone who plainly deserves it has no implications at all for what is appropriate in reality. In the movies vigilantes are like Batman. In real-life they look more like George Zimmerman.
There’s a reason superhero stories are referred to as “escapist” literature. What we are escaping is the ambiguity and grey areas, and relentless nastiness, of everyday life. Cooper mocks people who say, “What were you expecting, Citizen Kane?” but that’s actually a pretty good reply. There’s nothing immature about indulging a fantasy for two hours, and not everything has to be a deep commentary on the workings of our soul.
Cooper needs to lighten up.