Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Serious consideration

Since it’s Social Media Tuesday (he said, just la-la-la-ing along as if he’s been posting to the blog regularly and adhering closely to the established Days of the Week model) I wanted to share something that I saw on an acquaintance’s wall:

My initial interpretation of this went somewhere along these lines: OK, right, I think I get it. We live in somewhat strange times, in terms of our pop entertainment and especially the epic spectacles of our blockbuster sagas. For the past couple of decades we’ve experienced the steady rise of the anti-hero as well as the complicated, flawed hero and the morally compromised hero and the hero who does whatever it takes to win the larger war even if it means getting his hands dirty in a battle. (I feel like that last possessive pronoun should have been “his or her” but as you can see all nine characters in the image are male and breaking down the archetypes of anti-heroines and flawed heroines would be a whole ‘nother post.) For a long time in heroic literature there was elevated importance of the code of honor and the idea of a hero as someone who does not kill, ever, but that gave way to a more complicated and nuanced consideration of life-or-death struggles, and then that gave way to something like an expectation that of course the protagonist would end up killing the antagonist, or anyone else that got in his way, because that’s the only way to resolve things with cathartic finality, plus it’s totally badass. So now that we’ve made the transit from “heroes never take a life” to “heroes maybe might take a life” to “heroes embody the kill-or-be-killed mentality” it’s possible to reach down into the zeitgeist and pull out a nearly random handful of “good guys” and find that two out of every three are actually more likely to kill you than protect you, as demonstrated by the grid above.

So the implied question is, can you still tell the difference, between a badass protagonist with little to no regard for life and the actual heroes who take the high road? It seems like everything in our modern mythmaking has blurred together into one big action-adventure killfest, but there are still lines that can be drawn, if you think about it. So I thought about it and I acknowledged that Captain America, Thor and Spider-Man would be on the “protect” side and all the rest would be on the “kill” side. Some of the killers were easier for me to make a determination on than others. I admit I’m not terribly familiar with Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes or anything to do with Doctor Who (which is not a condemnation of those franchises, just the reality of the number of hours in a day that I can give to keeping up with various series). I confess I don’t especially like Holmes as a character, who seems to derive a lot of his popularity by appealing to people who are predisposed to root for sociopaths because they enjoy a good hyper-competent a-hole who gets away with being abrasively rude because his skills are indispensable. To a lesser extent, The Doctor seems to fit in that broad category, at the very least making decisions of such cosmic scale that individual human lives might not even register. But for the characters I’m well-acquainted with, Wolverine has a well-documented history as a living weapon, and the Winter Soldier might be a relatively recent comics creation only featuring in the second Captain America film, but he was clearly the unstoppable assassin baddie for much of that movie. Anakin Skywalker winds up slaughtering younglings and becoming Darth Vader, so that’s another gimme. Superman … well, “Superman” as portrayed in the Man of Steel flick (because, I think it’s important to note, these are all photos of actors from movies, so we’re talking about specific interpretations of various archetypes) is the epitome of the modern “don’t suffer the villain to live” ethos, plus he shows a callous and blatant disregard for human life as his battle with Zod essentially razes Metropolis.

That’s the lynchpin of my argument, here, really. The memespeak on the image doesn’t refer to enemies or antagonists, it’s talking to you about you. This millennium has seen an explosion in popularity of straight superhero adaptations and other takes on that tradition, and superheroes in their purest, early forms might have been the last gasp of the whole “the hero does not kill” credo. Things have evolved, and now we let it pass without comment when a superhero finds himself forced to take a life, to choose between the lesser of two evils and whatnot. But however you might be able to rationalize killing the evil opponent, whatever you think the appropriate costs of a crusade against crime or a war on terror should be, it might be instructive to stop for a moment and consider the collateral damage, to innocent bystanders, to people like you. Maybe Superman can still be considered a hero if he snaps Zod’s neck, but can he also be considered a hero if he is so completely consumed with defeating his adversary that the very concept of protecting people, saving them, sheltering them from harm (especially harm he himself caused) just falls by the wayside?

Obviously I would answer that in the negative, which is one of the reasons I loathed Man of Steel so much. And although we are officially close enough to the premiere date for Avengers: Age of Ultron that I am on personal blackout on media coverage in order to experience the flick with the freshest possible eyes, I did glimpse a headline or two recently that suggested Avengers:AoU handles the ideas of urban destruction and innocent bystanders better than Man of Steel. (I of course believe this implicitly, because that’s such an extremely low bar to clear.) So this idea of what it means for a superhero to be a true hero, with regard to me the (hypothetical) man on the (fictional) street, has been banging around in my brain recently, too.

Cap, Thor, Spider-Man, those are the superheroes I count on to act like heroes within their respective narratives. In the movies, Cap’s whole philosophy is encapsulated in his line “I just hate bullies.” He looks out for the little guy. Spider-Man might not be able to save everybody, but he lost one person because he didn’t even try and he will spend the rest of his life atoning for it by never not trying. Even Thor gets the arc of being humbled and then redeemed and learning the value of self-sacrifice. These are, without question, the good guys.

(Yes, it also just so happens that all three of those characters are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, now that the Spider-Man rights have been handed over, and I am a huge fan of the MCU. But this is not a partisan Marvel-movies-versus-DC-movies thing. Winter Soldier is also an MCU character and you don’t hear me arguing it should have been “4 will protect you, 5 will try to kill you”. Wolverine is a Marvel comics character who appears in Fox films, and I enjoy those films a lot, too. Superman’s the only DC movies character in the grid, even though they could have included Christian Bale’s Batman, or Ben Affleck’s for that matter. I don’t root against DC movies succeeding. I hope the Wonder Woman movie is great, and I hope the Shazam movie with The Rock is great, and I hope there are lots more projects to come based on DC’s superheroes. But I probably won’t waste any more time on DC superhero movies specifically written by Goyer and/or directed by Snyder, because they lost me with Man of Steel. I’m aware there’s been a bit of hoopla around the leaking of the Batman V. Superman Dawn of Justice trailer, but I stone cold don’t care.)

ANYWAY. So I went through most if not all of the above mental gymnastics in about 0.7 seconds, and then I started reading the comments under my acquaintance’s post. And apparently I completely misread the point of the image. It’s a parlor game, according to everyone else in the world but me. Who do you think could beat who in fight outnumbered 2-to-1? If you had to choose three of those nine characters to be your personal bodyguards while the other six team up as the squad coming to get you, who would you choose and why? Nothing to do with the characters’ pre-existing morality or philosophy, just playing the odds based on their powers and abilities (at least until someone insists on picking Cumberbatch as one of their three because that way if they die at least the last thing they hear can be his beautiful English accent).

Well, shoot. If it’s not a stem-twister of an observation, but a question, then it’s a no-brainer. Thor and Superman and The Doctor. In the unlikely event that anybody gets past the thunder god or the last son of Krypton, The Doctor can just go back in time for a do-over. (That’s basically how Doctor Who, works, right?)

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