Heroes We Deserve
X-posted at culturemonkey
As the critics note, we are currently at what seems to be a peak in the production of high-grossing, critically acclaimed superhero blockbusters — a saturation point, perhaps, of a longue durée that dates from 1989 with Burton’s Batman.*After one notable lapse in major studio backing following the humiliating failure of the first Batman franchise, Hollywood figured out something important: the former objects of camp no longer presuppose the camp sensibility. Scanning the reviews for the Burton/Schumacher series as its latent eccentricities blossomed into a hornier, MTV version of the ’60s television show, one finds a rising chorus of demands for something “darker,” “edgier,” “more adult,” a resistance and even revulsion for the franchise’s aestheticized distance from its material. Overreacting to complaints from parents over excessive violence, Warner Bros. amped up the camp in spite of agonized critics and fanboys, who were reading a lot of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Even in that first film, the “darkest” of the four, Jack’s Joker was “too over the top,” Beetlejuice as Batman too “weird” and “wimpy.”
What I suspect underlies the general tolerant attitude towards their content is the comforting but kind of really unlikely and unfounded assumption that corporate mass entertainment expresses collective desires — even that it does so better than a production financed independently. We are then able to rationalize objectionable content. The curiously archaic gender roles — the women of IM and TDK essentially spend the entire movie trying to decide who to screw — are of a kind with the racial politics — witness IM‘s moronic (and casually incinerated) Arab barbarians and their helpless Arab victims, TDK‘s Asian menace, its blacks whose humanity is dependent on their obedience to legitimate authority (the ferryboat prisoner’s conscience is portrayed as spiritually profound while all the Joker needs to do to make two gangsters fight to the death, which we see them prepared to do on all fours, is drop a stick and say ‘go’): they must be ironic, or ‘really’ a clever auto-critique. As chabert describes here, the meaning of what we see is deferred to a menu of metaphysical choices provided by the film itself — positioning ourselves in relation to these ambiguously warring ‘philosophies’ is what gives the calculatedly shocking imagery its significance for us as individual viewers. But one need not approach the film in anything like an intellectual way, analysis is optional. Should one be unable or unwilling to process an image or line of dialogue, an alibi is always in play for shrugging it off as a completely meaningless special effect: “it’s just a comic book movie, man.”
Superhero movies are ideal for this sort of operation because they are what we might call post-genre. As A.O. Scott writes in the second linked article at the top of this post, their ‘laws’ are the abstract ones of the corporate PG-13 ‘blockbuster.’ A hero is born, develops into an ideal self-image, inherits fortune along with an inevitable enemy who must be defeated via increasingly lengthy, bloodless explosions, etc. Given those requirements, all existing genres are fair game. IM is a little bit science fiction, a little bit Top Gun/Iron Eagle, visual borrowings from mecha anime, splash of romcom patter, pinch of Jackass (in a couple faux-amateur handicam shots of Stark hurting himself while testing his military hardware). These elements are not so much blended as they are thrown together, so that the film shifts around spastically in tone and style despite the grinding forward motion of its 3-act machine. TDK labors under a more consistent directorial hand, but its plot structure is similarly incoherent. About the only stabilizing force available for readings of either film comes from its foregrounded ideological formulas, which are both horrendous, but as I said earlier, optional, the films keeping themselves ‘open’ for more ‘complex’ interpretations. They’re for kids and adults.
The apparent openness of interpretation is more true of TDK than IM, since most of the latter’s appeal is predicated on us being charmed by Robert Downey Jr. We watch him progress from bad-boy pop star captain of the military industrial complex to good corporate citizen, with a heart of liquid fusion (or something like that). In the comments of the post above, chabert remarks on the unreconstructed ’40s era mores assumed without irony by a number of recent mass entertainments. I would have said ’50s, as it seems clear to me that fantasy today is determined by its reaction to crisis; that decade’s tropes, the power of technology despite (and even because of) recognized dangers, the insecure overstatement of moral and political superiority over monstrous enemies, the total subordination of women and ‘minorities,’ have been cropping up all over the place, from the queasy nostalgia of David Lynch to their seamless blend with ‘realism’ in IM and TDK. As Voyou writes, we seem to be experiencing a “repetition-as-farce of the ’50s” in a number of areas, an experience perhaps of the failed realization of an older dream of the future.
Žižek: Yes, and the age of philosophy in the sense again that we are confronted more and more often with philosophical problems at an everyday level. It is not that you withdraw from daily life into a world of philosophical contemplation. On the contrary, you cannot find your way around daily life itself without answering certain philosophical questions. It is a unique time when everyone is, in a way, forced to be some kind of philosopher.
Beyond the ‘entertainment value’ of things blowing up on huge IMAX screens, beyond the collector’s appeal of the pop cultural references, the only value of these movies is equivalent to their ideological function: that we can use them to think about the world. The Batman film especially gives us the ‘tools’ to believe that we are ‘some kind of philosophers.’ We’re supplied with easily digestible nuggets pulled from headlines and pop filosofy with which to examine and ‘problematize’ our lives with the dilemmas and theories of Great Men: the ethics of extralegal power, chance vs. anarchy, the surveillance state, “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object” (another romcom setup!), all products of the clash of concepts. Any complicating factors which might come from a different engagement with reality are removed. One could say I’m being fussy, as this is all pretty standard convention for the creation of fairytales, but then, “why so serious” if it’s assumed we all know better?
As always, the way to understand ideology is not to ask ‘what does the film think,’ nor ‘what can I think through the lens of this film,’ but ‘what does thinking ‘with’ the film prevent me from thinking.’ These behemoths are not interested in making ‘arguments’ (that’s our job), their job is to reinforce premises. Not because their creators have malicious intentions, but because it is important for their financial backers and consequently for them to ensure that those premises remain profitable. For example, the baseline pessimism and dependency that supports big-screen violent fantasies along with the notion that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is comforting, enabling to all kinds of fantasies, and serves as ground zero for a set of trained assumptions about the world, along with the opinions, laudatory, apologetic, or critical, derived from them. This is one definition of ‘popular.’
Movies featuring Batman and Iron Man are art in the same sense that this is art, with the important exception that Jeff Koons really exists. They are carefully planned and promoted media events; the buzz is the art, the actors’ personal lives are art, the criticism is art, the advertising is art. The profit is art. Everyone’s opinion is potentially valuable. Discussing the ‘object itself,’ relying on the tools it provides us with, is sort of quixotic in this context, inescapably minor and cliquish no matter if the critical lens is in the high culture modes of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and political theory or the sewers of fanboy mythography (not to mention the middle ground, allegorizing with headlines). Doing so just identifies the speaker with their discursive order: nerd, cult studs academic, movie critic, political moralist, etc., and helps establish a system of exchange between these ‘fields’ and the Hollywood production line. Given the increasing ‘popularity’ and ‘purity’ (openness/emptiness) of the object, what more can one reasonably expect?
Corporate cinema has pushed the superhero, a product of a genuinely popular (though not universal) culture, beyond the limits of what it can encompass. As an entirely derivative studio subgenre the superhero movie seems about to commence its very own fake self-deconstruction phase, repeating a cycle that had already run its course in the comics world by the time Batman came out in the late ’80s. What it needs is its Don Quixote, what it’s getting is its Unforgiven. That’s what they’re selling: who’s buying?