Monday, February 13, 2017

Superheroes and Art

[Thing I wrote when Marvel was first promising a “woman Thor”]

I admit I was a little bothered by an article I saw bemoaning recent trends in science fiction and other genre movies. I don’t argue with it’s data, so much as the tilt of its conclusions. The article complains that scifi movies these days aren’t really about the future, but rather about a different vision of now. They’re not about tomorrow, they’re about today.
Of course they are about today. Science fiction in all forms is always about today. Because today is all we know. We can talk about the future but it’s almost entirely commentary on the current world, and the current truths we live in. None of us are from tomorrow, how could we write to it?
This is a good thing. It means science fiction (and other work) can tell us lessons for our current lives.
The other trend this article laments is the too many superheroes. A movie about superheroes isn’t really a movie about us.
But much like “writing about the future” is really talking about today, then writing about “superheroes” can really be talking about everyone. When Spiderman recalls “with great power comes great responsibility”, our reaction should not be “wow sounds like such a burden I’m glad I’m not him.”
So I wanted to write about superheroes some. What are they telling us?
And first off, we need to distinguish a Super Hero movie from… well, a vigilante movie. A superhero is about a symbol that inspires the general populace. It’s not that they do great things, but they proclaim “great things can be done.”
A vigilante is just a dude who hits things pretty hard and solves the problem themselves.
What is Superman’s power in one term? His power is to do the impossible. It’s why they kept adding new powers all the time until cannon froze around Crisis on Infinite Earths (and why the end of Superman the movie wasn’t shocking). It’s all about thinking something is impossible, and then doing it! In an unexpected, garish, and often fairly public way. This is why the most famous line about him is “Up in the air, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!” He is all about us, the public, witnessing and being in awe of his impossibleness. (And his second most famous line, about truth, justice and the American way, is also meant to be inspiring.)
Superman’s secret identity is a nebbish reporter who is almost offensively normal. This isn’t a subtle disdain on his part, but rather a promise. Anyone could secretly be Superman. Why, even *you* could secretly be Superman. Any day you could rip off your shirt, fly over the moon, and save the city.
Superman is hope. Kryptonite represents, well, cynicism.
Batman, is like the opposite of this in all ways. He lurks in the shadows, and really does intend to fix all the problems himself. Batman is well known for inspiring an emotion – and that emotion is fear, in his enemies. (The yellow lanterns admit he is the greatest of them.) He’s not a symbol for us to be in awe of, he’s a symbol for others to cower before.
Populist fans admire Batman because he’s human whereas Superman “cheats” by being an alien with superpowers. But well, I can be Clark Kent. We can’t be Bruce Wayne. He’s born a billionaire and has psychological fixtures we can never replicate. There’s nothing populist about lionizing a obsessive billionaire.
(This is part of why The Dark Knight is such a morally bankrupt movie. People are inspired by Batman to be like him – and they are depicted as objects of pathetic ridicule who need to be stopped for their own safety. Gotham does need a hero to look up to, and so Batman and Gordon invent one out of a lie. It’s basically saying “inspiration is for suckers.”)
Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman? That’s really asking “Who would win in a fight between hope and fear?”
(Maybe if fear wore a ring of cynicism… See how these symbols work?)
Which brings me to the other goliath that’s dominating the public imagination vis a vis superheroes and vigilantes: the Avengers. What do each of them stand for? By and large, they’re not vigilantes.
Captain America is very, very obviously a superhero. His meek background is used to emphasize that anyone of us could become the symbol of idealism he currently is.
Iron Man is a billionaire yes, but at least he’s a superhero for libertarians. He flaunts his power and oblivious do-gooder spirit, and encourages everyone else to be as smart as him and show up Uncle Sam who wants to horde all the cool toys to themselves. He’s a fairly amoral superhero, but still it’s something.
The Hulk is more primal than any of the above. It’s not necessarily a pleasant inspiration to see him trampling through a metropolis, but it promises a sort of chaotic, undifferentiated power. There’s more things than dreamt of in our philosophies.
Thor. And then there’s Thor.
Oh my goodness, a woman Thor is such a bad idea. Why? Well lets go through the above Avengers and see what sort of inspiration they stand for. Then we can ask, how would a woman version of that character change the interpretation?
Captain America stands for America of course, but he also stands for idealism itself. He believes in people, and not out of naivete. He sees the fallen world and still believes in the best.  He never compromises, but also never loses faith in the people he cares about. A woman filling that role… is actually a radical departure AND an unambiguously good statement. I don’t even know what it would mean, but I’d like to see it.
A woman Iron Man means like, nothing. You can be rich and smart and make things and generally disdainful of other people AND a woman. Iron Man is not a good person, he just happens to tag along for good things. There’s nothing inherently revolutionary about a woman filling that role instead. It would work pretty smoothly and we might not even notice the difference. It would be Ayn Rand, but less edgy.
(Perhaps the best joke in that comic would be that when she’s inside the suit of armor, no one can tell the difference between her and Tony Stark at all.)
The Hulk? The Hulk is basically phallic power. The woman version of the Hulk… is already a really popular comic called She-Hulk. And any fan of that series knows that she mostly solves her problems without or going beyond the use of brute force. She’s clever and has personal skills besides her super powers (Note: superscience is a superpower. Itisn’t really a skill any of us can develop. Her organizational skills are.) The entire comic is basically a joke “What would a woman do with a phallus? Not much, she doesn’t need it.” Consequently, it’s a pretty good comic.
So what is Thor. Thor stands for worthiness. He didn’t create or climb to his power, it was just given to him for who he is (son of Odin). But on the other hand, it necessitates an incredible standard that he must always maintain. He’s good-hearted, loyal, determined, and many other generically good moral traits. Whenever he goes against Asgardian-morality, he loses his powers. The chief feature of his hammer is that no one else can lift it – Mjolnir is a worthiness symbol just as much as the sword in the stone. He doesn’t even want his future kingship, which is contrasted with his very UNworthy brother.
I don’t really like this, even though I like Thor. He’s generally a liberal superhero arguing on the liberal side of things when politics comes up. And he dearly loves his brother, even as he’s a pathetic snake. These are great things, but are largely treated as inconvenient biproducts of his essential worthiness. Like “Oh yeah, Thor is very generous because he’s worthy, which means he will never give up on Loki, but that’s just Thor, that’s not at all a sign that *we* shouldn’t give up on Loki.” (This contrasts with Captain America. When Cap never gives up on Bucky, we understand that *we* should never give up on Bucky either. Faith in Bucky is *why* we admire Cap. For Thor, it’s just a side-effect.) And worthiness… is not a good meta-virtue. Judging that people can only have certain power if they meet a standard of personality, is a fairly destructive moral heuristics. I could give plenty of examples of groups where this goes more wrong than right.
You know what group *really* doesn’t need more of the message of worthiness? Women. A woman Thor would basically redouble on his inherent message that you can only participate if you meet certain unwritten standards. That you have no inherent value, but you have to prove your value every day. Ugh ugh ugh. How many times are women already told this? Too many.
This would be bad. So bad.
Now, one comic reinforcing sexism isn’t going to be the dowfall of western civilization, obviously. But here’s what will happen. The very people excited for “A Big Name Woman Superhero!” are going to find themselves… surprised. Upset. Woman Thor will be trying to live up to impossible standards, and only praised when she does (or punished when she strays from the arbitrarily chosen moral path) and holy shit will that look uncomfortable to readers. And Thor will meekly accept that and continue to try to retain the good graces of Odin.
Imagine the first scene where woman Thor can’t lift Mjolnir for whatever stupid reason it is this week.
They’ll wonder why, and they’ll conclude “latent sexism by the writers” which was half true, but was inevitable from the word go because of what Thor stands for. And since no one will be happy from this, it counts as a bad idea.
There is of course, one way this could be redeemed, but it would be the end of the comic. Thor could go before Odin, after she has strayed, and say “My time as a woman has taught me what utter bullshit all these rules and moral standards are. Fuck worthiness. Fuck you. I am done with all this. Me and Loki are out.”
That would be rad.

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