Sunday, August 3, 2008

Heroes We Deserve

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 at the time 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."

Never say Hollywood can't learn from its mistakes. The producers have figured out how to please everyone: maintain earnestness regardless of the inherent absurdity of the genre, be 'topical' by way of empty allegory, be spectacularly violent, never stop moralizing. Meet these requirements, and a great deal of variety is possible: one has free reign to be jokey or serious, bright or gloomy, undisguisedly sexist, racist, homophobic, or none of the above, 'critical,' or 'wish fulfillment.' Or all of the above. These labels are simply not the creator's responsibility. Restore the superhero's propaganda function, in short, and in so doing prove Sontag's thesis that "pure camp" is always so for the future and not the present.** The comic book-loving nerds of my generation are now faced with the dubious realization of our pubescent dreams: the nerds have taken over Hollywood, and the responsibility thus falls to the Figure of the Superhero to 'teach us' something about the "human condition."

Pairing up the summer's two most critically and commercially successful entries: Iron Man and The Dark Knight, is instructive. One or two professional critics noticed the balls-out obvious apologies for the authoritarian, repressive 'excesses' of global capitalism, but the vast majority of the critical and popular response made me feel like I was in a bad parodic update of 1984 -- of the very few who bothered to address the films' unavoidable (or so I thought) pseudopolitics, the smart ones and the dumb ones alike seemed generally pleased.

Neoliberal assumptions (avowed or disavowed) are typical for the output of most mainstream cinematic and critical output these days, and it's usually not even worth mentioning in the individual case. I bring up superhero movies in this context because they're just so open about it. And yet a liberal media that would spend half the day spitting on Bush and the evils of multinational corporations can spend the other half hyperbolically puffing a movie that shares, in exaggerated form, the contorted view of reality demonstrated every day by these institutions, some of which produced the films.

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.

IM views the War on Terror and the energy crisis through 1950s-colored glasses, much like the original '60s character did for Vietnam and the rise of multinational corporations; its solution is to take the heroic-yet-faustian scientist figure out of his lab coat and literally meld him with the product of his alienated labor, only conceivable if he is also a capitalist. The film never stops playing up his personal power, making him out to be a hip pop mogul a la Steve Jobs. We see, however, that this flashy, superficial power is predicated on some major blind spots in his consciousness (i.e. his weapons are used to kill people). His path to true power (and moral vindication) is to master his personal limits. He builds his own Iron Man outfit, he completely binds his company to himself by rooting out the Jew-Arab conspiracy initiated by his co-CEO (not kidding, also his name is Obadiah), he shifts his company's business away from weapons (which can be 'misused') to privatized renewable energy (which clearly can't). He ends in a position of absolute control of his much-enlarged personal effects, the power journey going hand-in-hand with the moral journey, a necessary connection demonstrated by Stark scrupulously avoiding 'collateral damage' while blowing up Genghis Khan-quoting Arab terrorists, generating clean energy (the same substance that powers his heart!), and resisting the urge to pull a Mr. B on Gwyneth Paltrow's ingenue secretary. Once all these trials are completed, we get the basic difference between IM and TDK -- Stark can 'come out' as Iron Man. Maximum power=maximum accountability -- though retaining secret paramilitary backup just in case -- in other words, the old Clintonian boom years restored.

Padraig notes in the comments here that Bruce Wayne's buyout of his own company (his repression of finance capital) makes him an old-school conservative, not a neoliberal. Stark does the same thing. So they are both, in a reactionary way, skeptical about capitalism (aren't we all). IM is organized around the fantasy that military power and accountability (and personability, charm) can and indeed must be seamlessly blended through a reassertion of natural and ethical limits, but TDK is structured by a series of interlocking thought experiments, the universalization of predetermined binary 'choices.' The film's much-vaunted 'shades of grey' are an effect of the complex 'moral calculus' needed to function in such a constrained environment, where you can't even blow up one little apartment building without elaborate justification, a challenge which mirrors the intellectual effort necessary to take this movie as seriously as its critics seem to. That it is considered more "serious" than IM -- IM is a "guilty pleasure" or an "entertaining romp," TDK is a "pulp epic" of "boundless imagination" -- is evidence of the stronger cultural cache of deterministic 'pessimism.' We're presented with a bunch of high-powered decision-makers with entertainingly conflicting and destructive worldviews, not necessarily as points of identification (we're shown that Batman, the Joker, and Two-Face are all irresponsible assholes) but as points of departure for our own analysis. I'm reminded of a wikiquote from Slavoj Žižek colonizer of academia for the pop culture machine:
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.' They 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?

*1978's Superman, aside from its inevitable (and like Phase 1 Batman, increasingly campy) sequels, didn't really start a trend, and so I count it as more pioneer than progenitor. Evidently there were still more than enough non-comic book, but equally homoerotic/phobic superheroes for Hollywood to entertain us with.

** OTT, 300 is going to be amazing in 12 years or so, if any of us are still alive.