Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Batman, Aliens, and Hollywood

There are two things that have entered my world lately that are worthy of note, because bizarre thinking and criticism of movies and literature is the norm for me. Neither technically exist yet, but apparently they're working on it.

The first thing that came to my attention is the most recent trailer for the last Dark Knight movie, The Dark Knight Rises. The other thing that came to my attention comes to my attention through PZ Myer's blog; the fact that Ridley Scott is going to do a prequel to the Aliens movie. Both of these come from Hollywood. Thus, you know the origin of the post's name.

Now please excuse me while I indulge in some deep, probably over-thinking it but well deserved criticism.

I liked the first two Dark Knight movies. The acting was good, the films were engaging and they were, or the most part, really well written. I liked the first one and the second one roughly equally; Heath Ledger's Joker is my second mental image for the Joker (I'm sorry. I got my first taste of Batman in the 90s. Care to guess where I first got it from? Because it wasn't the comics. Once you learn where I got it from, you'll know who my first and generally, only, acceptable depiction of the Joker is. Ledger's Joker is twisted and awesome. But he's not the Joker.)

However, my philosophy presents me with a bit of problem when I look at superheroes. It's the same problem I find myself running headlong into when I look at fantasy in general - which superheroes are a sub-genre of. Enlightenment philosophy is a bit like buckshot; it's hard to get an idea where it hit the target because it's all over the place, but there are a few underlying themes about Enlightenment that can be stressed - it stressed the role of science and an optimism of the future, it stressed an independence of man and less a need of an organized religion, and it stressed a scientific approach. Democracy as we know it, in the United States, France, and by virtue, most of the world, comes from the Enlightenment. Science as a tool to improve the human condition through improving knowledge and understanding of the world is Enlightenment - and as a result, technology like computers, iPods, airplanes, cars, nuclear power plants (both fusion and fission), biomedicine, medicine, etc, are all a direct result of the logic and rationalism that the Enlightenment stressed.

Why does this run flat into the face of Superheroes, and fantasy in general?

Think about what all we know about most fantasy. Magic is intuitive. It can't be studied. It's "beyond our understanding" (I have always, always, always hated this line, and others like it. Why? Why is it beyond studying? Because you, as an author, are too fucking lazy to sit down some ground rules and try to figure it out?) Superheroes rely on a few chosen individuals to save the world repeatedly, or to protect the status quo - somebody say Superman? These powers are isolated. They "can't be understood" in the terms of the fictional world that the author creates . They become vehicles for escapism and, ultimately, tie themselves to classic Romanticism; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictator, just as there's no such thing as a just king. Good luck finding a popular, well-known fantasy setting that suggests otherwise (the works of China MiƩville notwithstanding; the man is a socialist. Socialism rejects the notion of appointed rulers; the idea there is the society owns everything, not a handful of individuals).

I've liked Batman simply because Batman didn't have any of the superpowers. A lot of what he had was accessible - it depended upon technology, training, and honed skills. Anyone of us could become Batman, right? Batman was the every man in a superhero costume to me growing up. It was easier to imagine yourself as being Batman than it was Superman - Hell, I couldn't fly. I couldn't lift a train. But I could drive a really cool car and kick butt mono-e-mono (or, those were more achievable than lying and lifting a train were.)

Batman is also obscenely wealthy, although he spends the money helping poor people and thorough other philanthropic projects (like a comic Bill Gates). There's been accusations of fascism leveled at Batman, but I counter that it's not just Batman; that's applicable to every hero with the possible exception being characters like the X-Men and Spider-man, who function outside of the system and are constantly stepped on by the system (Spider-man is my second favorite hero. No, I don't read Spider-man comics anymore. I don't plan to, following One More Day, either. When you succeed in making me feel insulted, you've lost me as a reader for good. Not that I think my opinion matters any, but still). Batman has been called the Right-winger's ultimate dream come true, and to a degree, I can sort of see that. You have someone who punishes criminals without dealing with why there are criminals. There's been attempts at left-leaning superheroes but Batman can't truly be one, because of his very nature - Batman is the authority in Gotham. Authority is never left-leaning.

This is the current trailer (the second one), and it looks like the real drive is the villain Bane. Hardy's Bane is ... different from the other Banes I've seen (I've only seen two counting Hardy, and I tried my damnedest to forget one of them). Bane is considered by Nolan a "terrorist," which is a watchword for me, because it's a term fed more by stereotypes than facts; that's why a Christian man who guns down over 50 people in Sweden can be an "extremist" while a Muslim who tries to blow up his underwear but doesn't hurt a soul is a "terrorist."

And then there's the wonderful line by Selena Kyle in which she tells Wayne that "there's a storm coming" and "soon, they'll wonder how they could live so large for so long while leaving so little for everyone else" (paraphrasing). Leaving aside that sounds like something one of my heroes would say (different world views, perhaps? Just a little) it definitely high-lights economic inequality, but how much of it and what will be done with it leaves me apprehensive.

No, I don't just go to a movie to turn my brain off and enjoy mindless entertainment. You shouldn't, either - if you're always "enjoying mindless entertainment," when do you turn your brain back on and enjoy something serious? There's a reason why I dislike Star Wars. I'm hoping that the third movie doesn't tread into that territory by portraying a fictional, and by extensions, the real, Occupy movement or the poor and destitute as criminals or as being callously manipulated by Bane.

Speaking of authors and movies, let me draw attention to the second part of this little observation post. Erik von Daniken is going to be making a new appearance in my life, in a way I'd rather a hack like him not. However, I can't help but chuckle at this:
Scott also confirmed that the film's title is the name of a space ship sent from earth by an all-powerful corporation of the kind familiar to fans of the Alien franchise. The mythical reference - in Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to man -- is deliberate.

"The (space) journey, metaphorically, is about a challenge to the gods," Scott said. But Scott's ambitions with Prometheus go far beyond simply restarting a hit franchise. The British director said the film's storyline, and script by David Lindelof, was partially inspired by the writings of legendary Swiss sci-fi writer Eric van Daniken.
"Legendary Swiss sci-fi writer" Eric van Daniken.

Sci-fi writer. *giggle* Certainly, Chariots of the Gods was some kind of twisted, racist speculative fiction, right?

I've dealt with Eric von Daniken before. His pseudoarcheology, in addition to be laughably incompetent, is also incredibly racist. After all, how many aliens does it take to help a Brown person build a monument that looks like a mountain in a very extensive engineering project that requires a lot of advanced knowledge about math, science, and astrology, as opposed to the Romans, who didn't need any help figuring out how to make roads that last to this day? Or aqueducts, or large, extensive architectural engineering projects? I've pointed this out before about Daniken's works, but it's worth saying again: if you connect the dots, you get every civilization on the globe getting help from advanced extraterrestrials - except the Romans and Greeks. Why is this important? Could it be because the Romans and the Greeks are acknowledged as the "founders of Western Civilization (read: White civilization)"? Were they just not worth it? Does it matter, they did most of the stuff those other civilizations did anyway, but without the help of ET, because they're just awesome like that. And the real founders of all this stuff, unlike those other (Brown) posers, who had to get help to do what they did, thereby legitimizing Western (White) Civilization over the others. Not only that, but you downplay all of those others - your ancestors, who you take so much pride in, weren't smart enough to build these awesome monuments, therefore, ET. So you manage to simultaneously insult every culture on the planet that's not Romans and Greeks while raising the "worth" of Roman and Greek society above the others because they didn't need ET's help to do what they did!

I'm uncomfortable every time I hear someone cite Daniken, especially from Hollywood. Oh, sure, it might not mean to be racist, but here's what usually happens: the main actor is White. the writers are all White, and odds are good they don't have any formal training writing to other cultures. The main audience is White (unless not, then it will be explicitly marketed towards them to let them know, "hey! This isn't just another movie written by Whites for Whites, this is a movie written by Whites for [insert group here], likely based off of stereotypes and offensive caricatures of [insert group here].") So you have Whites writing a movie with a White main lead for other Whites about a non-White group. Saying "We didn't mean to be racist" doesn't make it any less so when society is openly racist on this front; it's still every bit as openly racist, just in subtle ways.

This is so gonna work out.

At it's core, Daniken's pseudoarcheology is rampantly racist. Daniken may not be racist openly, but fuck if his concepts and ideas aren't. So you've got something centered around racism, written by a dominate group, with a dominate group in mind, with a member of the dominate group as the main character. There's no way this will work.

If Hollywood was more in depth and society more nuanced towards certain groups, and people were more educated about their privilege in society, then maybe I could tolerate Daniken's "philosophy" in some purely fictional portrayals. As is - even as fantasy, listed as such - it's still offensive and it's still wrong, because it serves to perpetuate the whole notion that one group is superior to another, even in fantasy, in a backhanded, Trojan meme sort of way.

Thus, hearing Scott say that he's going to draw on Daniken's pseudoscience for a "prequel" for the Aliens series makes me apprehensive, because I'm not sure just what he'll draw from it, and if he draws the wrong things - for instance, Brown people needed help from ET cuz they're stoopid n00bs at architecture and society who fail at science, unlike the awesome White Romans and Greeks - then this could quickly degenerate into a mess. The original movie, Alien, was an awesome movie. It was subversive, it was uncomfortable, and it took the traditional gender roles and flipped them on their heads. This was the movie where the power dominance and traditionally recognized structure of society was ripped wide open. It ripped sexuality to pieces, and as a result, undermined a lot of notions of what was "normal". Granted, the science wasn't great - pH 1 level blood = glass veins - but that's alright. Weaver was a kick-ass hero, who didn't run around in a miniskirt and skimpy space suit. Her role was originally written for a male character, if I remember right. And she rocked it, even if that wasn't the case.

It was a very progressive movie.

Depending upon how Scott does this, it might be a step backwards, which is disappointing severely.

So two movies that I'm really excited about have the potential to utterly blow up in my face and ruin my summer, but most people won't even notice the flaws I do. Sometimes, I really dislike recognizing privilege. I just keep hoping for the day when everyone does, and we can live in an Enlightened society where everyone has the same privileges regardless who they are.

1 comment:

  1. "Think about what all we know about most fantasy. Magic is intuitive. It can't be studied. It's "beyond our understanding" (I have always, always, always hated this line, and others like it. Why? Why is it beyond studying? Because you, as an author, are too fucking lazy to sit down some ground rules and try to figure it out?) Superheroes rely on a few chosen individuals to save the world repeatedly, or to protect the status quo - somebody say Superman? These powers are isolated. They "can't be understood" in the terms of the fictional world that the author creates"

    Eh, I think you miss the mark on this one.

    While a lot of stories and authors do take this approach, just as many (if not more) present magic as something that can be taught, learned, and perfected through study. Everything from classic D&D to Harry Potter - which is all about a SCHOOL - presents magic as a hermetic tradition, with strict rules and management. There are certain others where magic is more of a plot device for something else and there's a lot of handwaving about how/why it works (Buffy/Angel take this approach), but that's mostly because it's not the critical story element.

    And as for superheroes... How a hero's powers work is a central, deep issue in pretty much every story. There's nothing hand-wavey about Superman's powers - light from a yellow sun interacts with alien cells to supercharge him. Sure, it't silly from a science standpoint, but there's no "We don't know how he does it!" about Superman, or really any notable hero I can think of.

    On the actual important point of Dark Knight Rises: I doubt it will be a cheap way to demonize the poor and the Occupy movement, for several reasons. First, I trust Nolan more than that. Second, the Occupy movement didn't exist when the script was being written. Third, the social conflict of haves and have-nots already exists in Nolan's Batman movies, and it certainly isn't directed at demonizing the poor and powerless. Ra's as a villain in the first movie was all about demonizing the poor, and was thwarted by attempts to equalize things for their world. I have a hard time seeing Nolan take such a massive turnaround.

    And, finally, while I too started with TAS and agree on the Joker, Bane was rather weakly portrayed. In the comics, Bane is far more a brilliant mastermind on top of the physical. Most other portrayals leave him as not much more than a bruiser with an off switch; I'm looking forward to seeing how Nolan/Hardy brings him to life.