Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

Yesterday I read this criticism of superheroes by Vlad Savov in The Verge, because a well-intended reader of this blog sent it my way, wondering whether I would care to comment on it. In his piece, Mr. Savov raises a number of points, but his general thesis is that the superheroes with whom we’re familiar don’t seem to be very super.  Despite their powers and abilities, they do not eradicate evil and suffering from the world, they only beat it back for a time, and sometimes not very successfully. In essence, the author is asking the question, “What are superheroes for?”

The most important thing to consider when attempting to answer this question is the rather obvious, though perhaps easily-forgotten fact, that superheroes don’t actually exist.  They’re beings inhabiting works of fiction, no different in their way from other characters in adventure tales such as Captain Nemo, Michael Strogoff, or The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Even when there are traces of their being drawn from the lives and experiences of actual persons, theirs are not stories about real people.  As vivid as Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers may be, they are still just characters in a story.

In most cases, a fictional character is created primarily for the purpose of entertainment.  Not all fictional characters exist devoid of deeper meanings or significance of course: they can often serve important pedagogical purposes, such as teaching us things about human nature, or about anticipating the consequences of our actions.  The best literature, oftentimes, not only entertains, but informs and enlightens.  Yet while one can easily learn a life lesson from The Little Engine That Could just as well as one may do from Thérèse Desqueyroux, in the end if their stories are not entertaining, no one is going to read them.

When we complain that superheroes don’t appear to solve the problems of the worlds which they inhabit, we’re playing a version of the classic game known as the “omnipotence paradox”, i.e., can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?  If Superman is so powerful, why doesn’t he work to eliminate all crime instead of fighting against it with his fists?

If superheroes fail to fix everything that afflicts mankind, it is because they have a fundamental belief that it’s important for people to solve their problems themselves whenever possible.  Certain threats against humanity – an approaching asteroid, a water supply poisoned by The Joker – they will step in and act upon.  Yet to remake the world in their image would be to set themselves up as all-powerful gods or benevolent dictators, negating the ability of ordinary people to exercise their own free will.  As Gandalf points out in “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo offers him the One Ring, he would try to use its power for good, but in the end the temptation to turn it to his own selfish desires would be far too great for even him to resist.

This is because appearances to the contrary, superheroes are vulnerable.  They get shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, poisoned, and otherwise mangled and mistreated on a regular basis.  While they may have miraculous powers of self-healing, they still have to suffer in the course of their lives and work as we do. They do so in ways which are less mundane than paying the gas bill or being stuck next to a screaming baby on a plane. Yet they keep going, fighting for what matters to them, because they believe that the values which they fight for are more important than their own personal comforts, and because they recognize that the abilities with which they have been gifted call them to a different level of commitment and self-sacrifice.

By no means is this meant to be a complete response or even a riposte to Mr. Savov’s piece, which despite my disagreement with his assumptions and conclusions is worth reading for some of the points and criticisms it raises.  However, the takeaway from this is to remember that the superhero genre is meant to be, first and foremost, a form of entertaining literature: it is FUN, and it is perfectly acceptable, indeed laudable, to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.  While it might be nice for all of our problems to be solved by these beings endowed with unbelievable powers, the reality is, each one of us is called to work out our own problems ourselves whenever possible, rather than having all of our solutions to the difficulties of life handed to us.

So let’s give our superheroes a break, gentle reader.  Give them a chance to kick off their boots, and put their feet up after a hard day of fighting crime.  And let’s encourage those virtues of selflessness, self-reliance, and courage in the face of evil in our lives which, as fictional characters, they try to exemplify in their own.

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

 

 

 

 

“The Cosmopolitans”: Whit’s Still the Man

This weekend I had the chance to check out the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans”, the new series by writer and director Whit Stillman released on Amazon Prime.  If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, then you know that I’m an unabashed fan of his work.  Yet after the somewhat anti-climactic “Damsels in Distress”, it was great to see him return to seriously good form in this, a new series about young Americans living and loving in Paris.

Like much of Stillman’s work, “The Cosmopolitans” isn’t so much about a story moving toward resolution, but rather a series of stories that intertwine, punctuated by significant events.  He’s been described as the conservative, bourgeois version of Woody Allen, and there’s some truth to that observation.  For more often than not, the reason why someone either enjoys or does not enjoy Stillman’s work comes down to the question of whether the conversations taking place among his characters remind the viewer of conversations which they themselves have had.  If you can’t relate to Woody Allen – and I certainly can’t – then you probably find him irritating and perverse.  Stillman, on the other hand, is “The Man”, in a sense, because he is writing largely about the experiences of educated, cultured Americans from good schools and respectable backgrounds, exploring the world around them and always dressing stylishly as they do so.

It’s also interesting to see how effortlessly Stillman has transitioned to the small screen.  Like Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the first few seasons of “Gilmore Girls”, when it was one of the best-written things on television, Stillman has an ear for the witty comeback, the snarky cultural reference, and the perfect put-down worthy of the Ancien Régime. Yet because of the nature of the films which he has made so far, Stillman’s work usually has a drawing-room quality to it, like sitting at a party at the house of someone you don’t know – also a favorite plot device of his – and overhearing other people’s interesting conversations. These make the small screen just as good a venue for his observations as the big screen.

Stillman has also presented us with a combination of characters that we will try to figure out better as the series continues.  For example, writing Chloe Sevigny’s character as a kind of proto-Miranda Priestly seemed a surprise at first, seeing as how her outing in Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” was as something of an ingenue. Yet watching her take a throwaway comment about how long it takes to become a Parisian and turn it into a recurrent thematic weapon is absolutely hilarious, and makes the viewer want to hear more of what she has to say.

The phenomenon of seeing prominent actors and directors like these creating on-demand streaming internet series is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  The American version of “House of Cards” is, understandably enough, extremely popular and heavily advertised here in DC.  This is due not only to the fact that the series is set here, but also because a significant percentage of the population here is tech-savvy enough to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of watching a show streamed via the internet.  As more investment in digital infrastructure takes place in the coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that more and more of these “online tv” series will be made.

Of course the best sign that any series, online or not, has completely sucked you in is when you are watching a scene, the music swells, the screen goes black, and you audibly shout, “Awwww NO!” You’ve been so caught up in the story that you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock.  That’s happened to me a few times, during some really engrossing series: the British series “MI-5″ for example (as “Spooks” is known in the U.S.) These moments are the sign of a good writer, good director, and good actors all coming together. And that same, telltale outcry of disappointment that the episode was already over arose from me and my group of friends watching the pilot for “The Cosmopolitans”.

As the central characters began to make their way home across Paris from a party they had stayed at too long, the credits began to roll, and we were all disappointed to see that the episode was already over. I was reminded at that point of the conclusion of Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan”.  In that story, his characters had to make their way back to Manhattan with no reasonable means of transportation at their disposal, leaving them to hitchhike along the highway as the picture faded into text.  Unlike in “Metropolitan” however, it appears that we are going to have the great pleasure of seeing what happens next to this new group of characters.  I can’t wait to eavesdrop on their conversations.

It's Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

It’s Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

Britney Spears and the Power of Cheese

The other night during my “special guest star appearance” at the local pub quiz – sadly, I don’t get to play as often as I used to – our team had a bonus round question which I found difficult to answer.  The question was, “Who was the only music artist to have had 14 music videos retired from Total Request Live?”  The answer ended up surprising me, although not in the way I first thought that it would.

I should explain for those who do not know, that back when MTV still played some music throughout the day, Total Request Live was a countdown-type program.  A music video voted by viewers of the show onto the countdown successfully for a month was eventually “retired”, i.e. callers were no longer allowed to continue voting for it.  This kept the turnover of music videos going, while demonstrating a particular artist’s level of popularity.

There was much debate at pub quiz as to who had achieved said popularity with MTV viewers back in the 2000’s.  Various acts were suggested around the table, but one fellow in our group insisted that the answer had to be Britney Spears.  I repeatedly rejected this, explaining that I doubted I could name more than four or five Britney Spears songs in total, let alone fourteen that were so popular that they would have been formally “retired” by MTV.

Despite my doubts, in the end the team decided to go with this answer, which turned out to be the right one.  Surprised that it was correct, I took a piece of paper, and began to write down the names of whatever Britney Spears songs came to mind.  It turned out that I could not name four or five.

In point of fact, I could easily name ten.

We don’t always realize how insidious the entertainment industry is in our present culture, until we notice the impact it has on what we might call the “background” in our lives.  Music, film, and television are all-powerful forces, even if we think of popular entertainment as nothing more than an outlet which we turn to as needed.  We may not realize it, but these works really do find their way into our subconscious, so that suddenly, we can find ourselves thinking of the lyrics to a song, or a scene from a film, and making a neural connection between that piece of entertainment, and something decision or challenge before us.

Thus, it’s important to think about the nature of the material that we are taking in, because of the lasting effect that it can have.  We don’t always stop to consider the consequences of such a decision, even as we allow such things to surround us throughout the day.  The music we mindlessly sing along to during our morning and evening commutes to work, for example, if we analyzed it, we would likely find lacking in redeeming qualities,  It often doesn’t match up with how we live our lives, or the people and ideas we hold dear.

Now of course, I’m certainly not going to say that you can’t ever enjoy some cheesy pop.  If I did, that would be both short-sighted and enormously hypocritical of me.  Not only does Britney Spears’ tune “Toxic” just so happen to be one of the best-crafted, catchy pop-dance songs ever written, but also because I do enjoy a good evening of singing pop karaoke from time to time, where I belt out songs by pop acts like Billy Idol, Weezer, and Lady Antebellum.

What’s important, it seems to me, is to recognize that you need to be consuming substantial entertainment, not just living on processed cheese.  If you supplement your entertainment diet with great works of music, film, art, literature, and so on, to counterbalance the easily disposable stuff, you will be better off.  You don’t have to give up the easy stuff altogether.  Just be sure to go for the real stuff, as well.

Detail of "Still Life with Cherries and Cheese" by Joseph Plepp (1632) The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Detail of “Still Life with Cherries and Cheese” by Joseph Plepp (1632)
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg