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





Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.


Review: “Skyfall”

Over Thanksgiving weekend during his long sojourn back home in the country, The Courtier finally managed to see “Skyfall”, the latest offering from the James Bond franchise.  There are many good things about this film, which other reviewers have discussed in their posts and which I will not attempt to repeat here.  However I want to draw the reader’s attention to one aspect of why the film is so good, and it has to do with the classic plot device of the man on the run, who decides to make a last stand.

It is hard to believe that 5o years have now passed since Mr. Bond first sauntered onto the big screen in “Dr. No” back in 1962.  Since that time there have been a number of terrific films (“From Russia with Love” being my favorite), some simply enjoyable,  and some real turkeys in the franchise.  Increasingly the relative merit of the film as a piece of cinema seems to have little or nothing to do with its box office.  This tells us something about how the world has changed since the days of Sean Connery and Cubby Broccoli.

For example, I saw the last Pierce Brosnan outing as Bond, “Die Another Day”, with a good friend from England.  He had flown over from London to visit here in Washington for a long weekend, and was looking forward to seeing the movie.  He had not only read all of the original Ian Fleming novels, but was a definite Bond aficionado, interested in places and things associated with both Fleming and his famous creation.

When we left the theatre after seeing the film, neither of us could say much, at first.  I was appalled by many things.  The weird face-transplant aspect of the story confused me no end, for example.  Or there was the rather obvious and ham-fisted double entendres in almost every scene involving the various Bond girls,  rather than being carefully sprinkled here and there for a laugh to break the tension, like in a good detective film.

Then my friend broke the silence and said, “I think that’s one of the most awful Bond films I’ve ever seen,” and it made me realize I was not just being precious about it.   Yet despite the painfully apparent awfulness of the film, it was financially the most successful of all of the Brosnan turns as Bond, raking in well over $400 million at the box office.  So why is this case?  Do people no longer care for good stories?

Increasingly we have seen that films which use a great deal of special effects to the point of not even really attempting to suspend our disbelief make huge profits for the studios. There is a hunger for these types of films internationally, because dialogue and plot matter less than big explosions or throwing human beings, albeit virtually, into some sort of grist mill.  It is much easier to sell an action film to a non-English-speaking audience than it is to sell one in which acting and dialogue matter more than seeing people running about shooting things.

This is not to disparage these types of adventures at all, of course, for we enjoy these neo-mythological stories as much as our ancestors did the original versions, seated around a campfire or a hearth hearing tales of people like Achilles or Gilgamesh.  Yet there is a sameness to many of them now, which I find rather tiresome. For example, the thematic villain at present seems largely to come from the nihilist tradition, to the point where it is overdone. I could not help but feel, for example, that Javier Bardem – whom I do not care for as an actor anyway – was trying to channel his inner Heath Ledger in “Skyfall”.

Yet despite certain faults what “Skyfall” does do very well is to give a rather unexpectedly splendid nod to the origins of this particular type of film genre, which go back to earlier novelists like John Buchan and G.K. Chesterton, writing about the good man on the run.  When the film heads to Scotland, and we get a lot of the Bond back story for the first time on film, the director is taking a risk, as my youngest brother (a filmmaker himself and a huge Bond fan) pointed out.  Yet this part of the film works because we are drawn into the idea of the man under siege from evil in his own home: he knows what is coming, and he makes his preparations to take his stand against it.

Bizarre as this analogy may seem this is why, even these many years later, we can still find enthralling what might otherwise be just another 90’s slapstick comedy, “Home Alone”.  There is some flicker of James Bond, or Richard Hannay, or Gabriel Syme in the character of Kevin McCallister.  The boy knows his home is about to come under attack, and that he cannot hope for reinforcements.  He decides to take a stand to defend himself, and after a fashion his family, even though they have abandoned him – not unlike Bond who, at about the same age, is in effect “abandoned” by his parents when they are killed.

While “Home Alone” and “Skyfall” are obviously quite different films, that moment when a man decides to stop running and take a stand transcends genre, to touch on the universal virtues of courage and heroism.  When so many action-adventure films have become enamored of a lumbering amount of noise and spectacle over telling a good story, they forget the point of having a hero to begin with, whether his powers are ordinary or enhanced in some way.  The hero knows who he is, rather than whinging about his fate.  He reaches a crossroads where he decides, “I’m taking stand, here and now,” for the people he cares about.

It is refreshing to see a Bond film where one is encouraged to think and reflect, rather than simply ogle beautiful women, exotic locations, and cool cars.  All of these things are in “Skyfall” of course, for it would not be a Bond film without them. The Bond films are often categorized as little more than escapist films for the male psyche, but in the good ones, such as this, there is more to them than that.

The point of telling these kinds of heroic stories is in fact to encourage us men to be heroic.  What so many modern action films get wrong is that they focus on the details, rather than on the man himself.  The trappings of the hero, whether they are a Walther PPK and a shaken vodka martini, a Batmobile and a hooded mask, or a red cape and blue tights, are all just iconography, just as a medieval knight had his coat of arms painted on his shield to distinguish him from the other men in the fight.  No matter how deadly the weapons or shiny the armor however, said trappings do not make the hero, for heroism has to come from within.  It is why in “Skyfall” when Bond loses one of his iconic props that our masculine hearts wince at the sight, but we cheer the hero as he keeps on going.

The vast majority of us will never be faced with a full-out assault by an enemy, armed to the teeth and bent on our destruction.  Yet we are all tested in life with difficult, frightening situations, where there seems to be no hope of success, and from which we would like to run away.  In finding the courage to face these fears, and do what needs to be done, we become better men as a result.  In the end, that is what the action-adventure genre is supposed to do for us, and it is what this latest addition to the ongoing story of James Bond does very well indeed.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) brooding over London in “Skyfall”