Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The X-Men Theory of Human Relations

It's hard to imagine how homo sapiens managed to do “myth” without the benefit of cross-media promotional tie-ins, but they managed. We have our modern myths, we are told—big, sprawling projects by fat, bearded white dudes. We have films people want to live in, and worlds people want to play in, and behave like jerks. Myth is four letters long and a mile wide, and it's one of the things we're pretty great at. Give yourselves a hand, people.

My metaphysical ideas are confusing, but if I were to settle on a particular myth or mythic structure for our present day—not so much a religious pantheon as a collection of symbols we all agreed to behave as if our anscestors used as a religious pantheon—it would be the X-Men. Not so much for the inherent cleverness of the concept, or the writers who've ably employed it over the decades, but because it's flexible, renewable, and strong. In the sense that, with a cast that big, it has to hold an awful lot of fuckin' weight.

In the most famous of the various stories that circle through the various media of the franchise, such as the Mutant Registration Act, the Weapon Plus project, the Cure, the rise of the sentinels, etc., there's invariably one particular villain who anchors the action, and a bigger, vaguer villain painting the scenery. The government, the army, men in black. Frightened teenagers all over the world, many of them with hilariously silly names and fashion choices, cowering in fear that some unstoppable entity is going to take them out of their homes and away from their families, to be put in a cage where...

...where what, exactly? What exactly is the concern with any large-scale investigation into these loveable superbeings? Why does Sanctuary need to operate in secret? Why do the diamond-realdoll vampires of Twilight give a shit if people find out they exist? Why all the hiding?

Sure, people want to kill them. But that's not the fear. Plenty of our supernatural heroes face the prospect of violent death every day; so do plenty of people here in the really real world, and the supernatural heroes are a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with that fact. Cassandra Nova's inspirations aside, the sentinels aren't interested in genocide. There's no profit in it. Whereas there's quite a bit of profit in a prison full of properly licensed, corporate-owned mutants? Now that's something special. Not in the sense of being interesting to read about, as it ends the story. But there's money to be made.

The common element of all of our fabled supernatural warriors--the reason we like reading about them, dress up as them for Halloween, etc.--is that they're unique and useful. They can do things we wish we could do. Which means they can do things we wish we could have done for us. Often, there are things we'd like to do to/with them. Many of the people in their diegetic worlds feel the same way. People want them. And when people want something, there's an awful lot of money to be made in procuring it for them.

At risk of going in way over my head, things aren't valuable because of inherent qualities, or because they're useful, or because they're rare. Market theory holds that things are valuable because someone's willing to pay for them, i.e. make a sacrifice proportional to the assigned value. I need not have an opinion on the theory, which is fortunate, because I am untrained and it wouldn't matter anyway. For my purposes here, however, I will amend it to say that what ultimately makes things valuable is want. People sacrifice for things they want, and you can make a very nice helping to assuage that want.

There was another plagiarism scandal today, so I'm going to have to link to the generally execrable article I'm going to be quoting:

Go look outside. See those cars driving by? Every car being driven by a man was designed and built and bought and sold with you in mind. The only reason why small, fuel-efficient or electric cars don't dominate the roads is because we want to look cool in our cars, to impress you. [...]

All those wars we fight? Sure, at the upper levels, in the halls of political power, they have some complicated reasons for wanting some piece of land or access to some resource. But on the ground? Well, let me ask you this -- historically, when an army takes over a city, what happens to the women there?
It's all about you. All of it. All of civilization.
How one gets from the first paragraph to the second without noticing a rather disturbing analogy, I can only presume. Suffice to say, the car isn't about women. It wasn't designed to impress women. It was designed to be sold at a profit. In this case, sold to men, who tend to have more money. And who tend to want women.

The second paragraph demonstrates a purer form. Property comes from a prior agreement to honor the concept of property with violence. In its absence, it amounts to whatever you can seize, whatever you can hold. Whatever you can carry off. The word in Latin is raptus. Historically, the opportunity for mass rape is part of how mercenaries are paid. The prospect of owning a woman motivates car-buying and mercenary warfare, in these examples, but neither of these things is about women, unless you've already accepted the idea that the defining characteristic of women is that men want them.

It applies for basically any group that can be seized, carried off, exploited, enslaved, or generally exploited by another, but X-Men seems to dramatize it in a way we're all comfortable with, so that's the label I go with. The X-Men theory of human relations is this: if your value as a thing that is wanted exceeds your value as a thing that acts--if what you are is seen as more important than what you can think or do--you're fucked.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Batman Will Have Had Begun

People often ask me how I got into this line of work. There's lots of answers that'll answer them satisfactorily, in the process parting with only a portion of the truth; I skipped high school and learned this shit instead; the Columbine shootings had a profound impact on my understanding of media and society; I had a lot of money and no real sense of how to prepare for adulthood. But the real answer is simpler, and more painful. One night, when my parents had extended my bedtime for a showing of The Mask of Zorro, it all began. On the way back to our car, they were murdered by an unexamined bit of media theory. My destiny became clear to me at once.

So, there's a new Batman out, and I'm giving myself permission to completely ignore the Colorado shooting, because I gave at the office. I have done my part for interpreting the lessons of Colorado-based rampage shootings, and will withdraw from the topic at the end of this sentence.

Batman, however, deserves a few words. The peculiar skill of Nolan's Batman films has always been finding ways to incorporate comic storylines and characters in a way that didn't make them completely fucking ridiculous. The line between awe-inspiring dramatic scale and completely fucking ridiculous is difficult to walk in any medium, but excruciatingly tricky in live-action performance, especially live-action performance that isn't comfortably insulated by the respectability shield of period drama. Nolan's ability to walk this line is at its most impressive in The Dark Knight, which seems destined to be everybody's favorite portion of the series. Obviously Heath Ledger deserves enormous credit for having apparently based his performance on my imagination, but whenever we laud actors, we do so at the risk of ignoring the writing and world-building that gives them the opportunity to act.

In Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis' thought-provoking novel on the inextricable connections between democracy, civil rights, and internet pornography, an author stand-in makes a highly instructive point about the nature of media. Osama bin Laden, mass-murdering fuckhead though he may have been, was fundamentally in the business of making videos. The collective damage of the Al-Qaeda ops under his tenure is dwarfed by the global impact of terrorism as potential threat, and the impossibility of satisfactorily dealing with entirely passive-aggressive forms of warfare. Similarly, the Joker kills a whole lot of people, but his ambitions always tend toward making Gotham's citizens kill each other. The bombs advertise the videos; the videos nudge the public toward chaos. Bin Laden, having had the disadvantage of being a real person, was ultimately participating in power politics, but the Joker is more of a Platonic ideal of terrorism: a one-man cell with a few strategic partnerships and no actual wants or goals beyond terror itself. He comes from nothing, and is exceptional for no reason except that he always, always, has the element of surprise, and as such is immune to game theory or any other method of prediction. As Wayne notes that anyone could be behind the cowl, the Joker insists that he's only ahead of the curve. Not only can anyone be the Joker, everyone can be the Joker. He plays his Killing Joke experiment with Dent, and appears to be triumphant. Batman's decision to conceal the Joker's victory to preserve the propaganda value of the heroic Harvey Dent is presented in The Dark Knight as a victory of sorts, although on reflection is feels more like a stalemate. The Dark Knight Rises is more or less a two-hour reflection on the previous film's ending.

Which is why I started with The Dark Knight here, because Nolan's Batman trilogy is difficult to parse as a trilogy. The trilogy comprises Batman's battle with the League of Shadows, broken into two iterations: Before and After.

And herein lies on of the weirdest parts of the trilogy: the Joker, the closest thing to a "supervillain" persona in the series, is in some ways the most realistic of the villains. We don't have motiveless ur-terrorists here in the really real world, but we do have terrorists. What we don't have are Bond villains, or vengeful gods dressed up as Japanese ninja clans.

One of the reasons I've never been able to entirely grok the early buzz about Dark Knight Rises as being about class warfare is that it's so difficult to reconcile with the Sodom and Gomorrah vibe that underlies the first (and, it turns out, the third) film(s). The League of Shadows stand as a transcendental judge over sinful Gotham, and Bruce Wayne makes a devil's bargain with the Bat to buy it time. He tries to fight crime with crime, and Gotham survives another day, but it's obvious that it can't hold forever. So Bruce, like Abraham, hopes to find one good man to stay God's hand. He finds such a man in Harvey Dent, but that remember that whole "devil's bargain" bit from before? The Batman symbol--an icon that cannot be bought, intimidated or killed--calls into being an equally uncompromising opponent, and the unintended consequences of Bruce's bargain corrupt the man who was to be Gotham's salvation.

Eight years later, it happens again.

Which brings us to Bane, and the main question I brought into the theater with me: how does Bane relate to the Joker, and al Ghul, and Batman?

Well, he's a terrorist, self-evidently and diegetically. But that's a little vague, isn't it? He's practical and theatrical, but he's sure as hell not running on a shoestring budget. In fact, most of the film's plot hinges in the non-superheroic events that occurred in the eight years separating the second and third films. He lies, almost constantly, which the Joker does from time to time, but I think it's misleading to put too much stock into Bane's similarities with the series' most popular villain, because diegetically, the Joker matters a lot less than Harvey Dent, and Dent holds the crucial key to Bane's plan, and how it differs from al Ghul's. The Joker's machinations are ultimately focused on the fate of one man; Bane and al Ghul want to wipe a city and a cultural identity off the face of the planet.

In short, Bane doesn't give a shit about shadows. He wears a mask, of course, but it's not concealing anything. He has no secret identity to protect. Whereas Batman is somebody who could be anybody, Bane is nobody who could be anybody, or everybody. Bane does everything as publicly as possible, not to provoke a response, but to blind the public. He tells people what they want to hear, and perhaps they know it's not true, but they're used to lies. They're happy with lies. And, as Ozymandias claimed in his day, an awful lot of them seem enthused to see the whole thing end, one way or another. The Joker's offhand prophecy turns out to be the League's final weapon: even in Gotham, lots of people don't want Gotham around anymore. They've cast their votes for fire and brimstone. And whereas al Ghul planned to use Gotham's citizenry to tear the city apart in a cloud of weaponized hallucinogen, Bane just needs the life's work of Bruce Wayne to do it.

This makes it quite appropriate that the series ends/breaks as an ensemble piece. Batman can't do this one alone, and it could be argued (though not without getting into heavier spoilers) that he can't do it at all. Blake does more than his share, as does Catwoman. Even the cops, those loveable target dummies of the genre, get their moment to shine. After eight years of waiting for salvation from on high, the citizens of Gotham, inspired by Batman, stand up and...well, deserve it.

On an unrelated note, glad to see the Venom thing was dropped. The anaesthetic drip makes much more sense, and as someone intimately familiar with chronic pain issues, it's nice to see fibromyalgia presented in such a positive light.