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Übermensch
November 14, 2013 2:13 PM   Subscribe

The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie (SLCracked)
posted by fearfulsymmetry (75 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Because you know who could have stopped that alien invasion? One division of U.S. Marines.

I think 9/11 proved that responding on the fly to a completely unexpected threat is not something the US military does well.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:26 PM on November 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Some years ago someone posted a link on MeFi to a site that featured super-short, super-pessimistic reviews of movies -- the least charitable one sentence take away from the film. I've never been able to track it down again. Anyone remember it? But anyway, my point is, it's review of Harry Potter was something like "Jock thinks he's better than everyone else, is right." Basically ruined Harry Potter for me.

I was actually watching The Avengers with my daughter last night and thought about the fact that the innocent victims are never really mourned, and this list has given me more to think about. Thanks, I guess?
posted by Rock Steady at 2:27 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Uncomfortable Plot Summaries, Rock Steady?
posted by invitapriore at 2:32 PM on November 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Some years ago someone posted a link on MeFi to a site that featured super-short, super-pessimistic reviews of movies -- the least charitable one sentence take away from the film. I've never been able to track it down again. Anyone remember it?

Yep, here.

My favorite was "THE SHINING: Wife and son keep author from finishing his novel."
posted by churl at 2:33 PM on November 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Uncomfortable Plot Summaries, Rock Steady?

"A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES: Social deviants make life difficult for genius."

Uh, nope.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:34 PM on November 14, 2013


Wow, "Jock thinks he's better than everyone else, is right." is the best ever review of Harry Potter. lol

I agreed with the article completely, deconstructing this crap made Unbreakable a good movie and made Watchmen the best comic book that's ever been written.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:36 PM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's an issue of The Invisibles where we follow the difficult life of a young working class man from a violent childhood, through the army, marriage and bereavement to his joining a shady private security force. At which point the hero of the series appears and shoots him in the face, a scene that occurred a number of issues before, when we gave none of the collateral damage any thought at all.

I'm not sure we'd get anything like that from Hollywood, though.
posted by Grangousier at 2:53 PM on November 14, 2013 [39 favorites]


I think 9/11 proved that responding on the fly to a completely unexpected threat is not something the US military does well.

Except the movie has the Avengers anticipate the threat.
posted by ocschwar at 2:54 PM on November 14, 2013


The ugliest lesson I've learned from most superhero movies is that I'm too old for that shit.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:57 PM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Except the movie has the Avengers anticipate the threat.

You shouldn't be surprised that an organisation whose membership includes a Norse deity responds more quickly than the US Marine Corps to a threat involving the God of Lies.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:03 PM on November 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Anyway, if the wealthy genius playboy is David Wong, I'd be okay with that kind of escapist fantasy. Because he can also write good essays.
posted by ocschwar at 3:06 PM on November 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I agreed with the article completely, deconstructing this crap made Unbreakable a good movie and made Watchmen the best comic book that's ever been written.

Oh dear.
posted by Artw at 3:08 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm too old for that shit.

thank you. I figured this out when I was about eight when the original Batman TV show (Adam West) suddenly ceased to be remotely believable. True, a year or so later, I'd realize t it was supposed to be for laughs, but the damage was done, I was on to other (more sophisticated) things.

It helped that this was the late 60s moving into the 1970s, when all existing tropes and conventions were up for revision anyway. General Custer was a bad guy (Little Big Man). Dirty Harry had to quit the police force to actually do his job. The President was a criminal. Etc.
posted by philip-random at 3:09 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


and made Watchmen the best comic book that's ever been written.

Oh dear.


Watchmen's not the best?
posted by philip-random at 3:10 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


David Wong's superpower is being funny even though Cracked. It's very rare.
posted by chavenet at 3:12 PM on November 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


#3. The Only Thing Preventing Justice Is This "Due Process" Bullshit

To be fair, this is part-and-parcel to almost any tv show or movie that even peripherally deals with the concept of "good guys v. bad guys"
posted by Thorzdad at 3:13 PM on November 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


There are "comic book people" who argue that Maus‎ that is better, philip-random. Watchmen is the one that captured the interest of the literary world by deconstructing the art form, hence my statement. I donno if Maus draws parallels between the ubermensch in comic books and Nazism, never read it myself.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:18 PM on November 14, 2013


The author writes about the opening scene of Star Wars ...

As soon as we see it, we instinctively root for the little ship. Why? How do we know they're not criminals who kidnapped a bunch of orphans from the big ship and are trying to escape with them back to the infamous toddler fighting arenas of Alderaan?

It's because we instantly recognize it as the hero story we've been telling each other for thousands of years: A scrappy nobody takes on the powerful bad guys and rises to the challenge through sheer courage and hard work.


That's a nice theory and all ... But I'm pretty sure it was actually the text crawl, where it says that Leia is fleeing from the evil Galactic Empire.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:34 PM on November 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yes... but... the text crawl coulda been lying, man! THINK OF WATERGATE!
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 3:34 PM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


The points made in the article are accurate, but I don't think they're exclusive to superhero movies. James Bond stops bad guys who collect nuclear subs for sport, Sherlock Holmes makes Inspector Lestrade look like a moron, John McClane can accomplish things that hundreds of cops can't, and so on. In movie after movie the situation is always a special case where the system breaks down, and it's up to one extraordinary guy (or sometimes a small group) to save the day.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:37 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Supposedly Cracked is hosting malware at the moment (or maybe just lately). So beware?
posted by paper chromatographologist at 3:42 PM on November 14, 2013


Living in a superhero world would be pretty terrible, because it's designed to be so threatening that it needs the constant intervention of the heroes just to survive. We're scared of stuff like natural disasters and terrorism - imagine how frightening it would be if Galactus was a real thing on the six o'clock news and our only hope was the Fantastic Four.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:53 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


#3. The Only Thing Preventing Justice Is This "Due Process" Bullshit

To be fair, this is part-and-parcel to almost any tv show or movie that even peripherally deals with the concept of "good guys v. bad guys"


Seriously, the week doesn't go by on television where the good guy doesn't have to Make The Tough Call™ and administer True Justice™ because The System Is Broken™, and this has been the case pretty much all all my life, anyway.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:54 PM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Or those dumb Achaeans who can't even win a war after nine years without Achilles.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:03 PM on November 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think 9/11 proved that responding on the fly to a completely unexpected threat is not something the US military does well.

But wasn't part of the military build-up post WWII where the Departmant of War became the Department of Defensive was to create a military that would not be "surprised" like it was at Pearl Harbour?

If so,what did all that spending get on "game day" of 9/11?

(and remind me, did The Military ever find that 2 trillion that was announced as unaccounted for on Sept 10th 2001?)
posted by rough ashlar at 4:14 PM on November 14, 2013


John McClane can accomplish things that hundreds of cops can't,

To be fair about that great Christmas movie - he has knowledge before hand and proximity the police lack for most of that Christmas movie.

Once the local city-sponsored standing army deploys in massed force the Christmas movie ends.

Ho ho ho.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:19 PM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


But wasn't part of the military build-up post WWII where the Departmant of War became the Department of Defensive was to create a military that would not be "surprised" like it was at Pearl Harbour?

Pedantic point: the Department of War never became the Department of Defense. Before WWII, there was the Department of War (which dealt with Army issues) and a Department of Navy (which you probably figured out by itself). With the massive conflicts of trying to navigate these two totally separate services and the birth of the Army Air Corp then the Army Air Force then just the Air force, they created National Military Establishment after the WWII (and subsumed what used to be full-cabinet positions into it). They decided to change the name to Department of Defense probably because it was suppose to be something used outside of just open warfare and also because NME sounded out is 'enemy'. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Anyway, I do think that comic book movies are too often wish fulfillment without ever critiquing our wishes. Do we want to be a brooding billionaire that can destroy criminals with his own hands? It's like being a Jedi: everyone wants to use the Force, but no one wants to live the chaste monk lifestyle that it would entail.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 4:28 PM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


This article explains exactly what's always bothered me about superhero movies.
posted by JHarris at 4:41 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


James Bond stops bad guys who collect nuclear subs for sport, Sherlock Holmes makes Inspector Lestrade look like a moron, John McClane can accomplish things that hundreds of cops can't, and so on.

Do we really know enough about the backgrounds of those three characters to know if their giftedness was handed to them through inheritance or acquired through work and education?

I've read the Holmes canon many times, and my impression is that his skills were an equal combination of nature and nurture. He and his brother both had a natural intelligence and gift for observation, but many stories describe the massive amounts of study Homes has done in his field and in seemingly unrelated ones.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:41 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, that was surprisingly brilliant and insightful.

I've long noticed the trope in American movies that the hero is some really special guy who just needs to believe in the amazing abilities he already has, rather than a guy who must train hard with amazing discipline and dedication to transform himself into an amazing person. That seems to be a fundamental American fantasy: that you're already awesome, you just don't know it. Maybe a more healthy and more "American" fantasy would be about how you become awesome by being willing to work hard to make yourself something greater than you are?

But I don't exclude the Star Wars films from this criticism, I think they're prominent offenders. Luke's "training" is a haphazard tangent, and mainly just designed to show him that he's already awesome if he would just stop underestimating himself. The whole "trust the Force" ethos is basically "stop trying and JUST BE AWESOME."

The same for Anakin. We're told he's highly trained, but he's a star because of his natural talents, recognized by older people even when he is a little boy.

It's hard to think of examples of heroes in American movies who are limited people who make a commitment to making themselves better and push themselves hard to make it so. The original Rocky might be an example. A big part of the movie was about Rocky getting into shape, both physically and emotionally, to take on his physically primed but emotionally decadent opponent.

But, yeah, why are our cinematic fantasies so contradictory to our avowed principles as Americans? We want rewards without effort, we want justice without the rule of law, we want instant, violent resolution of all conflicts. Is it really that much of a psychological burden to live in a free society?
posted by Max Udargo at 4:48 PM on November 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


The best part is at the end, and only peripherally related to the thesis of the article:

[...]After every article like this that we publish, we're bombarded with fans screaming, "Why do you have to shit on every movie? Why can't you just sit back and enjoy it? WHY DO YOU HAVE TO OVERTHINK EVERYTHING?!?!"

But ask yourself: Why is there that knee-jerk rejection of any effort to "overthink" pop culture? Why would you ever be afraid that looking too hard at something will ruin it? If the government built a huge, mysterious device in the middle of your town and immediately surrounded it with a fence that said, "NOTHING TO SEE HERE!" I'm pretty damned sure you wouldn't rest until you knew what the hell that was -- the fact that they don't want you to know means it can't be good.

Well, when any idea in your brain defends itself with "Just relax! Don't look too close!" you should immediately be just as suspicious. It usually means something ugly is hiding there.
[...]

Hear hear.
posted by JHarris at 4:52 PM on November 14, 2013 [27 favorites]


I've read the Holmes canon many times, and my impression is that his skills were an equal combination of nature and nurture.

I think the more accurate impression is that his skills were superpowers that he had because Arthur Conan Doyle was omniscient in the universe. Therefore, Holmes was, too. We don't have to get very far into the first Holmes story to see that.

'Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then."

"Clearly an army doctor"? There are no men with a "military air" who have never served?

His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.'

"Clearly in Afghanistan"? Maybe his left arm is stiff because he has arthritis or a congenital ailment. Maybe his tan indicates he was in the tropics, but that could have been Bombay or any other locale. Maybe he just spent a lot of time gardening.

Holmes doesn't consider other plausible explanations, and the only reason he doesn't have to is because ACD writes him that way.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:07 PM on November 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


From the Uncomfortable Plot Summaries

AUNTIE MAME: Spinster exposes child to sexual fetishists, socialists; thwarts marriage to good Republican girl.

Hee.

I find it really hard to watch any superhero-battles-bad-guy-in-urban-center movie because I have read too many descriptions of what it's like to be too close to a battle when you're a civilian. Many movies try to fig leaf it by showing people fleeing, evacuating, hunkered down in a cellar, but you know there are some poor bastards caught under the collapsed buildings or flattened by the cars thrown half a mile. For every busload Superman saves, there's at least three more that didn't make it. If superheroes were real, we'd have to get rid of or quarantine them; they'd be a constant danger to average people.

But at bottom, superhero stories are like soap operas. They can never end or be resolved or change too much, so they just go round and round and who can even keep up with the reboots anymore? Spiderman, Superman, Batman? As a genre, it is devouring itself.
posted by emjaybee at 5:13 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Have thought that as well, Tanizaki. I got so used, in fact, to writers not playing fair with their characters figuring things out that I trained myself not to see it. I was seeing authorial omniscience injected into so many characters that it was interfering with my ability to enjoy what everyone else was enjoying, so I figured it must not matter.

(I still remember sitting as a kid in a theater watching Luke being told by Darth Vader "No Luke, I am your father," [sorry about the spoilers dogg] and thinking something like, "Wait, what? Why should Luke believe this? An out of the blue pronouncement by the most evil thing he's ever seen? What justification does he offer for this? Out of an entire galaxy of people even, how hella unlikely is that?")
posted by JHarris at 5:37 PM on November 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


From an Aristotelian perspective, I think there's a major flaw with these stories, drama wise. The hero can never undergo an A===>B character arc. He can't be changed. Iron man can at best do an A===>B===>A. He has to be the same guy at the end because that's who he is. I think that's why we keep getting the reboots. That's the only part of the epic that has the character actually change. It's a pretty major handicap in terms of telling a story that can resonate in a mythic type way.

Plus, yeah, everything Wong says.
posted by Trochanter at 5:39 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Funny, virtually every point that the author makes is something fascist that Guillermo del Toro tried to negate in Pacific Rim.

(major spoilers below)

1.) The protagonist is explicitly working-class. They couldn't be much clearer on that point.
2.) Literally every jaeger pilot except the australian dad dies violently, and the protagonists are only spared by a nonsensical last-minute plot contrivance
3.) Idris Elba obeys due process even when he knows that it's wrong and will be of great cost to humanity (suspending the jaeger program for the sake of the wall), because rule of law is fucking important.
4.) See #1. Also, Rinko Kikuchi is prevented from using her prodigious talent due to perceived instability. Talent alone does not qualify her to pilot the jaeger, and it's only extreme desperation that leads to Idris Elba reluctantly giving her the go-ahead.
5.) Okay, this one holds in Pacific Rim, but come on, they're dealing with nigh-invincible skyscraper-sized trans-dimensional monsters here.

Not to mention there's an extremely careful consideration of the human cost of this kind of battle. Kaiju are deliberately engaged at sea to avoid affecting population centers, and the one fight that does take place in a population center is because everything has gone horribly wrong (and even then, the movie makes a point of showing you that the skyscrapers are empty and the civilians have been evacuated into shelters). Contrast this to Superman Returns, where Smallville and Metropolis are both carelessly, horrifically devastated in a way that clearly killed millions of people.

Um, wow, this comment went longer than I intended. I guess what I'm saying is Guillermo del Toro is awesome?
posted by Ndwright at 5:42 PM on November 14, 2013 [22 favorites]


I think the more accurate impression is that his skills were superpowers that he had because Arthur Conan Doyle was omniscient in the universe. Therefore, Holmes was, too. We don't have to get very far into the first Holmes story to see that.

Holmes doesn't consider other plausible explanations, and the only reason he doesn't have to is because ACD writes him that way.


And then in stories like "The Yellow Face," "The Musgrave Ritual," and "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes draws conclusions with that same complete certainty - and is shown to have been completely erroneous in them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:50 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sorry, emjaybee. I just restated your point. But still!
posted by Trochanter at 5:51 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why should Luke believe this?

He could search his feelings. Maybe he'd know it to be true.

(More seriously, and as Vader points out: Obi-Wan already lampshaded it with his obfuscation about Vader killing Luke's father. Vader's not a random stranger in a galaxy of billions; Luke already knows that he has some kind of connection with him. The leap from "Ben told me the truth" to "Ben lied to protect me from the truth" does not seem insurmountably large to me.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:02 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Worth reading because, the Hulk gif.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:07 PM on November 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


That seems to be a fundamental American fantasy: that you're already awesome, you just don't know it.

Related - this video from the After Hours squad at Cracked - The Horrifying Secret 'The Matrix' Reveals About Humanity

"But [Harry Potter] still fulfills the same weirdly specific wish of all those other blockbuster heroes: the superheroes, Harry, Neo, Luke, Frodo, Twilight Girl, Shia LaBeef. They're all just human avatars -- Avatar! -- they're all human avatars so we can relive the same fantasy over and over and over again: The world is a lie and you -- You!-- are secretly the most important person in that world. That's the wish fulfillment. That's what we want. To be famous, a star on the screen, to be important, to be remembered. To be immortal.

[...]

Ever since Star Wars, we've increasingly gone to more and more movies that convince us that we're secretly more interesting and more powerful than the world lets on. We can not get enough of that story."
posted by nooneyouknow at 6:39 PM on November 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


The 1 Ugly Truth Hiding Behind This Listicle

1) Alan Moore made all these points twenty-five years ago.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:39 PM on November 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


I started writing a reply about everything wrong with the article (or should that be listicle?), but then I realised that I didn't really care if I was secretly a sick closet fascist who has no regard for hard work, civilian life or the legal process and yearns for a billionaire industrialist white guy to swoop in and solve all my problems. So meh. You just go on riding that high horse, David Wong.
posted by fearthehat at 6:44 PM on November 14, 2013


then I realised that I didn't really care if I was secretly a sick closet fascist

Why not? Because awesome? It is true about the uniforms...
posted by Diablevert at 6:51 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was a similar article here on the Blue earlier this year: The Superhero Delusion
posted by FJT at 7:20 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's seeming more and more as if Tumblr is leaking into Cracked.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:23 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, that was surprisingly brilliant and insightful.

Not surprising. Since Wong started editing it, Cracked is nearly always decent and often excellent. The name and the listicle format have barely any bearing on the quality of their material (community is crappy though).
posted by Sebmojo at 7:28 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ndwright: "Um, wow, this comment went longer than I intended. I guess what I'm saying is Guillermo del Toro is awesome?"

I like Pacific Rim a lot, but it's not a superhero movie. It's a spectacle movie much like superhero movies, but it doesn't have superheroes.

I'm kind of curious about how to do superhero stories while avoiding these tropes/problems. I can see some ways, Watchmen's embracing them and taking them to their logical conclusion is certainly one, but I'm wondering if they can be fully negated and you can still tell a story about a person with superhuman powers of some kind.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:41 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why not? Because awesome? It is true about the uniforms...

Well, in general I don't feel that indulging one's darker, more antisocial impulses through media is something that needs to be condemned, or even given a great deal of thought. Fantasising about something doesn't mean you actually want it to happen in real life, despite what Wong suggests.

I do my best to avoid oppressing real people in real life, so if by enjoying Batman movies it turns out I am actually indulging some deep seated fascistic impulse towards fictional people (unlikely IMO, but possible) I'm not going to lose any sleep over it; as mentioned, I honestly don't care!

If there was some catastrophic trend towards societal helplessness I might consider alternative positions, but I honestly don't think this is the case. Society as a whole has made great progress on social issues in recent times. There are many people of diverse political positions engaged in campaigning and debate. I see the people I work with every day actively making plans to improve themselves and secure better futures. It seems pretty obvious to me that society as a whole has not, in fact, been seduced into passivity and submissiveness by the media it enjoys.

This goes against what Wong claims, which is that the themes of superhero movies are manifestations of "a toxic corruption in the collective soul of our society". If this is actually true (again, this seems unlikely to me) I would much rather spend my time directly dealing with the actual social structures that propagate these ideas instead of beanplating about how we can rearrange movie plots to impart more wholesome lessons to the kids.

Basically, even if it does turn out that superhero movies are preaching some sort of cryptofascist message, I'm still going to prioritise my personal enjoyment of them. I should point out that Wong states he has seen The Avengers seven times, so clearly despite all his moral posturing he's doing the same thing!
posted by fearthehat at 7:45 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think anybody would necessarily be looking for a message about society in superhero movies if it wasn't for the fact that there are just so bloody many of them out these days, with millions of people flocking to every one. It's like, I wouldn't speculate on the reasons why someone ate a hamburger once a week, but if he ate a hamburger for every other meal, and started planning his next hamburger as soon as he finished the last, I might start to ponder on it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:03 PM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


It seems pretty obvious to me that society as a whole has not, in fact, been seduced into passivity and submissiveness by the media it enjoys.

Wow. Really? Are you not watching what the finance people, the oil people, the defence people, and such are doing? This society should be in revolt.
posted by Trochanter at 8:03 PM on November 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


fearthehat, I don't necessarily disagree with anything you've said, except the idea that none of it is worth thinking about. You're too cool for school; I'm kind of a nerd, I guess.
posted by Max Udargo at 8:39 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fantasising about something doesn't mean you actually want it to happen in real life, despite what Wong suggests.

Eh, yes and no. First of all, I don't think Wong is suggesting that everyone who watches superhero movies is literally longing for the rise of a new Hitler. Or Ozymandias, as the case may be. But more to your point --- just because we might be swift enough on the uptake to recognize that real life is more complicated than movie fantasies, and that bringing those fantasies into the real world would be problematic, doesn't mean that the existence of such fantasies can't tell us something about what we value and what we despise.

Like, I think 99.9% of teenage girls would be creeped right the fuck out and call the police if they woke up in the middle of the night and found the cute guy from Biology hovering over their bed, whispering about how much he enjoys watching them sleep. But Twilight's popularity does say something about the persistent romantic appeal of the idea of the man-as-protector, and about how the thrill of eliciting male desire is intertwined with the fear of it, the danger of it.

The world's a big place and people are complicated. In any era you can find a million different examples of people who are swimming against the current of their times, can find little whirlpools and eddys that pattern themselves differently than the main stream. But the course of the main stream can still tell you something about a culture. And I think in that way the rise of Superhero films and the switch from science fiction dystopia to apocalyptic dystopia (particularly, zombie dystopias) is an interesting shift that can tell you something about the types of things people are worried about now as compared to the past, and the types of things they admire.
posted by Diablevert at 8:50 PM on November 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


That seems to be a fundamental American fantasy: that you're already awesome, you just don't know it.

While I think American pop culture is the worst offender in this regard, it's really quite common elsewhere too. I see the theme quite often in Chinese fantasy, Japanese manga/anime, etc.

For example, consider three of the most popular manga/anime series in the past decade: Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach. The first two protagonists started out as underdogs with big dreams, while the Bleach guy was an ordinary high school student who ~stumbled into a secret world by accident. Years of struggle and adventure later, fans found out that all three were the sons of Great Men, and thus always destined for Great Things.

I should point out that Wong states he has seen The Avengers seven times, so clearly despite all his moral posturing he's doing the same thing!

The message is not to stop consuming problematic media. The goal of media analysis is to Think About It. We wouldn't bother thinking about it if we weren't consuming and actively engaging with the material in the first place.

Think about the problems. Think about ways to do better. If you want to enjoy your media without thinking those things, that's fine. Just don't tell others to stop thinking.
posted by fatehunter at 9:24 PM on November 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


5. The Common Folk Are All Helpless and Incompetent.
4. Only Raw Talent and Wealth Make Someone Fit to Be in Charge
3. The Only Thing Preventing Justice Is This "Due Process" Bullshit
2. Violence Has No Possible Negative Consequences... as Long as the Right People Do It
1. Screw the Underdog, Root for the Rich Kid!


So basically, a list of ways superhero movies are not Bonfire of the Vanities.
posted by pwnguin at 9:26 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I started writing a reply about everything wrong with the article (or should that be listicle?), but then I realised that I didn't really care if I was secretly a sick closet fascist who has no regard for hard work, civilian life or the legal process and yearns for a billionaire industrialist white guy to swoop in and solve all my problems. So meh.
Adjusted for moral correctness, the real superheros are... people who write things on the internet? Wait, is this a joke readout? Pull the cards and punch a new set.

Also wtf at building a kaiju wall = reading people their miranda rights
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:37 PM on November 14, 2013


"While I think American pop culture is the worst offender in this regard, it's really quite common elsewhere too. I see the theme quite often in Chinese fantasy, Japanese manga/anime, etc."

Exactly, it's a universal thing. The American entertainment industry has just gotten really good at refining the trope down to it's essential elements through lots of practice.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:34 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe a more healthy and more "American" fantasy would be about how you become awesome by being willing to work hard to make yourself something greater than you are?

But then you'd be accused of owning bootstraps. Also, someone wrote that book and his name was Heinlein.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:42 PM on November 14, 2013


Maybe a more healthy and more "American" fantasy would be about how you become awesome by being willing to work hard to make yourself something greater than you are?

What I hated about The Incredibles was that they created *that exact character* and then it turned out he was the villain that the biologically superior hero families had to defeat.
posted by rue72 at 11:00 PM on November 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


If there was some catastrophic trend towards societal helplessness

Large numbers of people are voting to eliminate social programs that give common citizens independence and choice, and in favor of corporate welfare, reduced taxes for the rich, and unlimited political spending for the wealthiest.

(I was appalled at the $500,000 that one wealthy Wisconsinite was allowed, legally, to donate to Scott Walker during the recall election, but by starting a Facebook page saying so, I was relentlessly attacked by acolytes who would say "It's her money, she can do what she wants with it!" Many of whom appeared to be retirees on a fixed income.)

Basically, even if it does turn out that superhero movies are preaching some sort of cryptofascist message, I'm still going to prioritise my personal enjoyment of them.

Well, he's not telling you not to enjoy them, he's telling you to question what you're seeing, which is quite different.

That seems to be a fundamental American fantasy: that you're already awesome, you just don't know it.

I think you may want to watch some older American film. I don't think it applies to most protagonist characters before 1960, for instance. There was, for a time, a great moral weight placed on the common man character, the everyman, who would do what was right just because it was right and he was in the right place at the right time. There's an unspoken social contract in place that drives the character action. I think there began to be a break with this only clearly following the 1960s and 1970s films which deconstructed the shared fantasy of Americanism itself. And certainly the original Die Hard genre was both a call-back to the older tradition even as it railed scathingly against hierarchical authority -- McClane is shown to be very human (bloody feet!), the cops who die do so because of stupid orders and not their own venality, and so on.

The American entertainment industry has just gotten really good at refining the trope down to it's essential elements through lots of practice.

I really think there's a marketing/audience thing going on here with the people who go out to see movies in theaters -- overwhelmingly young white males. People over 30, etc., constantly complain that there aren't movies made for them anymore. That's not entirely true, and the explosion of content means there's plenty out there to please almost anyone, but these are certainly not the people Hollywood is making big-splosion superhero epics for.

BTW, a good movie this year as far as lampshading/subverting Hollywood tropes was The Heat -- which made over $100M. So all is not lost.

if by enjoying Batman movies it turns out I am actually indulging some deep seated fascistic impulse towards fictional people (unlikely IMO, but possible)

Actually, I think you're reversing cause and effect here somewhat. The fascistic impulses in movies like these is not about your own animus per se, but about teaching you to distrust institutions, consensus policy processes, the rule of law, and other dull and tedious chores of democracy or modern society generally. As such, I think watching a movie like this is not so much telling you a you're a bad person, but making you a worse person than when you went in.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 PM on November 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


to distrust institutions, consensus policy processes, the rule of law, and other dull and tedious chores of democracy
So you're saying they're dangerously subversive?
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:39 PM on November 14, 2013


If you want to see how the '"Due Process" Bullshit / Violence Has No Possible Negative Consequences... as Long as the Right People Do It' thing can work out very badly indeed in a real(ish) world scenario then check out Prisoners.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:18 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I stopped being excited about superhero movies a long time ago (I think I was about eight or ten?), for similar reasons as others have mentioned. The uniforms are off-putting, the hidden collateral damage is unpleasant, and I guess I just don't have either the fantasy of being the savior or of being saved by the special one.

I'll watch the movies, whether it's the Matrix or Star Wars, and mostly enjoy them (though I draw the line at aggressively stupid films like Iron Man), but I'm never unaware of what an unpleasant and discordant fantasy they really are.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:11 AM on November 15, 2013


And then in stories like "The Yellow Face," "The Musgrave Ritual," and "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes draws conclusions with that same complete certainty - and is shown to have been completely erroneous in them.

Yes, 'The Yellow Face' is a great story because Holmes does his usual shtick of "I deduce a series of hideous and sordid crimes (bigamy, blackmail, etc)" and then it turns out that instead Holmes and Watson have stumbled into a completely different story about how love conquers racism and everyone is equal and **HUGS**. Then Holmes shrugs and says "Guess I was wrong, how delightful."
posted by Acheman at 5:28 AM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I really think there's a marketing/audience thing going on here with the people who go out to see movies in theaters -- overwhelmingly young white males.

Not true, and it would be good if Hollywood would stop making films as if it were.
posted by Summer at 6:58 AM on November 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Something else I'd like to note here: Wong shamelessly cherry-picks his examples. He briefly mentions Spider-Man at the beginning, but then sort of forgets about him, because that would negate his whole "nobody roots for the underdog any more" thesis. And I found these two back-to-back points utterly ludicrous:
See, because without Cap to tell them, these professional law enforcement officers would have had no concept of "evacuating civilians away from where violence is occurring." These people have had no training at all for what to do in the case of, say, a terrorist attack. Why would they? They're just cops working in post-9/11 New York, while Captain America is an unfrozen science experiment from 1942.
Something that Wong seems to forget is that NYC had been the target of another terrorist attack at the WTC, eight years before 9/11, and how did Rudy Giuliani prepare for it? By putting the emergency command center at the WTC, against recommendations. Plus, of course, following it up with a) shamelessly exploiting 9/11 for political gain at every opportunity and b) doubling down on the spectacularly incompetent and corrupt Bernard Kerik.
Because you know who could have stopped that alien invasion? One division of U.S. Marines. Seriously, it's a few hundred shirtless aliens riding fragile skycycles. Like one AC-130 gunship and a couple of anti-aircraft batteries would have taken them down.
Conventional forces in a crowded city, shooting at aerial targets going every which way? What could possibly go wrong? (Amazingly, Wong later criticizes the Avengers for their potential collateral damage.)

And, at the end, he defends overthinking things, but as is usual with nerds who overthink things, they underthink a crucial point, and it's this: why are these sort of power fantasies so popular now? Because people have completely lost faith in the ability of the usual political and meritocratic processes to make things better. It's worth noting one of the very few verifiable examples of a comic-book-based movie actually affecting real life: Anonymous adopting the Guy Fawkes mask from the movie of V for Vendetta.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:50 AM on November 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Something that Wong seems to forget is that NYC had been the target of another terrorist attack at the WTC, eight years before 9/11, and how did Rudy Giuliani prepare for it? By putting the emergency command center at the WTC, against recommendations. Plus, of course, following it up with a) shamelessly exploiting 9/11 for political gain at every opportunity and b) doubling down on the spectacularly incompetent and corrupt Bernard Kerik.

What does any of that have to do with the movie cops being too dumb to start rounding up people to evacuate them? Hell, the actual cops did exactly that on 9/11 itself. I was in New York on 9/11; the subway was shut down and people were being evacuated to north of 14th st within about an hour of the second plane hitting, despite the command center being destroyed. Rudy Guliani's vainglory may be unparalleled, but in real life first responders are indeed capable of finding their ass w/o Captain America spotting them two hands and a flashlight.

Conventional forces in a crowded city, shooting at aerial targets going every which way? What could possibly go wrong?

Aren't the Avengers just unconventional forces in a crowded city, shooting at shit every which way? The point isn't that conventional forces don't cause collateral damage and the Avengers do. It's that five Avengers taking on an army by themselves aren't superior to, you know, an actual army taking on an army.
posted by Diablevert at 9:20 AM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, pretty much. Somewhat related, I think this article was the subject of a FPP before: Must every kids' movie reinforce the cult of self-esteem.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:35 AM on November 15, 2013


Diablevert, the whole point is that Cap gave them a target to move people to. The article presumes that NYC would have some sort of system in place to evacuate people in the case of an incident in which (unlike 9/11) there wasn't a clear epicenter to move people away from; the real-life record doesn't support that. And, with the exception of the Black Widow, the Avengers aren't using conventional ammo; do you really want an entire Marine division filling the air of lower Manhattan with lead?
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:21 AM on November 15, 2013


Many movies try to fig leaf it by showing people fleeing, evacuating, hunkered down in a cellar, but you know there are some poor bastards caught under the collapsed buildings or flattened by the cars thrown half a mile. For every busload Superman saves, there's at least three more that didn't make it.

This concept was lampshaded in Alan Moore's run on Miracleman (not surprisingly, a deconstruction of superhero tropes). Springing into a climactic battle with another super-powered being -- who had already murdered most of London because he trying to get Miracleman's attention and/or bored -- Miracleman comments something to the effect that his apologists would later claim that the first car he threw at his enemy was unoccupied, but sadly, that wasn't the case.
posted by Gelatin at 11:33 AM on November 15, 2013


Diablevert, the whole point is that Cap gave them a target to move people to. The article presumes that NYC would have some sort of system in place to evacuate people in the case of an incident in which (unlike 9/11) there wasn't a clear epicenter to move people away from; the real-life record doesn't support that.

I've only watched Avengers once, but isn't the line being referenced "I'm going to need a perimeter all the way up to 39th st"? And wasn't Tony Stark's skyscraper known to be the main objective of the force, because they were trying to nick whatever the hell that McGuffin was? The portal key glowy thing?

And, with the exception of the Black Widow, the Avengers aren't using conventional ammo; do you really want an entire Marine division filling the air of lower Manhattan with lead?

I dunno, is there an invading alien army flying around crashing into buildings and shooting stuff with energy beams and whatnot? I feel like the primary objective is "repulse the attack as quickly as possible" not "make sure the bad guys are the only ones blowing stuff up." Undoubtedly both the marines and the Avengers will cause collateral damage. But it's called collateral because the good guys are trying to shoot the bad guys and hitting civilians and their stuff on accident. Whereas the bad guys are trying to kill civvies and break their stuff on purpose. Therefore, responding with sufficient force to quickly dispatch the enemy is very important. Really, the best call would have been for both the superheroes and the civilian military to respond to the invasion. Also, if the National guard had been notified they could have started evacuating people from the area around Tony's bachelor pad, at least.
posted by Diablevert at 11:45 AM on November 15, 2013


In real life, superheroes aren't needed. And that's a good thing, because they don't really exist. But in a superhero movie, the story is going to be slanted in such a way that the heroes are needed, because it would be much less dramatic if the Avengers rushed to stop the Chitauri invasion only to discover that conventional forces already had the situation well in hand.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:37 PM on November 15, 2013


In real life, superheroes aren't needed.

I think that they are needed, which is why people like to watch movies about them.

But in real life, they'd be vigilantes, and vigilantism thwarts our system of democracy and due process, so superheroes are ultimately incompatible with our ideals.

Which is why I've always hated Batman. Look dude, just because you've got cool toys doesn't make you king. To me, Batman = WASP version of James Franco's character in Spring Breakers.

And Ironman = Batman + John McCain
posted by rue72 at 1:06 PM on November 15, 2013


Hey! Thread's still open! Future readers and anthropologists will hear my words!

Anyway, I think one superhero tale which (perhaps ironically compared to The Avengers) did this really well is Buffy.

5. The civilians aren't helpless. They aren't as strong and certainly aren't as indestructable as Buffy, but the series lives in others joining her side and fighting with her, some of them gaining their own superpowers, some not. More importantly, to me, is that the series' greatest moment (YMMV, but I'm thinking about the end of Season 3) was the surprise that she had geared up and prepared her entire class to take on The Mayor. Buffy is the chosen one, yes. But she's absolutely not the only one with skin in the game and everybody can do something to help themselves and the community.

4. Well, wealth is right out here: Buffy and her mom don't really have any. Giles is implied to have some money saved up but he still usually has some day job or other. As for natural talent, well, yes. Buffy is Chosen. But she still has to be trained and it is shown repeatedly with Faith that just having the natural talent can go very badly.

3. The Watcher Council is bullshit and everybody knows it, but Buffy still has rules bound by society, most importantly that slayers don't kill mortals - it's not in their authority to make that call and they have to understand that. And when Faith kills one of the Mayor's henchmen, a mortal, it's a big damn deal that takes the character years to recover from.

2. Oh subverted all over the place. I mean, not all the time (this show featured the hero firing off a rocket launcher in a mall at one point, after all) but the best plots are regularly about not having the certainty Wong discusses in the article.

1. The Big Bads are all clearly set up as beings beyond Buffy's ability to stop them, and in general she can't, not on her own. (She famously dies in two different season finales.) This is still a hard one to map onto Buffy, what with her being the Chosen one and all, but season 6 gives a good example of a total subversion of this idea. Buffy is broke. Nobody can really help in this regard, so she spends her days in soul-crushing jobs and her nights fighting the undead and she gets no sleep and can't handle it all. The seeming "big bads" are the "trio" of three silly former classmates of hers, who the group would be capable of taking out easily if they were acting at all cohesively, but they're not.

But then the trio is thwarted several episodes from the end, one of them comes back for vengeance (with horrifying consequences) which makes Willow fall completely off the wagon and do a shit-ton of vengeful magic of her own (also with very known consequences) and the Willow prepares to take out basically everyone. Giles and Buffy and Anya and everyone else with powers are all incapacitated with Willow basically ascended to godhood, and Xander goes off to stop her.

For those who don't know the show (and why are you reading this obviously spoileriffic post if you are? For shame!) Xander is the notable member of the group with no superpowers at all. He is absolutely the underdog in this situation, and his plan of "attack" is to walk up to Willow and suffer all of her attacks on him until she doesn't have the will to keep hurting him. That is an underdog victory (and a really nice one, I think.)

So I guess the take-away is that Whedon knows how to do subversive superheroes. He just wasn't,m with The Avengers. Probably because it's a monumentally budgeted project/series and not a tentpole show for a fledgling 5th-place network. Sometimes you've just gotta write the wrestling picture, you know?

But I think Wong's bigger issue is that the Wrestling pictures are all that's getting made right now, and that's a problem.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:28 PM on December 10, 2013


I was trying to fit modern superheroes into the 22 common traits of god-heroes outlined by FitzRoy Somerset, but I realized that I just don't have enough of an encyclopedic knowledge of what's been going on with the caped ones over the years. Some of them may have died at the tops of hills or married the daughters of their predecessors while I wasn't looking. Somebody should set up a Google spreadsheet that superfans can fill in.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:05 AM on December 11, 2013


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