Wednesday, February 21, 2018

No I Shouldn't and I Won't

The Washington Post published an opinion piece on why Zack Snyder was a godsend to superhero movies. I find myself disagreeing with it on every possible level. Snyder doesn't understand comics, characters, or why heroism is so necessary. I'd go so far as to say that Snyder doesn't understand masculinity either.

Right off the bat, Sonny falls into Snyder's trap of slow-mo being a good thing. There's a definite purpose to slow-mo: so that when something going on is too fast and complicated to show at normal speed but the audience needs to capture a detail or something pertinent you can make sure they get the information. That's it. Full stop. There is no need for slow-motion beyond that and usually anything more than that comes off as gaudy and over the top. That Snyder was trying to capture reading a comic book is admirable, but it betrays an utter lack of knowledge as to what makes a comic book work. As comics visionary and philosopher Scott McCloud pointed out in his book Understanding Comics, comics are the only medium that force the reader to connect the dots. Images are juxtaposed and the reader is forced to relate them, on his own. The power of comics is what they can suggest, and it's why every single attempt to adapt comic panels goes wrong; they miss the point of what makes a comic book so powerful. Snyder's style "triggered sniggers" because it's stupid, not because it has inherent value that was missed.

But that's not the chief mistake of Bunch's article. "There’s no idea behind the Marvel films writ large, no overarching thought" he complains. And this is where I truly disagree with him. Marvel's films, by and large, are based upon one very simple (but powerful) idea: heroism is a gift to mankind, but especially the person that the heroism channels itself through. The person and the heroics he performs are not the same thing. Tony Stark isn't an interesting character because he's snarky, it's how he manages to be in the right place and time for everyone, especially himself, that's so compelling. Thor is interesting because, despite his arrogance, he continuously learns that he's not the only fish in the pond and he has to serve those around him for his life to really have meaning. Captain America, who already had these lessons down, had to be shown that the power to effect change is not inborn but is a gift for those who are humble enough to realize it's not all about them. It's masculinity, clean and simple, and in a world where toxic masculinity is upbraided and confused with actual masculinity the real thing is attractive in ways we can hardly fathom.

Someone who is actually masculine does not confuse the power he wields with himself. Unlike the feminine, which is an inborn trait, masculinity is not inherent to males, but is something that is gifted, given by others. That's why so many traditional cultures have coming-of-age ceremonies for men. Their masculinity is given to them in these ceremonies and they are transformed. It's also part of the reason why superheroes jump around in bright and colorful outfits and why traditional religions usually have men dressed up in bright and colorful robes. The fact that in any other context they'd look silly is missing the point: their station is conferred by something greater than themselves. Us Christians call it "God", while atheists mistake this higher power for society or a social contract or what-have-you. The point is that the hero (who, in this sense, can only be male) has been chosen for his role, unworthy as he is of it at times. That's why Marvel's movies do so well: they've dialed this up to 11. One might blame them for their repetitiveness but in a world where actual masculinity is at an all-time low I think they can hardly be blamed for playing a card no one else will play.

There's SPOILERS in the next paragraph. If you haven't seen The Last Jedi yet now's a good time to stop reading.
Not that I think that society has caught on, to the contrary! In The Last Jedi, where Rian Johnson took this theme and played with it, audiences found themselves divided. The lovable and mythic Luke Skywalker had committed the same mistake as the audience and decided that his heroism wasn't a gift that was given to him to give to others, but something inborn, as genetic as his predilection for the Force. Most of the people who loved the movie loved Luke and this truth, while those who didn't were repelled by Luke and the fact that he was a person, and people make mistakes, and someone as powerful and amazing as Luke is far more likely to make powerful and amazingly bad mistakes, and that anyone that high up on the totem pole is going to fall to pride now and again. They mistook the mask of heroism for the person who wore it, much like Luke did. Luke is not his heroics, the heroic worked through Luke. It's what makes the end of that movie, where Luke literally projects a more heroic version of himself across the galaxy to save everyone, so powerful. Luke had realized that heroism and masculinity have nothing to do with power itself, but is the acceptance of the gift of who you are to others. It's a beautiful moment, unparalleled in modern cinema or the rest of Star Wars. The backlash against The Last Jedi, as silly and overwrought as it can be, illustrates my point that what Marvel has found is not conscious in our culture yet. We're not yet aware of why we like Marvel movies, nor are the people who miss the point of them aware that they have indeed missed it. The Marvel movies are not box office smashes because they're vapid, it's because they're pure masculinity in a bottle that show exactly what men should be like.

So no, I'm not going to miss Snyder's horrific vision. I'm glad DC changed their minds and I hope that they never go that ridiculous route again. We as a nation really need men, real men, men who are aware that they've been given a gift and they're the only ones who can use it. Hopefully DC figures this out and how to do a darker take on the theme, because we need that too. Although, if the backlash from The Last Jedi tells us anything, it's that DC  should get used to controversy if they go that route. I say go for it. Rattle some cages.

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