In Sunday’s New York Times, self-impressed movie critic A.O. Scott suggested it was a good thing that we’re missing out on superhero movies in this summer of coronavirus, given their authoritarian, even fascist tendencies: “Twilight of the Superheroes — What if they were not really there to protect us?”
Scott got a full page for this klutzy take on the Marvel vs. D.C. comic book universes, as portrayed in recent blockbusters, and the dueling “authoritarian” impulses driving each worldview.
He began with one of those tiresome “gotchas” that don’t fool anyone anymore, pretending to talk about politics before revealing that he’s actually discussing superhero movies.
Do you embrace winners or root for underdogs? Do you fantasize about world government or vigilante justice? Or do you find yourself drifting from one pole to another, hoping to find something to satisfy longings — for safety, for danger, for solidarity, for fun — that are themselves often unstable and contradictory? Satisfaction is intermittent and fleeting. Disappointment is the norm. Couldn’t there be a real alternative, an escape from the grip of Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros.?
What did you think I was talking about?
Scott then linked Hollywood to the awful trend of recent politics:
…the imagination of Hollywood in the franchise era…has been authoritarian, anti-democratic, cynical and pseudo-populist. That much of the politics of the past decade can be described with the same words is hardly an accident.
Not even the rapturously received Batman trilogy escaped criticism for being insufficiently progressive (remember when Dan Quayle was ridiculed for confusing television with real life? How far we’ve come!). And the Joker movie got another turn on the Times rack.
It’s easier — and among liberal-minded critics fairly habitual — to find ideological and aesthetic fault on the DC side, especially since Christopher Nolan completed his “Dark Knight” trilogy….“Joker,” in particular, asked to be interpreted as an allegory of white male anger even as it carefully tried to sand away the racist and misogynist implications of its premise.
But even in the Nolan days, when an earlier Joker posited an essential similarity between his gleeful chaos and Batman’s glum fury, Gotham City moved to a noticeably reactionary rhythm, governed by the politics of fear and hero-worship….
Then Scott hinted that Batman and Superman, had gone…fascist?
There are still books to be written about the ideological trajectories of Batman and Superman, who started out as part of the worldwide anti-fascist crusade and may have ended up on the other side….
Scott’s argument became less and less coherent, as superhero movies and reality merged in his mind.
The role of the audience, like the role of the anonymous millions whose lives and deaths are fodder for digital action sequences, is to show up and have fun, to root for the overdogs, assured that they know what’s best for the rest of us. This has been one of the dominant modes of entertainment: to enjoy the spectacle of our own domination.
And maybe, as we use this time to rethink many of the other systems that have seemed so immutable, so natural, so much a part of the way things just are, we can reflect on why we thought we needed all those heroes in the first place, or how they were foisted on us. Eventually, we’ll go back to the movies, but maybe we’ll be less docile, less obedient, when we do. I’m not necessarily saying that we should abolish the Avengers, or defund the DC universe, but fantasies of power are connected to the actual forms that power takes.
He concluded “What feels like a loss in this superhero-free summer might be liberation.”
Scott takes movies, and himself, way too seriously. He got grumpy over Netflix offering The Highwaymen, the story of the murderous 1930’s bank-robber duo of Bonnie and Clyde. He gave the flick back-handed praise for having “the courage of its vengeful, murderous, politically terrifying convictions.”
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