Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Magneto Was Right": Recalibrating the Comic Book Movie for the Trump Age

"Maybe an asshole is what we need!" I heard variations of this sentiment throughout the utterly dispiriting, anomic 2016 presidential election cycle. This was the rationale of a segment of the population who had come to view themselves as an embattled minority. It also explains why this voting bloc convinced themselves that a man who emblazons his name on skyscrapers was the savior they'd been waiting for.

I won't pretend that the outcome of this election was easily foreseen. I was as wrong about this election as I've ever been about anything and I am not alone. But hindsight is 20/20, and one of the indicators that we were in for a Trump victory are the comic book movies of 2016.

I've pointed out many times to friends, colleagues, and students that the 2016 crop of CBM featured an interesting trend. This was the year of the anti-hero and also the year of heroes fighting heroes. "Maybe an asshole is what we need" could've been the tagline for Deadpool or Suicide Squad. This was the year where supervillains got a chance to act heroic or erased the line between hero and villain altogether.

It might be a stretch to say that Batman v Superman also presaged a Trump win but nevertheless the argument can be made. Superman, both an immigrant alien and a member of the media (two of Trump's favorite betes noires), is portrayed by Zack Snyder as cold, self-centered, and not at all living up to the values of truth, justice, and the American Way. And worse than all of that, he's smug about his own omnipotence and imperviousness. In short, Superman is a stand-in for one of those coastal elites that have been ruining a once proud nation (the Last Son of Krypton is a well-documented metaphor for Jewishness so there's that too). And of course, you can almost understand Trump supporters if you attempt to see Trump as a Bruce Wayne figure: a man of wealth who is using his vast resources to help the common man (we might also pin Trump's success on comic books that all too often equate wealth with heroism). It's certainly clear that Trump's fans see his defeat of Hillary Clinton as a satisfying humbling of someone thought to be unbeatable, just like Superman, incredulous as a mere mortal blocks his punch.

The President of the United States is a fixture of the comic book movie and makes many appearances in comic books. As a kid I remember reading a Superboy comic where he stopped by the White House to give JFK a pager to summon the lad of steel whenever he needed to. Of course, superheroes and presidents are natural allies. Both are our protectors. They reflect the best of our values and the potential we all have to become great leaders and serve our fellow man. Or at least that held true until two weeks ago.

Whether you revile Trump or applaud his victory, one thing that cannot be denied is that he is a break with every thing that has come before in the Oval Office. There have been crooks and charlatans atop the executive branch before, but none have so proudly embraced their shadow self like the next president. As his follower said "maybe an asshole is what we need". We shall see.

[Side note: in January 2009 Marvel published a Spider-Man comic in which Peter Parker, covering the Obama inauguration for the Daily Bugle, has to don his tights and save the president-elect from a supervillain. The bad guy, Chameleon, shape shifts into Obama and Spidey has to figure out which one is the real Obama and which is the imposter. Fascinating.]

One thing that's clear is that the comic book movie will have to adjust for this new kind of president. Already the implications of the Trump election cast a harsh and unfavorable light on some of the best comic book movies of the post-Iron Man era. I keep thinking about Heath Ledger's Joker whose idee fixe is that "good people" will become monsters with the slightest nudge. Batman disagrees and Nolan does too. As the Trump era dawns and we watch Americans perform the Nazi salute, dismiss bigotry as trivial and generally give themselves over to their reptile brain, The Dark Knight feels like a lie. Of course the nameless self-righteous prick would've detonated the bomb on the prison ferry. I don't even think anyone would stop him today. Ledger's Joker would view this election cycle with the glee of a child waking up on Christmas morning.

One cannot discuss comic book heroes and the presidency without mentioning the jaw-dropping "Secret Empire" Captain America storyline of 1974. You can read about it here, but to summarize writer Steve Englehart had Cap take on President Richard Nixon and bring him down. Cap is so disgusted with what America has become at the end of the tale he drops the Captain America mantle and becomes "Nomad" (a man without a country), a character without any patriotic/nationalist identification.

Unlike his movie counterpart, the Cap of the comic books came out of the ice in 1964 to a nation still grieving a slain president. He also watched his beloved homeland nearly rend itself asunder over race and imperialism. Englehart and other writers shrewdly knew Cap couldn't become a fossilized avatar of a nation's best intentions. They turned Captain America instead into the nagging conscience of a superpower. That take on Captain America has been adopted by the recent spate of Marvel-based films known to aficianados as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. Though he's never come face to face with the president (played by William Sadler in Iron Man 3 and Agents of SHIELD), Captain America has spent much of his trilogy defying the will of corrupt organs of the state. The trilogy takes on a prescience as a lead up to a Trump presidency. It begins in America's great test (World War II, a time presumably when -according to Trump- America was great) before jumping to a modern day where the mythology of Captain America: The First Avenger has been used to hide a cancer that becomes exposed in the sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In this year's Captain America: Civil War our hero once again becomes an outlaw when he disobeys what he sees as governmental overreach. And now Cap's point, (that you cannot cede too much power to the state because if you like the leader today, what about the next one) is driven home by Trump's ascendancy. If you doubt that Steve Rogers would refuse to answer to President Trump, take a look at Chris Evans' Twitter feed. His passionate plea for basic decency could be written by Cap himself.

Part of me almost needs to see the fictional American avatar slug out Trump as he once did another nation's dictator, but the Captain America trilogy has already warned us of a worst case Trump scenario. The other comic book franchise obsessed with government overreach is the X-Men series. The second X-Men film began with a teleporting mutant nearly assassinating the president and subsequent films have featured the head of state, including Tricky Dick himself.

I've thought a lot about the X-Men since Trump won. He shamelessly vilified different minority groups and has touched off a tidal wave of bigoted bile in our country. Once, when we were a more gentle nation we had to create metaphors for the kind of hate that can be seen in earnest on social media today. Mutants (characters born with their superpowers who sometimes have an unusual appearance that marks them for mob violence) were a stand-in for all these despised groups that once again many Americans feel safe to deride openly.

Trump pretty much validates the entire ideology of the X-Men's great antagonist, Magneto. A child of the Shoah, he uses his vast powers to protect mutantkind from the kind of bigotry Trump has trafficked in. Magneto knows war between humans and mutants is inevitable and has vowed to meet it head on. "Never again", indeed. In an interview Sir Ian McKellen once shared that Black males had become his biggest fans since he took on the role of Magneto. His character has been positioned as the Malcolm X to the X-Men's MLK, and the fact that there's truth in his worldview has made him one of Marvel's most compelling villains. Since Trump's election, I've thought of this t-shirt and considered buying it.

We could really use a great X-Men film now. Specifically one where the antagonist is anti-mutant hysteria itself. Sadly the current custodians of the property are lost in the past, have forsaken the present and have thereby betrayed what made the X-Men essential reading for so many of us who grew up feeling different from those around us. The X-Men should be a bulwark against Trumpism.

So where do comic book movies go from here? Do they comment on Trump's break with traditional leadership and American values? Interestingly the MCU won't have to deal with this question for some time as the storyline is set to take the films out of America and bring to the narrative an extraterrestrial warlord seeking omnipotence. It is interesting that two of the MCU's grand gestures to diversity, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are set to shoot in the next two years. The push to get these heroes on screen now seems at odds with the times and more's the pity.

I suspect the producers at Marvel are relieved they can steer clear of the Oval Office for some time and focus on deep space, the multiverse, or Wakanda instead. The presidency was once a part of the superhero genre, but it will be take some time to see how Trump handles the office for that to become true again. Some brave soul may try to have their fictional hero take on the next president. If Trump succeeds (not even sure what that means but let's say he delivers a booming economy, keeps us out of war, and doesn't strip too many civil liberties away) perhaps the superhero will drift towards him. But if he isn't a success, if it turns out that in fact an asshole is never what you need, then we may need the superhero to remind us of those values lost in the name of moral shortcuts and political gamesmanship.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again"

There's not one machismo, there are many types. There are people who like to brag about their ability to eat spicy food. There are people that love to inform you that sitting for an 8 hour movie is no big deal. You name it, there's someone bragging about their insouciance and subtly shaming you for your lack of it. One of the more noxious and obnoxious forms of this is shock machismo. This is when something terrible happens and the first response is to shrug with heavy eyelids.

Of course, shock machismo is just an adolescent pose. It is an attempt to control chaos, to tell it you are still in charge even when that's clearly untrue. And in some quarters we have seen a tiny bit of shock machismo in action with the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.

Even typing those words sends a wave of nausea through my body. I suppose it would be comforting to not allow myself to be horrified by this. For some that resistance takes the form of shock machismo ("What'd you expect from AmeriKKKa?"), for others it takes the form of normalization ("I know Trump destroyed every value we claim to hold dear in this country to win but it's time to give him the benefit of the doubt."). To give one's self over to the apocalyptic horror of this election is harrowing. I suppose I should be patient with people trying to not look this particular Medusa in the face. But I am not.

Whether Trump institutes a fascist dictatorship like something out of an 80's dystopian sci-fi movie directed by a British commercial director or turns out to be an ineffectual bumbler, we have lost something we will never reclaim. We have lost the ability to say that in America truth matters. We have lost the ability to say that in America basic human decency matters. We have lost the ability to look at ourselves as different from the backwards nations we have deemed cruel and inferior. We have lost the ability to say that competence and qualification matter more than identity and celebrity. And these losses should haunt us all for the rest of our lives.

But how do we make sense of this so we can ward off the paralysis that comes along with facing the abyss? That will takes us a long time to do. And even though very smart people have already isolated some of the key factors in this historic election it fails to make this event seem like anything more than a nightmare that should never have happened.

The beauty of history is how it puts everything into perspective. Nothing that happens has never happened before. It doesn't ease the pain of a calamity, but it at least offers an important reminder that life will go on. There are many obvious historic precedents for the Trump election. The first is Reconstruction and Redemption. After the American Civil War, the federal government attempted to make good on its promises of full citizenship to the formerly enslaved. That progress was real until the southern whites, who viewed themselves as redeemers of the south and not despoilers of liberty, stopped that progress and put Jim Crow in place for a century.

The 1990s were another time when minority groups made great strides only to have that answered with the George W. Bush era. Whenever we see equality coming to America's minorities, backlash follows. And for me, the first time I saw that happen was when I was 8 years old.

On July 12, 1979 in Chicago, radio DJ Steve Dahl hosted an unusual event. In the interval of a White Sox doubleheader, Dahl organized a ceremonious burning of disco records. Dahl hated disco and branded himself the general of an "anti-disco army" (he showed up to the record burning in military regalia). The deal was you'd be admitted to the game for only one dollar if you brought a disco record to be thrown on the pile. Dahl and the White Sox organization feared the night would be a flop. Their fears were unfounded. The crowd was so large Comiskey Park hit capacity and an estimated 20,000 were unable to be admitted to the park.

If you google "Disco Demolition Night" you can read the accounts and see the photos of what happened. Once Dahl started literally blowing up heaps of disco records, his mostly white male army lost control of themselves and a full scale riot ensued. The second game planned that night had to be forfeited. People were dismayed by this gleeful act of incivility on the hallowed grounds of America's pastime but Dahl was unrepentant and reveled in his achievement.

I was 8 when this happened and nowhere near Chicago. But what I remember is seeing this in the news and thinking "how could anyone hate dance music that much?" But of course, this wasn't about music. It was about culture. It was an act of white male cultural reclamation against a musical movement that threatened their dominion.

It doesn't matter how you personally feel about disco. It had detractors from many quarters (some producers of soul music rejected disco as a white bastardization of Black music). But the facts are these: disco brought the races together, offered female vocalists a position of power, and threatened norms of gender and sexuality. It was in short the musical analog of all the social liberation happening in the glorious 1970s; a decade when Blacks, Latinos, women and gays made a bid for the mainstream.

And within a year of Disco Demolition Night, it had all evaporated. The targeted music scene collapsed. Disco was never going to have a long life but Dahl's spectacle certainly legitimized and accelerated the backlash. It told the guy who never could dance and found disco alienating that he wasn't alone. And he was emboldened. So disco fell. Shortly after that Ronald Reagan was elected president. This ushered in an era of swaggering conservatism where the strides made by the women, the gays, the Blacks and the Latinos were almost erased.

And here we are, once again. In truth I've wondered more than once during the Obama era when that "Disco Sucks" moment would arrive. I even began to think that maybe we wouldn't see a grand backlash from conservative white America. But Tuesday it came, led incongruously by a man known to frequent Studio 54 with his gay Jewish mentor on several occasions.

So what do we take away from this? First we take that backlash is almost the natural order. For the democratic candidate to prevail would have gone against persistent trends. It could have happened, but I think many including myself underestimated how much a Clinton victory would've upended historic pattern (I don't mean that she was a woman- though there is that). This defeat should not be read as proof that liberalism cannot succeed, but more that America tends to act as a pendulum between left and right especially when identity politics are thrown in.

For me one of the most maddening aspects of the Monday morning quarterbacking is all the handwringing over the Democratic party's perceived failure to woo the white working class. Imagine on July 13, 1979 a group of disco producers and club DJs looking at Dahl's spectacle and asking themselves "maybe we should've thought more about rock fans when we made disco." That seems absurd, right? I know many will find this to be a hyperextended analogy but this is what I think of when I hear that the Dems failed the white working class (and can we also remind ourselves that said white working class abandoned the Dems for the GOP after the Dems decided to secure civil rights for non-whites- how does one woo someone back who is offended by equality?). Every political party has to concern itself with outreach, but the notion that the Trumpist white proletariat would ever see anything that spoke to them in the Democratic nominees is delusional and an unproductive avenue of discussion. They could no more support a Dem than Dahl's soldiers could trade in Rush for Chic.

If you think I'm being dangerously dismissive or glib let me remind you that the Democratic candidate got more votes and her electoral college shortfall could've been more easily avoided if stopping fascism was more important to some lefties than rejecting so-called "neoliberalism".

Finally, the most important lesson to take from Disco Demolition Night is that its success was limited. Yes, disco disappeared, but while they were blowing up records in Chicago they were scratching records in New York City. Hip Hop, not quite as disturbing to rock fans perhaps but a musical idiom that would one day overthrow rock's cultural primacy nonetheless, was already hatching. And somewhere in Chicago as Dahl and his anti-disco army rioted was a Black gay DJ the world would come to know as Frankie Knuckles who later fathered house music which he called "disco's revenge."

In other words, the door to progress seemed to have been shut and bolted in 1980 with the ascendance of Reagan, but it was only for a time. Disco Demolition Night didn't kill disco forever. Reagan didn't prevent the election of Obama. The murder of Harvey Milk didn't prevent Transparent from winning Emmys. Backlash doesn't last forever. It only puts some drag on forward momentum, it cannot completely reverse it.

This election is a catastrophe. There is no softening or sugarcoating it. People are going to suffer and some will die because (white) America chose a leader who made fascist overtures his remedy for what ails us. But history teaches us that this is part of the eternal cycle of history. The pendulum will not stay in one place forever.

It reminds me of the ending of Bernardo Bertolucci's delirious Marxist epic 1900. After the peasants celebrate the fall of fascism and the victory of the proletariat, the film ends with communist Olmo and padrone Alfredo (played by Depardieu and DeNiro) as old men scuffling like little boys. The greatness of Bertolucci was in recognizing that the film, despite its earnest belief in a workers' revolution, could not end with a pageant of proletarian victory. No it ends with the peasant and the landowner locked in eternal combat which is as much comic as tragic. And so it goes for the left and right in America. We will never have a progressive utopia. We will have progressive eras that give way to backlash before they are restored. Whether that fact is depressing or encouraging is a matter of perspective, or perhaps, an act of will.