Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Let's Look at This One More Time...

Postmodernist revisionism has us by the nuts. Or, in English, we all have hard-ons for perverting what we traditionally think to be innocent. Maybe "perverting" isn't the right word. A better word might be, rationalizing. Nowadays, people want an escapism that isn't escape at all. They want to see their world, exciting. We love/hate our world, plus; our world plus superheroes, our world plus video game characters, the list goes on and on. With the release of the long-awaited Watchmen and the less long-awaited second episode of There Will Be Brawl, I've been thinking about how we rethink our heroes.
For those of you not in the know (both of you), Watchmen is, ultimately, a collection of stories about superheroes and their irrevocably messed up lives. The book is pretty old now, and was always a fiercely postmodern work, but the movie takes a couple steps forward in this area, so I'll focus on it. Watchmen denies a lot of what we assume about superheroes. You can attribute various proxies to its characters; I like to describe the sundry costumed adventurers as "______ if he/she didn't give a damn about anything." The Comedian is, in my mind, who Captain America would have been under Nixon. Dr. Manhattan is even more powerful than Superman, but has no real attachment to his home, unlike the Man of Steel focusing so much on his adopted status. I know this is a cursory way of explaining the characters, but it serves to get my friends into the book.
And when they do, they see what I mean. These characters would have nothing to do with the tried and true, primary-colored champions of American Exceptionalism we know and love. Comedian would probably consider Captain America (at least Steve Rodgers) as something of a faggot, not wanted to mow down dissenters and protesters. Manhattan would summarily dismiss the Man of Tomorrow's desire to save life. To Ostermann, it would simply be superfluous effort. In the movie, Nite Owl is much more brutal, and Silk Spectre II is a killer. While these may be extreme examples, but they shed some light on how we are beginning to look at superhero--for lack of a better term, as "comic book" would include A History of Violence and Road to Perdition--escapism. Considering the trend, superheroes are getting more realistic. Spider-Man existed in a more believable world, and now Batman and Iron Man look at real world problems, being solved and exacerbated by the presence of masks. These new superheroes are darker, meaner and more relevant. This is no longer Tim Burton's Batman. That was a world from which the viewers could safely distance themselves. It was a bleak, sprawling and, most importantly, idealized landscape. Now, if you watch a superhero movie, you will most likely recognize the world as your own. Gotham looks an awful lot like Chicago. The Middle East looks like the Middle East. It can be terrifying to think of the insanity of society or war encroaching in our lives, which is why the heroes win. And they should. We need Batman and Iron Man to triumph over evil because, for decades, that is what they do: they save us.
This is where Watchmen questions our desire to be safe. It presents a world that looks and sounds similar to our own, but is subtly different. If Bill Finger and Tim Burton crafted a dystopian 40's/80's American city, Moore and Snyder showcase a recent past/near future in which you wouldn't want to live. Watchmen postulates if superheroes would be so great after all, and offers mixed evidence. I still feel it, both as a book and a film, has mismatched priorities in some of its storytelling, but it is, at best, skeptical of cowled do-gooders. Which is why it's a classic: we want to know what would happen if our heroes failed, not so much in their exploits, but in their persons.
There Will Be Brawl thinks about this same thing, and decides that the characters are correct, Mario is still Mario, Princess Peach is Princess Peach, but the world around them is suspect. Mushrooms are drugs. The Koopa Coins littering the Mushroom Kingdom are avarice given shape. Even when it seems the characters are the ones who have changed, its a matter of interpretation. Boiled down, Kirby is a monster, a cannibal. The Mario Bros. are brutal mushroom heads (not literally, like Toad). Peach is not a cocktease, as you'd think from the games, but rather a slut in a little crown. Unlike Watchmen, There Will Be Brawl shows us a world we only know from its approximation in our own. Watching it, one could wonder if something was lost in translation, and this was a more accurate way of looking at the Nintendo universe. What is scary is, the series candidly represents what the Nintendo world would be like if it was our world. Watch the first episode here.
These are the games many children of my generation grew up playing, and now we can see them more as we see ourselves.
In the end, this is what all the pomo, all the revisionism is. It is a means of rending imaginary worlds into our own. Superheroes like Batman and Iron, Man along with Rorschach and V, ask hard questions about our world while making what was once a safe way of asking, movies and comics, dicey territory. The Nintendo denizens throw in our faces what we loved as children, only to find it has become mired in the filth in which we live. This is not something we should find disappointing or disenchanting. It is something to consider. We no longer read old Batman comics for a reason: they're outdated. Superman Returns was largely panned because it was found to be preachy. People want heroes with whom they can identify in worlds they can recognize. This newfound importance in the postmodern "hero" is a shepherd. We do not have to root for A because he is good and B is evil. We can ask questions about our own lives, what our heroes really say about us, and grow as people. Our new superheroes demand of you, would you implement a Big Brother network to catch a madman, beating cops in the process? Would you use the tools of war to do good? Would you, well, I'm not going to ask you what Watchmen asks. Go see/read it yourself. It may be a hard question, but our new heroes lead us not by telling us where to go, but forcing us to find the answer within ourselves.

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