Archives for category: Art

It should be fairly common knowledge that Batman is the greatest superhero of all time (Suck it, Achilles, you knock-off Beowulf). People have been trying to figure out why this truism exists since it’s fairly difficult to qualify superheroism outside of subjective preference. It has been argued that since he’s just a guy in a costume facing off against the same world-ending events as an invulnerable Kryptonian, it is his courage and willpower that makes him the greatest. He is the most at-risk, and continuing to fight in those circumstances is more noble than say, someone who is constantly protected by a lime-green hue.

I disagree. I don’t think people really believe that Batman is more at-risk – he’s fucking Batman. He figures it out. He’s fine. What makes Batman the greatest superhero of all time is his villains. What people love about Batman is he fights against Jungian versions of his shadow self. Batman represents humanity’s struggle to combat the darkness in ourselves, and that is what makes his character more relatable than being a braver-than-usual fleshy meat sack.

I_Am_the_Night-Title_Card

They are not at all subtle about it

Let me give you an example. Two-Face is a very clear symbol of the duality between darkness and light. Harvey Dent always begins as a friend to Bruce Wayne (in all the iterations of the character that I’ve seen, at least), and that’s why Bruce will pay for the plastic surgeries to repair the scarred side of Harvey’s face – to return the character to his lighter origins. However, thematically it’s always more than that. Bruce struggles to save Harvey from Two-Face because he needs to save the humanity in himself. Two-Face is the most obvious facsimile of Batman with one crucial difference that highlights the thesis of this post. Two-Face will always enact the dark side of his personal Manichean struggle, regardless of coin tosses, and Batman will always triumph in the light. That’s how the protagonist/antagonist relationship works.

BatmanTDKR1_055_The_Dark_Knight_Returns

It’s a comic about a guy in a bat-suit. It was never going to be subtle.

Our favourite Oswald that didn’t shoot a Kennedy, Penguin, fits into this thesis too. Penguin was born into the wealthy Cobblepot family. With that inherited privilege, he embodies the sin of greed and demands more. Penguin is the graphic representation of a Marxist wet dream excoriating the bourgeoisie. Bruce is again similar. He did nothing to earn the billions afforded to him from his familial inheritance, and he became the CEO of a mega-corporation rivaling LexCorp without any relevant education or business acumen. It is unclear what Wayne Enterprises actually does (Thomas Wayne was a practicing physician, not a businessman), but who cares. It’s been argued that a class critique of Bruce Wayne would prefer him systematically redistributing his wealth rather than acting out his well-funded revenge fantasy against “crime”, but within the liberal paradigm of Batman comics, Bruce Wayne is essentially a good, charitable dynasty billionaire to Penguin’s evil, selfish one.

Penguin

Batman is better. Batman is always better.

Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane, is another Jungian villain that begins to show the edge to Batman’s battle with himself. Scarecrow uses fear gas to terrify the populace into submitting to his criminal schemes. Batman dresses like a bat because he was scared of bats as a boy, and embodies that fear to intimidate his foes to make his vigilantism more effective. He uses fear just as intentionally as the Scarecrow, but on a different demographic. Fear is acknowledged as a devastating tactic, and must be precise in its implementation lest one slip into villainy. Batman walks that tightrope like a champ.

Superstitious and Cowardly

Children are a superstitious, cowardly lot

This leaves the Joker. The Joker’s whole deal is that he’s an insane clown, but not like the John Wayne Gacy type. He could have easily been a forgettable villain, overblown by too much camp and vanishing into the dustbin of history like the ICP, but against all odds, the Joker became the most iconic Batman villain. He did this by embodying Bruce Wayne’s madness. The Joker infamously believes that all it takes to drive a sane person mad is one bad day, and while he is proven wrong on many occasions, he is accurate in his analysis of Batman. Bruce had one bad day, and became a driven, megalomaniacal vigilante in response to it. He is held in check only by his single-minded focus on justice. The Joker broke under pressure, caving to unchecked violence, but Batman held on to his values just enough to stay in the light.

Two Guys in a Lunatic Asylum

What do you think I am? Crazy!? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!

There are obviously a lot more Batman villains, and not all of them fit so neatly into this kind of categorization. Catwoman, sure, is as ethically grey as Batman, and her darkness slightly edges over the light much in the same way Batman’s light slightly edges over darkness, and as much as they want to, they can never quite meet in the middle. However, that’s just as much a Jungian conflict of coming to grips with one’s own ethical ambiguity as it is a Montague and Capulet love story. And I swear to God, if anyone brings up Calendar Man I’m going to lose it. The point isn’t that every villain perfectly represents Batman’s struggle with himself, but that the emblematic villains that define Batman as a character are lasting because they reflect his own inner demons.

This is what makes Batman the most interesting character that happens to be categorized as a superhero. The thing is, though, despite the socially agreed upon categorization, Batman is not a superhero. Not because he doesn’t have superpowers, but because a hero is someone you’re supposed to aspire to. Imagine genuinely believing that it is okay to terrify others in order to dominate and control their social behaviour – you’d be a monster. Who wants to aspire to madness? Or Manichean angst? Batman isn’t a hero, he’s a criminal. He knows he’s in the wrong, and strives for a world where he himself would not be welcome. If anything, Batman is a supervillain fighting against cartoon versions of himself in order to protect the world from his own potential for darkness.

BatmanTDKR3-135 Hunt The Dark Knight

Batman, the libertarian fantasy, pointing out the reality of the libertarian fantasy

The idea that Batman is a superhero has pretty dark implications. Kyle Rittenhouse was found innocent in his own vigilantism through claims of self-dense, which, legally speaking, would have similarly applied to the men he had killed if they had killed him instead – not exactly a glowing exoneration. The micro legality of it is less important than the macro perspective that sees a young boy leave his hometown with a semi-automatic rifle in order to protect property from those he sees as criminals. Kyle Rittenhouse and those who canonize him genuinely believe that it is right and good to basically pretend to be Batman. The reality is that Kyle Rittenhouse created a situation where people died because he wanted to live out his own revenge fantasy against “crime“. It doesn’t matter that he is legally innocent of murder, what he did is counterintuitive to the ongoing functionality of civilization.

On a more abstract level, Batman is truly a villain in that the impact of the superficial ideals of superheroism he represents is a net negative on the world. People tend to look at Batman and don’t see a man fighting against himself, they see a man fighting against incorrigible criminals. They see social systems as not being sufficient and true justice requiring individual citizens to rise up against otherwise unstoppable evil. They don’t learn to fix the social systems through collective action, they learn to use violence to bully degenerates into conforming to normative standards. They see a fairly traditional superhero.

Hockey Pads

I mean, he is pretty often portrayed that way. This is really only my own opinion as a Batman apologist

What makes Batman great is that he doesn’t have to be a superhero. If we see him as a villain, then we recognize that he is no one to aspire to. He can just be an interesting character dealing with the loss of his parents by combating anthropomorphized versions of his inner demons. He can be someone we can relate to when we have to face our own shadow. He can help us find the light by repudiating himself rather than uncritically celebrating his single-minded madness. To borrow a phrase: Batman is not the villain that we deserve, but the one we need.

A dark knight.

The maxim that “the personal is political” has been around since its origin in the 1960s feminist movement. It postulates that what happens in one’s personal and private life is actually quite relevant to and influenced by the larger, structural factors at play on a macro scale. But really, everything is political. Mezzo level institutions and organizations are political. Media is political. Neutrality is political. Everything is interconnected, and what happens anywhere is going to be shaped by, and will shape in its own discrete way, the world and its ideology.

When it comes to film and television, the same holds true. In general terms, action and horror films are inherently conservative. I appreciate a wide diversity exists across all genres, and some great films are great because they subvert common tropes, but by and large, action and horror films are inherently conservative. There is some threat to the in-group from an outside force, and the only difference between the two is whether the protagonist goes on the offensive or the defensive. Action films are usually a bit more broad in that the threat is typically to upset the status quo (think of the Joker who wants to change the world, and Batman who wants it to stay the same – Batman’s ‘solution’ to the world’s problems is ultimately to remove all the deviants). Or you can think of Captain America: Civil War which is one long advertisement for libertarianism (don’t let oversight committees hold me accountable; I, as an individual, know best). Horror films are more personal in that the threat is much more intimate. The threat is more overwhelming and overpowering. The viscera is embellished. But the overarching theme between the two is clear: the Other is dangerous, and you better fight or the bogeyman will get you. Think about it this way, conservative politicians and pundits use horror movie rhetoric to justify action movie policies.

They may seem like us, but there is just enough of a difference that their inhumanity is truly revealed

In contrast, adventure films are inherently progressive. The protagonist leaves their comfort zone, goes on their hero’s journey, and learns something from having experienced the different. Consider the original trilogy of Star Wars which would be incredibly problematic by today’s standards of identity politics: every human is white except for the one black guy who is pretty shady. Yet by the end of the story, Luke has found friends, teachers, and allies across a wide range of species with different languages, cultures, and lifestyles. The final confrontation is an overcoming of hatred, and the humanity of the antagonist is very literally revealed when Darth Vader connects with his son in his dying moments. It isn’t an outsider that is the villain of Star Wars, it’s hatred. It’s an ideology that can be overcome through non-violent resistance – Luke wins by refusing to fight.

The politics of a thing doesn’t have to be overt. It can be baked into the structure of the way a story is told. A character can have an exploratory relationship with the different, or it can be a threat. Protagonists in stories are paragons of how to interact with the world, and the way that the storytellers frame that interaction will inherently be political one way or another. Even the really obvious political messages like in Civil War don’t seem obvious because it is the framework of the story shaping the message rather than a character yelling at you that libertarianism is amazing. Though the beard Steve Rogers grows afterward may be telling…

Sharks, the Thanoses (Thanii?) of the sea, being shown here in a radical propaganda film that tells us that even those maligned as unthinkingly violent can be our friends… if we leave our comfort zone

Superficial politics is what is commonly associated with politics in movies today. Movies that base their entire marketing campaign on how much of a woman their protagonist is, or ensure that a minor character is Asian, or show a brief allusion to the existence of homosexuality in the corner of their film: these are what instigate the great political debates of our time.

When a film goes to great lengths to include every identity, it feels hollow. Films are finite, which means they have only so much time for character development, and peppering the screen with diverse, one-line characters is far more tokenistic than it is a genuine political statement. Even a television series doesn’t have enough time to invest in all the colours of the rainbow. Representation is important in films, but tokenism is not representation. Better to have less representation than just a rich tapestry of background characters, and then produce greater depth.

There is just… boy! There is just one of every kind of you, isn’t there?

I’ve written previously about feminist ethics in ‘feminist’ films. In this case I want to look at the politics. Replacing the male lead of an action film with a female doesn’t change the inherently conservative nature of the format. This likely contributes to the intense backlash that these types of films receive from white men: they are no longer presented as the in-group, which means they must be part of the out-group, which means they are closer to the one-dimensionally monstrous villains than to the heroine saving her own status quo. When Captain Marvel destroys the patriarchy with her laser fists, she isn’t creating a new, brighter future because the world she is saving belongs only to the in-group of the comfortable female watching the film from home. The world isn’t actually changed in any meaningful way, it just doesn’t have Jude Law in it anymore. The dynamic of the out-group threat remains the same; it is simply the content that is shifting. Here the narrative is exulting my elimination, and it doesn’t feel all that great. Hence, backlash.

Jonathan Haidt paints purity as an inherently conservative virtue, and I agree that it is, but it exists within progressive circles as well. When the left cancels itself on Twitter because someone isn’t being the perfect incarnation of allyship, that is the same manifestation of out-group exclusion found in any conservative diatribe. Framing old, white men as the dastardly fiends to be destroyed by a quick-witted teenage white girl and her motley crew of minority friends and LGBT acronyms is a shallow political message of identity and a deeper presentation of group categorization. The categories may be new and turn traditional categorization on its head, but the process remains the same.

A girl!? Inventing things!? Harumph and such!

Superficial politics in media will never change anyone’s mind because it isn’t intending to. It’s probably encouraging further divisiveness because conservative ideology is inherently divisive. Its intentions are to make money. Is it such a shock that billion dollar corporations aren’t actually as progressive as they pretend to be? Controversy breeds money, and enough people buy into shallow political pandering to turn a profit because they’re thrilled to be a part of an in-group for once, and their political education has come from triple-digit character count polemics on social media. Plus it pisses off the alt-right, and therefore it must be good! This kind of film will continue to be made so long as this continues to be the state of our world. If Fox News really wanted to end this manufactured culture war, they’d just stop ranting about it, and it would probably go away. I guess they have their own ratings to consider.

The thing is, though, more people probably learned how to open up to the outside world and fight against fascism from Star Wars than they did from the Ghostbusters remake. Ideology has a place in film, but it needs good storytelling to be effective. The right complains about Hollywood’s conversion to ‘woke’ culture, but progressive ideals have always found their home in fiction. The issue is panderous, bad writing and tired conservative tropes dressed up in progressive clothing that are alienating to the new out-group.

My political activism involves liking movies with really rabid comment sections on their YouTube trailers

I like action movies. Batman is my favourite superhero, and I thought Civil War was better than Infinity War. I dislike horror movies for the most part, but not for the reasons listed here. You can enjoy things and ignore the politics within them, but that doesn’t mean that the politics aren’t there. Those who don’t recognize them are going to be much more susceptible, and that sounds ominous, but it goes both ways. Maybe people will learn to be kind to strangers if they saw it in a movie once? There is a difference between good politics and bad politics, despite what those evil, relativistic postmodernists think!! Good politics represented as preachy and tokenistic only reinforces bad politics. Good politics embedded in a good story will go infinitely further.

Ramy is a show on Hulu about a Muslim guy trying to figure his shit out. If you haven’t seen the show, you’re welcome to come back to this after watching it because I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. If you don’t care to watch it, you’re still welcome to keep reading – who knows if it will make sense or not. Major plot points are about to be spoiled though, so keep reading at your own peril.

Still here?

What I found interesting about the show is that Ramy is both the protagonist and the antagonist in his own story. He is his own biggest obstacle, and ultimately, by the end of season 2, this auto-antagonist is successful in destroying his entire life. Ramy also exists as the antagonist to many of the other characters as well; the Sheikh’s character begins as stoic, compassionate, and accepting of even the vilest of attacks against him – he is a spiritual powerhouse. By the end of the show, Ramy has broken him, and his demeanour is corrupted into anger and rage. Ramy is manipulative, disrespectful, and self-obsessed. He’s just a really shitty guy.

And yet, much like Humbert Humbert of Lolita, Ramy is the character that we follow for most of the story. We connect with him. We see his needs. We see him struggling with his own emptiness, and wanting to fill it with something pure. We may or may not forgive his sins, but we understand why he committed them. He’s the kind of person that would twist the knife into the mother of his disabled friend, but who would also jerk that same friend off because of some uniquely murderous blue balls (if you haven’t seen the show and are still reading this, well… it was a beautiful moment, what can I say?). He’s the kind of villain that we want to do better because we see him wanting to do better.

I get it! He stole the candy from the baby because he never learned how to properly navigate relationships with babies!!

Why this turned into a blog post rather than simply a pensive reflection after a season finale is because of how rare this type of villain is in media, and how prevalent they are in real life. Ramy is neither an antihero nor a super-villain. There are plenty of shitty protagonists that professional writers might be trying to write as antagonists, but these almost always fail to walk that tightrope. Rick of Rick and Morty fame is one example where he is clearly abusive, manipulative, violent, narcissistic, etc., and there are those who consider him a villain, but the show has him facing off against cartoonish and extravagant villains that encourages fans to cheer him on. When he’s abusive, it’s funny and the fans will laugh. Similarly with Bojack Horseman of his own titular show, he is even more self-destructive than Ramy with his own manipulative nature and traits of narcissism, but again his role as the antagonist is played for laughs. The villainy of these characters barely registers. Not so with Ramy; I can’t imagine anyone cheering when he cheats on Zainab the night before their wedding, and then tells her about it immediately after taking her marital virginity. His villainy is obvious to everyone.

Real life villains aren’t evil robots from the future or purple Malthusian aliens. They’re people who are so stuck inside of themselves that they forget that other people don’t exist for their benefit. I’ll even change track here and suggest that they’re not even real villains. Ramy does have compassion in him; he is capable of decency and love. He was bullied out of any identity that would have fit his upbringing, and that emptiness haunts him. There’s value in this show because it identifies the humanity in the worst of us, and brings us along to show us the ubiquity of nuance in our worst deeds.

Was Joker successful in its balance of hero and villain? Ask yourself this: when Joker shoots Murray Franklin, is it tragic or exciting?

Ramy as a show does not require us to accept Ramy the character. Zainab and the Sheikh are well within their rights to cut him out of their lives for good. Ramy could even be said to be teaching its viewers about the value of boundaries when dealing with shitty people, even if we fully understand what is driving their shittiness. I’m quite curious to see where the show goes next. Another show that had similar rare success in showcasing the nuance of villainy is Fleabag. It had a redemptive arc during its second season that showed growth out of the guilt-driven sabotage the prota-antagonist committed through the first. Will Ramy get his own chance to grow? I suppose its possible. At this point, it’s irrelevant. We can beg the toxic people in our lives to change, but we never know, do we? All we can do is try to understand the full spectrum of their humanity so we can avoid letting hate and resentment weigh down our hearts, and put in appropriate boundaries to prevent ourselves from being hurt further.