Maybe That’s Enough Punching, Nazis or Otherwise

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As a comic book geek in my personal life, and a cultural studies scholar in my professional one, I encounter superheroes every day. I frequent the associated websites and social media accounts, and my friends and I post comic book images, thoughts, and memes. You don’t have to be a superhero nerd, though, to have encountered the latest trend. Everyone from celebrities to people next door are posting images of heroes punching Nazis. Captain America seems to be the favorite. I’ve seen Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and even Indiana Jones as well. These panels come from actual stories. The comic books from the WWII era featured heroes joining the war effort in almost every issue. As one who understands the vital inspiration our culture’s heroes provide for our country, I’m heartened to see people taking solace in such characters. Nevertheless, I must point out that people are adopting and expressing a dangerous sentiment by taking these images out of context.

People are angry and rightfully so. I was born and raised, and live today in Charlottesville, Virginia. I spent countless hours as a teenager hanging out on the Downtown Mall, on the very street the atrocity occurred. The sudden realization that such hatred can touch you where you live is world shattering. For many, white supremacism was a fringe horror, too evil to truly exist. Surely, we thought, the demonstrators descending on our city didn’t really wear pointy white hats and swastikas. Protesting the removal of a historic statue is one thing, but reciting Nazi propaganda? They had come to our city once before, thankfully without injuring anyone that time, and they left us scratching our heads as to how anyone could believe such things. So after the violence and assault last weekend, we, and the entire country, had enough of scratching our heads. We realized that we had to take a stand. We could not allow such hatred to prey on us.

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But in their anger, people lashed out in media. I read posts everyday saying “This [punching] is how Cap [or Superman, or Wonder Woman, and so on] deal with Nazis!” The implication, and sometimes the explicit conclusion, is that’s how we too should deal with the self-described Nazis. Punching, whether literal or metaphorical, is the only way to deal with Nazis, they say. Shut them down swiftly and perhaps even violently. This sentiment disturbs me. I’ve written my own posts occasionally. I’ve posted Captain America saying how he doesn’t want to kill anyone, but that he doesn’t like bullies. I’ve posted panels from Wonder Woman comics in which she explains how in order to achieve justice she cannot allow herself to act out of fury and revenge. But most simply don’t want to hear it. One person even told me that my Wonder Woman panel was out of context because THIS is how she deals with Nazis (cue another punching image).

The fundamental flaw of Nazism, white supremacism, or any racism is that it dehumanizes a group of people. It paints them as the other. They don’t have the same rights, it says. They aren’t worthy of the same respect. Shut them down and cut them out of our society! The way to fight this poison is not to treat it the same way it treats you. Othering the Nazis, hating those who hate, only fans the flames. If we want a better culture, one where such hate isn’t tolerated, then we need to start being better ourselves. Education, building relationships, reaching out with respect where none is given, these have been the tools for changing hearts and minds for as long as humans have existed.

Do Captain America, Wonder Woman, and the rest punch Nazis? Absolutely! When they are at war or swooping in to save victims of racial or fascist violence, they do what must be done. But violence is not an MO for all their dealings with any group of villains: See someone wearing a swastika at the movie theater? Go punch them! Overhear a racist conversation at work? Go punch them! If our favorite comic book heroes existed in our flesh and blood world, they would have been in Charlottesville last weekend, standing between violence and the innocent—even if that meant throwing a punch of their own. But our superheroes don’t exist in our real world. They exist in our mythology. They inspire us to be the heroes.

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If you see such an assault taking place, by all means, punch away. Depending on the scenario, that might mean calling the authorities, helping someone escape a dangerous situation, or, yes, sometimes fighting back physically. Punching the bad guys is a metaphor for those of us without super powers. It means taking a stand and fighting for a better world. It does not mean dehumanizing the dehumanizers because they started it.

 

Michael Critzer is an author, a speaker, and a cultural studies scholar. He teaches college courses on writing, literature, and superheroes as modern mythology. His new book, Heroic Inspirations, is available now from Hero House Publishing

Professor Geek Previews

I have some exciting content planned for my Professor Geek YouTube channel in the coming weeks. If you haven’t subscribed to my channel with your google account yet, what are you waiting for? Just sign in and click subscribe here. 

First up is a new series of three videos that will examine the character of Wonder Woman. I can’t think of another character so popular and yet so misunderstood and argued about. Part one of the series (in the video below) reveals the significance of her status as an Amazon. Part two, coming in just a couple of days, will examine the Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic principles Marsten imbued the character with, and part three, coming next week, will trace her history to see that the tensions we see surrounding her character today have cropped up cyclically since her creation.

 

The next series is 6 shorts I recorded for the now defunct Saturday Morning Network of podcasters. The series examined key animated incarnations of Superman. I explored works from the Fleischer series down to the Bruce Timm-verse and beyond. Along the way I featured interviews with greats from the business, such as animator and director Rob Pratt and voice director and actor Ginny McSwain. Not all of these shorts aired before the Saturday Morning Network ended, so I’m going to revise them each and start posting them to my YouTube channel for six consecutive weekends. It’s great stuff, so subscribe to the channel, and even enable notifications, so you don’t miss it!

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Still Zack Snyder’s Wonder Woman

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Strung along for so long by Warner Bros, fans are desperate for a Wonder Woman movie. They are inclined to hope against hope that this upcoming movie will be a good one. I understand that. But we must maintain standards for such an important character to our cultural mythos. She is, after all, the quintessential female superhero, and it should take more than a couple lines of feminist speak and scenes of prowess on a man’s battlefield to convince us she’s being faithfully portrayed. True, the movie has not been released yet. I’ve not seen it and neither have you. By exerting just a little critical thinking, though, it’s clear that this movie has already failed the Wonder Woman mythos. I say this because of two reasons that play into each other.

The first reason is the DC cinematic universe has already introduced Wonder Woman as the wrong category of hero. All superheroes fit into one of two categories, the aspirational or the more ubiquitous cathartic/motivational. The cathartic/motivational, like Spider-Man or Green Arrow, fail—a lot. They make mistakes, act out in emotion, and reap the consequences of their rash actions. But they have good hearts, and they show us how to pick ourselves up after failures to try again. The cathartic/motivational characters are important to culture, but they only work if we have the aspirational heroes setting the standard for which the cathartic/motivational ones strive.

The aspirational heroes are simply good. They don’t need to fail first or overcome some emotional trauma. Heroism is simply in their nature. As psychologist Robin Rosenberg puts it, it’s the destiny in their origin. Precious few aspirational heroes remain. And their numbers dwindle with every continuity reboot. Shortsighted storytellers and fans believe that the aspirational heroes are too difficult to relate to, so they systematically try to rewrite them as cathartic/motivational ones (see the New 52 in comics or the DC films made so far). The problem with this rewriting is that once you’ve changed all the aspirational heroes in your universe into cathartic/motivational ones, you have no believable standards for your so-called heroes to strive for. They lose the audience’s investment, and the stories ultimately fail.

In the DC Universe, Superman and Wonder Woman have been the first and most important aspirational heroes. But Zack Snyder doesn’t believe in the aspirational hero. This isn’t an attack. It’s simply a fact. Look at the things he’s said about heroes in interviews, and look at the themes common to his films. He has torn Superman, and now Wonder Woman as explored below, ruthlessly from the aspirational pedestal and rebuilt them slap-shod as cathartic/motivational heroes. Though the characters are apparently just taking their time until the Justice League film, in which we’re told they’ll finally embrace a standard of heroism, how will they know what this standard of heroism is? They have no point of reference. You can’t develop into an aspirational hero. As already stated, the defining aspirational trait is in a heroes origin. Superman has allowed people to die and has, himself, killed. Batman has resorted to torture and killing, and as this second Wonder Woman trailer shows us, she decided after World War One (a pointless change from WWII, better suited to her origin story), that the darkness in the world is too great to bother making a difference in. “I used to want to save the world,” she says, presumably before she changes her mind around the events of BvS. Aspirational heroes might have moments of weakness or doubt, but those moments do not last a century.

This leads us to the second reason the Wonder Woman film, and ultimately the entire DC Cinematic universe, will not be remembered as a success: It’s lazy writing. Let’s look at Snyder’s “fresh” take on Superman. Clark wants to do good but grows discouraged by the public’s reception. He fails to save some people, kills a villain, and considers quitting. Then a grave new threat to the world causes him to reconsider his purpose and methods.

Now let’s look at Batman. He’s an established hero wanting to do good but grows discouraged by the existence of super-powered aliens in the world. He fails to protect people and instead begins torturing and killing on a crazed mission to execute Superman. Then a grave new threat enters the world and makes him decide to change his ways and put together the Justice League.

And finally, let’s examine Wonder Woman. She reveals herself to the world of man to fight for hope and try to do good. Then something happens to discourage her during WWI, causing her to give up. Then a grave new threat convinces her to reconsider her place in the world and her willingness to save it again.

Each member of the DC trinity, the characters who are supposed to represent the wide spectrum of the Justice League’s heroism, have the exact same backstories! And from the looks of it, Cyborg and Aqua Man are set to follow the same path There’s nothing more realistic or believable about this approach. You can’t write multiple characters in the same story to share the same beat-for-beat psychological growth. It impedes character and theme development. It’s bad writing! Storytelling is not Zack Snyder’s strong suit. As his fans often point out, he’s a visual director. It takes more than visuals, though, to make a good film.

It’s true that after BvS didn’t achieve the numbers they wanted, Warner Bros took back the God-like control of their cinematic universe they’d given Snyder. But they’ve elected to continue building on his foundation. I’ve heard people claim that we need not worry, since he’s not directing this one or is only nominally involved. But be realistic! It’s a film shot in his cinematic universe, no matter who it’s shot by. Though they’ve apparently struck his name from the credits, it has to follow the template he laid out for the universe since he’s still in control of the Justice League. I know Warner Bros is trying it’s best to bend away from his influence, but how far away can they bend while standing on it? Not far at all, it turns out. Wonder Woman is finally receiving her own film. I wish it was a cause for celebration, but unfortunately it’s a film that feels the need to change her character to appeal to a culture she’s been captivating since 1941.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D-Shut up and watch!

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Just caught up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and wow! I still maintain it’s the best show on television. My friend was saying he had trouble keeping up with everything, having just started the show with this season, and I get that. There’s a lot of history, and unfortunately those who ridiculously stopped watching it mid-season-one because they actually thought it was too slow (It’s Joss Whedon and co, people! Haven’t you learned anything by now?) need to do a lot of catching up first. But stop bellyaching and get to Netflixing! It’s worth it!

Robbie Reyes’ Ghost Rider is altered from the comics to be a “deal with the devil” rider like his predecessors, which is blowing open the science-based MCU (much as I hope Dr. Strange does). And the character developments have been amazing! Fitz and Simmons have grown up but retained every bit of their charm, and even Daisy, who went a little emo this season, did so for a reason and is working it out in an epic way.

Coulson is a personal hero of mine, and when last season ended, I didn’t know how I’d feel about him giving up his status as director. In this last episode, though, when he wears a suit, flashes his badge, and says he’s from the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, I was sold! He’s full circle, all the way back to Iron Man but with an amazing development from his experiences. Despite the horrors he’s seen (back from the dead, seeing his whole world crash around him then having to rebuild it, then losing his hand and succumbing to vengeance, learning from it, and fixing the consequences), he’s still a 100% hope-filled fanboy with wry humor in tact. That’s why I love him. And that’s why I love Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D! It understands the purpose of the two genres from which it springs, spy thriller and superhero adventure. It thrills, makes us question authority, then delivers high on hope, no matter what. The show does more than entertain, it inspires.

Bring on the challenges, bring on the tragedies. We’ve got this. And we’ll rise again!

X-Appeal: We’re All Mutants

The X-Men seem to only be gaining in popularity, despite fan divisions over various incarnations. I try to delve into why they strike such a chord in so many individuals. What do you think?

Christ Figure in Marvels Agents of SHIELD

Did Lincoln’s sacrifice in the Agents of SHIELD finale resonate with you? Are you tired of hearing the phrase “Christ figure” used today without any depth or definition? Find out how the AOS writers planted the seed for this character development early and how it culminates the entire season’s themes in my latest analysis below.