Positive Force

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The recent release of The Force Awakens has split my Star Wars friends down the middle. Those who were disappointed are understandably downtrodden, given their previous excitement, but many who loved the film are annoyed by the sudden break in fan solidarity. I don’t understand why. Over and over again in my news feed I see laments by Awakens enthusiasts that some people just want to be “negative.” I see questions like, “why can’t we all just appreciate different takes on entertainment?” While I enjoy the Star Wars franchise, it isn’t my fandom like superheroes are. The debate resonates with me, though, because I see these critique-silencing tactics used regarding my superhero films as well. They betray a bizarre insecurity, display basic logical fallacies, and can hide behind a self-righteous pseudo claim to positivity.

Anger at someone for not agreeing with you on a film’s value, especially when the studio is moving ahead with sequels, is really rather silly. After the ticket sales of The Force Awakens, not even the threat of a Death Star attack would stop Disney from continuing the story. So why can’t people who have genuine critiques of the film voice them? Is your own fandom so fragile that you can no longer enjoy a film if people say mean things about it? If anyone has a right to be upset at critics, it’s the fans of aborted franchises like Superman Returns or The Lone Ranger. But you don’t hear us crying out for more “positivity” in the comments of every poor review. Perhaps that’s it. Maybe you’re actually afraid that such voiced evaluations will cause your film’s sequels to be abandoned. That’s the case I suspect with the indignant fans of movies like Man of Steel and Ninja Turtles, though it would take a special kind of insecurity indeed to fear such a fate for Star Wars.

Fear and logic don’t mix, which explains why fear perpetuates logical fallacies in a debate, specifically the ad hominem and straw man fallacies. The ad hominem fallacy attacks the one making the argument instead of the argument itself. It betrays one’s inability to refute a statement or stance. They instead resort to personal attacks. Irate genre film fans LOVE using the ad hominem fallacy. They say things like, “You just can’t accept change. You can’t let go of George Lucas, Christopher Reeve, Tobey Maguire” or whoever. These attacks not only betray an inability to refute a criticism, but they also reveal a child-like exasperation with opposition in their emotional lashing out. Isn’t learning to coexist with different opinions an elementary milestone?

The straw man fallacy often goes hand in hand with these attacks, as it involves falsely representing the opposition to be easily knocked down, like a man made out of straw. This one takes the same type of comments to an even more schoolyard- like mentality with comments like, “Wah! Wah! Wah! The movie isn’t like the original!” Even more insidious, though, is the combination of the two fallacies that crops up in phrases like, “You just want to complain. I’m so tired of all of this negativity! Stop trying to see the bad in everything.” Now suddenly any honest criticism is “negativity.” This ploy should come off as absurd (do the ones leveling it, then, also shake their pom poms for the Star Wars prequels, Superman IV, or Spider-Man 3?), but the words negativity and positivity have such weight today that we often respect them even in their misuse.

The desire to remain positive is admirable. With the amount of malicious intent on the internet today, we should strive to be more positive toward one another. Here’s the key, though: Being positive doesn’t mean abandoning our opinions or refraining from the use of our analytic skills. It means expressing our opinions and arguments respectfully. Avoiding any and all critique of a film is easy. It’s also lazy. Discernment in art appreciation requires energy for analysis and some debate, but it pays off! Learning how a film operates, understanding the choices made in its creation, and knowing specifically why you support or dislike the effect it has on you, enhances the enjoyment film as an art form.

Another thing that requires energy is the ability to agree to disagree. It’s practically nonexistent in online forums today. Respecting someone’s viewpoint doesn’t mean you share it or admit less of a hold on your own. When you agree to disagree, you simply respect another’s right to decide on their own viewpoint. Lashing out and attacking is intellectually and emotionally adolescent. And responding in kind makes you appear just as inept at understanding and expressing an argument. The oft chosen solution of carefully avoiding statements or views that might trigger such conflicts isn’t remaining positive. It’s intellectually sterile. Embrace your right to voice your taste and opinion, but embrace other’s right to do the same. Critique, analyze and debate! And take hold of true positivity by respectfully expressing yourself in the process.

Super Gratitude

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Today, Thanksgiving of 2015, my friend Scott Cranford released his Superman children’s book, Superman’s Book of Morals. It was my honor to edit the book for him. For those not up on Superman culture, Scott is a big name for us Supes fans. He’s been an extra and a double in superhero films. He was considered for the leading role in Lois and Clark. And served as the official Superman of Metropolis Illinois for eight years. Scott writes that he, “always thought Superman was the greatest character for teaching values to young children.” That’s exactly what Superman does in the Book of Morals book. In my opinion, the lessons of the book can be summed up in one overreaching value, gratitude. It’s fitting, then, that today the book meets the public.

Gratitude is the current vogue of self-help and religious texts. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I believe many adults have to learn gratitude because it’s not taught to them as children. Today’s culture pushes a sense of entitlement instead. Depending on the issue, entitlement doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Self-love and safety are important with the negativity in the world. But entitlement is a slippery slope that can replace gratitude in a heart before you know it.

Why is gratitude so important? Because all worthwhile values flow from being thankful. It results in happiness and a sense of responsibility, leading people to help others, instilling them with gratitude in turn. I constantly look for ways to teach my daughter the principle. I want her to recognize her amazing abilities and advantages and then her responsibility to use them to make the world a better place. I would never want her to settle into self-pity over her autism. I support education and awareness of special needs, but no one should simply feel entitled. While I want my daughter to advocate for herself, I want her to realize she’s been given an amazing opportunity. Her unique gifts allow her to teach others how to relate with more than just a narrow, neuro-typical world view. Gratitude is the key to this balance.

It’s one of the traits I admire most in Superman. He is grateful to his birth parents for the chance they gave him to survive his planet’s destruction. He is grateful for the wisdom, knowledge, and guidance they sent along with him. And as he grows and discovers his differences, he is grateful for his unique abilities and opportunities to help others (obviously we’re talking about the traditional, iconic Superman). Most of all, though, he is grateful for Jonathan and Martha Kent, who took the orphaned child into their family and raised and imbued him with their love and values.

Clark celebrated many Thanksgivings on the Kent farm. He learned the meaning of hard work and to be thankful for a good harvest. He learned those lessons on the metaphorical level too. Jonathan Kent tells him that he was sent here for a reason, and that reason is bigger than satisfying a desire for acceptance and recognition. Clark is thankful for the lesson. He dedicates his life to helping people and leading them by the example Jonathan and Martha set for him. As a result an entire city and world honors him with their gratitude in return.

If any of this resonates with you, then read Superman’s Book of Morals here. Share it with a child in your life or enjoy for yourself the simplicity of super-life tenets. Recognize your own gifts. Be thankful for what you have. And pass on the gratitude!

Heroes Matter

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(Art by Kerrith Johnson)

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been busy with a few time consuming projects. Some I’ll be able to announce soon, but one of the smaller ones has recently come to fruition. I was asked to give the first talk in James Madison University’s series entitled Mad Talks (a la Ted Talks). Mine was titled Superheroes and America: With Great Story Comes Great Responsibility. It seems to have been a huge success, if standing room only and compliments are any indication. I recorded the talk and will post it along with power point visuals to the Iconicast YouTube channel soon.

Reader/Audience responsibility appears to be a foreign concept to most when applied to pop culture. We are conditioned to passively receive entertainment. The thought of analyzing or actively watching/reading something is often met with groans, often because few so called teachers of the subject ever tap into the fun that can be had in the process. If done correctly, active reading/viewing isn’t about deconstructing the effect of a film or piece of literature, but about admiring its foundation and how it achieves its effect.  Reader participation amplifies the piece’s impact.

I’ll just let the talk speaks for itself when I upload the video. In the meantime I’ll tease another “coming soon” project with a smaller one that’s already out there. Those who haven’t checked out the Iconicast YouTube channel have most likely missed out on my heroic inspiration videos. Instead of a critical or academic look at superhero stories, these are meant to draw out more practical applications. As I said, a bigger project concerning these is on its way, but I hope some of you will check out these quick videos. Hopefully you’ll be able to take away something useful for everyday life.

Heroic Inspiration Videos

Surviving Bullies

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Almost a year ago, I created the Iconic Superman Facebook page. I designed it to be a place where fans like myself, who preferred a traditional Superman, could celebrate our hero and call for his return in comics and film. On social media at the time, voicing any displeasure over Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and to a lesser extent the New 52 in comics, was to invite a barrage of personal insults. So Iconic Superman drew a solid following of like-minded fans looking for a safe place to celebrate their superhero preference. Growth was slow as Facebook limits a page’s visibility in newsfeeds unless one pays for promotional tools. But I didn’t mind the small numbers. I was content to post and converse about my confident, capable, and inspirational Superman.

When the page was around 600 followers, it came to the attention of some fans of a DC Movie group. I had posted a meme, on my own page and for my own followers, stating that in the current films Captain America did a far greater job fulfilling the inspirational role of Superman. The notion enraged the DC Movie fans. They posted a call to arms in their group and spent the better part of a day attacking my page with insults directed at both myself and many of the page’s followers.

I’m not a confrontational person, so I attempted to diffuse the attack by turning it into a discussion over the artistic merit of different film adaptations. The cinema fans wouldn’t have it. Each one I answered called in three more to post over my response with mockery and jeers. I hadn’t seen such tactics since the four square court in middle school gym class. Then I realized why it as so familiar. They weren’t trying to debate the subject of Superman films. They were trying to silence me. They were trying to bully me and others on the page and bullying doesn’t refine itself with age.

I’ve written and spoken before on how various iconic Superman stories teach us to deal with bullies. You don’t engage them on their terms lest their terms start to define you. In fact, the truly strong try instead to help them—yes help the very person trying to bully you. Think about it. The act of bullying comes from an insecure place. It is the desperate need for confirmation about oneself or one’s views from the world around them, even at the threat of assault (physical or emotional). Why would DC cinema fans need to concern themselves with a page that sees Superman differently? Warner Bros moved ahead with Batman v Superman in spite of the enormous controversy and backlash regarding Man of Steel. Do they see my page as a threat to the future of DC’s cinematic universe? Or does the insecurity come from a deeper place that has little to do with me or the films? (In one post a DC cinema fan called for the death of another critical page’s administrator. Hyperbole or not, clearly serious issues reside behind such a post.)

But we’re not Superman, and there are times when we lack the power to save bullies from themselves. Superman himself faces this dilemma now and then. Such stories serve as metaphors for when we must cut those who would attack us out of our lives before the poison takes us down with them. My attempts to speak with the DC cinema fans in a civil manner obviously had no effect, so I had to ban the attackers and delete their comments. No damage was done save a few hours of frustration, but I had one more lesson to learn about the bully experience. Like Superman smiling for the camera before the credits roll, those who endure a bully’s attacks with integrity eventually come out the better for it.

The organic, unpaid growth of the Iconic Superman page recently blasted past 2,000 likes (in less than a year!). Periodically, I’ll look back over what topics or images earned the most attention and when, and in the week following the DC cinema attack, the page soared in views and likes. Facebook increases the visibility of a post when it receives more comments. The algorithm translates this as popularity and makes the post and page accessible to more would-be fans. So in their attempt to silence me, the bullies might as well have paid to advertise my page. Iconic Superman has led to Iconic Wonder Woman and Batman pages, and we’ve recently begun a successful podcast. I’ve now met authors, artists, and filmmakers who appreciate my promotion of traditional Superman values, some who want to work with me in one way or another, and in part I have common internet trolling to thank for it.

We can’t always control the stories of our lives, but we can control how we react to each new plot twist and lay the ground work for positive resolution in the end. Some may be content to fight their enemies to the death and ponder moral ambiguity in the destruction they’ve caused around them. But I and many on my page choose to live like the Iconic Superman–to do the right thing and find a way (and there’s always a way)–then soar off into a happy ending. Don’t forget to smile for the camera!

Heroic Standard

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Superman is not a pliable fictional character, existing only for our entertainment. He has been embraced by American and other cultures as a pillar of folklore. Since early man scrawled pictorial narratives on cave walls, we have been passing our values and ways of life down to future generations through the stories we tell. Superman is such a story. The character developed into this role, however, from the time of his creation, and that confuses some modern fans. They claim the darker and morally ambiguous Superman of today’s comics and film is just another version in a long line of valid re-imaginings.

Superman may have gone through changes since his inception, but the public has decided which of those changes become part of his mythology and which ones fade into obscurity. When you think “Superman,” you don’t think of a less powerful hero who is unaffected by Kryptonite, nor do you think of a being made entirely of energy in a blue and white containment suit. These were once attempted versions of the character. The public said no, and Superman returned to the way we like him. This is how mythology works. (When you think of the Greek hero Heracles, do you think of a man short in stature? No. But the ancient poet Pindar once described him as such in order to liken the hero to a patron.).

In comics, iconic supeheroes have been made to perform all sorts of deeds that fall short of our heroic standard. Editors are always eager for a controversy-sales bump. But those stories are unfailingly rejected from the canon of collective consciousness (Remember when Superman was almost manipulated into shooting a porno with Big Barda?). So when Zack Snyder says that his Man of Steel hasn’t done anything Superman hasn’t done in the comics and that people ignorantly “cling” to the Christopher Reeve portrayal, he’s mistaken in his choice of standard.

Core-altering changes to mythological characters may shake things up in the short-term—appeal to new crowds and cause a jump in ticket and comic sales, but the ultimate price is the character’s longevity. With the current attitude of Warner Bros filmmakers and DC’s intent to expand their new Superman beyond the pages of the New 52, longtime fans are looking elsewhere for characters to promote the values abandoned by current Superman stories.

Shock factors and stylistic fads wear off. History shows that Superman stories will one day return to the traditional character once embraced by the public as a whole. But if Warner Bros and DC wait too long, they may find the public has found their standards in other characters. As devastating as it may be, Superman could one day be resigned to the history of American folklore. The more fans that stand up and write or speak their mind for the character they believe in, the sooner we will see our Superman flying across pages and screens once more.

Film Appreciation

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Film analysis, seeing something deeper than surface-story in a movie, can be daunting to some who see it either as a natural talent or over-thinking that will ruin their enjoyment of the story. That talent is cultivated, though, and easy to begin. And the end result is a greater appreciation for the films you already love. An analysis starts with observations. Once you’ve made enough, look for connections that bring up recurring themes. Ask how those themes play into the events of the story, and you’re own your way to a deeper understanding of a film’s message and effect.

Consider Disney’s animated short, Paperman. The characters make for great surface observations. The paperman himself is far thinner than every other character, a mere toothpick of a man. The wind from a train blows him to the side in the opening scene, and a large mass of paper airplanes physically tosses him around in the end.

So wind is present both in the first and last scene. In fact, it’s blowing around paper all through the film. What does wind usually symbolize? We have sayings about it: winds of change, go wherever the wind takes you, etc. Wind is fate—destiny, and that makes sense for the story in Paperman, as our main character follows his own destiny throughout the film. More than any other character, he can be blown by the winds of fate because he is so thin. Other characters, especially his boss, appear as large trunks in their character design, planted and solid. They never even move all of their bodies at once. Of course the film isn’t suggesting that only thin people can find their destiny. But maybe being thin in this film is a metaphor for some other quality, like faith.

That brings us to the paperman’s eyes. They are wider than those of every other character except one. We also have a saying about big eyes: wide-eyed. Jaded people use it to mean naïve, but in fictional characters it can mean innocence and full of faith (see every Disney princess ever). Paper man doesn’t have the squinty eyes of other characters. His are open wide enough to see the young woman who walks into his life, to see her in the building across the street—to see his destiny calling. And what about the one character with bigger eyes than his, the girl? She only needs one paper airplane to lead her to their destiny in the end, while he requires many to forcibly maneuver him.

We’ve used the word paper over and over again. It’s even in the title. Paper comes from trees, and we’ve also used words like planted and toothpick that pertain to trees or wood. Isn’t the oppressive boss, the one who keeps pushing around paperman, chewing on a toothpick every time we see him? The symbolism begins to present itself. The film uses incarnations of wood as a metaphor for a young man who must choose whether or not he will remain a toothpick, chewed on by his boss and become hunched over and unmovable like his coworkers, unable to dream or see more to life around him. He chooses instead to become a paper airplane and sail on the winds of destiny to find true love. Even when he becomes discouraged, the destiny he’s had such faith in carries him there anyway.

Now that you know how, you could keep going (Look at the setting, for instance. The film begins and ends at a train station, a crossroads. How is that a significant contrast to the one way street between paperman’s building and the one in which he sees the young woman?) but you get the gist. By analyzing the decisions the filmmakers made to tell the story, the film transforms from just a charming and emotional tale of one man finding his destiny to a message that would help us find our own. In our daily lives, subject to their own necessities and authorities, we can be ruled and beaten down, or we can maintain or own unique faith in destiny, however we define it. We can see life between the lines and maintain hope. We can be ready for positive change when we come to a crossroads so those winds don’t pass us by.

Lone Believers

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Suspension of disbelief is a lost art among today’s moviegoers. Even in fantasy and adventure films, modern audiences scrutinize each scene with a taste for verisimilitude (the appearance of being real). And, sadly, this is the extent of their critical engagement. Deeper themes and messages are lost in the confusion of taste for artistic merit. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger fell prey to such an audience upon its release. The film is criticized for being too unbelievable when ironically its message is a warning against slavish adherence to realism.

Many complain about the film’s narrative structure. An aging Tonto tells the story of the Lone Ranger to a child in a 1933 San Francisco fairground. The young boy interrupts often, and young Tonto in the story breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge him. Realism audiences become nervous when unsure of what to believe. They want narrative authority. In the end Tonto’s story makes sense with the convergence of plot points, but details like the peanut bag (the boy gives it to old Tonto for young Tonto to later place in the grave of a ranger) emphasize that the main story truly is Tonto’s account and not an objective flashback of events.

And the theme of fantasy versus reality doesn’t stop there. Tonto, as a child, decides the white man who slaughtered his people is a wendigo, and he dedicates his life to finding justice. He is guided by visions and “the great father’s” plan, yet he is aware of his delusional state (he hopes the sound of the approaching scorpions is just another sound in his head). When he finally achieves his goal, he tells the murderer of his people “All these years I think you are wendigo, but no, you are just another white man.” The details of his belief weren’t important. The truth was in the strength of his faith and the destiny it gave him.

Likewise John Reid is guided, from convenience at first, by Tonto’s assertion that Reid is a spirit walker, one granted special powers for having been to the other side and back. After the disillusionment of his own faith in government to provide justice and correct its own corruption, he adopts Tonto’s outlandish perception in sincerity. “I am the spirit walker,” he affirms before attempting to shoot the gun from a villain’s hand on a faraway train. “I can’t miss.” And he doesn’t.

The story requires suspension of disbelief, perhaps most of all in the heroic and climactic battle on the trains. This requirement is nothing new for heroic adventure films, but The Lone Ranger’s audience complained that John Reid, who’d been away at law school in the east and hadn’t fired a gun in nine years was somehow still able to ride and use a whip and pistol effectively. Tonto’s heroics, too, appear effortless, as after stealing the train, he simply acts by providence, throwing silver that happens to lie next to him, using a ladder that miraculously lands him safely on a another train before shattering, and so on.

“How unbelievable! How unrealistic!” audiences cry. Tonto and The Lone Ranger become successful heroes merely from having faith in their destinies! They have certain skills, of course, but only when they acknowledge their individual responsibilities does fate propel them forward. Tonto sets out to atone for leading the white men to the silver near his tribe, and John Reid stops waiting for justice from a corrupt system and begins to enforce it himself. The film’s message isn’t that we should hunt wendigos or become masked vigilantes. The message is that how society sees us doesn’t matter, nor does how realistic it sees our chances or how useful our abilities. What is important is how we see ourselves. And when we couple that acknowledgment of individual talent and responsibility with a belief in something greater (be it justice, the Great Father’s plan, or whatever), our destinies will find a way.

The Lone Ranger isn’t a film for everyone, just as hero stories aren’t for everyone. They require faith in the universality of their metaphor. Our response to them is based on a willingness to see ourselves as heroes. They ask each of us how we see our place and purpose in the world. As though anticipating its own critique from an incurably realist society, The Lone Ranger ends with the young boy asking Tonto, “So, the wendigo, nature out of balance, the masked man, it’s just a story right? I mean, I know he’s not real, was he?”

Tonto looks down with a smile and replies, “Up to you.”