Icons Matter

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I’ve wanted to write about this for a while now, but I didn’t want to be reactionary. Recently Zack Snyder made some comments in an interview regarding his treatment of Superman in the upcoming Batman v Superman film.  He describes the universe of his films as a place where “There’s no winning anymore for Superman,” because of the public’s perception of the hero. Believe it or not, Snyder isn’t even trying to be ironic. Yet he’s inadvertently making a commentary on himself and the people who like his approach to these characters. Because they’re unwilling to believe in a Superman who sees the best in people, inspires hope in all but villains, and always does the right thing, they’re stripping the icon’s ability to be that pan-inspirational character in our culture at large. Arguments for the logic and integrity of such a story are irrelevant. It’s the wrong approach to take to the character of Superman and many other beloved, cultural icons in the DC universe. Unfortunately, there’s no discussing this issue anymore without stoking up passion over reason and enflaming old war wounds. So let me use a hypothetical example to illustrate my point.

But first, a disclaimer: I’m an avid fan of Disney entertainment and their company in general, and Mickey Mouse is one of my favorite folkloric characters. That said, imagine that Disney announced they were working on a new feature-length Mickey Mouse film. This one, though, was going to be rated PG13 and would explore the more realistic struggles of such an American icon. The director speaks out about how he wants to show the psychological strain of being a star for so many years. Mickey’s relationship with Minnie is tense from working together so long. Donald Duck is in negotiations for a film with Bugs Bunny to outshine Mickey at last. And at Micky’s public appearances, children now flock past him to Sponge Bob and the Minions. The director wants to explore the reality of a Mickey Mouse who isn’t sure what he wants to stand for anymore in a world that is jealous, jaded, and unreceptive.

Now, unless you see where I’m going and you’re busy digging your opposing trench even deeper, you should be rolling your eyes at this concept, or at least raising an eyebrow. “That’s not who Mickey Mouse is!” you might think. “Children should be overjoyed and learn from a movie about the world’s favorite mouse!” Now imagine that you encounter a group of fans looking forward to the new approach. They tell you at first that you’re not allowed to have or voice a negative opinion about the film since you haven’t seen it yet. They stand by this claim, even as trailers are released that show poor Mickey staring at an empty whiskey bottle and wondering about his place in the world. They even defend such scenes. After the film comes out, with Mickey confronting Donald in anger and Minnie starting an affair with Goofy, fans of the movie point out how much sense each and every scene makes to the plot of the film. They call you bitter and shout you down. They claim the film didn’t change the character of Mickey Mouse. It’s just a realistic and contemporary exploration of the character.

If you’ve been a fan of Mickey and the Disney’s “fab five” universe (sensational six, once Daisy comes along), you’re scratching your head at how anyone can be so blind to the tragedy this is for the character. And you wonder if anyone is bothering to listen to your critique before launching into their diatribes. You said “that’s not who Mickey Mouse is” and that his movies should be made for children, to bring them joy and inspire them to good behavior. How could the new movie not change the character of Mickey Mouse when it shows him throwing temper tantrums and unable to get along with his closest friends? That is not the type of story that should ever be told about Mickey Mouse. That’s not what his character is for. It’s not his genre, not his purpose, and not his role in our culture. If filmmakers want to tell a story about the realistic struggles of popular stars, then they should choose an appropriate character or create one for their purposes. Folklore, our culture’s mythology, is a reflection of the values and principles of our culture. It’s not malleable on a storyteller’s whim. If you take a beloved, safe, and moral character and corrupt his universe until he’s broken and morally ambiguous, you’ve not only corrupted the character, you’ve corrupted our culture and, through eventual repercussions, you’ve corrupted our future. You’ve taken away one of the few characters that made us reach higher just so you and audiences could feel better about not wanting to stretch.

Whether we’re talking about Mickey Mouse or Superman, these are not just fictional characters marketed to make money. They are cultural icons. They are characters from our mythology. And mythology reflects and affects culture. Whichever is the case regarding the budding DC cinematic universe, Superman fans and our culture in general is lessened by the existence of such a “reimagining” of mythic landmark characters.

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.