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 in Charlottesville, Virginia. I spent countless hours as a teenager hanging out on the Downtown Mall, on the very street on which Heather Heyer was murdered. 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 on social media. I read posts everyday saying “This [punching] is how Cap [or Superman, or Wonder Woman, and so on] deals with Nazis!” The implication, and sometimes the explicit conclusion, is that is how we too should deal with Nazis. Punching, whether literal or metaphorical, is the only way to deal with Nazis, they say. Shut them down swiftly 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 people 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! But 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 perpetuates more hate in the world. If we want a better culture, one where such hate isn’t tolerated, then we need to start by 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 the MO for all their dealings with any group of villains. Angry people on the internet would say, “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 punches 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, choose heroism. Depending on the scenario, that might mean calling the authorities, helping someone escape a dangerous situation, or, yes, sometimes fighting back physically. Superheroes 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 and screaming about how 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

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.

Suddenly I understand other people’s deep grieving over the likes of Prince and David Bowie. While I enjoyed the music of both, I didn’t have a deep personal connection to either man’s work. Darwyn Cooke, however, is another matter. His art embodied everything a hero should be and always instilled me with hope. In honor of a truly great artist and storyteller, I posted a brief analysis on what made his work such a treasure and why he left us too soon.

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.

Misreading the Success of Deadpool

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Deadpool is currently making a killing at the box office (pun intended). And good for Ryan Reynolds! After so many horrid miscastings, he deserves the perfect role of Wade Wilson. But critics and commentators are far too eager to jump the gun on what this success means. So let me state, as a lone voice of reason, that the success of R-rated Deadpool does not herald a dramatic change in how Hollywood should think of superhero films. The success of R-rated Deadpool just means the success of R-rated Deadpool.

To read some articles, one might think the days of family friendly superhero films are dead. Get ready for Captain America to start waterboarding and for Superman to shoot that porno with Big Barda (That’s a joke Zack Snyder. Don’t get any ideas!). This epic leap to conclusions, though, is an example of how Hollywood gets superheroes wrong and ends up with so many box office flops. They see what worked with one Superhero and decide to apply it to all superheroes. A love triangle worked for X-Men? Let’s bring it over to Superman! Dark and gritty worked for Batman? By all means, dirty up that big blue boy scout and Marvel’s First Family while we’re at it!

Do you want to know why Deadpool is smashing through records at the box office? Here it is, for once and for all, the secret formula for any studio to make a wildly successful superhero film: It’s because Deadpool remains true to the character of Deadpool! Nobody would have bothered to see a PG-rated Deadpool because that’s not who he is! This is why the PG-13 Avengers was such a landmark hit and the PG-13 Man of Steel is the most divisive film in fandom history. No, superheroes aren’t just for children, but they’re not just for adults either, or families, or adolescents, or geriatrics, or whatever. Superheroes fulfill a variety of roles in our cultural mythology. Instead of trying to shoehorn them all into one formula of storytelling, take the time to consider each character. Which type of their stories resonate with the most people? These archetypes have been functioning in our culture for ages. It’s time Hollywood stopped assuming they can redefine them with an “update” and expect to us to pay them for it.

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.