Saturday, October 6, 2012

Power and Superpower

It's no secret that I love comic books and the superheroes contained within. But the nature of superheroism has a lot of complex facets that most casual fans take for granted. While I have a lot of thoughts on the nature of heroism in general and superheroism specifically, I'm going to try to keep this rant focused on the nature of power, as well as empowerment.

Alleyway Heroism

90% of popular superheroes have a common M.O.. They prowl the streets in costume, ever vigilant for criminal activity, stopping it in its tracks. There's a reason why most superhero movies involve some kind of alley fight scene. It's iconic. The formula is simple and we've seen it a thousand times. Actually, if you think about it, it's hard to name specific examples, but it's so iconic that it FEELS like we've seen it a thousand times. There's a dark alley. There's a young/elderly/otherwise defenseless individual who is about to be victimized by a criminal. Just as things are about to get ugly, our hero steps in and saves the day. They are thanked by the would-be-victim, and they depart just as the police arrive to apprehend the incapacitated villain. This scene is iconic because it's really the reason why superheroes became popular in the first place. In the Golden Age, characters like Superman were figures that made the powerless feel more powerful. Seeing criminals get what was coming to them was engaging and encouraging. It doesn't matter that Superman isn't real. It feels good to fantasize about what you could do with all that power, particularly in a time where the world was a very frightening and desperate place. Batman, who is one of the few superheroes from the Golden Age that is still around with the majority of his origin story in tact, was a victim in an alley himself. No one came to save his parents when they were gunned down in Crime Alley, so he trained to become such a person. The underlying problem of this scene is that while it does make us feel good, it is still largely a fantasy. We all know that in the real world, this iconic scene is not common. Thousands of innocent people are targeted by criminals every day all over the world. And while some do have happy endings, far too many do not. So while it is not surprising that we as a culture still have a place for what I think of as "Alleyway Heroism", it is also clear that we have become somewhat cynical of it the more we relate to the would-be-victim rather than the superhero. When a superhero movie involves Alleyway Heroism, it's considered cheesy, cliche, or generic. This has also been largely true of comic books ever since the Silver Age. You notice that while you may get a slice of Alleyway Heroism in a given movie or comic, usually during a character's origin story, the majority of superhero stories revolve around a superhero and a supervillain. A clash of the titans rather than a hero stopping generic thugs and gangs. This is partially because a supervillain generally poses a greater challenge than a random group of criminals, and thus makes for a more interesting conflict, but really it mostly speaks to the fact that we know deep down that Alleyway Heroism isn't compelling enough on its own. The main reason Alleyway Heroism is even still around is because it works well for establishing good intentions. We see Spider-Man protecting a kid who is being mugged, so we instinctively root for him when he fights the Green Goblin. In other words, all Alleyway Heroism is good for is shallow wish-fulfillment and making the protagonist more likable. However, one really major exception to this is in one of my favorite superhero films, "The Dark Knight." I've spoken about this before, so I won't get too much into the film as a whole, but the main reason "The Dark Knight" succeeds while "The Dark Knight Rises" didn't is because "The Dark Knight" wasn't about Batman vs. Supervillain. It was about Batman vs. Organized Crime. The Joker was an agent of chaos that drove the plot and turned Harvey Dent into the antagonist, but Batman did not defeat the Joker in that movie. He defeated the mob. The Joker was defeated by the people of Gotham. When they refused to destroy each other in the boat scene, the Joker lost. A lot of people credit Heath Ledger's performance for making that film resonate with audiences, but personally, I give a lot of credit to that scene. It was completely unlike anything we ever saw before and it reached us in a way Alleyway Heroism and generic one-on-one battles never can.

Lois Lane Syndrome

What made the boat scene unique was not just that the would-be-victims defied the villain. No, that we actually see all the time. It's one way that writers try to make Alleyway Heroism more palatable, particularly when the victims in question are women. Comic books and related media are often accused (justifiably) of sexism, chauvinism, and even misogyny largely because of their tendency to victimize women. Since the audience of comic books and related media is PERCEIVED to be largely heterosexual single young men, it is assumed that putting a woman in danger will provoke a more visceral response from them. That they'll instinctively want the character that we know nothing about to be rescued and then fall in love with the rescuer simply because of her gender and her vulnerable situation (and probably also because all comic book women are built like supermodels). Obviously, this tends to make a lot of people very unhappy, and for good reason. It suggests that women are more likely than men to be defenseless victims who are unable to help themselves. It turns women into plot devices that exist either as a prize to be won or as motivation for the character. Of course most writers of comic books and related media are aware of this interpretation, and so their most common solution is to show the would-be-victim acting bravely and defiantly before their inevitable rescue. I'll call this "Lois Lane Syndrome". That is, when any would-be-victim (regardless of gender) in an Alleyway Heroism type of situation stands up to the villain despite being outmatched. Lois Lane, as everyone knows, was Superman's primary love interest for about half a century. When she is not known as Superman's girlfriend, however, she's primarily known as "the one Superman always saves." Even so, as far as damsels in distress go, Lois is generally notable (at least in most of her modern incarnations) because she rarely ever actually cries for help. She tends to get involved in a dangerous situation because of her own agency and journalistic curiosity (which I love), and when the shit hits the fan she does her best to get herself out of it (also cool)... but when she is about to get killed or seriously injured, Superman swoops in to save her. This is seen as an improvement over the typical Alleyway Heroism scene because at least in this case, the would-be-victim is standing up for herself. The result hasn't changed, but at least she gets to keep her dignity! See? Sexism is over! Seriously though, Lois Lane Syndrome is generally just a way to dress up the same old trope without coming off as quite as exploitative. Nothing has really changed except the attitude. Yes, this makes the situation less distasteful on the surface, since at least the would-be-victim is given some degree of agency, but ultimately they are still powerless and they are still saved by a fantasy. That's not to say that would-be-victims shouldn't stand up for themselves. On the contrary, nobody should think that they shouldn't at least attempt to get out of a dangerous situation themselves. But this doesn't change the fact that in the Alleyway Heroism scene, they will inevitably fail in order to give the hero a reason to show up and save the day. While Lois Lane is admirable for trying, she still needs Superman. Worse yet, this suggests that if the would-be-victim DOESN'T stand up for him/herself, that makes him/her weak or undeserving of rescue. Another way they tend to "improve" on the sexist implications of this trope is by reversing the roles. The woman has the power fantasy and the man is the would-be-victim. While this at least spreads the empowerment fantasies around a bit more, it doesn't change the core problem. In fact, it might accentuate it. Just as Alleyway Heroism suggests that victims are only saved in power fantasies, the role reversal suggests that the only time women AREN'T the victims is in a power fantasy. How many women in comic books and related media can you name that weren't victimized at some point their lives and either failed to stop it, were saved at the last moment by a third party, or saved themselves by using some kind of superhuman boon that a normal person wouldn't have? I can name maybe one or two if I really stop to consider it, but it really shouldn't be this hard. So really, all this says is that the only way a woman won't become a victim is if she has more power than a typical woman would have. So yeah, still not much of an improvement, is it? Anyway, the point is that defiance alone is not enough to empower a would-be-victim in your typical Alleyway Heroism situation. Going back to my example, you might look at the boat scene from "The Dark Knight" and say that it's no different from that scene from "The Avengers" where that old German guy (who speaks perfect English) stands up to Loki and says "Not to men like you." They're both defiantly refusing to do what the villain says, so what's the difference? The difference is that if Captain America didn't show up, the German guy would have been killed, but if Batman didn't show up, the people on the boats STILL would have defeated the Joker. Yes, the Joker would have just blown them up anyway (maybe), but he still would have failed to make his point. The people refused to kill each other. Even if they did get killed by the Joker, that wouldn't grant him victory. It would have just been him being a sore loser. Their refusal to blow each other up was more than just showing that the would-be-victims aren't spineless worms. It was about showing the value of ALL human life despite the Joker's attempt to prove the opposite. They refused to let the villain use them as a way to get what he wants. In "The Avengers", the German guy is not empowered. He is brave, but he has no power. His defiance does nothing except make his life worth saving (once again implying that if he DIDN'T, he wouldn't have deserved to be saved). But in "The Dark Knight", the people on the boat find power by believing in something greater than themselves. This is what "The Dark Knight" is ultimately about. Inspiring hope in the innocent and fear in the guilty so that the power shifts.

Empowerment and the Anti-Hero

So with all that said, I want to share a video that many of you might have already seen. It is called "Dirty Laundry." I don't want to say much beyond that for those who haven't seen it, except I will issue a... CONTENT WARNING: This video contains extreme violence and implied off-screen rape. Additionally, my discussion of the video refers to these violent acts and explores the related context. If you wish to avoid this content but keep reading, please skip to where I say "END CONTENT WARNING". I promise you won't be lost.

OK, so, that was pretty intense, wasn't it? Anyway, what makes this short film interesting to me is how it plays on our expectations regarding Alleyway Heroism. At the beginning of the video, we expect Frank to intervene and rescue the woman who is about to be assaulted. The woman displays Lois Lane Syndrome, standing up to the asshole and resisting his advances, but she can't stop him alone. So naturally, we expect Frank to step in and save her. He doesn't. He does his laundry. At first, we as an audience assume that this is because he's about to do something bad-ass. That it's a fake-out. He's just waiting until the last minute. No way would he let something like that happen. And yet he does. I don't know about the rest of you, but I REALLY hated him in that moment. I figured that at that point, there was nothing he could do to redeem himself. Then it gets worse. The gang starts mugging a little kid who, again, displays Lois Lane Syndrome and defies the gang. Again, Frank does nothing. While this is going on, he speaks with the clerk played by Ron Perlman, who talks about the desire to intervene. How it probably won't work out and even if they succeed, more villains will take their place. That's when Frank finally intervenes just as the young boy is about to be killed. He kills all of the gang members, leaving only the leader alive, albeit maimed. He then asks about the difference between justice and punishment before covering the villain in alcohol and leaving a lighter by his feet. At that moment, the villain is left at the mercy of the survivor, who chooses to light him on fire. Now before I end the content warning, I just want to say that with regards to the inclusion of rape, I can understand the knee-jerk apprehension that some of you might have. I felt it myself. All too often, rape is used as a factor to motivate the hero into action. If it's a male hero, it's to defend the woman's honor. If it's a female hero, it's meant to "empower" her by having her overcome her "weakness" (i.e. having a vagina). However, in this short film, rape is not used in that manner. The rape does not motivate Frank to action. And though the survivor is empowered at the end, it is not because her rape made her "tougher". All the rape does is make the villain deserving of a righteous death at the hands of the survivor. I do agree that rape is used WAY too often, and this in turn adds to the presence of rape culture in our society and I do believe that if a writer can get the same point across with something other than rape (attempted or otherwise) then using rape is excessive and sensationalist and disrespectful. It's no excuse to say that it's the most common form of assault subjected to women and that it's just "realistic" to include it. Unless you have something really important to say about real life and that rape is an important aspect of what you are trying to say, it's unnecessary. But when I consider the ending of this short where the survivor lights the villain on fire, there's a reason why it's the woman and not the kid who does it. While the kid was hurt and beaten, him killing the villain would have come off as wrathful or excessive. But when the woman does it, it feels right because she wasn't just hurt physically. She was violated and degraded. Those wounds don't heal and no matter what those of us who are lucky enough never to experience it would like to think, it cannot be turned into strength. There are few crimes where the survivor is justified in killing the perpetrator after the fact. There are few crimes that we consider worse than death and therefore deserving of it as punishment. And it's not a matter of vengeance or even justice. It's a matter of self-defense. Killing the bastard so that he can't do it again and so no one else will dare try it. Taking the power back. It's for this reason that I can forgive this short film for incorporating rape. I suppose they could have ended the short film without killing the villain and then the survivor wouldn't need a reason to do it, but then the ending can go one of two ways. Either the survivors decide that the villain has been punished enough and let him live out the rest of his crippled life, in which case they basically did nothing that demonstrates their power, or they DO kill the guy, in which case it comes off as excessive and somewhat reprehensible since all the guy would have done to them was rough them up a bit. In this case, the short film only works if the guy deserves death and if the victim of the crime is able to do it. If you can think of a crime worse than murder that doesn't somehow degrade or incapacitate the victim, then I'd be happy to hear it, but I certainly can't think of one. All I can think of that fits the requirements of this short film's theme are rape and torture, and torture isn't really much of an improvement in terms of unpleasantness. I mean, at least it wouldn't come off as potentially sexist, I suppose, but that doesn't make it any less problematic. I suppose the film could have just not existed at all ("the only way to win is not to play") but I don't think completely avoiding the subject of rape or torture accomplishes anything. The problem isn't acknowledging that these things exist, it's in treating them casually. If we just say that women can never be survivors of rape or attempted rape in fiction, it doesn't change what happens in reality. Rape won't go anywhere if you just stop mentioning it. But we do have to stop acting like survivors of rape are weak and powerless or that their trauma is something they ought to rise above and find strength in. And even having women in fiction successfully defend against rape isn't necessarily helpful either, because then it sends the message that if you can't stop yourself from becoming a victim, you are weak. That's why I think the portrayal in "Dirty Laundry" is forgivable. Because the woman is made a survivor of rape, but she is not shown as weak because she couldn't prevent it and she is not made stronger because it happened. She is powerful because in the end, she stands up to the villain and tells him that he doesn't deserve to live for what he did to her. The onus is put on the villain, not the survivor. The survivor is not a weaker person for not being able to stop it or for not becoming a hard-assed no-nonsense "strong independent woman" as a result of it. There is no way she SHOULD have handled it, and by extension, no way any survivor of any crime SHOULD handle it. The film tells us that she did nothing wrong, which is exactly what needs to be said more often. She did nothing wrong, but the villain did, and he deserves to die for it. END CONTENT WARNING So what makes this scene unique? Well, two things. First of all, Frank Castle (the Punisher), does not save the victims of the ruthless gang from the pain of the crimes being perpetrated upon them. He does not ride in as a champion of justice and stop the tyranny of evil in its tracks. Obviously, he certainly COULD do that, but that's not what his character is about. In a way, trying to make the Punisher more conventional would be even worse and entirely pointless. One of the larger complaints with anti-heroes like the Punisher is that they encourage violent vigilante justice, which is less palatable than non-lethal heroic justice. And this is understandable. If you put the Punisher in the same situations as Spider-Man with the only difference being that he kills the villains rather then leave them to the police, then all it does is send the message that villains are not worthy of compassion and that we have the right to judge them ourselves simply because we have power. This is a reprehensible point of view. But "Dirty Laundry" not only portrays the anti-hero in a more narratively distinctive way, it shows why the anti-hero exists in the first place. The anti-hero exists because people are often left unfulfilled by Alleyway Heroism. There's nothing empowering about waiting for someone to save you when you're about to become a victim. We're meant to identify with the hero, but we know deep down we're more similar to the victims, who we instinctively perceive as weak. So we started inventing heroes that were more about seizing power in a more "realistic" way (i.e. lots of guns). While it's nice to have ideals about justice and second chances, when you're in an alley and someone has pulled a knife on you and you KNOW that Spider-Man isn't going to show up, you suddenly don't care so much about whether or not that person with the knife is a good person deep down. You just want to pull out a gun and show him what happens when you fuck with the social contract. It's about taking back the power. That's what the bulk of these anti-heroes represent. Seizing power from those who would use it to victimize, and often that means threatening and utilizing lethal force. And yes, lots of guns. To put it simply, it sometimes feels more practical to stop waiting for Spider-Man and just shoot the bastard like Frank Castle would do. And even if Spider-Man DID show up, we may resent the fact that Spider-Man just allows the criminal to go through the revolving door of the corrupt justice system and go right back to finding more victims later. Rather than feel like the world is an awful place because bad things happen to innocent people and other innocent people won't lift a finger to stop it, we're told that if life gives you lemons, throw a hand grenade. In a way, that's what this short film is saying. The reason Punisher doesn't rescue the survivors until they have already suffered at the hands of the gang is because if he wasn't there, they wouldn't have been rescued. Like Ron Perlman's character says, even if he stopped them, more would just take their place. Saving the victims today doesn't give them the strength to fight back tomorrow, and it certainly doesn't take away any pain they might have felt from previous attacks that are implied to have happened while Frank wasn't around. Justice is sadly only a sometimes thing. It's handled on a case-by-case basis. But punishment? Punishment is about shifting power. It's about sending a message. Teaching a lesson. Punishment can outlast lifetimes. That's what Frank does at the end. He doesn't want to give those survivors justice. Justice won't make their lives easier once he leaves. If he killed the gang right away, it wouldn't have empowered them even if he gave them the same chance to set the leader on fire. If the crime was never committed, then it isn't true punishment. Killing a guy for what he MIGHT have done comes off as extreme, which is why most heroes don't kill. Killing a guy for what he DID is cosmic balance. And if Frank had stopped the crime before it happened, it wouldn't say anything about the strength of the would-be-victims. They would have just felt lucky that an ex-marine happened to be around at the right moment. In other words, it would have been just a more violent and grotesque version of Alleyway Heroism. But when he gives the victims the chance to punish the one responsible, that changes everything. Suddenly, they have the power. Rather than judge the villain himself, Frank passes that decision onto the survivors. When the woman burns the villain, she is making a statement. The next time someone thinks about screwing with that neighborhood, they'll remember that the last guy that ran that turf got burned alive by the woman he assaulted. SHE did it. Not some other guy. That other guy was doing his laundry at the time. She's the one who burned the guy alive because of what he did to her. He was evil. She was innocent. He got what he deserved. She deserved better. No one will mess with her again. In that respect, "Dirty Laundry" is basically a metaphor for the anti-hero and the concept of empowerment in general. It's not about saving people. It's not even about standing up for other people or even for yourself. It's about punishing the wicked without implying that the innocent survivors and bystanders (like Ron Perlman's character) are weak for "letting it happen". If heroes are meant to inspire you to care about something bigger than yourself, anti-heroes are about inspiring you to stop thinking less of yourself and to start thinking less of the villains instead. I don't know if I entirely agree with the anti-hero philosophy, particularly since it's rarely handled with that degree of sobriety. More often than not, it's just a different flavor of power fantasy, but less about empowering vague concepts like truth and justice and more about advocating extreme measures and the concept of "might is right". But I do feel that there is a necessity for heroes that are aimed at empowering the innocent and punishing the guilty rather than simply saving the victims and stopping the villains.

The Place of Traditional Heroism

That being said, I certainly don't think that an anti-hero can empower readers in a way that a more traditional hero can't. In fact, anti-heroes are limiting because they often operate on the assumption that criminals are pure evil and always deserve death. But as we do not live in a society where criminals are always (or even often) put to death, it stands to reason that we as a society value inherent human decency as well as our ideals. That's why we still need more traditional heroes. They may not be as "realistic", but not every problem can be solved with a gun. And a gun is not the only source of power. But just as anti-heroes can lose their meaning when they are solely about violent wish-fulfillment and seeing bad people get what they deserve, heroes lose their meaning when they do nothing but save the world and stop bad guys. Take Superman for example. A lot of people assume that Superman is boring because he is the most powerful superhero in existence. Well, yes, that does make him boring if his ability to defeat villains is his primary source of narrative conflict. And when all Superman does is fight bad guys, yeah, it's really boring. However, Superman CAN be interesting because as a being of nigh-unlimited power, he is an excellent device for exploring the nature of power itself. Superman does everything he can to keep his power in check. Act as the defender rather than the attacker. When he loses his grip on that ideal, he becomes just as awful as the villains he fights. So what does this tell us? Even with all of Superman's power, that power still comes second to his principles. What we believe in is more important than the power we have or lack. Superman isn't just about power and what you can do with it, but what you can't or shouldn't do with power alone. Superman's true strength is not his flight or invulnerability, but what he represents. While none of us will be able to fly shoot lasers out of our eyes, we can all aspire to Superman's resolve. So the Punisher tells us that what we fail to do does not make us weak and that power can come from anyone at any time, and Superman tells us that power is not enough without a respect for it, because that's what separates the heroes from the villains. I'd say that these two concepts work well in harmony, wouldn't you?