Sunday, November 16, 2008

A New Era for America...And Fiction?

I haven’t said anything on here about the major event that happened last week, the election of Obama as president. It’s a huge thing, and a great step forward for the country. How well will things actually turn out? Can he undo all the awful things done by the Bush administration? It’ll be a while before we have the answers to those questions, but I think there is a tangible hope about the country’s direction now, a major contrast from the Bush era post 9/11 loss of agency and hope that we could ever have something better.

Back in 2000, the major narrative of the election was, there’s no difference between the two parties, they’re just two sides of the same coin. Hearing that today, that Bush and Gore are the same, it sounds absurd. A lot of people say that it doesn’t matter who’s president, things will be corrupt all the same no matter who’s in power. I think the Bush administration has proven that decisively wrong. Bush has remade the government in his image, he’s created two wars based on lies, both the “war on terror” and Iraq, and fundamentally changed the tax structure, such that Obama’s attempt to go back to what’s essentially the Clinton era tax system is called socialism. If Bush was not elected, we would not have gone to war in Iraq, I think that’s the best testament to the fact that who is in power does matter.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to make a mess than to clean things up, and if there’s one major worry about the Obama administration, it’s that people will jump all over him too quick, and say that he’s failing before he even has a chance to get started. But, ideally he’ll be able to do something different and make the world a better place.

The political climate of the nation influences a lot more than just policy, look at the pop culture that’s emerged in the Bush administration, everything is dark and brutal. Once goofy, over the top characters like Batman and James Bond have been reimagined as starkly realistic warriors in a morally corrupt world. I think the resonance of works like Casino Royale and The Dark Knight is largely due to a general pessimism in the world, a feeling that there’s no time for frivolity, even our blockbuster films have to be grounded in reality. While they’re really strong movies, a vast improvement from the goofy excesses of late Clinton era Bond and Batman, both films are notable for the fact that the heroes get very little joy from what they’re doing. They’re on a mission, and are constantly forced to sacrifice elements of their humanity as the films go along.

Grant Morrison is always perceptive about the cultural climate his work goes out into. The day-glo pop optimism of late period Invisibles fits perfectly with a world where the Cold War has just ended, and for the first time in fifty years, we had no enemy to battle. That’s exactly what happens in the story, this illusory war collapses and the characters are liberated to move on to the next stage of humanity. But, a year after the series ended, we got a new illusory war, one that sounds like something Sir Miles would jokingly propose, a “war on terror.” Think how absurd and sci-fi that sounds. It’s like Jack Kirby in the middle of the Fourth World. In a world where we fight imaginary wars, maybe our fiction has to be hard edged and brutal, as if we’re trying to make those wars real. Couldn’t you read The Dark Knight as an elaborate Bush era fantasy, this chaos is what will happen if we don’t have total control.

The position of chaos in popular mythology says a lot about the culture we’re living in. The Dark Knight is about a character fighting to keep the world in check, to hold back change and preserve the status quo. Compare to the Clinton era opus, The Matrix, which posits super-cool chaos warriors who go through the world destroying all symbols of authority in their path. Part of the reason that the later Matrix films failed is likely that people found it harder to relate to characters who want to destroy the status quo after suffering through an event like 9/11. Neo and Trinity are the kind of characters that Batman would be taking on in his attempt to keep a fragile hold on order.

Part of the reason why I find Morrison’s work on Final Crisis and particularly Batman RIP so interesting is that it’s so distinctively tied to the world we’re living in now, a dramatization of the end of the Bush era. Final Crisis’ Slayer album cover aesthetic is all in service of a story that’s designed to “let evil win,” before bringing things back in an explosive burst of hope. It’s a way to exorcise our demons, to pass through the ultimate terror and show that humanity will always come out strong. It’s appropriate that the last issue of Final Crisis will come out within a week of Obama’s inauguration, to kick start the new era.

RIP is even more interesting because of the way it turns Batman from a protector of order into his own force of chaos. Pretty much all the Batman films are dominated by their villains, Morrison’s great achievement is to make Batman himself the most interesting character in the comic. Over the course of RIP, we see a guy who’s exerting all his mental energy trying to maintain control, to hold back the force of chaos. In doing so, he finds himself in a war against the Black Glove, an uber-powerful organization that is so devious, he can never hope to defeat it. It’s Batman’s own war on terror, and one of the most powerful scenes in the arc is when Jezebel suggests that Bruce himself was the one who created the Black Glove, because he couldn’t deal with not having an enemy to fight. He is addicted to being Batman, and having this ultimate enemy, one he can never defeat, justifies the billions of dollars he spends on gear.

There’s a pointed criticism of the military-industrial complex there. Jezebel ponders what the money he’s spent being Batman could have done in a third world country. Instead, Bruce chose to fight a war that will never end, a war that eventually upsets his mental state and turns him from an agent of order to an agent of chaos.

It’ll probably take a few years before we see works that reflect an Obama era view of the world, but I think we will see a move away from the intense emphasis on ‘realism’ and darkness. If the world becomes a better place, art will reflect that too. Maybe in the next Bond movie, James will finally be able to have a little fun without feeling so guilty about it.


Richard said...

I saw a review of the latest Bond film that made a really important point: when Sean Connery was in the role, every guy in the audience wanted to be Bond -- the action, the hedonism, the women, the jaded indifference to authority -- but no one would ever want to be this new Bond. You look at the current Bond or the current Batman, and for all the undeniable skill and craftsmanship and thought that's gone into making these films, they've become perhaps too "realistic" in a very specific and limited sense of realism. The message seems to be these "heroes" of yours have lives so miserable and full of suffering that you would never want to imagine being them, better to just stay rooted in your mundane life and never escape even for a moment. Come on, doesn't that sound like something Darkseid would have printed on his billboards?

There's a line from C.S. Lewis to the effect that (roughly paraphrased) people who dismiss things as escapist and rail against the supposed evil or foolishness of escapism are revealing a hidden motive...because who would be so strongly against the possibility of escape but a jailer?

Patrick said...

Totally, with the new Bond movie, I really liked it, but I think it doesn't give you most of the pleasures that you want from a Bond movie. I think the series had become way too formulaic by the late Brosnan era, but I think you can find a balance between having a hero who enjoys what he does and not having an invisible car and huge ice palace. I think part of the problem with both Bond and Batman is that they went so far in the goofy direciton, any perceived happiness of frivolity in the films would be a sign that they're going back to camp.

With The Dark Knight, I think the heavy 'realism' of the film made it so that Batman himself was the only element of the film that didn't work. The core of the story was about a criminal, a terrorist, who brings a city to its knees through his total embrace of chaos and anarchy. It makes sense that The Joker would dress crazy and behave like a supervillain because he's insane, but it's hard to take a guy in a bat suit, speaking in that ridiculous voice, strolling into a crime scene.

My favorite Batman movie is still Batman Returns, because it exists in a heightened reality where Batman makes a lot more sense, and becoming Catwoman seems like a logical reaction to male oppression. That's also the only Batman movie that managed to make the Batman character as interesting as the villains, largely because it really plays with the idea that he's no different from the people he's fighting, he's just as insane, only he's fighting on the right side of the law. That way, him dressing up as Batman makes sense, in the same way it does in Morrison's run. The goal of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight seems to be to prove that we need a Batman, and that his actions make some kind of logical sense in a real world setting, and that's tough to make work.