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.