Thursday, January 4, 2018

"Jodie Foster Slams Superhero Movies"

She did. And got roundly mocked for it. She probably deserved to be. That said, there is a not crazy notion that could be teased out here.

Let's talk about origin stories. Because everyone does. Fans of superhero movies have all incorporated this vocabulary into their discussions of their favourites. The most famous origin story of them all is Spiderman's and there is something about it that should be transparent.

A teenage boy is bitten by a radioactive spider. This gives him superpowers. And he exploits those powers to become a celebrity but, and this is really important, he does so secretly. He doesn't go out as Peter Parker to become a celebrity but goes out as Spiderman. For some reason, never explained adequately, he needs to keep his special powers secret. After a certain amount of self gratification in which he ignores opportunities to use his superpowers for justice, his uncle, the primary father figure in his life, is killed by criminals. And then he decides that he must use these powers for good.  And we get the famous line: "With great power there must also come—great responsibility!"

I probably don't have to spell this out but just in case it isn't obvious enough: this is a allegory of adolescence.  The superpowers have to be kept secret because they represent his sexual maturity. The radioactive spider plays on the love-hate relationship the public had with nuclear science when Spiderman first appeared in 1962. That the quote about power and responsibility has an obvious antecedent in Luke 12: 48 also tells us something about the dominant morality time of its origin. Biological sexual maturity is first discovered in private. It's troubling; you've known Gwen Stacy since grade two and now you can stop fantasizing about seeing her naked. (Unbeknownst to you, she has similar fantasies but perhaps not about you.) Your identity, your whole sense of who you are is being destroyed and you must negotiate your way to a new identity as an adult. And that means some troubling times with the father figure in your life.

That is absolutely brilliant and deserves all the praise it has gotten. People of all ages can enjoy this sort of story but it has particular resonance for people between between the ages of 13-17. By 17, maybe 19 at the outside, you should have the relevant moral issues worked out in your life. Sure, you can go back and revisit the fiction of your adolescence just like you can go back and listen to your favourite music from high school days. It's a harmless indulgence. The problem is not with what you're doing but with what you might not be doing.

Back to Jodie for a moment.
However, she would consider a superhero protagonist if they had 'really complex psychology'.
She's wrong about that—Peter Parker has a complex psychology.  He has a far more complex psychology than you'll find in any romantic comedy Hollywood has produced in the last twenty years. Spiderman, however, has two huge limitations. The first is that it's a children's story and the second, related to the first, is that it cannot talk directly about its subject matter.

Children's stories cannot talk about adult matters so they don't. A bear attacks Merida's family. Why? Because we cannot talk about sexuality so the bear is a stand in for Merida's raging hormones—scary new forces are arising in her life. Arranged marriages still happen but are about as rare as actual princesses and princes. So why is Merida in Brave threatened with one? Because it's a movie about not wanting to grow up. Merida is surrounded by images of sexuality but they're all threatening. She wants attention—like Peter Parker—she uses her special abilities (not to mention skin-tight costumes that emphasize her breasts) to attract admiration, but she never does any actual work with her bow and arrow and she doesn't want to marry the person of her own choice so much as avoid sexual maturity altogether. It's a magical get-out-of-sexual-maturity-free card. And maybe that's okay (not really, it tells us something rather disturbing out our infantile culture, but that's another post).

The point is, that there is nothing unusual about hiding delicate matters in children's stories but lengths superhero stories go to conceal the core issues are amazing if you think about it. Children struggle with their parents during puberty and children's story usually conceal this by getting the parents off stage. The most common, and most brutal, way of doing this is to kill them off. If you don't want to be that final about it, you can have the kids enter a magic world through the application of pixie dust or a secret passage behind a wardrobe. In this new world, you can introduce substitute parent figures that your young hero can more openly struggle with than would be acceptable with their real parents. Spiderman isn't content with a single level of insulation between the eventual father substitute. Peter Parker is already an orphan at the outset of the story and then his foster father has to be killed off before he can encounter J. Jonah Jameson.

As adults, we need to graduate to fiction that handles these issues more directly. Sex is never directly referenced in Jane Austen the real adult consequences of sex are. No one gets super powers or gets turned into a bear. Instead, they make decisions about whether to have sex and whether to get married and there are real consequences that follow from these decisions.

But what to do about it. Jodie Foster would have Hollywood stop making superhero movies but Hollywood keeps doing that because we keep buying tickets. There is a more fundamental problem with the culture that we're powerless to do anything about. Even the people with actual power can't do anything about it. But we can do something about ourselves.

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