I watched X-Men: First Class recently. Cool movie, my friends and I all agree.
But the intended moral takeaway is that Professor Xavier (hippie peace-creep who thinks mutants and humans can live together in harmony forever and ever) is the good guy, and Magneto (cold, concentration-camp scarred realist who believes humans will exterminate mutants if given half a chance) is bad. But is the audience’s conclusion based on anything deeper than the observation that Xavier seems like a good dude, while Magneto scowls a lot?
Magneto acts under the assumption that Humans and Mutants are destined to conflict. Xavier, that we can all live together as one happy family. So based on the feel-goodness of his motivations, we side with Xavier.
But Magneto and Xavier’s disagreement is not based on what mutants and humans should do. It is a question of how humans actually will react to the presence of mutants in their world. Since the world provides many examples of humans’ inability to live in harmony with those who are different and powerful, my position on the Xavier/Magneto debate is clear: The latter is a clear-headed advocate for mutant survival through independence and self-sufficiency, while the former is a coddled, doe-eyed optimist, unable to see the world for the series of cynical conflicts it is. The X-Men sequels actually end up clearly supporting Magneto’s pessimism – but still, how many in the general audience would even consider siding with Magneto? Very few.
Many years ago, my favourite cartoon was Beast Wars. Basically, the characters were animal-based transformers, and it was all kinds of awesome. I’m getting nerd chills just thinking about it.
But almost every episode followed a similar plotline: The Predacons (bad guys) would devise some evil scheme to kill all the Maximals (good guys). Every time, their plan would be foiled at the last minute by the heroic efforts of the Maximals, who would follow up by letting the Predacons retreat to their base and start planning for next week’s attack. On several occasions, the good guys were presented with opportunities to destroy their enemies’ base. Each time they refused. A quote I still remember from the Maximal leader, which prompted a WTF even from my childhood self: “Our goal is to defeat the Predacons, not annihilate them.” Never mind that this is recipe for never-ending war, at best, since the Predacons have clearly and repeatedly stated that their goal is the complete destruction of the Maximals.
Another random memory: In all of the commercials for action figures that shot projectiles, the ad would show one action figure shooting a pile of blocks that would then collapse on another action figure. Apparently an actual direct hit would have been too much for our young minds.
Moving right along, let’s talk about Batman.
At a glance, Bruce Wayne seems like the ultimate reactionary superhero. Fed up with the inability of Gotham’s government to reign in crime, he becomes a vigilante and brings justice and order to the decaying city.
And yet, in Batman Begins, he can’t bring himself to demonstrate his commitment and loyalty to Ninja Skull and Bones by killing a criminal. His response when asked to do so is, “I’m no executioner.”
Why Bruce? Is it a union thing? Justice requires men who catch criminals, and men who fine, jail, and kill them. If you care so much about fighting crime, why are you only willing to do half the job?
Later on, Commissioner Gordon says to Batman that if the police get semi-automatics, the mafia will get automatics, if they get body armor, they will buy armor-piercing rounds. His logic implies that the Gotham police force should arm itself with whiffle bats, so that it can only face criminals with same. A wittier Batman might have responded by pointing to the desolate slums of Gotham, and asking, “So Commish – how’s that philosophy workin’ out for ya?”
So even a badass like Batman, whose raison d’être is fundamentally right-wing, must be packaged in pacifistic bromides before he’s deemed fit for public consumption. And still, we’re supposed to see Batman as a good, but flawed figure – a decent man, driven by the death of his parents to use extreme means to achieve noble ends. The idea that noble ends sometimes require dirty hands has left the building.
Next up: Star Wars.
I have little to add to this classic article on The Case For The Empire.
“In Episode IV, after Grand Moff Tarkin announces that the Imperial Senate has been abolished, he’s asked how the Emperor can possibly hope to keep control of the galaxy. “The regional governors now have direct control over territories,” he says. “Fear will keep the local systems in line.”
So under Imperial rule, a large group of regional potentates, each with access to a sizable army and star destroyers, runs local affairs. These governors owe their fealty to the Emperor. And once the Emperor is dead, the galaxy will be plunged into chaos.
In all of the time we spend observing the Rebel Alliance, we never hear of their governing strategy or their plans for a post-Imperial universe. All we see are plots and fighting. Their victory over the Empire doesn’t liberate the galaxy–it turns the galaxy into Somalia writ large: dominated by local warlords who are answerable to no one.
Which makes the rebels–Lucas’s heroes–an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back.
I’ll take the Empire.”
If you read the entire piece, you’ll see it really is an open and shut case. The rebels are a bunch of dickheads. But in a contest between a scrappy bunch of rag-tag misfits who dress in white, vs. an effective, peace-seeking, but stern empire clothed in black – viewers cheer for the rebels every time. Filmmakers know how to trigger our “good guy” and “bad guy” switches, and they do it so effectively that several generations of Star Wars audiences have spent their lives generally agreeing that the rebels are in the right, and the Empire is in the wrong.
I could go on with a few more examples. But I’ll leave the rest to the live studio audience. Readers, two questions:
1) Who are some of your other favourite reactionary pop culture anti-heroes?
2) Which supposedly good characters are we supposed to empathize with, but are actually pieces of shit?