Heroism? Kids' Stuff

I remember having something of an ah-ha! moment reading the inestimable Saladin Ahmed's twitter last October when he was, as he does, musing about heroism in Star Wars and wrote the following: "Obi Wan beatifically closing his lightsaber. Luke telling the Emperor 'You've lost' because he won't fight. Let's see more of THAT heroism." Remember: for many, the defining features of the original Star Wars movies are that one of the heroes kills without provocation, and that Empire ends with such desperate, exquisite hopelessness. Conversations about the movies centering so much on these points for so long, it had been a while since I'd considered heroism in Star Wars beyond Han's trigger finger and Luke bull's-eyeing stuff, or thought critically about non-violent dramatic heroism in general beyond some angst over Superman being a hyper-destructive killing machine.

A day or so ago, Ben Affleck said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly about the new cinematic Justice League and the Man of Steel fallout that, “One of the things I liked was Zack [Snyder’s] idea of showing accountability and the consequences of violence and seeing that there are real people in those buildings. And in fact, one of those buildings was Bruce Wayne’s building so he knew people who died in that Black Zero event.”

Reading that, I felt like the ideas of consequences and heroism were being distorted in a pretty distressing way. It's alarming that the consequences of Man of Steel for the population are only real to Batman because he actually knew some people there, and that the consequences of the same for Superman must therefore be actual, physical pain. The implication is that if Bruce Wayne didn't actually own a building in Metropolis, or even if he had simply never visited that building in his capacity as owner, Batman would have no way to sympathize with those affected by the horrific, awful, unconscionable destruction, and would feel no obligation to respond to it. That his goals in responding to it are explicitly sadistic ("Tell me, do you bleed?") is no less distressing.

These are our heroes.

I joked, after reading that, that given Murdersuperman and Sadistbatman, I was looking forward to Torturewonderwoman (which is all too likely, given the figurative potential of the Lasso of Truth as a torture device -- and, remember: You read it here first!) and Wellactuallyaquaman (I'll let you work that one out on your own). I tweeted, in earnest: "I think maybe Batman has become a character that I don't like, and I'm just pretending to like him still because of the Animated Series." And of course it's all too easy to quip that Zack Snyder is bad and bad movies shouldn't be the standard, but Nolan's Batman -- a hyper-militarized upper-class apologia who spends more time saving the little people from themselves than he does doing anything else outside of a cave -- is just as bad (and he does, himself, kill, let's not forget).

In film, Marvel's done better in this regard, minus the dubious messages sent by Tony Stark (a hyper-militarized upper-class ap-- oh, never mind) and SHIELD (a hyper-military itself that spends more time saving the little people from themselves tha-- crap, never mind). But Steve Rogers refusing to fight his best friend, or Peggy Carter saving the world by talking to Howard Stark, or the Avenger's team prioritizing the lives of civilians over active engagement: these are good, solid moments of heroism.

And it's perhaps no mistake that the current Marvel cinematic aesthetic is being sold to kids, whereas DC's cinematic turns have been oppressively adult. Don't believe me? Do a quick search on Amazon for Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America action figures*. Overwhelmingly, the results for the Marvel properties are movie tie-ins, while the DC ones reflect the comics or the cartoons (the more recent movie tie-in figures being, most often, collectibles).

And, reflecting this, more and more, it occurs to me that the cinematic media I've become most attracted to in my adulthood is almost all meant for younger audiences: Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, Inside Out, How to Train Your Dragon, Steven Universe, and so on, like that**. Don't forget, while we're at it, that George Lucas has always believed that Star Wars is a series for children. I'm not alone here, either. More than ever, I think -- though I suppose I don't know for sure -- American adults are clinging to children's media. It's definitely been talked about as a phenomenon, in tones often concerned for the state of a culture that would choose arrested development over actually daring to grow up (which kind of as a concept throws itself in a big pile with a lot of other crappy ideas about today's youth and boomerang babies and lazy millennials). One of the most recent figures to cast this kind of cynical theory was Simon Pegg, of all people, who blamed capitalism for the infantilization of society (though he took the time to clarify himself well enough later on his blog.)

I'm wondering now if maybe there isn't something nicer going on, because the very broad stroke of what I'm seeing -- in television and in the movies, specifically; books, video games, comics, and art are doing lots of different things in lots of different ways -- is that children's media is offering a more adult and ethically superior heroic ideal than most of the stuff being sold to grown ups, and maybe -- just maybe -- grown ups actually want that. Maybe people argue about Han shooting first and admire the existential wasteland of Empire, but they remember how Obi-Wan's insistence on using violence created Darth Vader and how his refusal to do the same years later not only saved Luke in the moment but gave him the model on which to become a hero in Jedi. And when Superman wreaks havoc without regard for life and Batman's only thought in the aftermath is to beat the guy bloody, maybe we look at children's shows and, rather than seeing them as a way to stay young, we actually see them as a way to just grow the heck up.

* I can't recommend looking up Black Widow action figures, because it remains something of a depressing exercise.

** I don't include My Little Pony because I think there's a different conversation entirely to be had about the brony phenomenon, one that grapples with entitlement and grown men invading spaces that are meant to be safe for young girls, and just kind of creepiness in general.