Cultural Literacy

Superhero movies have been the hot new thing in Hollywood for roughly a decade, pretty much since Iron Man came out in 2008.  Prior to that, we had some stellar precursors like Spider-man, X2, Blade (which really doesn’t get enough credit), and contentiously Ang Lee’s Hulk.  However, we’ve had some outliers that transcend the genre, like 1989’s Batman and the 1977 Superman (which remains one of the best movies ever made, superhero genre or no).

See, Batman and Superman are unlike most other superheroes (excepting maybe Spiderman).  They aren’t JUST comic book characters; they are cultural icons.  DC characters seem to lend themselves to cultural standard thanks to the ‘Gods Amongst Us’ type characters they typically involve, as opposed to Marvel’s ‘Everyman Hero’.  Batman is pretty much universally known in the wider culture, but Superman especially is the most recognizable pop culture icon in the west, maybe the world.  Need proof?  Look at how often he is spoofed, parodied, visually referenced, or insinuated.

So this becomes problematic with superhero movies for two reasons.  The first is with the creators.  Zach Snyder, whom I think is a very talented film maker (I seem to be one of nine people who actually liked Watchmen), absolutely insulted Superman with 2013’s Man of Steel.  Not only was the film objectively bad, but it so thoroughly mishandled a character that literally everybody knows.

Now, this is not to suggest that creators need to be beholden to specific views on a character.  In an interview, Snyder argued that audiences need to make a distinction between being a Superman fan and being a Christopher Reeve fan (whom played Superman in four movies, one of which is awful, two of which are underrated, and one of which is – as mentioned above – one of the finest pieces of cinema ever).  That is an exceptionally valid point.  Were we beholden to strict interpretations of characters – especially the most popular versions – we’d be stuck with Adam West’s version of Batman.  This would mean we wouldn’t have the excellent 1989 Batman and its sequel Batman Returns.  And thusly, we wouldn’t have Batman the Animated series, arguably the best cartoon in…well, I really can’t think of what came before it that can compare.

The point is, creators need to be able to spread their wings and take the characters in new directions.  Comics do this all the time, with sometimes fabulous results.  It was this ‘let’s shake things up’ mentality that gave us Return of the Dark Knight, which really kicked off the dark and gritty comic tales of the 1990s.  Without that, we wouldn’t have Spawn, Shadowhawk, and many of the classic stories that we loved in the mainstream comics.  It also means that we wouldn’t have Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins, Dark Knight, and Dark Knight Rises).

Man of Steel was meant to follow in the footsteps of the Dark Knight Trilogy, but failed heavily.  Why?  There are a multitude of reasons, but the main one centers on the character.  Batman lends himself to darker interpretations.  While the character is ultimately rather silly (a costumed billionaire who is world-class at everything, with nothing to say of being a gangster-era rip-off Zorro), he is still mortal, dealing mostly with street crime, and functions primarily as a detective (at least in the better stories).  Superman does not lend well to those kinds of stories.  Superman is geared towards huge and sweeping, stories as grand as the sky he soars through.  As such, Superman is about optimism and hope.  Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  Truth and Justice are hallmarks of optimism.  And the American Way isn’t about capitalism or democracy; it’s about an immigrant coming to this land and doing great things.  That is hope, and almost blind hope.  Can you do these elements in a darker story?  Absolutely.  Its been done time and again, and to terrific results (sometimes).  Zach Snyder should totally have the artistic freedom to double-down and gone deeper, darker, and more topical.  Instead, he warped the character and not the world.  He so muted and subdued a fundamentally colorful character that he the optimism turned it into a joke.  Snyder showed an utter misunderstanding, even disdain, for the source material.  He misunderstood the single most universally understood character in the modern world.

And this leads to the other issue with superhero movies, and that is the audience.

When the (truly excellent) Wonder Woman film came out earlier this year, and the fanboys were all a-twitter about how the movie synced up with the character depicted in the comics, a recurring issue was that audiences weren’t nearly as steeped in Wonder Woman as they were/are in Batman or Superman.

Probably a fair point.  Despite the popularity of the TV show that ran from 1975 to 1979, Wonder Woman doesn’t quite hold the same cultural standard as her peers.  While her name and her look might be known, the name of Themyscira and even Diana Prince are not not too widely known.  Certainly not like Krypton and Clark Kent.

What was especially interesting, though, was as some fanboys nitpicked the Wonder Woman film, casual film goers asserted that they had no expectations about its accuracy to the comics.  They stated they were simply going to see this character whom many of them only knew by name.

What an odd boast.

How strange to say, to even assert, that you know nothing of this popular character who has been around for knocking on the door of eighty years.

On the one hand, I can understand how an admittance of your unfamiliarity with the minutiae with a character might help explain why you enjoyed a film those more steeped in the lore might not.  But it seems so strange the way some people wear their ignorance with pride.  Wonder Woman is no off-brand character.  She isn’t Spawn or Squirrel Girl or Dazzler.  She is a pillar of modern comics, sometimes called The First Lady of Comics and for good reason.  She is an icon.  Not to the status of Batman or Superman, but not so far behind either.

Pride of one’s ignorance has always confused me, especially when it concerns pop culture.  Tim Burton once remarked sometime after making Batman “Anybody who knows me knows I would never read a comic book”.  What a callous thing to say!  And to say it as a boast?  That’s like bragging about illiteracy.  It’s like belittling those who watch television or make weekly trips to the library.  It’s mind-boggling that one would think ignorance of art is somehow an admirable trait.  Boasting about never having seen Star Wars, bragging about not watching baseball or basketball, mocking those who schedule their week so they can catch the newest episode of Walking Dead…how very bizarre.

These are modern myths.  These are the means and the stories through which we impart cultural ideas and ideals.  These form the common language with which we can speak to each other.  These are the cultural touchstones that give us commonality.  They are important.

That doesn’t mean Walking Dead or Game of Thrones should be required viewing.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you don’t know who Etta Candy is.  It doesn’t mean you’re failing as a person because you can’t name all the teams in the NBA.  It simply means you aren’t versed in the classics of modern culture.  Bragging about such ignorance is, at best, incredibly strange.

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Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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