Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

With great power comes great responsibility

Jerry Stratton, December 28, 2009

Mort Todd’s The Super-Hero’s American Exceptionalism, is mostly right, I think, but he paints with too broad a brush. He’s right about Spiderman; though I still enjoyed the third movie it failed to reach the heights that the first two promised. It’s as if Raimi looked at the first two movies, realized he was saying that any red-blooded New York kid who got these powers would choose to be a hero, turned around and decided, nah. But he never came up with a replacement story and ended up with a meandering nothing.

X-Men is different. Bryan Singer’s an odd one, and here’s where I disagree with Todd. Singer’s movies are about exceptionalism and American idealism. It may not have been what Singer meant, but it was inescapable. Describe the X-Men and describe the Brotherhood, and in any modern movie the Brotherhood are the heroes. And yet here come the X-Men, defeating evil with their exceptional powers even though the rest of the world hates them. I doubt Singer realizes it, but they are the USA.

Did Singer know, for example, that he was making a pro-gun statement when evil Senator Kelly said “you support gun control, don’t you?” How can you support individual rights and still support gun control? You can’t. If I were forced to guess if he knew he said that, I’d guess no. But it’s an inevitable result of Singer’s understanding of heroism and exceptional power.

This is what was missing from the third X-Men, and I don’t think Singer would have let it go. The third movie should have been about whether the exceptional should give up their exceptionalism to be liked and fit in. But it wasn’t. It was barely mentioned. Wolverine just sends Rogue on her way alone across country to become unexceptional.

It’s looking more and more like we’ll never know what Singer’s Superman was going to finish as, either, but it certainly looked like it was going to be about the responsibility of exceptionalism and about the difficult necessity of individual freedom.

Alan Moore is another writer whose work is about individual exceptionalism. If you look at this three greatest works—V, Watchmen, and Promethea—they’re all about what a person should do if they find themselves with super-normal power. Take a look at Promethea. The Five Swell Guys are a bunch of pointless, bickering powers. They’re the United Nations. They do a lot of talking; they do a lot of monitoring; but they can’t see and they can’t act. They never trust their own judgement or their own ability. Promethea takes on evil at its source, ushering in a new world order of individual freedom. Did Moore mean it to sound like noblesse Americana? Probably not. But that’s what it is.

For a more extreme view, look at his unfinished Twilight. The superpowers isolate themselves; what happens when they shirk the responsibility of power? The end result of isolationism is endless war.

Watchmen, on the other hand, was in many ways a response to V. V’s role has been split into Veidt and Rorschach. Both are supposed to be faces of all that’s wrong with superheroes, their mindless utopianism and lawless vigilantism. But despite all his efforts to make the Question into a nutcase, Rorschach comes through as the only sane hero.

For my own part, regret nothing. Have lived life, free from compromise, and step into the shadow now without complaint.

Dr. Manhattan represents the stimulus-spendulous-bailout-health takeover view of government responsibility. He has no morals beyond power. He represents the all-powerful state that thinks it is fate itself.

Rorschach, on the other hand, is American heroism. The down, dirty, and ugly inability to succumb to a nuanced view of the world that makes rapists or dictators worth negotiating with. Rorschach knows good from evil; no other Watchman does. Mr. Blue State is willing to kill the truth for a peace based on deception when he knows that the peace will not last beyond his time. He sides with the dictator. Rorschach knowingly faces a pointless death because he knows his responsibility and he accepts it. In death Rorschach is more powerful than Dr. Manhattan. His sacrifice makes him the hero, for all that his death was ignoble and cold.1

Moore recognizes that left or right, governments want power. He recognizes that a great mass of people want to cede responsibility. That’s something the V for Vendetta movie dropped. In the comic, Adam Susan’s right-wing government grew from a post-nuclear Labour Party’s mistakes, not from Thatcher. The people weren’t tricked by Susan like they were in the movie. They knew the score and they freely chose Norsefire. Moore has no love for governments, period. Left-wing governments might be nicer in the short run, but in the end they both do the same thing: set up government programs that dictators use to wield absolute power.

Iron Man? Great movie. This is what happens when you let someone else run your country/company. But more specifically, who doesn’t like the Tony Stark who said “They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once” more than the confused child who shut down his father’s company because the asshole he left in charge betrayed him?

And here’s where I suspect I agree with Todd: it’s difficult or impossible to write a story about an individual with great power, without also writing a story about the responsibility that comes with power. That responsibility is exceptionalism. Deny it, and you’ve got a bad movie. This is why comics themselves are failing2. They deny the responsibility of exceptionalism. If films follow suit, they’ll inherit the downward sales spiral as well.

There’s a line in Elliot S! Maggin’s beautiful Superman novel about when Superboy became Superman:

Enough of this clowning around in the circus costume, Jonathan Kent told his son. A man is someone who assumes responsibility. To help people in need is right. To grab at every short-lived wisp of glory that tumbles by is wrong.

“No man on earth has the amazing powers you have,” Jonathan Kent told the mightiest creature on the planet. “You can use them to become a powerful force for good.

“There are evil men in this world, criminals and outlaws who prey on decent folk. You must fight them in cooperation with the law.

“To fight those criminals best you must hide your true identity. They must never know that Clark Kent is a superman. Rmember, because that’s what you are, a superman.”

And the old man died.

The sale of the business left Clark Kent with enough money to study journalism at Metropolis University, and to pay the taxes on the house in Smallville. Superman could not bear to sell it, so he boarded it up.

People would still call him Superboy for a while. Gradually, though, they would realize that he no longer scooted across the sky giggling as he flew into a hail of bullets. He no longer thought battles of wits with criminals were a fun way to spend the afternoon. Superboy would not be back.

Superman recognizes his responsibility. When Superman brings Lois Lane into the sky to overlook the world in Superman Returns, and he says that while she can’t hear anything, he hears people crying for help, it’s reminiscent of American troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, watching while Hussein killed Iraqis. Should America watch helplessly? Walk away? Or use our superpowers while we have them? That is a story.

It’s impossible to escape when you have individuals with great powers. You’ll end up with a story where right and wrong matter or you won’t have a story.

There’s one thing I do know son, and that is you are here for a reason. I don’t know whose reason or whatever the reason is… but I do know one thing—it’s not to break the time barrier so that you can get a little nookie in the sequel.

  1. In Moore’s story, even president-for-life Nixon is portrayed sympathetically. When the crunch comes, Richard M. Nixon understands his responsibility and he chooses both to be ready to act, and to act wisely.

  2. The first comic I bought was Thor leading the US Army against the Norse god Loki’s Asgardian army. That would make a fucking movie.

  1. <- Something Wild
  2. Superman: The Movie ->