Scott Winfield Sublett
Earlier this year I bought as much as I could afford of pandemic-depressed Disney stock at $101. I’m a university professor, so… not much. But if it gets down to 101 again, which it won’t, buy, buy, buy, because the future is written and Disney owns it. Their domination of world culture through gobbling up folk tales and excreting them as song-y, drippy cartoons is, however, no longer the A-story. The new thing is that they’re busily making Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces into the postmodern (yet, ironically, ancient) answer to Aristotle’s Poetics: a new-old template for all dramatic narratives from now on—and this new mythology will still hold sway, gentle reader, when you have left your Disney shares to your ungrateful children, who will laze poolside discussing the deficiencies of your parenting style.
If you’re like me, you dimly recall first hearing the term ‘Marvel Universe’ a few years back, and feeling faintly threatened and annoyed. Marvel is, of course, the comic book colossus behind the superheroes Iron Man, Hulk, Thing, Daredevil, Deadpool, Fantastic Four, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Punisher (which is also the name of a popular bedroom toy). Arrayed against the superheroes is a phalanx of super villains including Green Goblin, Red Skull, Kingpin, Ultron, Magneto, Mandarin, Thanos, Annihilus, and a pair of villains who have apparently been granted evil PhDs, Doctors Octopus and Doom. See what you’ve been missing with your nose buried in snooty galleries, dusty museums and illuminated manuscripts of Dante’s Inferno?
The superbeings inhabit fictional spaces that overlap and are cleverly knitted together into a beyond-epic fictional whole: hence, without irony, the term ‘Marvel Universe’. It’s ever-expanding, like the real universe, but ever so much more profitable and meaningful for Earth. And, as in newfangled, whizbang astrophysics, there’s more than one universe, because another thing Disney bought is Lucasfilm, which is Star Wars. Disney failed to acquire Harry Potter, but has high hopes for the Catholic Church, which they literally can afford if the Pope is willing to sell. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, is well beyond even Disney’s means.) The universes comprise comic books, movies, video games, TV shows, theme parks, cruise ships and merchandise. They will potentially influence more human beings than all the rest of art made through all the millennia because, unlike all that tatty, old art, these unified universes are so huge and offer so many hours of slick, seductive content that you can live in them all day, every day of your life … if only Mom can be persuaded to leave the grilled cheese sandwich outside the door. And here’s the kicker: it’s so comprehensive that it shoulders aside all other content. Once they’ve got you, there’s no time to consume anything else. Think Amazon.
But is it cinematic art?
A little before the turn of the 21st century, I started informally polling my undergraduates as to whether video games were art. The answer then was no. Now, it’s yes, and has been yes for several years. With Marvel’s products increasingly described as serious and important, the Marvel Universe has become in art what the church once was in society: an all-encompassing cosmology that gives meaning to your life. The watershed moment in the genre was when Batman became dark. Suddenly, silly kid stuff had philosophical import.
Someone must be blamed! Postmodernism? Warhol? J’accuse George Lucas. The seminal moment was when he announced that Joseph Campbell was his Yoda and that Star Wars was an onion skin tracing of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That was probably the moment that the pseudo-mythical narrative became the future of cinema—the power of myth co-opted by pseudo-myth. But really, they’re both made-up, so in what meaningful way does pseudo-myth differ from myth, apart from who gains income from them? In any case, it was probably Lucas who made pseudo-mythicism the dominant style of American (and therefore world) cinema: comic books, superheroes, and wizards. In addition, for the seduction of what American retailers delicately term the urban market, the patronizing, culturally-appropriating tokenism of Black Panther, which has the added benefit of appealing to woke members of the chattering classes. The cultural relevance of Black Panther conveniently justifies elevating comic books to serious literature, which is useful if these woke members want to keep their jobs. Comic book mythology is a boy-dominated style but girls are welcome if they’re pretty, as was Princess Leia, the first erotic object for a particular generation of males that is now pushing 60. There she was, handily imprinted on the bedclothes. Where did I put that Punisher? Today’s lads have the beauteous Storm, one of the X-Men but quite clearly an X-Woman, va-va-voom. Of course she’s not just hot, she’s also empowered, which makes her acceptably feminist. Maybe that’s why, despite the male gaze, many girls seem almost as into this stuff as the boys. Nobody doesn’t want a superpower.
The students in my screenwriting classes are instructive examples of the consequences of all this. A surprising number of them have become detached from reality and dominated by magical thinking—the fantasy that they’re born special rather than just nothings manipulated by elites. My erstwhile rule that a writer’s first screenplay should be drawn from life, just as a painter starts with life drawing, became unenforceable, oh, maybe five years ago, because a lot of the young people had no real lives to draw upon. All they ever had done was play video games. They wanted to write speculative fiction in which one discovers that one is the Anointed One, predestined for greatness and secretly possessed of a superpower, or that one is really a princess and didn’t know it. The elevation in skill and status that comes with those discoveries is achieved without the drudgery of hard work and practice. Superpowers are nice because you’re born with them or bitten by a spider. Oh, it comes with responsibilities, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be—it’s deep and philosophical. Anyway, there I was, in my quaint way, telling students that writers write better, faster and truer if they write what they know, not yet realizing that what they knew no longer came from life, or even good books. They wanted to rehash the conventions of the Marvel and Star Wars (and Harry Potte
r and DC) universes.
You might be saying, “It’s only a movie, Ingrid,” but it’s bigger than that. The international market includes China, with a billion-and-a-half customers and a government touchy about content that threatens its power. Just as Hollywood during its golden age had to soft-pedal its racial liberalism to placate southern theater owners, questioning dictatorial regimes will be out of the question in a cinema that depends on worldwide distribution to make back its nut. They’ll be hard on Dr Doom, but soft on the real villains. In other words, while sci-fi may be in, dystopianism is out. And it’s worse and deeper even than that—bad enough to wreck the world and here’s why. The human mind makes sense of life through stories, and the pertinence of the cinema’s stories is being systematically degraded with childish, magical thinking. When the stories stop making sense, so does the world. The proof is QAnon.
People outside the US might not know what that is. QAnon is a crazy, ongoing, ever-expanding mythical online universe in which liberal politicians are secret satanists who molest and cannibalize toddlers, and a superhero named Donald Trump goes on secret missions to stop them. You can’t make this stuff up—only, apparently, you can. Uncounted millions of Americans believe it. There’s nothing your puny painting or sculpture can do to stop them, any more than you can stop your neighbor from being a Methodist, a Mason or a Scientologist with a statue, unless of course you smite him with the statue.
CUT TO: MAN with automatic WEAPON, entering pizza parlor in Washington. He obtained secret, special clues from the internet! He’s special. A hero.The Anointed One.
CUT TO: BASEMENT. Hilary Clinton screeches, “Hail, Satan!” and sheds her white pantsuit, revealing the glistening alligator hide that covers her body as she molests babies and eats them. George Soros is there, too, and Angela Merkel, AKA, Hitler’s granddaughter. Life and cinema merge as you cock your automatic weapon (do guns still cock?). You’ll figure it out. Ready…aim…
Volume 35 no 3 January – February 2021