Friday, May 20, 2016

Superheroes and the Meaning of the City

Comic books have a long history of pitting superheroes against one another
Superhero fatigue hit me slightly sooner than most movie audiences. When fans on social media began bewailing the excessively long fight scenes, bleak post-nuclear cityscapes, and nihilistic resignation of Zach Snyder’s Batman Vs. Superman, I remember thinking: I said almost exactly the same after the denouement of the first Avengers movie. After the Chitauri ravaged Manhattan, the smoking holes looked identical to those from Man of Steel, and I quit.

What motivates moviemakers to blow up entire cities? I ask rhetorically, knowing that throughout the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, comic book writers loved battles that ravaged entire city blocks and neighborhoods. Following the runaway success of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, which culminates with half of Manhattan dead, the comics industry widely misinterpreted why readers found that climax effective, spotlighting the shock value of massive destruction and death.

I stopped reading comics, partially, because mainline publishers fell into a rut of using casual slaughter to attract audiences. It looked slovenly, and worse, it created a world bereft of consequences when superheroes would go unquestioned after creating untold suffering. Though I lacked the vocabulary to express it then, I grew disillusioned because comics increasingly relied upon a fundamental Nietzschean misunderstanding of human nature to get cheap jolts from readers.

But American culture has changed since then. The violence of 9/11, and the alarmist rhetoric of Homeland Security, created an atmosphere of paranoia unseen since the duck-and-cover drills surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, and fears of massive death caused by self-described ├╝bermenschen, once the exclusive domain of nerds, have become mainstream. Cities as smoking craters were once the stuff of science fiction. Now they’re America’s mainstream cultural mythology.

Do heroic poses amid a ruined city move audiences? Only you can decide
Citizens once migrated to cities in pursuit of careers, prestige, and security. That last seems especially important. Early European walled cities provided such security that farmers lived in town, commuting daily to their fields, rather than risk barbarian invasions (or, later, feuding lords). American cities provided stability against angry dispossessed natives and roaming outlaws. That’s saying nothing about economic and artistic opportunities that only happen amid large populations.

But the Cold War changed things. Cities, which once provided (some) protection against destruction, became targets of nuclear onslaught. Especially as crime rates became truly terrifying during the 1970s, American attitudes toward cities changed. This especially reflected changing transportation technology: as people could afford to live further from work, they did. “White Flight” drove the wealthy from cities, which made predictions of urban decay self-fulfilling.

This peaked during the 1990s Militia Movement. Self-proclaimed survivalists holed up in mountaintop cabins and prairie ranches, believing isolation gave them added security. As sociologist Barry Glassner notes, runaway fears often strike after the actual threat has passed; the Militia types (who have seen a recent, but smaller, resurgence) were essentially reacting to threats that were, by that time, twenty years old. Conveniently, they also separated themselves from law-abiding neighbors.

Cities have the illusion of target-rich environments. 9/11 created the impression that terrorists would seek major urban centers for mass destruction, particularly since the attackers chose a target they’d attempted to demolish eight years earlier. Fearmongers claimed that terrorists, or inside agents claiming to be terrorists, would turn American cities into images of Beirut’s legendary Green Zone. The fact that this kept not happening never discouraged the professional soapboxers.

This picture doesn't serve my theme; I just really like that it exists (source)
Comic books, and the movies they’ve inspired, have always leaned somewhat conservative. With their heroes’ interest in order, usually disguised as “justice,” the medium has always defended the status quo against anybody forcing too-rapid change. In the Depression, when the medium originated, this made sense, because those forcing change were frequently mobsters—or their bought-and-paid-for elected officials. Cities, with their radical revolutionary tendencies, needed controlled.

Alan Moore emphasized this in Watchmen, when one of the enemies the “heroes” targeted was black revolutionaries. That world had become so immune to change that it featured President Nixon’s sixth term in office. That world needed some destruction, some anarchy. Moore’s thesis, that a world dominated by comic book superheroes would probably be pretty awful, shouldn’t have inspired much imitation among the longstanding titles. But it did.

Now the movies are dominated by primal fears of massive destruction in the places citizens move seeking work. Filmmakers will destroy New York, Manhattan, or anywhere else, because they don’t realize how terrible their world has become. They tacitly market defenseless timidity. Comic books, and comic book movies, supposedly foreground their wonderful, heroic characters. But their real theme is more subtle: you are completely helpless.

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