Friday, September 1, 2017

The Tick: a Superhero For Post-Heroic Times

Griffin Newman (left) and Peter Serafinowicz in the pilot episode of Amazon's The Tick

Commenting on Amazon’s reboot of Ben Edlund’s The Tick from a cultural mythology perspective is pretty worthless. Since the Tick himself (Peter Serafinowicz) cites Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth in the pilot episode, and gauges sidekick Arthur’s (Griffin Newman) development by stages on the Hero’s Journey, that approach is already taken. This critical approach, still innovative when I discovered it five years ago, is now widespread enough to parody itself.

Not that anyone should mistake this series for parody. Like the best comedies, it has a deadly earnest heart, commenting not upon superheroes or genre media, but upon us. It presents a world where superheroes become so ubiquitous, they’re banal. Arthur, who serves as both series protagonist and audience surrogate, is the kind of dweeby, damaged nerd who, twenty years ago, would’ve embraced a superhero appearing in his apartment. Instead, he appears bored.

As tragedies do, the Tick barges into Arthur’s life unwanted, when the subject believes he’s established a working balance in life. Of course, Arthur already knows this: a flashback in the pilot episode reveals he fantasized about becoming a superhero, until a crashing Arthur is a mix of preparedness and chaos: he has spent his adult life intricately demonstrating that his city’s most notorious villain survived his putative destruction.

But once that evidence comes together into concrete proof, Arthur has no plan. He’d rather relinquish the villain to “proper authorities”—who prove equally unprepared for the actual weight of responsibility. Given the opportunity to vanquish the demon that has haunted his life from childhood, Arthur finks. Without the collusion of the Tick protecting him, and his enemies attacking, he would probably never rise above self-imposed paralysis.

We could make a drinking game of identifying the psychological role everyone plays in Arthur’s life. His sister and primary social contact, Dot (Valerie Curry), encourages Arthur’s grown-up meekness. But her hobby is violent roller derby, a hobby she subsidizes doing under-the-table medical work for the mob. Once he falls into superheroism, he gets pursued around town by the sexy, vindictive Ms. Lint (Yara Martinez), who epitomizes the allure and destructiveness of libido. Et cetera.

Before the first X-Men movie hit cinemas in 2000, superheroes belonged almost exclusively to people like me: socially isolated dreamers who saw superhumans as a repository of our own Jungian archetypes. When Batman and the Joker pummeled each other into their now-familiar stalemate, they weren’t just characters enacting a story. They embodied their’ audiences familiar battle between id and superego: return the monster to the asylum until we need him again.

The mainstreaming of superheroes permits non-nerds to share this externalized struggle. But as with indie rock and video games, the transition coarsens the object we once loved. Since the millennial superhero boom, so many people now read comics and watch related movies that they’ve stopped being art, and become a money factory. Marvel and DC each publish nearly 400 titles monthly, a mix of repetitive (another global crisis? *Yawn*) and and churlish disruption (“Hail Hydra!”).

Arthur occupies a nameless city. In his boyhood, he dreams of becoming a superhero, until he watches a hideous devolved psycho destroy both his city’s entire superhero roster, and his father, simultaneously flattening both the Freudian and the Jungian landscape. Heroism and virtue exist, for him, “out there” somewhere, in other cities and other families. Like his city, Arthur limps through life, a ghost of his own childhood expectations.

But don’t we, too? Don’t we enjoy superheroes, and explode when Zach Snyder mishandles our childhood icons, because we believe virtue exists? Maybe not in our own lives, clouded by moral compromise, the pressures of adulthood, and the need to feed our families. But Batman’s Gotham or Professor Xavier’s Westchester provide repositories of our hopes, a sort of Big Rock Candy Mountain of moral expectation.

So. Arthur believes morality and virtue exist, somewhere. He believes his life does some good, abstractly. But he’d rather be stable, self-supporting, and adult, than live his childhood virtues. Is that what Jesus, that ultimate moralist, meant when he said “Let the children come to me”? We can pay adult bills, or we can live in moral fullness. But not both.

This show acknowledges its psychological depths, implying (though unstated yet) that Arthur created the Tick from his own subconscious. But that’s where heroes come from. By marrying ironic self-awareness with a reluctant willingness to believe, The Tick tells audiences it’s acceptable to remain cynical about superhero overkill (rimshot for the fandom!), while believing virtue is still possible.

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