Fantasy Politics

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I’ve become convinced that here in the US, voters read too many comic books. They want super-powers to do super-duper things. Because the government wields such awesome might, they feel small and vulnerable. Only through their favorite political candidate do they believe they can live out their grand fantasies. If “their” guy or gal wins, together they can rule the world!

Politics are an even more intoxicating stupidity potion than team sports. Superman and Batman are much more fun. People don’t think that if their team wins the championship, their lives will be happier for any longer than a couple of weeks. But they’re sure that if their candidate wins the election, he will vanquish every evildoer on earth, transform the country into paradise, and guarantee a fabulously prosperous future. He says he will, and — against all reason, and despite every past disappointment — they believe him.

Hillary Clinton wants us to think she’s Wonder Woman. For a long time, many people did. The mental picture of her in short-shorts, a star-spangled brassiere, and a tiara is so traumatizing that imagining it makes me want to drink bleach. She has, however, survived not only invisible Bosnian bullets but more scandals than a stray dog has fleas. We’ll have to buy the next issue of the comic to see if she can dodge indictment for having compromised national security as Super Secretary of State.

People who think like gullible children also vote like them. Because their fondest wish is to be taken care of by Mommy and Daddy, forever and ever, amen, an awful lot of them can be bribed with free goodies.

Vastly more entertaining is The Donald. That’s a superhero nickname, if I ever heard one. Singlehandedly, he’s going to Make America Great Again. He declares that once elected, he will build a second Berlin Wall along our southern border, transport millions of people out of the country with a sweep of his scepter, and make Vladimir Putin cry like a little girl.

The fact that no president has the power to work such wonders doesn’t daunt his devotees. Never before has a president been The Donald! Or Tremendous Ted. Or the Magnificent Marco. Any one of whom can do all things — because he says so.

What worries me is that people who think like gullible children also vote like them. They do their deepest reading by flashlight in a blanket fort. Because their fondest wish is to be taken care of by Mommy and Daddy, forever and ever, amen, an awful lot of them can be bribed with free goodies. We’re just liable to end up electing not Superman but the Tooth Fairy, in the unlikely form of Tinkerbell Sanders. That’s a prospect that should make all libertarians reach for the arsenic.




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Batman and Business

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Business is bad in Hollywood, and I'm not talking about the box office receipts. Businesspeople have been portrayed as bad guys in movies for the past several decades. When an audience member asked about this trend during the "Liberty in Film" panel at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival last month, Hollywood biographer and insider Marc Eliot dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It's just a shortcut," he explained. "When you see a businessman on the screen, you know it's the villain. It just streamlines the story."

As moderator of the panel, I agreed with him that these shortcuts are probably not intentionally sinister; in fact, the technique goes all the way back to Aesop, who used them in his fables. "If a character was a dog, you knew he would be loyal," I acknowledged. "A fox would be cunning. A crow would steal. In the old days," I went on, "a black hat meant 'bad guy' and a white hat meant 'good guy.' But shortcuts are dangerous and unfair when we're talking about whole groups of people." I specifically referenced the "shortcuts" of earlier generations of filmmakers: blacks were clowns; Indians were ferocious; women were weak. I suggested the danger of having a new generation automatically think "villain" when it sees a businessperson. The problem is that these characters often mirror and perpetuate basic prejudices within a culture. Onscreen stereotypes lead to real-life prejudices.

Panelist Gary Alexander added this biting criticism: "Using shortcuts is just plain lazy." It's true that filmmakers have always used stock characters as shortcuts to storytelling, and they probably always will. But that doesn't mean we have to accept them.

The silver lining to this clouded silver screen is that these shortcuts can be changed. The challenge for filmmakers is to break away from them and create independent characters who can surprise and satisfy. Just as filmmakers of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s deliberately challenged black and female stereotypes by casting against type and writing untraditional storylines, so libertarian filmmakers today need to write screenplays that challenge and overturn the stock business villain. These characters need to be portrayed in the rich, three-dimensional diversity that exists in the real world, where some business people are admittedly bad but others are surprisingly (to filmgoers) good.

What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies.

This actually happens in The Dark Knight Rises, the latest entry in the Batman franchise. It's subtle, but it's clear: although there are some bad businesspeople in the film, there are just as many good ones, smashing the stereotype and insisting that viewers look past their stock expectations. For example, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) discovers that his homes for at-risk and orphaned boys have not been funded for two years, he confronts his trusted friend and protector, Alfred. "The homes were funded by profits from Wayne Industries," Alfred sadly explains. "There have to be some." That’s a reminder to Bruce, who has been in a deep funk since his girlfriend died, that his neglect of his company has had wide-ranging effects. Bruce — and the audience — are thus informed that "excess profits" are a good thing. They can be used for doing good works, if that is the business owner's goal.

Similarly, in another brief interchange the audience is told that everyone is affected by the stock market, whether they own stocks or not. I don't think I'm giving away too much to tell you that, early in the film, the bad guys break into the stock exchange. The chief of police is unconcerned about the consequences of a financial meltdown, arguing that the average person saves his money under a mattress and doesn't care about what happens to the stock market. The head of the exchange tells him, "If this money disappears, your mattress will be worth a lot less." A simple truth, simply stated.

Later, Bruce Wayne teams up with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the head of another corporation, and she voices similar truths about the free market. "You have to invest to restore balance to the world," she tells him, acknowledging the importance of capital investment and private enterprise. And when he looks around at a lavish business party she is hosting, she tells him, "The proceeds will go wherever I want, because I paid for the spread myself." Even Ayn Rand would likely approve this self-interested heroine who understands the value of business.

Meanwhile, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), one of Batman's archenemies, looks around at Bruce Wayne's huge estate and growls jealously, "You're going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies. Bravo, Christopher Nolan!

Cinematically The Dark Knight Rises delivers all that was promised in the weeks and months building up to its release. Christian Bale's troubled Bruce Wayne lifts the character far above the comic book hero created by Bob Kane and trivialized by the Adam West TV series in the ’60s. Gone, too, is the sardonic humor injected by George Clooney's portrayal in the ’80s. This Batman is a reluctant savior of a world that has largely misunderstood and rejected him. While he has a few ardent supporters, most consider him a traitor and want him destroyed. He is briefly tempted away from his mission by the love of a woman. He suffers indescribable agony in a dark prison at the hands of a monstrous villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) — the "bane" who wants to destroy the world. Despite his reluctance, Bruce accepts his arduous task. In short, he is a classic Christ figure, adding gravitas to the modern myth of Batman. He even says at one point, "My father's work is done."

I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that a TSA-style Movie Safety Authority does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

But while the characters are rich and well acted, the story is interesting, Hans Zimmer's musical score is powerfully compelling, and the final hour is particularly thrilling, it was difficult to watch this film. Action movies have always provided an opportunity to enter another world, suspend one's disbelief, enjoy vicarious experience, then step back into the real world where "things like that" don't really happen. But in light of what did happen in Aurora, Colorado on opening night, I found it almost impossible to separate myself from the barrage of onscreen shooting in the first half hour of the film. It seemed devastatingly real because I knew it was during this scene of heartless shooting in a very public location that the actual shooting began. I was almost ashamed to be there, seeking a few hours' entertainment from a film that was the unwitting stage for such terror.

I also found myself looking around the aisles and corners of the theater, watching for suspicious characters and devising an escape plan. This was partly because I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that fears like this dissipate for everyone. And I hope that a TSA-style MSA (Movie Safety Authority) does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

Spoiler alert — read the next paragraph only if you have already seen this movie, or if you have no intention of ever seeing it:

The film ends with an "aha" moment that is so thrillingly unexpected that, when I saw it, the entire audience gasped in disbelief. But I should have known from the beginning. Marc Eliot explained it to us in the “Liberty in Film” panel, and he was right: Hollywood uses shortcuts to tell us who the bad guy is. Even when a writer-director is planning the most delicious of twists for the end, he is helpless against his own Hollywood instincts. Nolan telegraphed it from the start: In modern movies, the business owner is always the bad guy. Even when you least expect it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Dark Knight Rises," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



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Still Entertaining, After All These Years

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What is with all these superhero movies? Iron Man. The Hulk. Captain America. Thor. Do we really need yet another version of Spider-Man? Okay. We get it. Peter Parker gets bitten by an enhanced spider while visiting a science lab. His uncle is killed by a criminal whom Spidey could have stopped if he hadn’t been self-absorbed. He's misunderstood and mistreated. He gets the idea for his costume from a wrestling match. And he can't have a girlfriend because he has to save the world. The story has become so familiar, it isn't even Amazing anymore. So why do we have a new Spider-Man every other year?

The cynical answer is that superheroes are box-office gold. But I think there is more to the superhero craze than simple economics. Every culture has its myths &‐ larger-than-life stories that reveal the community's values, hopes, and fears. Superheroes are the American equivalent of the Olympian gods. Like the Olympians, they have human desires and human foibles. They can be lusty, angry, vengeful, and capricious. But today's superheroes are quite different from the gods of old. They no longer want to be worshipped. In many respects, they just want to be left alone.

Much can be revealed about our evolving culture by examining the evolving superhero. The latest version of The Amazing Spider-Man is quite good. The special effects of Spidey flying through the sky, somersaulting onto ceilings, and hanging from buildings are — OK, you knew it was coming — amazing. His arch nemesis, a lizard-man mutant, is well-developed and complex. The story is satisfying, amusing, and tense, especially in 3D. The casting is superb, especially Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker. His gangly youthfulness and spindly physique evoke the angular appendages and lightning speed of a spider. He’s cute, but somehow creepy and unpredictable too.

Even more interesting, however, are the metaphoric and mythic underpinnings of the new story. In many ways the superhero is a metaphor for adolescence. It's no coincidence that Peter is experiencing his first romance at the same time that his body is developing new powers and abilities. He is literally growing new organs, with goo that shoots out of his hands unexpectedly when he gets excited. Like many teens, he doesn't know his own strength, slamming doors and breaking handles with his new muscles. Moreover, he is self-absorbed and self-interested, experiencing pure joy in his own new powers. Superheroes of the previous century had an innate, almost Christlike sense of mission and nobility, but today's young superheroes revel in their newfound abilities. Like the teen mutants in February's Chronicle, Peter reacts joyously as he combines strength, speed, and gymnastic agility to fly from the rafters and swing from the buildings.

Myths always include a conflict between good and evil. A close look at mythic heroes and villains will therefore reveal much about the cultural fears and character values of a generation. In the original comic, Peter is bitten by a spider that has been exposed to radioactive particles. Like other mid-century science fictions, Spider-Man embodied a generation’s fear of the atomic bomb and radiation. In the 2012 version, the laboratory is studying interspecies genetic engineering, revealing a new generation’s fears and concerns about unintentional consequences to genetic meddling.

Another mythological mainstay is the quest for self-discovery. A moment of such discovery occurs directly as Peter enters his English class. His teacher tells her students, “A professor once told that there are only ten stories in all of fiction. I contend that there is only one: ‘Who am I?’” She may be wrong about the number of storylines, but she is certainly right about the importance of self-discovery in literature. It reaches all the way back to 500 BC, and Sophocles’ foundational play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus discovers who he is by discovering who his parents were. The current story also starts as a quest for self-discovery, as Peter sets out to uncover secrets about his father.

When Peter settles down to thwarting criminals, his motives are far from altruistic. He is no Superman, fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He just wants to find the man who killed Uncle Ben, and if he ties up a few other criminals along the way and leaves them for the cops to arrest, so much the better. Eventually, however, he accepts his mission to fight crime and protect his community. Could we really expect to see a superhero who is not expected to “give back”? As a voice from the dead, Uncle Ben tells Peter that when you are given a great talent, you have to share it with the world.

But this time he doesn’t have to do things all alone. Most revealing is director Marc Webb's treatment of the community at large — the people of New York whom Spider-man is trying to protect. Unlike the inhabitants of Superman's Metropolis or Batman's Gotham or the Avengers' Manhattan, they don't stand around looking up and pointing while the superhero does all the work. They get involved, helping Spidey help them. I love this newfound push toward self-reliance, even if it is a self-reliance that “takes a village.” (How I hate that metaphor!)

Over all, Webb has created a satisfying new version of this cinematic mainstay. I still don’t know why we needed a new one, but it held my attention, even though I know the story inside and out. Myth has a way of doing that.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man," directed by Marc Webb. Columbia Studios, 2012, 136 minutes.



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