Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Supervillains, Politics, and Discourse

So, I haven't watched "The Falcon & The Winter Soldier" yet (though I have been working my way through the Gruenwald run on Captain America in conjunction with the War Rocket Ajax "FalChris and Wilson Soldier" series), but even before the show started, a discourse that's become common, especially regarding MCU movies, cropped up regarding the "anarchist" Flag Smashers. The complaint goes like this: 
Corporate capitalist Disney creates villains who have good, correct politics, but then makes the villains do evil stuff to undermine those politics.

Or something to that effect. And on the surface, it seems true. Setting Magneto aside (the ur-example of this particular issue), the MCU has given us Killmonger, Vulture, Thanos, and (arguably) Baron Zemo as sympathetic villains who espouse various leftist political ideas. Killmonger is a vocal opponent of colonialism, Vulture was a critic of billionaire Tony Stark and a champion of the working class, Thanos wanted to end environment-ruining overconsumption, and Zemo...well, something something his family died. I assume he gets more characterization in the TV series.

But in order to undermine those political philosophies, Disney has each villain do bad stuff! Killmonger kills his girlfriend! Vulture tries to kill Spider-Man! Thanos...well, there's a distressingly large number of people who don't see what Thanos did as particularly villainous. 

On the surface, it's compelling, and it pre-empts my usual "[Villain] was right, actually!" response, which is "maybe pay more attention to their actions than their rhetoric." But I still think it's a really facile read. Killmonger talks a big game about opposing colonialism, but he's a CIA-trained operative who destabilizes governments, and his plan is verbatim what we're told he learned from the Agency. He isn't an opponent of colonialism, he just wants to be the colonizer. Vulture has the folksy accent of a working-class guy, and is certainly a small businessman next to Tony Stark, but he's a boss. He owns his business from the start, and ends up using his wealth to buy a mansion, while his employees sure seem to be living a lot more lean. Thanos gets an omnipotence glove and instead of using it to increase the amount of resources or improve distribution, he destroys half of all living things, which would include a whole lot of the resources that he's so concerned about. 

These aren't leftist characters who do a villain thing out of nowhere to make sure the audience connects leftist politics to villainy, they're villains who use a veneer of leftist politics to justify their heinous actions. Something that you might note if you're the kind of person who's ever had to explain that while "Nazi" is short for "national socialist," they weren't actually trying to seize the means of production for the working class.

And MCU movies aren't exactly subtle about this. Every sympathetic MCU villain I can think of shares the screen with some counterpart who espouses the same kinds of leftist ideals in a genuine way. From the start of "Black Panther," Nakia argues that Wakanda needs to be less isolationist and use their resources to help people. Vulture and Spider-Man both have tech taken from Tony Stark, but Peter still lives in an apartment and uses his resources to help the everyday people around him, not to enrich himself. Gamora shows us the human cost of Thanos's fanaticism. Hell, the very next thing he does is destroy the Infinity Gems, further reducing the resources of the universe. 

But leaving all that aside...there are also a whole lot of people out there who share a lot of my politics and still end up taking them to extremes that I find abhorrent. People who I'd agree with about the problems of capitalism, but who think "identity politics" is a neoliberal psyop and trans people are the result of bourgeoisie decadence. There are people I'd agree with about the horrors of American imperialism, but who think North Korea is just hunky-dory. "Left-leaning person who goes too far off some deep end" is definitely an overused trope in media (see also: "Community") but it's not like it's unrealistic. 

The thought finally crystallized for me when I was (to bring this full circle) reading Flag Smasher's first appearance in Captain America #312. There's a lot of back-and-forth about philosophy between him and Cap in that comic, and there are definitely places where I agree with Flag-Smasher and disagree with Captain America. 

Panels of Flag-Smasher and Captain America having a really wordy debate.

Another panel of Flag-Smasher and Captain America having a really wordy debate.

But for as much as I might agree with some of Flag-Smasher's theory, I can't get behind his praxis. And as much as I might disagree with Cap, I can recognize that he does good things for the world. Like, this issue is about Cap using an unexpected financial windfall to set up a hotline so average people can call him and get him to help them, and that is a much better use of time than burning down a factory that makes American flags.

In short, Flag-Smasher is doing grand but ultimately meaningless media stunts, and Cap is doing actual activism. Who would you rather have on your side?

So, anyway, I started this post a couple of weeks ago. I've since watched "The Falcon & the Winter Soldier," thought it was mostly fine (though they really needed to do more with Isaiah Bradley), and figure most of what I said here applies there too. Now let me just take a big sip of coffee and check in on the current comics discourse...

Tweet with Killmonger, Joker, Thanos, & Omni-Man saying "Growing up is realizing, they were all right."

*spit take* Batman won't do what?!


Scipio said...

Hello, Tom; The Absorbascon is not at all 'defunct', btw.

Tom Foss said...

Consider it corrected.

Prankster said...

Hey, good essay, Tom!

I think you're absolutely correct that it's worth looking at words vs. actions and so on, and that SOME of these movies address this in a worthwhile way. As you point out, Black Panther having Nakia, and oddly enough Homecoming is solid in this regard in that the Vulture is very much a guy who plays to grievance class politics while actually being a well-off petit bourgeoisie (he was 100% a Trump voter)

The thing is, though, while this is often a reasonable approach within any given individual movie, the fact that it's become a *trope* is what's getting troublesome. Ruthless power-mad villains spouting vaguely leftist ideals to justify their villainy is now a lot more common in superhero flicks than, say, wealthy and powerful or entitled villains, which is weird given the source material. Almost like the people who make these things see threats to the status quo as a bigger threat!

More than that, too, is that what we tend to get is very much a right-wing view of what "leftist" politics is. Thanos's eco-fascism, for instance, or the Flag-Smasher's...whole deal. The mere fact that they're always hypocrites is part of the message being sent--"people motivated to action that threatens the status quo are just using their ideology as a tool to seize power and/or achieve selfish ends". This isn't great when the big heroes of the MCU, for instance, are a Troop and a wealthy techbro, and even the most "man of the people" character, Spider-man, has been reduced to kind of a stooge. Regardless of the complexities contained within the story itself, and how much moral grey area there is, we keep circling back to heroic main characters who represent the people in charge and villains who represent change.

I think you can absolutely consider the dangers and pitfalls of well-meaning ideals gone awry, and some of these stories do that. But the storytelling priorities seem out of whack. In a time when poor nations are being ravaged by Covid and fascism is on the rise, is it really urgent to consider the potential (largely invented) hypocrisies of people who are fighting these things? Superhero stories or not, these still have some grounding in reality, and the MCU makers' take on reality seems to be that we need to keep an eye on the discontented ones far more than we do the elites.

Tom Foss said...

I mostly agree with your points, but I don't think this comes from any kind of right-wing place. If it did, I think we'd see a lot fewer people on the left saying "[Villain] was right, actually," since right-wingers' attempts to show leftist beliefs never ring true and always feel like a caricature. I think this comes from three factors: first, that Hollywood decision-makers are overwhelmingly center-left capital-L Liberals; second, as a swinging of the pendulum away from the MCU's earlier villains, and third, as an attempt to make the villains sympathetic.

In the first case, there's a tendency to want balance when trying to tell these stories, and to put our heroes in the middle between two extremes—see also the season of Supergirl with the racist, fascist Sons of Liberty and the murderous leftist Manchester Black. It's the usual centrist nonsense, but it is extremely centrist nonsense.

Which leads to the second factor, which becomes more clear when we consider the villains of the MCU in their entirety: billionaire weapons manufacturer, army general, billionaire weapons manufacturer (and ex-Soviet scientist with a grudge), megalomaniacal god, actual Nazis, megalomaniacal god explicitly compared to Nazis, billionaire techbro and foreign "terrorist" organization, genocidal elves, a Nazi secret society, a fascist religious fanatic, a genocidal robot, a billionaire tech CEO, an anti-superhuman fanatic with vaguely leftist politics that mostly emerge later, a wizard, a charming god-supremacist, a business owner with working-class aesthetics, a narcissistic slave-owner and an imperialist goddess, a CIA agent with leftist aesthetics, an intergalactic malthusian ecofascist, a woman with a medical condition, a gaslighting military dude, Thanos again, and a techbro with a grudge.

The leftist aesthetics really only come in toward the end of the series (and not as a consistent trend), alongside attempts to make the stories more sociopolitically relevant and the villains more sympathetic (probably at least in part because of fan reaction to Loki). I think it's generally the case, especially as the world has turned since 2008, that the general public is less likely to be sympathetic to more right-wing or more traditionally evil villains. Like, not nearly as many people are out there saying "Yon-Rogg was right" or even "BvS Lex Luthor was right."

And you can see that centrist impulse at play in the heroes, as well. For all the evil tech CEOs, we have the Good Billionaires in Tony Stark and Hank Pym. We have the Good Soldiers in Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson and Carol Danvers. We have the Good Monarchs in Thor and T'Challa. We have the Good Secret Agents in Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury. It's that center-left neoliberal technocratic view that the problems aren't systemic, they're the result of Bad People in charge of otherwise good (or neutral) systems.

Incidentally, in considering all this, I think an interesting consequence of the MCU is that Ant-Man, not Spider-Man, is the most "man of the people" hero. And I think it's interesting that he's the guy with the most sympathetic "villain" in Ghost.

But the point about the heroes being agents of a status quo is extremely fair, and I think unlikely to change, since it's largely been the case since before the Comics Code. There are a lot of reasons for that, but at least one of them is that neither blockbuster movies nor superhero stories are well-equipped to deal with entrenched systemic problems that can't be punched into submission.

Prankster said...

Oh, I totally agree this isn't right-wing in intent, per se (mostly? Christopher Nolan's conservative and I think that comes through in TDKR, and there's some suspect stuff behind the scenes at Marvel, but yes, I think most of the people making the movies are basically centrists or liberals), but rather that I think the right-wing narrative is influencing them. I know a lot of people who aren't right-wingers but who get concerned about population growth in regards to environmentalism, for instance, and it's not hard to see Thanos emerging as a caricature of that.

But yes, it's centrism trying to find a place to land in a shifting political landscape, and I have the same problem with it in these movies as I do with centrism in actual politics: in trying to be "neutral" they're letting the right set the tone and actually landing significantly to the right of center, regardless of their personal beliefs. The issue isn't so much that we get criticism of leftist ideas, it's that they're distortions​ of leftist ideas. Like if they created a villainous character who was basically Lenin, and was roughly historically accurate as far as politics and history go, that would be totally valid because...Lenin was a real guy. But instead you get this warped version that doesn't actually engage with the issues properly. I've seen people--I've KNOWN people who think environmentalists have the same Malthusian take on the issues as Thanos, and criticize them thusly. I also think for all the value of something like Black Panther, which is probably the most thoughtful at dealing with all this stuff, it's worth noting that Killmonger absolutely does play into a certain paranoid narrative about liberation movements: "The people who say they want liberation are really just would-be conquerers who want to do to us what we've done to them!" And Nakia may counterbalance that, but she's also someone who makes gentle suggestions, vs. someone who ACTS, and that's one of the common threads here. But yeah, I know this is something the superhero genre tends to struggle with. Still, I think there are ways to handle it better than these movies tend to.

Prankster said...

(cont) I do hasten to point out that I don't think superhero movies are having a strong impact on anyone's politics, but they do sort of​ shape the discourse, and I do feel like they sometimes play into a type of propaganda (which may be completely unintentional) but which I find more insidious than direct engagement. Turning to the camera and going "This political perspective is bad" is, I think, not all that effective as propaganda because you're inviting the audience to decide if they agree or disagree. But portraying that political perspective negatively in ways that don't get directly challenged or examined can have a far more negative impact, to my mind--see the above "environmentalists are bad because they hate technology or want to kill all the people" type line of thinking.

This is honestly something that rankled a lot about F&WS, because it made the bad guys just enough "anarchists" to be able to paint them badly while pulling back enough that they could be interpreted otherwise, while avoiding addressing their politics directly or even giving us a clear idea of what their goals, or the goals of the (apparently?) evil org they were fighting against were. Rather than taking a stand that the audience can agree or disagree with, they just used the vague aesthetics of something like anti-ICE activists or the 1st world's approach to vaccine rollouts, while leaving everything nebulous enough that people can read into them in various ways. No matter what your specific complaints, the show can theoretically go "oh no no, that's not what we meant". It's particularly cowardly of them not to give us more info on the GRC--are they neutral bureaucrats? An insidious front for evil? Well-meaning helpers being unfairly targeted? We literally are never told, other than one of their guards being nasty to Karli. The natural story function would be to make them villains, or indeed, supervillains, but the show just can't commit, so they fade into the background and become "something the state is doing" and the Flag-Smashers are now framed as being Against Society, rather than any specific ills. But the show itself strongly implies that there ARE specific ills being committed, which would make Karli and co. correct! I mean the first thing we see them do is liberate vaccines for people who need them, which, oof, kind of suggests a lot without, again, being particularly specific. The show's creators have said the Flag-Smashers are meant to be sympathetic and that's clear enough, but the way the story is framed they're actively the freaking HEROES, which seems to be why they need Karli to do a cartoonish, unmotivated heel turn partway through, instead of just making Sam and Bucky, you know, heroic. (Sam and Bucky literally do almost nothing, from a plot perspective. Even their investigation is largely led by Zemo!)

Anyway. TL; DR: increasingly the problem with these superhero movies isn't even their political stance, it's that they want to SEEM like they have a political stance while simultaneously not committing to anything.

Tom Foss said...

That bit at the end, I think, is the rub. They want the aesthetics of political relevance without the possibility of rankling many real-world political groups. And having watched the show during the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict, it's easy to see why. The show can't get much more specific than "immigration good" and "forced relocations bad" without drawing clear and obvious comparisons to conflicts that I cannot imagine Marvel or Disney want to (or are equipped to) comment on.

And I think that shows throughout. As you say, we don't get a lot of information about the Flag-Smashers' goals. We know some of their motivations and some of their methods, but little about what they want to accomplish beyond a vague "go back to how things were before" and "be united as a single people"—which absolutely plays into right-wing (and liberal) stereotypes about protest groups lacking clear goals or messages (when in reality it's often that the very clear goals and messages are intentionally ignored or complicated by the media). And we don't get a clear indication about the GRC's motives either, except that they also have a vaguely "get back to how things were before" attitude, which makes both "extremist" groups ultimately regressive/conservative, allowing Sam to stand up in the end and be like "we have to move forward" and give a speech that really falls flat.

And it allows them to paint the issue not as a systemic one, but as a matter of a few individuals in suits making bad decisions and they just need someone dressed in an American flag to answer their questions and tell them what it's like for normal people in order to completely change course and make good decisions instead.

And I don't really know what the solution is. Because there are benefits to keeping stuff vague, too. It cuts down on tedious exposition and allows the audience to fill in the blanks for themselves. We get enough information to see that the GRC is bad mostly because they're out of touch and the Flag-Smashers have bad methods that come from a good place, and that's all you really need to follow the story, even if it's not what you'd need if you wanted to make a specific point about specific real-world politics. And so all the people who want to find an allegory are out here having to ignore or invent or interpret things to get it to fit. Myself included.

Meanwhile, it also doesn't seem to matter how clearly Evil and Unsympathetic you make the Bad Guys, it doesn't seem to matter how much or how little you explain of their philosophy, because some people are going to latch onto them and say that they're right and adopt their aesthetics. Like, part of why we have "the Empire was right actually" people and Stormtrooper cosplayers is marketing decisions and good character design, but part of it is that I think some people just like the bad guys and will like the bad guys no matter what.