November 14, 2004

The Politics of the Superhero

I haven’t seen The Incredibles yet, but after watching the trailer online I intend to. Even without seeing the movie I find some of the commentary about it a bit strange.

Suzy Hansen and Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote a piece about who’s saying what for the New York Observer.
The first hit of the Bush II years, The Incredibles pulled in $70.5 million in its first few days. The movie is about a family of superheroes forced by the government to go into a superhero-relocation program, suppress their awesome powers and hide out in the beaten-down, charmless miseries of suburbia—among tract homes, leftovers, cubicles, commutes, and dreary elementary-school commencement ceremonies in which every kid is celebrated for being “special.”

Eventually, of course, the superheroes—up against it in a dangerous world—release their superpowers, break free of Anytown, U.S.A., and explode with enough personal initiative to make The Fountainhead look like a bedtime story. They’re superheroes! The film is inspirational, a hopeful jolt for anyone feeling like they’ve buried their own superpowers, like they’re losing in this big, crushing society. But the funny thing is that even though the film’s primary target seems to be suppressed America and its credo pure libertarian, among the joyful recipients of its message are New Yorkers—and all blue staters—who, God knows, feel like losers these days.

But it’s hard not to be suspicious of the winners. Any winners, for that matter, and that includes The Incredibles. While The Incredibles’ battle against conformity and mediocrity screams anti-oppression to some, it’s obviously Randian to others. In that sense, the film is being touted as the latest proof that, on top of everything else , the right wing has even wit and creativity on its side these days: This is a world turned upside-down!
Whoa. Superheroes are right-wing? Anytown USA, conformity, and charmless suburbia are left-wing? Really? When did that shit start? The sixties really are over if that’s how it is.

The article quotes everyone’s favorite bitch-slap boy Ted Rall.

It’s kind of ironic that superheroes now have these fascist, right-wing connotations.
Now I really can’t wait to see the movie. I’m dying to see how Mr. Incredible and the supercool black dude (he makes instant ice) make knee-jerk leftists think of Hitler. I’m gonna need a large popcorn for this one.

But there's this:

Is it simply that, after four years of being beaten up with good-versus-evil rhetoric and post-9/11 fear, somehow all superheroes seem vaguely Republican to us?
I have never, ever, not once in my life, thought of superheroes as Republicans. Although I guess I can sort of see it now. John Kerry wanted to do many things in office, but saving the world wasn’t one of them. I always thought it was liberals who wanted to save the world, not Texas Republicans, but alas and alack it’s a bizarro world as they say.

I’m not making fun of the article. It’s really quite interesting. The authors note how Superman was a liberal in the Roosevelt mold, how Batman could be construed as a centrist, how a liberal superhero would never be chased into Canada by a Republican president. The whole thing is worth reading.

And check out what The Nation had to say about it.
Bird's biggest achievement in The Incredibles is to have inflated family stereotypes to parade-balloon size. His failing is that, in so doing, he also confirmed these stereotypes, and worse. Helen mouths one or two semi-feminist wisecracks but readily gives up her career for a house and kids; women are like that. Bob's buddy Frozone, the main nonwhite character in the movie, can instantly create ice; black people are cool. The superheroes are in hiding because greedy trial lawyers sued them into retirement; and, while concealed, they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity. The family is the foundation of our society. Freedom is on the march.
I can see the point (assuming it holds up in the actual movie) about the stereotypes. But what, exactly, is the problem with showing the family as a foundation of society? It is at least one of the foundations, whether that family is nuclear (2.5 kids and all that), single-parent, double-lesbian, or whatever. What’s the complaint?

And what, pray tell, is wrong with freedom being “on the march”? Movies about superheroes who don't rise above mediocrity and who take freedom away would make lame audience-pleasers. Here comes Super Nanny! She snatches smokes, censors cable, bleeps out bad words, and turns down the volume on stereos! No. Americans don’t pay money for that kind of superhero. If that makes us “right-wing” then, well, whatever.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at November 14, 2004 9:02 PM
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