An Alien Perspective

I don’t understand people from your planet.  Many Americans and other earthlings are obsessed with superhero movies.

Writer Mark Bowden recently noted that “Seven of the 11 top-grossing films of 2017 were superhero movies, based on characters first introduced in comic books.”  That doesn’t even include the gigazillion epic hero movies that are not based on comics.  Why so many earthlings are drawn to these movies is a puzzle.  Bowden writes:

Most fail to make sense even within the fantastical logic of their own worlds — why, for instance, do superheroes and villains persist in hurling large objects at each other long after it is clear this has no effect?  They showcase beautiful bodies in well-choreographed combat augmented by ear-blasting pseudo-Wagnerian music and dazzling special effects.  Plot lines are an afterthought, and dialogue is often breezily incoherent (particularly when trying to impart deeper meaning).  They are formulaic, completely driven by commercial calculation, largely written by committees under strict studio supervision (which is not to say that committees are incapable of writing great scripts — see the amazing Pixar oeuvre). They are full of sound and fury — imaginatively costumed, star-studded, often well acted, stunningly crafted — signifying nothing, at least on purpose.

He continues:

If heroes are idealized humans, then today’s reflect an exaggerated Cult of Self.  They are unique, supremely talented beings who transcend laws, even those of nature.  Hollywood has always cherished mavericks, but these are, literally, cartoons — computer-generated.  They celebrate exceptionalism and vigilantism.  The old American ideal of succeeding through cleverness, virtue and grit is absent, as is the notion of ordinary folk banding together to overcome a threat …. Gone is respect for the rule of law and the importance of tradition and community.  Institutions and human knowledge are useless.  Religion is irrelevant.  Governments are corrupt and/or inept, when not downright evil.  The empowered individual is all.

Normal humans are mere bystanders, when they are not being crushed or vaporized. The average person is powerless and depends for survival on the good will of the gods. (It may be worth noting that in real life, the only way for a human to acquire anything like a superpower is to buy a gun, which may shed new light on America’s firearms fetish.)

Earthlings with an apparently insatiable appetite for these movies seem consumed by fantasies of self-righteous violence.  They watch one movie after another with the same basic story line in which evil thugs threaten to destroy civilization, only to be saved in the nick of time when a champion and his (or her) sidekicks violently vanquish the wicked.  Some movies celebrate realistic non-violent communication and don’t divide the world into cartoon villains and heroes.  Alas, fewer earthlings seem to be interested in these movies than the familiar “action-adventure” movies.

I’m from here too – I just don’t understand a lot of my fellow earthlings.

2 thoughts on “An Alien Perspective”

  1. Greetings, alien visitor! You can see the same dynamic in our current political discourse. As in superhero movies, the dynamic looks like this:

    1. There are good guys and bad guys.

    2. The good guys cannot negotiate with the bad guys, because the bad guys are unreachable.

    3. What’s more, the good guys should not have to negotiate with the bad guys, since the good guys have good goals and the bad guys don’t.

    4. And when you think about it, the good guys should not negotiate with the bad guys. Doing so legitimizes the bad guys’ positions and undermines the good guys’ righteousness.

    5. All of this justifies discursive and social violence–maintaining hardline positions and refusing to acknowledge the bad guys’ perspectives, because doing so jeopardizes the larger project of justice, etc.

    In the current moment, it is hard to imagine what an inclusive and pluralistic society looks like. The world feels dangerous and threatening, as in superhero movies, and so we seek “supercharged” responses that will work as quickly as possible. But, as in superhero movies, it doesn’t seem like these responses are durable or sustainable.

    Film theorist Constance Penley once wrote that the Star Wars movies were popular in part because of their vision of how we change society — not through the coordinated work of people and government (which is in fact shown to be either ineffectual or evil), but through the efforts of a small band of rebels. Her insight tracks with the thesis of the Bowden article above, that only certain rare beings are “empowered” to make a difference and that ordinary people working together are unable to change the world. This is a potent and dangerous myth.

    1. Thanks, Jen. I really agree with you.

      Unfortunately, I think that there is a strong connection between popular culture in the movies and political discourse. Indeed, I suspect that they reinforce each other.

      (In a similar way, I think that popular culture has glamorized what is now more often recognized as abusive sexual behaviors. For decades, male domination has been portrayed as sexy and desirable, both for men and women. So I’m not surprised that some men have mimicked that behavior in their lives.)

      When I wrote my post, I considered that there might be at least three perspectives about “aliens.” I started off by implying that I was the alien. As you read the post, you can see that I believe that many fellow citizens have perspectives that I consider alien.

      A third perspective is that of the “bad guys” who are portrayed as alien others. The hero movies identify the heros as unambiguous “good guys.” But what if they have it backward and the “heros” really are the bad guys? From the perspective of the aliens (i.e., the supposed bad guys), the assaults by the “heros” are unjustified and terrifying. From that perspective, the movies’ portrayals of supposedly glorious victories by the good guys actually are horror movies in which the real good guys are defeated and dominated by the supposed “heros.”

      As you say, there are chilling parallels to the current political environment.

      As much as I believe that it’s important to engage in strong partisan political advocacy these days, I am not ready to give up on efforts to promote dialogue and cooperation between “filter bubbles” in our society. I think that political cooperation and advocacy need not be mutually exclusive. Advocacy is important to motivate and mobilize supporters and hopefully discourage committed opponents. Dialogue and bridge building is important for people who aren’t strongly committed to either side.

      What do you all think?

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