The Lois Lane Effect

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That’s why Lois Lane is so perfect for him. She’s the perfect blend of firebrand, intelligent opponent and total doormat. And she’s hot.– Lois Lane as defined by “Jimmy Olsen”

Writing is hard. One of the hardest aspects of writing is evoking drama in a made-up story. Who really gives a shit if Mark Hamill has to sit in a fake plane in order to make a toy ball explode? This is where emotion comes into play: if the audience can relate to a conflict, even if it is contrived, they will be invested in that toy ball exploding. And of course, the easiest way to go about doing this is to shove into plots the greatest of all contrived conflicts: the quest for sweet, sweet nookie.

Fred Durst approves

Fred Durst approves

As i mentioned in another post of mine, modern Romantic fiction (and not just guy meets girl stories) was codified during the Middle Ages of Europe, with much of the coda coming from the Chivalric code. A man fights through everything from other men to Hell itself in order to prove himself worthy of his lady. It was supposedly as true for real life knights as it was for Lancelot himself. As such, this basic tenet of manliness passed on till modern times, where pretty much any “real man” in fiction has to kick ass and get laid (in either order). This sequence is especially important in the superhero genre.

           Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

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The golden standard for superhero love interests is Superman’s longtime girlfriend Lois Lane. Debuting in the very first issue of Action Comics, (where Superman first appeared) Lois is as old as the hero himself. Given that these were stories meant for children, their relationship was no more complex than ” Clark wants Lois. Lois wants Superman. Conflict. Ironically, she was actually more progressive than the characters she inspired in her Golden Age 1930’s-40’s appearances, being assertive and only occasionally used for “save the girl” plots.

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The Fleischer Superman cartoons even had her fighting in World War 2 as a covert agent.

And the ” Baddest Bitch ” award goes to…

This characterization ceased during the “Get Back In The Kitchen!” 50’s and the rise of the Comics Code Authority, which literally had doctrines such as “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage“. This led to the Lois Lane who became a bane upon Superman and comics and general. She was reduced to an annoying hanger-on who’s only concern was marrying Superman.

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The biggest loss for the franchise was that she ceased to even have a reason to be around anymore. Golden Age Lois served as a challenge for Clark since he had to win her over without being Superman. She was a badass character in her own right which justified her astronomical standards. Reducing her to a satellite love interest nullified that romantic conflict and replaced it with a series of ” zany ” marriage schemes. You’d think she needed a green card or something. What was even worse is that as she became more arbitrary, her prevalence in media increased, to the point where she got a whole series dedicated to her desire to bone Superman.

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Lois was never good with linear reasoning

Batman #157 (August 1963)

Vicki Vale CompetitionGiven that Superman is the quintessential superhero, several other franchises had a Lois Lane equivalent just to keep up with the Joneses. Batman had Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger in the film) who was a reporter who wrote about Batman, intending to find out his identity and bone him (in either order). Oh, and she didn’t like Bruce Wayne that much. Sounds familiar? Barry Allen aka The Flash got his own model in Iris West, yet another “intrepid reporter” who couldn’t figure out his secret identity until they were already married. “Intrepid” must be old timey slang for “idiot”.

Marvel Comics dealt with this trope better in the 60’s, but still with a few Lois Lane influences. Before the arrival of plot tumor Mary Jane, Peter Parker started off with Betty Brant, who was sort of like a deconstruction of 50’s Lois Lane. She was also clingy and jealous, but instead of being played entirely for laughs, it was actually a serious relationship problem which caused him quite some grief.

The Amazing Spider-Man #15 (August 1964)

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He then went on to court Gwen Stacy, who began as actually quite vain, being interested in Peter literally because he had the nerve to not try boning her.

The Amazing Spider-Man #31 ( December 1965 )

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Once their relationship became settled, however, she started to become yet another satellite love interest. So much so that Marvel editors thought the most interesting thing they could do with the character is kill her off.

      Journey Into Mystery

Nurse Jane Foster Dreaming of Thor

Marvel’s other flagship hero, Thor, had a love interest in Jane Foster (who was carried over into the films but more on that later) back in his ” secret identity ” days. A doctor’s assistant in his mortal form’s (Donald Blake) practice, Foster and Blake were mutually attracted, but he thought she only pitied him due to his handicap (he couldn’t walk without a cane). This was exacerbated by the fact that she was (you guessed it) also attracted to Thor, but they couldn’t consummate due to Odin’s plot-drama doctrine of “don’t let mortals know about your secret identity”. To be fair, this dynamic was interesting at times because it injected a bit of classical myth: human/god coupling is an issue in almost every religion. Nevertheless, it was dropped once Thor stopped being a part-time human all-together and rationally decided to have sex with hot god babes instead.

Following suit with Thor, most superhero franchises drifted away from the generic love interest formula moving into the next few decades. Dimensions were added to pre-existing and new love interests. Many became (with varying levels of quality) “tougher” to compensate for previous portrayals. Lois Lane, the progenitor herself, was one of the first to get her metaphorical balls back.

                                                      Man of Steel

Maybe a little too much balls...

Or maybe her literal balls…

Some ladies went the Jane Foster route and were just phased out of focus; Hal Jordan/Green Lantern’s first love Carol Ferris became more important for becoming a hero/villain (it’s complicated) in her own right. Their love affair became just one of many flings for the bachelor hero. On the darker side of the spectrum, some were used as macabre drama fodder, such the aforementioned death of Gwen Stacy. Comic writer Gail Simone dubbed this trope “Women In Refrigerators“, referencing a controversial Green Lantern story where the hero’s girlfriend was brutally murdered and…well you could probably guess…

Green Lantern #54 (1994)

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“WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!?”

Obviously a fucked up trope it is in it’s own right, many writers consider this equally terrible (if not worse) as just having a living shallow love interest.

For the most part, the role of superhero girlfriend had a decent reinvention in mainstream comics. The days where love interests bogged down superhero tales were going away…until fucking Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).

Keep in mind this is the official poster

Keep in mind this was the official poster

What Richard Donner’s Superman films were in the 70’s, Spider-Man was to the current generation. It reinvigorated the comic film and also set the stage for how these films will be adapted. This included how love interests would be integrated. And boy was it an awful model for it, since Mary Jane pretty much eclipses EVERYTHING in the film series. The film’s events unfold as such:

1. Peter takes a picture of MJ and gets bitten while he’s distracted

2. Peter becomes a wrestler with his new powers because he wants to buy a car to impress MJ (leading to his life-defining negligence)

3. Peter incorporates red into his costume because it’s her hair color (fuck patriotism, I guess)

4. Peter’s relationship with Harry is strained due to a love triangle with MJ

5. Norman Osborn goes on a homicidal rampage because Peter hooked up with MJ

And that’s not counting all of the damsel-in-distress nonsense. Fuck Norman Osborn; SHE’S clearly the antagonist of the film. The second film takes this even further by beginning with Peter’s voice over stating that ” She looks at me everyday. Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy! If she only knew how I felt about her “. The film basically establishes it’s premise as ” It’s all about MJ! “. Forget nuclear armageddon guys; how’s Petey going to go to MJ’s play? Is MJ going to marry that astronaut guy who we’ve never seen before? Pressing issues indeed.

While i wouldn’t say that these films necessarily caused an insistence on superhero love interests, it wouldn’t be too wild to assume that film producers, always eager to emulate the success of hit movies, saw this as an affirmation of the Lois Lane formula. This meant that every hero who had some canonical squeeze had a love story shoehorned into his film.

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

As mentioned before, Thor and Jane Foster’s coupling was an artifact of his secret identity days when his human persona already had a longstanding relationship with her. Yet, she’s placed in the film (albeit with a different job) as the woman he falls in love with in about three days.  Once again: Asgard. Hot god babes. C’mon.

Ditto

Seriously guys?

For the Iron Man films, they took Pepper Potts who he only occasionally fucks when he’s not fucking super-models or super-heroes or anything with a hole in it, and turned her a convenient satellite love interest. In contrast, in the comics she eventually married Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau’s character) until he died, so it wasn’t even like her and Tony had that serious of a relationship. And as for Nolan’s Batman films, I had no issues with the character of Rachel Dawes (who was a pretty good moral compass)…buuut then he forced in a last minute hookup with Selina Kyle that was as plausible as the end of John Hughes’ Career Opportunities (and no, I don’t expect you to get that reference).

Good thing he isn't world-famous or anything...

Good thing he isn’t world-famous or anything…

As much as i’ve grown to be wary of love interests in comics, i’d be bereft to call them necessarily a bad thing. As i mentioned in the beginning, this trope’s defining nature is its relatability. Love is the most ubiquitious real-life concern; it’s something most people want and desire. And not everyone is necessarily smart about it. People do get obsessed with relationships and often put aside other important things in order to focus on them. And in the hands of a good writer, a love story can elevate a hero. With that being said, it’s a trope that needs moderation. If there’s a narrative point in a relationship, so be it, but it shouldn’t be a necessity for every hero. Those unfortunate stories with Lois Lane were made during a time when the country was trying to avoid certain truths. No one wanted to admit women could be independent. No one wanted to admit marriage wasn’t as great as we all believed. To some extent, we’re still thinking that way. But things are changing. And as we change, our heroes (and heroines) should too.

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For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bat In The Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

For more posts on Marvel Comics:

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As A Classic Anti-Hero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

For more posts on Romance in fiction:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: The Implication Of Romance In Hollywood

Don Jon Review

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Three Forms Of Comedy In Justice League

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In a way, comedy is the art form of the masses. Most people can’t play the cello or perform ballet, but almost everyone can make someone laugh ( hopefully, not during sex ). Not everyone knows why people laugh, however. There are a legion of theories on comedy dating back to Ancient Greece, but for the sake of argument, i’m going to narrow it down to just narrative comedy. Let’s say there are three forms of comedic plots that come out of mainstream media: situational, character-based, and farcical.

To compare and contrast these three forms, i’ll use the animated series Justice League Unlimited as a base. For some background: Justice League Unlimited was a series that ran on Cartoon Network from 2004-2006. It was the culmination of the extensive DC Comics animated universe created by character designer Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and writer / producer Dwayne McDuffie. Why this series? Because it’s fucking awesome! More importantly, while listening to the DVD commentary for one of the episodes ( yes, people do that sometimes ) i was intrigued by an offhand remark by series lead artist Bruce Timm who noted that, unintentionally, they released three episodes that almost perfectly fit the three forms of comedy around the same time. This is especially funny since JLU is definitely NOT a comedy series ( at least most of the time ). I decided to re-watch those episodes to examine that claim…

1. Situational

I’m pretty sure most of you have heard of the film pitch of “X meets Y“. This is reflective of the “dartboard” approach to screenwriting, where writers literally just combine random ideas in order to create a concept. When done poorly, the results are awful. For example: ” Urban black culture meets Sci-Fi “.

Homeboys In Outer Space (1996-1997)

When done well, it can create hilarious spins on familiar stories. Much of the comedy from Shaun of The Dead ( 2004 ) derives from the fact that the main characters seem to be right out of a lighthearted romance film…yet they’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Hilarity ensues. The film Analyze This ( 1999 ) revolves around a psychiatrist’s relationship with his new patient…who just so happens to be a mob boss. Hilarity ensues.

The central idea  of situational comedy is “humor derived from incongruity” ( and yes, i just made that up ). When things don’t quite match up, they can be funny. The most common form of this is “fish out of water” plots which put easily identifiable character-types in situations they shouldn’t be in. Situational comedy leans mostly on dialogue and chemistry, since the disconnect has to be established by characters interactions. For example the series Frasier builds a lot of its humor from the snobby Crane brothers interacting with their working class father and friends. The biggest threat to this concept is if the initial premise becomes the only joke that can be made. One of the most maligned examples of this trope is “white guy / black guy” films where all of the humor can be summed up quite quickly…

In short, a good situational comedy BUILDS off its incongruity.

The Episode – Kid Stuff ( August 11 2004 )

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The Premise – Mordred, punk-ass son of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legend, obtains a macguffin known as the “Amulet of First Magic”. The amulet gives Mordred ultimate power, which he uses to get back at his mother and all adults of the world ( which includes the Justice League ) by banishing them into some kind of limbo dimension. Morgan Le Fay, seeking to undo her son’s spell, finds a way to counteract the magic…by turning the League into little lads and lasses! ( i’m sorry )

How does it work? – Interestingly enough, most of the plot is played fairly straight. The situation is portrayed as fairly dire: the entire adult population is stuck in limbo for eternity and their children are left to fend for themselves. Even the heroes themselves attempt to play it straight. I say ‘attempt’ because once they’ve been reduced to ten-year-olds, they fall victim to the realities of how a ten-year-old would act in this situation.

Each character trait of the heroes is modified to a ten-year-old’s sensibility. Green Lantern’s militancy turns into dorkiness. Superman’s nobility turns into farm boy naivete. Wonder Woman’s confidence turns into flirtatiousness. Batman’s grimness turns into smartassness. What’s great about this characterization is that it saves the episode from going to the obvious “spinoff babies” direction by not having all jokes revolve around one note “aww that’s cute” humor. For example, for awhile in the series Wonder Woman has been implied to have an “interest” in Batman, which he seems to ignore because he must be the gayest man in the universe. This comes up in one scene when the heroes decides to pick teams to fight Mordred:

What makes this situation funny is that they’re STILL acting in-character, it’s just that their characters are being viewed through an exaggerated lens. Wonder Woman flirts more openly than usual, Bats is more dismissive than usual, and Supes is more oblivious than usual. Even Lantern’s jokes manages to fit in-story since he alludes to becoming more corny at the beginning of the episode. The plot of Kid Stuff manages to take a humorous AND canonical look at each character’s personality through their childhood selves.

2. Character

Some people are just naturally funny ( *cough* like me *cough* ). These guys are able to enter a room and have everyone laughing without much setup. People like these are producers’ wet dreams, because it means they can bank on a film or television project just by finding these guys. More often than not, character-based comedy draws from comedians, since they can carry shows single-handedly. The 90’s had a whole slew of these types of comedies; Martin, Seinfeld, Home Improvement, just to name a few. Often times, the character ( or characters ) is someone who is outlandish in his or her own right. A perfect film example is the The Nutty Professor ( 1963 ).

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See? I don’t even have to explain to you why that character would elicit laughter. Character comedy doesn’t ALWAYS have to be outlandish to work; characters can just be humorous in a believable way. The protagonists of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia manage to be both despicable, yet relatable. Their flaws are all based in reality: Dennis is a narcissistic guy who peaked in college, Dee is an entitled loser who has delusions of grandeur, Charlie is a slovenly pauper who’s struggled his whole life, Mac is an insecure conservative oblivious to his own hypocrisy, and Frank is Danny Devito. Good character comedy produces likable protagonists that keep us engaged. Bad character comedy creates protagonists who are so removed from reality that it’s difficult to connect with them ( a common criticism of Monk and the aforementioned Martin ).

The episode-The Greatest Story Never Told ( September 11 2004 )

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The premise – Rookie Leaguer Booster Gold is called to join in an epic conflict with the universe’s most powerful wizard…as crowd control. However, during the conflict he uncovers an equally important catastrophe, which he takes on since he’s the only unattended Leaguer. And also because he’s trying to get laid.

How does it work? – First, i’ll explain the origin of Booster Gold to you non-nerds: Michael Jon Carter was a failed football star who became a janitor in the far off future. While working at a superhero museum, he had the brilliant idea to steal several pieces of high end technology ( including a living computer named Skeets who became his sidekick ) and take a one-way trip to the current time in order to become a famous superhero so he can become rich and famous.

That by itself is a hilarious set-up for jokes. It’s like if Criss Angel was a real-life Angel who became a magician to get a free hotel room. Much of the humor of this episode comes from Booster’s superficiality: at one point he gives advice to Martian Manhunter on how he should get himself a catchier name ( which is a solid point ). When the Manhunter tries to get him to realize that being a superhero is about more than just fame, Booster agrees and asks ” How much do you pull in a year, after taxes? “. Now arguably, this is somewhat of a situational plot as well: Booster’s self-serving nature is incongruous in a world of superHEROes who should be the opposite. However, most of the episode focuses on him alone, negating many comparisons with the other Leaguers. Instead, we get a lot of jokes about how much of a loser he is. In addition, there’s great voice acting from actor Tom Everett Scott ( Dead Man On CampusBoiler Room ) as Booster and veteran voice actor Billy West ( STIMPY! ) as Skeets:

3. Farcical

Now, i know some of you have been reading and thinking” Fuck you Rob; comedy isn’t about structure! Comedy is just doing funny things!” First off, don’t curse so much. Second of all, you have a point. Some stories eschew specific plots and characters in favor of “free-form” comedy. This is where we get to ‘farce”, which means “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations”. As you can imagine, farce is easy to do for comedy, because all it requires is something that’s momentarily funny. The issue is the “momentarily” part. Remember when “THIS IS SPARTA!” jokes were funny? Imagine an ENTIRE film based around that?

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Exactly

Farce is probably the easiest form of comedy to fuck up because it requires a body of individual bits of humor to support it. This requires an extensive grasp of “quick comedy” ( one liners, slapstick, etc ). I think this is why older works tended to grasp this comedic form better ( The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, Airplane! ) since they had their roots in silly vaudeville acts. The best modern day examples would probably be shows like Family Guy and Adventure Time, which have almost no grip on reality. As with any form of comedy, works don’t have to be ENTIRELY farcical, farce can still exist in degrees. For example, Seinfeld was mostly character and situationally driven, but occasionally incorporated outlandish elements such as the famous “Bubble Boy” who had a heated rivalry with George Costanza.

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One of the best ways to incorporate farce is as a “narrative crescendo”. One of the best examples is the film Tropic Thunder ( 2008 ). It incorporates farcical elements throughout the film, but it isn’t till the film’s climax where ( SPOILER ) a character intercepts an rpg with a TIVO ( END SPOILER ) that it becomes completely divorced from reality. Overall, farce is both the simplest and the trickiest category of comedy.

The Episode – This Little Piggy ( August 28 2004 )

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The Premise – Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, the goddess Circe, turns her into a pig. Batman has to find out how to get her back to normal. No seriously.

How does it work? – How could it not work? This is the craziest idea in the history of the series. First off, making Batman the protagonist allows for every situation to become even funnier because of how serious he is. In the picture above, Batman is caressing a pig tenderly. No more needs to be said. Secondly, the scenario leads to a bevy of of corny-yet-effective pig puns. ( a slaughterhouse worker jumps on Wonder Pig and utters the inevitable “that’ll do, pig” line from Babe [ 1995 ] ). Notably, what i’ve mentioned so far covers only character and situational comedy. So what makes it farcical? Several things. Each scene in the episode has it’s own internal logic that creates either a character comedy or a situational comedy ( or both ) in itself. When Batman loses the Wonder Pig, he has to call a guy called ‘B’wana Beast‘ who has never been mentioned before and looks like this…

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…to track her down. At one point, Batman thinks to venture to the RIVER STYX to question FREAKING MEDUSA about Circe.

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Medusa sounds like Patty and Selma from The Simpsons and tells Batman to ask Circe for her curling iron back. Most ridiculous of all, when a character ponders Circe’s whereabouts, we get a musical number with Circe accompanied by a full band and backup dancers.

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Did she conjure that up? Is she a club regular? None of this is explained, it just happens. This all builds up to a final battle at the same club in which Batman makes a bargain with Circe in order to return Diana to humanity ( or I guess amazon-ity ). What horrible request does Circe make of Batman?

That’s it. That’s all it took to resolve the whole plot. She turned a woman into a pig and fought a huge battle just to ask for that. That, my friends, is farce.

While i wouldn’t call them reflective of the entire series, i would say these episodes reflect what’s so fun about superheroes in general. Each episode highlights how these tales can be vacillate between dramatic AND funny. In addition, they also help to show how humorous writing is almost always smart writing.

Here’s some other funny moments from the series:

For more posts on superheroes:

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

Superman as Defined By Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

From Comic to TV: Green Arrow as Adapted Into Arrow

Journey of Peter Parker From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man is a Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

For more posts on televison:

Top 5 Bullies In Fiction

The Walking Dead: The Governor as a Well-Intentioned Extremist

Slave Ownership As Seen Through Roots

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

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“…by playing a superhero in Daredevil, I have inoculated myself from ever playing another superhero… Wearing a costume was a source of humiliation for me and something I wouldn’t want to do again soon”-Ben Affleck preparing the words he’s going to eat

You ever have one of those moments where you perceive something but don’t really believe it? To the point where it seemed surreal? I had one of those last week when I perused IMDB to come upon the news that Ben Affleck is playing Batman in the sequel to Man of Steel (2013). Ben “Fucking” Affleck. My response was…confused. I didn’t know how to feel, but i know i had a feel. For most, this feel was pretty straightforward: fuck that guy. The internet exploded with a surge of hate that I will dub the “Affleck-tion”. The Afflecktion has taken many forms. For example: there’s a twitter hashtag titled “betterthanbenaffleck” that contains “suggestions” for better actors.

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There’s even an honest-to-God petition by fans to somehow oust Affleck from the role. So why all the hate for the guy? He just won an Oscar, is married with kids, and has several great films under his belt recently (Argo, The TownGone Baby Gone). Isn’t that good enough to get some respect? Unfortunately, the Afflecktion runs deep in the body of American moviegoers, far before his casting as Batman.

I subscribe to three primary reasons why Ben Affleck has such a bad rap…

1. Perceived lack of contribution to Good Will Hunting 

When Good Will Hunting debuted in 1998, Hollywood was enamored with the Cinderella tale of two Bostonians who wrote and starred in an Oscar-winning film. So much so that, of course, many inquired about the impetus for such a film. Here it goes (as described by the writers themselves in Boston Magazine): Matt Damon, a Harvard student, wrote a short story about a genius Southie who’s brilliance garners the attention of the government. Later, Damon took a screenwriting class, where for a final project he turned his story into the first act of a film, telling his professor “I might have failed your class, but it is the first act of something longer“. The professor, Anthony Kubiak claimed that it even in its early stages “it was very authentic and real“. Wow, Matt sure did a good job on that screenplay. Ben Affleck’s account? He helped write it. That’s it. No specifics. No details. He. Helped. Write it. Mind you, this is his OWN WORDS.

The only thing in his interview Ben mentions that speaks on his specific contribution is that, when he thought the producers weren’t paying enough attention, he’d sneak in blowjob scenes just to see if they would notice. No, really. So as you could imagine, many began to feel that Ben Affleck basically broke into Hollywood on the coattails of Matt Damon with minimal effort on his part. People thought he didn’t “deserve” his success. It didn’t help that many filmgoers viewed Affleck as an idiot due to his brashness and boisterousness. It made it easier to visualize a drunk frat boy Ben offering meager assistance whereas bookish Harvard alum Matt Damon actually writes the film, which is realized in this Family Guy clip.

The relationship between Sean and Will in the film was oddly paralleled with the image of Matt and Ben in real life: Matt was a genius who far outstripped his lesser best friend Ben. This dynamic defined the two for awhile: Matt Damon went on to be in other well received flicks such as Rounders, Saving Private Ryan, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ben Affleck? Well, here’s where we get to the next reason…

2. High-profile yet lowly-received films

Like Matt, Ben was in some pretty big name films after Good Will Hunting, particularly Armageddon and Shakespeare In Love (both in 1998). He wasn’t the star of either film, however, and most of his films as a leading man were mediocre in terms of audience turnout and reception. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, since it means most of the filmgoing audience didn’t have a record of bad movies to look to. Unfortunately, when Ben Affleck did start heading major flops, it was something everyone remembered. The first was Pearl Harbor (2001), which was an obvious Hollywood attempt to recreate the success of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). It didn’t turn out that way: the film’s several inaccuracies, tedious love triangle, and association with the increasingly despised Michael Bay made it a commercial disappointment. And guess who’s name is on full display on every poster?

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Afterwards, he was in Daredevil (2003), Marvel’s attempt at another blockbuster superhero film that combined the stylishness of Spider-Man (2002) with the “dark and edginess” of X-Men (2000). While the film did a decent job of characterization, audiences didn’t know what to make of the obscure character and therefore spent more time focusing on the actor, who had already begun to lose public credibility. The film’s lukewarm reception was heaped onto Affleck and comic fans never forgot about it. While these films garnered negative feedback, none of them put as big a nail in the coffin as Gigli (2003)

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This film had bad press before it was even released due to conflicts between the screenwriter and the director, leading many to believe that the final product would be disjointed. Once it was released it set box office records for the biggest second-weekend drop in box office gross of any film in wide release since that statistic was kept; it dropped by almost 82% in its second weekend compared to its first. By its third weekend in release, only 73 U.S. theaters were showing it, down from 2,215 during its first weekend, a drop of 97%. The film has since gone onto be considered one of the worst films of all time. One of the primary reasons for the failure of the film is also my final reason for the Afflecktion…

3. Bennifer

Generally speaking, America loves “super couples”.

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Drake and Josh were meant for each other

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Unfortunately, one they didn’t care for much was Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez. Sure, at first they grabbed the public eye like any other celebrity couple, but that attention quickly turned to scorn. I postulate that it was due to the fact thatbecause they had the unfortunate distinction of being both absurdly famous and absurdly unrelatable. Ben was viewed as a jockish douchenozzle and J.Lo was viewed as an egotistical diva. A blog post on whatever-dude.com called them Hollywood’s Hitler and Eva Braun“. Ben himself recognized the hate they received, outright saying in an interview with Suzy Byrne that he felt as if he was “the press’ whipping boy” during those two years. What’s worse is that much of the hate was due to Jennifer Lopez being considered “better” than him. She had a more successful film career, and a music career, AND a fashion line. Doesn’t help that SHE broke off the engagement. As one blogger put it, he came across as being “desperate and needy and lacking in self confidence, as if he were under some kind of love spell“. Arguably, the ultimate Hollywood insult directed at him during this period was during VH1’s “200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons” television special. Oh sure, he was included as #119, but look closely at his portrait by Robert Risko…

7373 (1)Yes, they literally have J.Lo on his jacket for NO discernable reason other than to remind the viewer that a large amount of his fame is due to being engaged to someone more famous (she was on the same list as #15, btw) . Even worse, every celeb in the special had an indicative tagline that was a famous quote or phrase (i.e. Arnold Schwarzenegger-“I’ll be back“, Hugh Hefner-“Big Pimpin‘”) . Guess what his was? Mr. Jennifer Lopez. Damn.

So should Ben Affleck play Batman?

Given all the vitriol i’ve just shown, obviously not, right? Honestly, I know i’m blasphemous for saying this but I really DON’T CARE who plays Batman. Batman isn’t this deep, nuanced character, he’s a franchise. The reason why DC has gotten so much use out of the property was because they can do whatever the fuck they want with the character without violating his identity. He hasn’t “grown” in the near century since his inception, just reinvented. Why do you think that the 60’s Batman series, the Burton films, the Schumacher films, the Nolan Trilogy, and the Animated series are all so different yet successful? It’s because the character is malleable. He’s a concept that can fit any story imaginable. Compare Batman to Spider-Man, who, while having different series, is always the same character that Stan Lee envisioned him to be. You’ll never see a “dark and gritty” Spider-Man or a “realist” Spider-Man. That’s because Peter Parker is intended a REAL person who has a specific personality. If he were to be in a world similar to the 60’s Batman series, he’d have to lose most of his flippancy just to sell us on the campiness. If he were in a comic similar to The Dark Knight Returns (1986), he’d have to lose much of the whimsy associated with the character. He has his limits as a property, you can’t just make him, say, a pirate.

Unlike some people

Unlike some people

Fact is, Batman is such a loosely conceived character that anyone with a decent chin could put on his costume. This isn’t to say he’s a flat character, he’s just a ‘high concept’ character, like Superman, who focuses more on connotations and iconography than character traits. By virtue of this, any actor can bring something to the character: Michael Keaton brought an eccentricity to Wayne that made him more affable, Val Kilmer brought a coldness that made Batman seem more like a shell-shocked soldier. I’m not the best person to comment on Ben Affleck as an actor (i’ve only seen a few of his films), but I think he could have a very interesting take on the character. Maybe he’ll have a lighter approach than Bale; maybe he’ll be a bit more vulnerable. It’s hard to tell. A lot of people said Michael Keaton was a bad fit for Batman, but afterwards many said he put in a decent performance. Same was said for Heath Ledger as Joker, and look at how THAT turned out. Personally, I think that no matter how he plays it, Affleck will add to the wonderful tapestry of Batmen to date. Or at least fuel some great memes.

For more commentary on the Batman franchise:

Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in the Batman Mythos

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“This isn’t Metropolis…this isn’t the city of tomorrow…it’s Gotham,and if you want to see what that means, just check out your squad room”-Gotham Central #7

Superheroes tend to be subversive of law enforcement. Aside from the illegality of vigilantism, it’s difficult to have much respect for a a moderately trained guy with pistol when compared to a billionaire genius ninja detective. Despite this, most superheroes since the induction of the comic code have had genial relations with law enforcement. It helps that superheroes rarely target “mundane” crime. Superman’s enemies tend to be as strong as he is; the X-men stick to “mutant crime” and so on. Despite this, Batman works with the police. Or really, I should say a single policeman: Commissioner Gordon. Mostly because Gotham cops are fucking dicks. Most “gritty” iterations of the franchise portray the police as at best impotent and at worst, as bad as Gotham’s criminals. This element is prevalent enough to even be present in video games such as MMORPG DC Universe Online, where Gotham cops are enemies to hero players.

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Just so you know: he’s a dirty cop

The GCPD’s corruption makes sense for a few reasons. For one, the Batman franchise derives heavily from film noir, a genre with cynical attitudes towards humanity and fate. Even the police can’t be relied upon in the genre; in Frank Miller’s Sin City, every character, no matter their alignment, is wary of the police.

Sin City: The Big Fat Kill #3 1995

Sin City

In addition, Batman fights predominantly “normal” people (at least by comic book standards), who the cops should be able to handle. Law enforcement has to be ineffectual in order to justify the need for a Batman. Sometimes they’re just incompetent; Tim Burton’s Batman had a Commissioner Gordon who was nothing more than a face for the police (the guy wears fucking tuxedos to busts).

Batman (1989)

Dumbass

Incompetent cops just aren’t enough to get across the dramatic weight of Batman’s quest. Giving the city a culture that enforces crime allows for an even bleaker Gotham to save. This is most prevalent in Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller’s origin story that details the beginning of Bruce Wayne and James Gordon’s careers. We see through Gordon’s introduction that calling the GCPD corrupt would be an understatement…

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The Commissioner even implies that he wants officers who are dirty.

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As you could see, Frank Miller tends to veer towards the “extreme” side of police corruption where everyone is as evil as possible. This isn’t totally ridiculous; LA’s infamous “Rampart scandal” in the 90’s involved a branch of the police called C.R.A.S.H. who literally REWARDED murder and evidence tampering with commendations. In Dekalb County Georgia, corrupt sheriff Sidney Dorsey assembled a group of cops to pose as gang-bangers in order to assassinate his political rival Derwin Brown, showing that even those at the top can be as corrupt as Gotham’s ex-commissioner.

Despite Frank Miller’s extreme depictions, Batman:Year One was considered canonical by DC Comics, meaning that all of the events “really” occurred in continuity. So Gotham’s previous police department ordered a hit on a newborn, blew up a tenement with civilians in the vicinity, and casually beat up teenagers on the street. Holy shit. Miller definitely went with the amoral cops route for police corruption, which works well for his “dark and edgy” stories, but has several unfortunate implications. In Metropolis, we can at least assume that the police department works in the favor of the people’s interest (as one would like to assume of most law enforcement), meaning that we can trust the local government by extension, and thus we can trust the city itself. If Gotham’s cops are corrupt, and its government is corrupt, then the CITY itself is, by default, corrupt. And if that’s true,why should anyone care if it gets saved? As with most superhero works, there are no “normal” people to care about, just heroes and villains. If the police are bad guys too it almost makes Batman’s quest silly (well, silli-er). It’s no wonder why so many antagonists seem to suggest just destroying Gotham; what Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, and Bane all seem to agree on in the Nolan trilogy is that crime is inherently systemic. It begins from the top and ends at the bottom in the slums of Gotham. Until the police are reformed, the city can’t improve.

250px-GothamCentralCv22 One way to alleviate the unfortunate implications of Gotham’s corruption is by showing that the police force, even when misconducting themselves, have the best intentions. The biggest canonical kinda dirty/kinda good cop in the franchise is Detective Harvey Bullock (to the left). In case you’re wondering, he’s that fat cop in the animated series who’s kind of a douche. In comics, he’s probably the closest thing you get to a sympathetic corrupt cop. He takes bribes, but other cops trust him. He allows a attempted murder suspect’s identity to leak to the mafia, but that’s to avenge Commissioner Gordon. He has ties to the organized crime but uses it to gain info on crimes. He’s complicated.

Strangely enough, despite being quite a staple of the franchise, Bullock doesn’t appear in media outside of the comics and the animated series but is represented by characters who are pretty much the same person. His representatives in the Batman films are decidedly less morally ambiguous. In 1989’s Batman, his stand-in Detective Eckhardt accepts bribes from criminals and attempts to murder the same guys in order to stay out of trouble. In Batman Begins (2005), his stand-in Detective Flass (who for some reason has the name of the guy from Batman: Year One) is just as corrupt. I guess Bullock just looks so unsavory due to his fatness and manner that most adaptations just make him dirty to contrast with Gordon. In addition, comic writers can’t seem to decide if he has good intentions or is just corrupt. The is probably because, no offense to them, most comic writers aren’t capable or willing to get across the conflicts of being an ACTUAL crime fighter. The series Gotham Central goes in this direction, basically turning the Bat mythos into Dragnet with real cops interacting with the rogues gallery the way real cops would. Police misconduct is portrayed in reasonable degrees as opposed to extremes.

Gotham Central #15

Gotham Central

Gotham Central2 Gotham Central3Sometimes cops have to break the rules in order to get a job done. Sometimes cops just run out of ideas. While these methods aren’t always the best, they are human responses to often difficult scenarios. In the world of Gotham Central, normal cops have to go against men like Mr. Freeze and the Joker, people way outside of their pay-grade. It would be hard to conceive of how would one deal with such threats without being forced or compelled to go outside the line.

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Arguably, the best commentary on police misconduct in Gotham is the character Deputy Commissioner Peter Foley in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), played by Matthew Modine (who oddly enough WASN’T a character from the comics). Remember how I said a cop has to be either corrupt or stupid in order to make Batman look good? Well he manages to do both to a realistic degree.

Foley is introduced talking to Gordon at a high-class party, where Foley tries to convince him to pay attention to crime statistics, which Gordon rejects in favor of his “gut” feelings. He also suggests that he talks to the mayor, which Gordon also dismisses by saying that’s Foley’s department. We get some quick distinctions here between the two: Gordon is more concerned with crime on a personal level that goes beyond statistics, which is all Foley knows about. Gordon doesn’t care about political maneuvering whereas Foley relishes it. If Gordon is the “good cop” than Foley is by default the “bad cop”. He’s not evil at all, only his aims have been “corrupted”. Rather than focusing on public service, he’s more concerned with personal glory. For example, when Batman appears, his main interest is one-upping Gordon to make himself look good by catching him, rather than containing the more immediate threat of Bane’s gang. His lack of “good cop” goals seems to affect his competency as well; when Blake is introduced as another “good cop”, his passion for the job allows him to believe fellow good cop Gordon’s story about soldiers in the sewers, which Foley of course scoffs at. Blake also manages to connect corrupt Wayne Industries board member Roland Daggett to Bane through ambitious detective work, which Gordon implies Foley was supposed to do, but clearly failed. Foley’s lack of “good cop-ness” comes to a head after Bane’s takeover, where he flat out decides to not get involved with the plan to save his fellow officers. Up until this point, the guy seems like a lost cause…until Batman returns to Gotham.

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Eventually, we see the effect the symbol had on Foley during the siege on Bane’s troops, when Foley not only joins the cops, but leads them in full uniform.

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Foley dies doing his duty. The film never elaborates why the symbol of Batman meant so much to Foley then when it didn’t mean anything before, perhaps it was something akin to a “spiritual rebirth” that born-again Christians often allude to. While this could easily be chalked up to sentimentality (and it definitely is), that doesn’t take away from the fact Foley, a cop who seemingly had no more “good cop” left in him, was redeemed by the hope Batman brought. He became a “born-again officer”. In a “realist” scenario that Nolan claims the films take place in, Batman is just a man. He can beat up bad guys but he can’t fight crime alone. As Bruce Wayne postulates in Batman Begins: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy”. For the police officers of Gotham, that meant inspiring them to risk their lives to save their city. This is in stark contrast to The Dark Knight (2008), where many police officers are said to have been in the pocket of organized criminals which culminated in the fall of Harvey Dent. The last film left us with a disturbing view of the GCPD, but this film manages to redeem them along with Foley. The cops retaking of Gotham and Foley’s sacrifice shows what makes Batman (and the superhero in general) such a resonant character: he makes us want to be better.

For commentary on the questionable morals of Batman himself: 

Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Black Masculinity in Narrative Media Part 2: Positive Discrimination

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See, it’s not enough for the new black kid on the team to be just as competent as everyone else on the team, oh no. He has to be Super Negro and beat the snot out of everybody else in the entire gymnastics world“— The Agony Booth‘s recap of the Mister T episode “Mystery of the Golden Medallion”.

To read the first part of the series,”Cornball Brothers”, go here  . For the third part, “Noble Savages”, go here

Post-Civil Rights Movement, many writers realized that African Americans were given a pretty bad shake when it came to cultural depictions. They were at best benign pets and at worst, savages. As such, many tried to rewrite the image of blacks in the media through “ positive discrimination ”. Whites (particularly heterosexual male WASPs) are independent entities in the minds of most Americans. The default audience is white, therefore whiteness has become the “non-race” of America. Race was only pondered when whites came upon others who were not them. This is why many misguided youths often want to appropriate culture from other races in order to be part of a “cause” so they can feel distinguished in some way (a phenomenon dating back to the first ” hipsters ” during the rise of jazz). Because whites have no “culture”, their flaws are viewed as individual and not representative of a whole. In contrast, other races appear homogeneous (hence stereotypes). Therefore, if a minority is portrayed as having ANY flaw, this becomes a commentary on minorities in general.

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This issue vacillates heavily: The Cosby Show was accused of portraying an “unrealistic” African American family because they were upper middle class, nuclear (mother, father, daughter, son), and college-educated. On the other hand, shows like House of Payne are often thought of as going too far in the other direction by over-representing African American cultural tropes such as being loud and boisterous. It’s much easier to deal with singular blacks in terms of narrative; and since this is still a man’s world, these singular blacks will more than likely be men. On the other hand, we’re still dealing with mainstream (i.e. white) media, so that singular black is more than likely going to be surrounded by plural whites. As such, it’s hard for the black guy to not be discriminated against, even tacitly. And here’s where positive discrimination comes in: what if the one black guy is actually BETTER than his peers? What if he’s stronger, smarter, and more noble than they can ever hope to be? This satiates the audience’s desire for “diversity” and “acceptance”. As with many narrative tropes, there are several problems with this narrative device.

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Probably the first consistently positive black male actor in America was Sidney Poitier, an academy award winner who was most prominent from the mid 40’s till the late 60’s. As a character actor: Sidney was typecast as intelligent, authoritative, and all-around awesome professionals. In The Heat of The Night ( 1967 ), he played a high ranking police officer who goes to the district of a racist slob of a sheriff. In All The Young Men , he played a hyper-competent Sergeant to a bunch of idiot white privates. If you’re in a film with him, he’s better than you. Given the romance of Poitier, it was inevitable he would end up in a film that centered on a romantic conflict.

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In one of his most famous films, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), Poiter drops by the home of Spencer Tracy as his daughter’s fiancée. She of course neglects to tell her father about his chronic skin condition, which he doesn’t take well. Now let’s be honest; in real life this situation statistically would have had an African American of average means, average looks, and average averageness. But since this is SIDNEY FUCKING POITIER, he’s an Ivy League educated physician. Spencer Tracy is portrayed as having a huge crisis over their engagement because of his blackness, completely ignoring that he’s significantly  more successful than most white men. Hell, the couple don’t even seem to have sex (neither of them seems to care that they sleep in separate rooms during their visit), implying that he’s even chaste enough to wait for marriage. Tracy’s turmoil is portrayed sympathetically, as most whites at the time would have been taken aback at the notion of interracial marriage. Sidney’s obvious superiority, however, has a very unfortunate implication. Most Romance films focus on protagonists with flaws that obstruct a relationship. In the film She’s Out Of My League (2010), 50% of the main cast (the dorky Jay Baruchel) is vastly outclassed in every conceivable way by the other 50% (the luscious Alice Eve).

I mean…goddamn

It’s not just looks either: he doesn’t have advanced education, is the butt of his friends’ jokes, and has no career trajectory. Despite being so lacking, Jay is still accepted by Alice throughout most of the film, which he eventually accepts as true love. The general idea is that when someone loves you, you have objective value. By extension, Romantic film affirms the value of the audience, since most people have felt like they were in love, and most people would like to be objectively valuable no matter how unattractive or batshit crazy they are.

Positive discrimination subverts that idea, as we see in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Poitier’s fiance loves him, but he’s such a paragon of manhood that we never feel it’s because of who he is as a person. In any other romantic film, he’d be a better fit as a romantic rival given his awesomeness. Spencer Tracy’s character being suspect of someone arguably more successful than himself is laughable. As such, it’s difficult for an average man (black or white) to relate to Poitier’s character. This points to the larger issue of many of his roles (and Hollywood in general): Sidney Poitier was more of a “model minority” than a foil for the audience. This happens even today: if not funny/thuggish/poor, a black actor pretty much has to be infallible (Denzel Washington, Idris Elba, etc). For fear of racial backlash, creators feel that a black man in fiction has to be AMAZING in order to be a respectable character.

One of the most common instances of this occurs in modern mainstream superhero comics, where token black characters are often even more heroic than other heroes.

Backstory of Mr. Terrific

Backstory of DC superhero Mr. Terrific

In the series Reign of the Supermen (1993), four super-powered dudes attempt to become the protector of Metropolis after the death of Superman (he got better). Most of them fail to live up to the legacy: one of them is a kryptonian clone who nukes muggers, two of them attempt to actively subvert the legacy of Superman in order to boost their own cred, and one is a cyborg (inventively named “Cyborg Superman”) who ends up becoming a mass murderer.

3364126-steel Of course, the only one who is heroic happens to be John Henry Irons aka “Man of Steel” – which was later shortened to just “Steel” (yes, that Steel) – an African American engineer who builds a suit that allows him to be a Superman stand-in ( albeit at a drastically lower level ). Despite being the only human in the bunch, Steel is not only capable, he’s arguably more heroic than Superman himself. After being orphaned at a young age, Irons realizes that (according to his origin story)  the only way to protect his family was to become rich and powerful “. Well obviously. So he got into Yale on a football scholarship where he studied engineering, got money, and started developing weapons for the government. He then uses his money and resources to become a hero.

This character’s primary trait is his perfection: he’s a self made genius millionaire athlete superhero who takes up the mantle of SUPERMAN, yet is humble, pacifistic, and always deferential. And he’s boring as shit. Few writers delve into how ANY of these elements affect the character’s personality. Does he have a chip on his shoulder due to having to struggle so much? Is he cocksure due to his vastly superior abilities? Does he date/have sex? How does he feel about violence? Mind you, this is a character who debuted in the nineties, where every hero who wasn’t comically intense was at least fleshed out a bit more than before. Like Steel, Iron Man is an industrialist who’s inability to control his products led to the series Armor Wars (1987-1988) where he became paranoid about who was using his weapons. Like Steel, Batman lost his parents and had to forge himself at a young age, which is heavily implied to have given him a very abnormal mental state, which we see in series such as Arkham Asylum (1989). I’m not saying Steel should mimic these heroes, but I do think the lack of equivalent character exploration is suspect. Steel has no more depth than a superhero version of the ” Successful Black Man ” meme. Characters such as Black Lightning, Black Panther, and Luke Cage similarly tend to be written shallowly. Even black villains aren’t immune to this.

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The Thor villains dubbed the “ Wrecking Crew ” consist of a bunch of working-class hoods who accidentally got empowered by an Asgardian goddess. All of them are white except Eliot Franklin aka ” Thunderball ” who’s a fucking physicist who invented a gamma bomb superior to Bruce Banner’s. He’s only in the crew because he committed robberies to fund his experiments, which landed him in jail with the rest of the team (because it’s not like anyone would PAY a genius level nuclear physicist for R&D). And of course, he’s the only character who considers it blasphemous to attack Thor’s homeland of Asgard, so he’s even the most moral of the thieves. Not only is the juxtaposition of a genius level physicist street thug extremely silly (even by comic book standards), it’s not even at least handled sincerely. Thunderball never parlays his genius into becoming a more effective villain, at best he attempts to overthrow his boss in order to become leader of a shitty gang. He only serves as a token and as a “testament” to the writers’ lack of racism. As with Steel, the desire to make a non-offensive character eclipses actually making a good character.

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While seemingly innocent, positive discrimination is often caused by discomfort with race rather than acceptance of it. Political correctness requires people to ignore race, to ignore people in favor of a two dimensional image that “equalizes” us. True diversity requires a recognition of humanity not avoidance of it. In the play/film A Raisin In The Sun ( 1961 ), protagonist Walter Younger ( ironically, played by Sidney Poitier ), is the patriarch of a black family living in the impoverished south side of Chicago. Unlike Poitier’s other roles, Walter is a established early as a schlub: his introduction parallels his difficulties getting out of bed with that of his son’s, equating him with a pre-pubescent child.

African-American men’s ” arrested development ” is a commonly touched upon topic socially, but rarely in media (at least not explicitly and especially not in regard to fathers). Here we see a man who’s immediately painted as being not much more mature than his own son: he hides his inadequacies through misogynist remarks, he constantly obsesses over his own success over others’, and he avoid responsibility whenever possible. He’s several black male stereotypes given form.

Many writers would have dismissed the character as a two-dimensional asshole. For example, it’s tragically common in Tyler Perry films that black men who are flawed are portrayed as unsympathetically as possible. In I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009), Taraji P. Henson’s boyfriend is so laughably evil that in his first appearance he lobs racial slurs at a guest, threatens small children, and even implies raping one of said small children.

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This is all in his FIRST SCENE, by the way

Rather than making Walter a one-note stereotype, the film establishes sympathy for him by expanding on what made him who he is. His mother Lena (to the left in the picture) describes a father who passed on his own unattainable dreams to his son Walter, who had no more resources than his father. Walter’s so poor that he can’t afford to give his son $8 for school, signalling a continuation of poverty for his son as well. As such, Walter’s obsessed with using his dead father’s will money to open a liquor store, which would give him the fiscal autonomy he or his father never had. His mother objects to this immediately. Walter continues to perform several selfish acts throughout the film, including using the money to fund a liquor store anyway, only to be robbed by his supposed partner.

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What makes Walter such a great character is that he’s pathetically human. He embodies several of the challenges black men (and men in general) face even today. As such, his personal journey throughout the film is compelling. His triumph over his own compulsions at the end is impressive due to his weaknesses: when offered enough money to recoup his losses from a white man who wants he and his family to not move into his neighborhood, he considers then rejects his offer for the sake of his family.

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The film’s realism doesn’t presuppose the family or Walter go on to success, what it gives us at the end is a man willing to try to do what’s best. Walter isn’t perfect, and the film wants us to sympathize with him anyway. The film acknowledges some of the hard truths of black manhood while at the same time making a nuanced character, something several black directors (*cough*Tyler Perry*cough*)  have either avoided or failed at. Race will always continue to exist no matter how many writers try to ignore it. Rather than attempting to whitewash the notion, I believe it’s more important to recognize it, or at least not be afraid of invoking it.

For more thoughts on African American race relations:

Slave Ownership as Seen In Roots

Django Unchained: Reflections on Calvin Candie

Bats In The Belfry: Batman as a Heroic Psychopath

Batman-Begins

“ And there is something out there in the darkness, something terrifying, something that will not stop until it gets revenge…Me ” – Batman Begins Teaser Trailer

What constitutes heroism has always been fluid. Should one’s actions be the deciding factor, or one’s intent? I’m certain most have heard the story of the late ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, who after a long, failed attempt to expose police corruption, decided to take martial action against the LAPD itself. His story isn’t too different from Frank Serpico’s, a police officer who also recognized corruption and sought to stamp it out ( with some mild success ). Paramount even made a film made about his crusade starring Al Pacino, which many would call the ultimate stamp of public approval. Will a film be made about Chris Dorner? I mean, he had good intentions (well, up until the multiple murders). We could assume the answer. This illustrates the common dissonance that exists between heroic intent and heroic action. Both men had goals that most would consider heroic, but disconnected when it came to their final actions. Dorner will never be considered a hero, in fact he would be considered quite the villain.

Compared to the other major heroes in the DC universe, Batman has consistently been written as the most suspect. Sure, all superheroes are by definition vigilantes, but Batman’s particular brand of vigilantism has an aire of madness to it.

Batman R.I.P. (2008)

Case in point

Case in point

He’s no god like Superman, just a guy who forced himself to become one in order to fight crime. He also has the additional peculiarities that come with the genre ( motif, modus operandi, etc ). His impetus for heroics just adds to how crazy he seems, after seeing the death of his parents, he decides “why not become a bat monster?”. That’s weird. This is probably why most works tiptoe around what happened in-between his parents murder and his modern day exploits. Hell, it took seven months into his original comic series for Bob Kane to even establish that his parents WERE murdered.

Detective Comics (1940)

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Such a detail might have been considered too morbid to begin a comic series, since it casts Batman’s seemingly gallant crusade as a little more pathological. Despite this, his early appearances in Detective Comics portrayed him as not being shy about enacting extreme violence upon criminals. In his first comic appearance, Detective Comics #27 in 1939, he casually throws an unarmed robber OFF A BUILDING!!!

He also purple gloves for some reason

He also purple gloves for some reason

In the same issue, he punches a man into a VAT OF ACID.

He has a bit of a penchant for that

He has a bit of a penchant for that

He even expresses his pleasure at the outcome, saying that it was “a fitting end for his kind”. Cold-blooded. Oh and he occasionally carried a gun as well.

"What? Guns? That's your power, you shoot guns? There's no theme at all here."

“What? Guns? That’s your power, you shoot guns? There’s no theme at all here.”-Mystery Men

While this might sound jarring to modern fans of the character, it’s important to know that the Batman your familiar with is partially the product of censorship, particularly from an organization known as the Comics Code Authority. The organization was created in 1954 when many moral guardians were concerned with the message comics, especially ones featuring superheroes, were sending to youngsters. As you could imagine, a guy who punches people into acid was pretty disconcerting to these people. Therefore, Bats (and all superheroes for that matter) had to take on more family friendly aspects: instead of being a wanted criminal, Batman worked along with the cops through Commissioner Gordon, instead of using real weapons, Batman used gimmicky tools, and most importantly, he acquired a code to not kill.

Infinite Crisis (2005)

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Whereas many other popular superheroes fit well into the brave new world of censorship, there was always some incongruity with Batman’s role as a non-killer. Bob Kane and Bill Finger based Batman on unfettered heroes such as the Phantom and Zorro, who wouldn’t hesitate to kill someone. Superman can play with kid gloves due to his power, but Batman can’t. More importantly, he still has that horrific origin driving him. His abilities stem from the pain of loss, his motif from childhood terror. Even the whimsy of the Silver Age of Comics couldn’t reconcile that, hence why it was rarely acknowledged in mediums such as the 60’s Batman live action series.

Batman Begins has a very unique take on Bruce’s mental transition from disturbed child to Batman. The film gives us a flashback to a young adult Bruce, well before his international journey, when he realizes his father’s killer has been caught. Bruce appears at the trial, only to see the man shot by a mafia gunman. In the ensuing chaos, Rachel Dawes (the attractive one) scoops him up and drives him to safety, during which he reveals that he intended to shoot the killer himself.

Batman Begins (2005)

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The implications of the scene are reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where the deranged Travis Bickle intends to shoot a senator, but is thwarted by his bodyguards, which leads Bickle to “save” a child prostitute by killing her pimp and all of his associates (it makes more sense in context). This turns him into a local hero.

Taxi Driver (1976)

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Like Travis Bickle, Bruce’s intentions here are driven more from rage than heroism. He intends to get revenge upon the man who killed his father by killing him. If he could have accomplished this, would he have still become Batman, or would his bloodlust have been sated? Keep in mind that Bruce is clearly in at least his mid-twenties by the time this trial takes place, meaning that he spent most of his life wanting to kill this man, not learning how to be a ninja in order to save people. The assertion could be made that whatever compulsion makes him want to be Batman is something akin to what made him want to kill that guy. In addition, there’s no way Bruce could have committed that act without being immediately recognized as the killer. Bruce Wayne’s name would have been coupled with the title “assassin” for all history, just like the aforementioned Christopher Dorner (see, there was a point to that tangent after all!).

Bruce’s morals is a lens for real-life history,which is filled with almost heroes/almost villains. The prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point would have almost assuredly been named after Benedict Arnold, who was the commander at the military fort it was based on, if it wasn’t for that whole treason thing. Now he’s American history’s greatest traitor, despite his admirable pre-War career. Likewise, Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s favorite son, could have easily been Gotham’s infamous murderer.

Batman:Gotham Knight (2008)/Taxi Driver

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Outside of the film, the idea of Batman’s heroism being a front has been touched upon in works such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), where Joker tells one of his many possible origin stories, this one stating that he was a down-on-his-luck comedian and husband who pretended to be the Red Hood, another Batman villain, in order to rob a chemical factory. I think you know where the rest of this goes (they really need more OSHA inspectors in Gotham). This caper was supposed to help out his wife, who dies before the heist happens anyway, on the same day he takes the dip. Joker, in a moment of terrifying insight, postulates that Batman probably had a “really bad day” like he did. Joker sees Batman as a psychopath, like he is, who went through a tragedy so jarring that he couldn’t reconcile it rationally. This casts Batman’s actions as equally as insane as Joker’s. His persona is borne of madness, not heroism.

Unlike the man Joker once was, Bruce in Batman Begins has the benefit of Rachel Dawes to set him straight about what’s just. Her response to Bruce’s confession is a slap and a trip to the ghetto to look at Gotham’s underclass, which she punctuates with “I know you are a good person Bruce, but it’s not who you are, but what you do that defines you”. For a genre as unambiguously black and white as the superhero genre, this is a very odd notion. Shouldn’t right and what’s wrong be decided by intent? Shouldn’t good intentions yield good actions?

In Batman Begins’ screenplay, writer David Goyer makes excellent use of supporting characters as a way to connect Batman with the “real” world that Bruce doesn’t exist in. Bruce is a kid dressing up and playing cowboys and Indians, he doesn’t have any social conscience for the most part. In Batman: Year One (1987), Bruce laments having to fly for his return to Gotham, claiming that “he wants to see the enemy”, indicating a fairly stark view of Gotham’s criminal underworld. In Batman: Noel ( 2011 ), A Christmas Carol homage casting Batman as a Scrooge analogue, Batman even threatens violence upon a low level Joker minion on Christmas Eve who is trying to support his children.

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Due to his wealth, constant travelling, and his status as a wacko, Bruce is vastly disconnected from the concerns of normal people. This is pointed out by Rachel and the film’s warm-up antagonist, Carmine Falcone, who reminds Bruce that he’s still several times better off than most people in Gotham. Because of his disconnectedness, he views crime-fighting as almost a holy crusade rather than a social necessity. Rachel Dawes, as a district attorney, represents real life law and order, a system that wouldn’t allow the type of violent, indiscriminate action Bruce wishes to take. In a way, Rachel becomes the diegetic equivalent to the Comics Code Authority; she forces him to continue his exploits in a more socially palatable manner. He reiterates her lesson later in the film when she asks who he (dressed as Batman) is: “Someone once told me it doesn’t matter who I am inside; it’s what I do that counts”. Bruce has apparently adopted what Rachel has espoused by the film’s end; he’s subordinated his malice for the good of the city.

Even though the modern Batman has been consistently portrayed as never breaking the sixth commandment, it hasn’t stopped many writers from alluding to his desire to kill. In The Dark Knight Returns, in order to stop a bomb from destroying a skyscraper, he rewires an explosive in some goons’ helicopter to explode while they’re flying. His comment on the act?  “Two men die, leaving the world no poorer”. Bruce recognizes the consequence of his decision, but is almost callous in his indifference towards it. As with the Joker minion in Noel, all criminals are pieces of shit as far as he’s concerned, so who cares if they die? What keeps him from making lethal action a norm doesn’t seem to be concern for his enemies, but instead a fear of who he will become if he does take such action.

Batman Forever (1995)

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In Batman Forever, Bruce makes an appeal to Dick Grayson/Robin as to why he shouldn’t kill his parents’ murderer;

“It will happen this way: you make the kill, but your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows, so you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you don’t know why…We’re the same”

Bruce sees the same anger that drives him in Dick (which is similar to how Robin recognizes Bruce as Batman due to his “hidden anger” in The Dark Knight Rises [2012] ) and gives him what is his rationale for not going down a lethal path. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t speak hypothetically, he’s making an assertion (“It will happen this way“). One could hypothesize that the film’s Batman HAS killed men in the past, but another argument is that Bruce views his crusade as Batman as a long revenge mission anyway, sans killing. If Dick is destined to follow the same path, he could at least live with it better if he foregoes lethal methods. Robin works well as a foil for Bruce’s psychoses since he represents the child that Bruce was when his parents died (specifically, the first Robin). This is why it’s so important for Bruce to guide Robin, since he fears that the boy could possibly succumb to the compulsions that plague him.

Batman: Under The Red Hood (2010)

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In the comic arc Under the Red Hood , Robin (albeit a different one) once again acts as a foil for Bruce’s mental state. Jason Todd, a Robin who died in a fight with Joker, is resurrected and attempts to get revenge on the clown.

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During a tense showdown with Joker and Batman, Robin asks Batman why he didn’t kill Joker to avenge him (or at least for all the countless others). He responds:

It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others and then end him…but if I do that, I’ll allow myself to go down into that place, I’ll never come back”.

Notice that Bruce doesn’t make an appeal to a social code of any kind (which Robin assumes he will). Instead, he makes an appeal to his desire for self-control. He knows his desires are not as pure-of-heart as others may think, and allowing himself to exercise them will possibly destroy what he’s been trying to create his whole career. Would the people of Gotham be as inspired by a murderous vigilante? Would children have the same admiration for him? Would law enforcement be as willing to rally behind him, as they do in The Dark Knight Rises? Probably not, since killing is often considered the most savage of human compulsions. As Ra’s al Ghul instructs him in Batman Begins, in order to change Gotham, he must transcend humanity and become an ideal. While this sounds like motivational bullshit, it isn’t really. Look at Marxism, Nazism, Christianity, all bodies of thought created by humans. These men were not their ideals in life, but in legacy. The Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins succeeds in leaving a legacy in The Dark Knight Rises, as his defeat of Bane and liberation of Gotham causes a monument to be erected in his honor. He will be associated, for better or worse, with the preservation of life, not the deliverance of death. Batman Begins’ Bruce Wayne could be thought of as attempting to create the image of Batman that exists in mainstream comics; a man who utilized personal tragedy in order to change the world for the better.

Batman Incorporated (2010)

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“My parents taught me a…lesson… lying on this street… shaking in deep shock… dying for no reason at all. They showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to”-The Dark Knight Returns

For more Batman related posts:

Superstitious and Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Ben Affleck as Batman: Why So Serious?

For more DC Comics related posts:

Superman as Defined by Lex Luthor

The Lois Lane Effect

From Comic to TV: CW’s Arrow as an Adaptation of Green Arrow

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

For more superhero related posts:

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

The Best Spider-Man Issue Ever / Why Spider-Man is a Classic Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

And finally, proof of Batman’s douchiness:

Superman as Defined by Lex Luthor

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“You can learn a lot from someone you hate.”-Lex Luthor, Smallville

A sage artist (Bruce Willis) once said that “Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy”. In essence, he’s saying that the villain makes the plot.

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In regards to Die Hard (1988), the movie Bruce was referring  too, the antagonist Hans Gruber is a cultured terrorist who turns out to just be a thief. His personality is in stark contrast to the crude McClane, who manages to outsmart the more educated Gruber with wily “street” tactics. Gruber helps define what’s heroic about McClane: his earthiness as opposed Gruber’s refinement, his brusqueness as opposed to Gruber’s smoothness. If not for Gruber, McClane would just be an asshole.

What makes a hero a hero, and actually creates the necessary conflict for a strong plot,is a villain who is his/her antithesis. Value can only come from distinction, after all. Like John McClane, most superheroes have several villains to choose from, each of which can emphasize a different conflict. Spider-Man’s antagonists Doctor Octopus, Lizard, or Green Goblin are often used as a representative of “science gone wrong” as opposed to “science gone right” (Spidey himself). On the other hand, the villain Venom is often used as an example of how Spidey’s power can be misused in the wrong hands. Superman has many villains as well, but the only one who shares the same gravitas as he is Lex Luthor, who challenges him like no other.

        Superman #4 (April 1940)

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Despite the prominence of Lex Luthor, his introduction was not the most illustrious. He wasn’t the first bald scientist Superman fought (that would be the Ultra-Humanite) and he wasn’t even bald for that matter; he was a ginger! Originally, he was a childhood resident of Smallville who was balded by a laboratory accident which he blamed on Superman.

 Action Comics #292 (November 1962)

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His anger at Superboy causes him to devote the rest of his life to super science crimes, to make him mad for some reason.In a different world, he could have put on a mullet wig and became Joe Dirt.

Joe Dirt ( 2001 )

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While a dumbass origin story, it at least established the irrationality of Luthor’s personality when it comes to Superman. In a major arc of the Justice League animated series, Luthor funds a billion dollar campaign to run for president. When asked by another superhero why, he laughably claims to not even care, he just wanted to piss Superman off. Dick.

Mos4John Byrne’s Superman reboot Man of Steel revamped the character to fit the times, specifically 1980’s America. In a Reagan era country where the wealthy were viewed as acting without regard to others (as illustrated in films such as Wall Street and Changing Places),there could be no greater villain than a corrupt corporate executive. Rather than making shrinking machines for shits and gigs, he patented his brilliant innovations  in order to make billions (along with engaging in some illegal activities). If Superman represents what’s considered great about America (unfettered altruism), Luthor represents its seedier side; (unfettered capitalism). The reboot removed any connection between Superman and Lex Luthor at all; Lex’s animosity stems from sheer hubris. When Lex first views Superman’s grand introduction to Metropolis in Man of Steel, his secretary sarcastically asks “How does it feels to be the second most powerful man in Metropolis?”. This sums up Lex’s reason for antagonizing Supes: his very existence is affront to his success. This version of Lex Luthor isn’t just vastly wealthy, he’s also a self-made man. He was born in poverty to an abusive father in a red light district innocuously known as Suicide Slum. He made his fortune through self taught engineering and the murder of his own father for start-up capital.One could imagine how such a man,who had to “ pull himself up by his bootstraps ” for his entire life, would react to someone who has godhood as a birthright. In real life, human beings are not the best at reacting to clear disparities in ability or resources, especially when said disparities are not “earned”.

In social psychology, this phenomenon is called “Tall Poppy Syndrome” in which “ people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers ” (as quoted from Wikipedia).

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The term originates from Herodotus’ Histories, in which he claims that Greek ruler Thrasybylus implied that effective governing was akin to gardening his poppy garden, which he culled by cutting the tallest ears of wheat and discarding them. In the same vein, many versions of Lex Luthor consider themselves to be working in the public’s favor by attempting to cut down Superman and other heroes. In the series 52, Lex creates the“ Everyman Project ”, which was an effort to empower normal humans with meta-abilities, thus destroying the distinction of meta-humans. He of course wants to use the process on himself, but is told he is incompatible, leading him to kill some of his own created meta-humans.

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Despite his obvious personal hang-ups, Luthor’s reaction to Superman isn’t too far off from how real people would probably react in the given situation. Think of human achievement as a whole (sciences, philosophy, etc), then think of what the existence of an advanced alien race would mean for our pride in those endeavors. Superman isn’t just stronger, he’s often portrayed as being more intelligent and possessing superior technology than even Lex.

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In the film Men In Black (1997), Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is asked by James (Will Smith) why they don’t just tell people aliens exist. He responds by casually looking at the people around him and musing “ Look at them, enjoying their lives. People like to feel as if they have a bead on things ”. His observation deepens:

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow”.

All empirical disciplines are anthropic by necessity; we don’t have the benefit of being able to ask a squid or a cactus what they think life means (yet..). This is why the terracentric model of the universe was so popular, and also why no one could imagine the Earth didn’t have the shape that we view it as having. The narrative of humans significance in the universe is predicated on ignorance,as Kay points out. Therefore, the existence of a group of beings than are not only similar to us, but also superior would be horrifically jarring (some would say Lovecraftian) since it subverts our intellectual confidence. Lex Luthor is the “ panicky, dangerous animal ” Kay refers to. Supes is a man he can’t conquer, therefore he must reign him in. This explains Lex’s affectation of “ humanism ” in recent incarnations. Democratic philosophies like humanism often have the nefarious underwriting of aforementioned tall poppy syndrome: if everyone is equal, nobody can be superior (as pointed out by Dash in The Incredibles (2004) ; If everyone is special, nobody is “). People naturally want to be superior to someone; without superiority we would have very little to strive for. It’s just that there will always be someone of such inherent superiority that it cannot be matched by any amount of effort. Remember, Lex still wants power for himself (hence his betrayal of Project Everyman), despite his affectations of humanism. He justifies his own lust for power through “human ” determination, as opposed to Superman’s “alien” gifts.

Clark-Kent

While Lex thinks Superman spells the end for human pride, I would say he does the exact opposite. Look to his origin: a simple farm boy who happens to lift tractors finds out he’s not human. He’s actually the last living survivor of a hyper advanced alien race. Does he become a professional athlete and make millions? No. Does he topple the government and declare the world “Kentopia”? No. He doesn’t even become a professional arm wrestler (which would have made him the protagonist in the Stallone arm wrestling film film Over The Top).

Yes,this really is a film about arm wrestling

Yes, this really is a film about arm wrestling

He puts on a cape and becomes a superhero, no reward necessary. Clark didn’t need to suffer a horrific tragedy (ala Batman and Spider-Man) or be given a dictum of higher calling (ala Wonder Woman and Green Lantern) in order to become a superhero, all he needed was good old fashioned hometown morals. Raised on a farm, Supes was subject to the bucolic American upbringing that most of the country would like to believe they came from. The juxtaposition between his mundane and fantastic lineage parallels Jesus Christ, who distinguished himself from the Jewish authorities (according to the New Testament) through his humility, which was a result of being born to a rural family. This upbringing prepared him to use his abilities and knowledge in order to guide humanity; as the good book says “the meek shall inherit the Earth” (Matthew 5:5). Similarly, Superman’s parents taught him a few basic tenets: take care of your family and neighbors, do no harm, be responsible. These are all things we’ve probably heard at some point in our lives and applied.

New Adventures of Superboy #16 ( April 1981 )

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Clark took these ideas to heart and ran with them ; in his original continuity he even protected his childhood home of Smallville as Superboy, which loosely influenced the series SmallvilleAs an adult, he felt that the same neighborhood values held true on a macro-level, so he took the universe under his protection as well. His heroism is a scaled up version of most people’s. This is probably why most of the current iterations of the character emphasize how “ regular ” Superman really is. The first trailer for Man of Steel (2013) shows a series of shots around what one could assume to be Smallville. Near the end,we see an old homemade video of a young man putting on a haphazard red cape, which communicates to the audience that this is the boy who will become Superman.

While he may affect grandeur of a superhero, he’s just an optimistic kid at heart. Most works that attempt to deconstruct Superman (Irredeemable, Squadron Supreme) seem to suggest that his heroism comes from an authoritarian provincialism, especially The Dark Knight Returns where he’s portrayed as a smug stooge of the government.

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The fact is, Clark never thought of himself in such lofty ways. He’s just an honest guy trying his best to use his abilities for the betterment of humanity. For all intents and purposes, he is human, and that’s what makes him Super-MAN. If such small-town morals can inspire him to be the world’s greatest hero, then that validates the humans that hold them.

Man of Steel

matrix11 Abraham Lincoln once said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but it you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Despite Lex Luthor’s struggles, he’s never done anything to alleviate the challenges of his fellow man with his power. In All-Star Superman, Lex Luthor states that he could have “saved the world if it wasn’t for [ Superman ]” to which Superman responds “You could saved the world a million times if it pleased you”. Superman sees through the humanist façade of Luthor: if he wanted to better humanity, it could have been accomplished easily given his means. The fact is, he’s been engaged in a epic dick-measuring contest with Superman for almost a century. In All-Star Superman, once Luthor is confident he has started the machination for Superman’s death, he decides to bow out of life a winner, which he ironically tells to Clark Kent. Clark becomes uncharacteristically angered by this. tumblr_lkd3an99qz1qjx5slo1_500 Despite thinking he’s going to die soon, what angers Superman the most isn’t what his nemesis did to him, but the fact that he wasted his potential in a pointless grudge match. Lex doesn’t follow through with his “humanist” goals once he has defeated Superman, revealing his crusade to be a selfish pursuit. In contrast, Superman doesn’t view humanity as something to be conquered, he actually recognizes the strength of will and ability to accomplish what Lex has and is frustrated that Lex doesn’t see the kinship they share. What makes Superman the world’s greatest hero, at least according to him, is that he sees the best in humanity.

Lex Luthor All-Star Superman

It is a remarkable dichotomy. In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all. Then… he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him Batman

For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

The Lois Lane Effect

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bats In His Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

From Comic To TV: Arrow As An Adaptation of Green Arrow

And finally, Lex Luthor’s greatest sin…