Monday, May 19, 2008

re: Ben's request for a Top Ten list

This was a lot more difficult than I thought. I’m sure someone will think of something I forgot or take me to task for the ranking, both of which I look forward to. And I know, I know, Batman took up four of the spots. But how do you include one of those and not the others? Which do you drop from the list? This was a post that I planned to spend ten minutes on that has now eaten up too much time that should have been spent reading.

10. The Dark Knight trailer: So it’s only a trailer. It’s still awesome. It’s going to be the highlight of my summer. That and spending quality time with my wife and children. The Batman movie is obviously second on that list. It goes, wife and kids, Batman, Fourth of July picnic. That’s the hierarchy.

9. Greatest American Hero: Believe it or not, I just love the theme song.

8. Spiderman I and II (NOT III): Good, not great, but good enough to make the 5-8 range. It’s probably because they’re so recent and Spiderman is a childhood favorite.

7. X-Men I and II (NOT III): see explanation for #8

6. Unbreakable: M. Knight’s best and most underappreciated film. It is an homage to comic books. The nerd in me can’t resist that.

5. The Incredibles: I know it’s a kid’s movie. But it secretly contains liberal arguments for individual rights over the state (a la Harrison Bergeron), the ability of the individual to protect the state and, like in Iron Man, the villain is a defense contractor/weapons manufacturer.

4. Batman (the 60’s movie): “Must…reach…shark repellant…Batspray!”

3. Batman Begins: Christian Bale and Co. rebooted the franchise with a first installment that would make Loeb/Sale and Miller proud.

2. Batman: The Time Burton version that is. Jack Nicholson alone puts this one on the list.

1. Superman I: Christopher Reeve is the only true Superman. The rest are just pretenders to the throne. Again, I’m sentimental. “bum bum bum bum bum…BUM BUM BUM…bum bum bum bum bum…BUM BUM BUM!” I know you can hear it in your head.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

More Obama crowd

Drudge features this photo from an Obama rally in Oregon. As I have said here and here, this is going to be a meme for the summer and probably into the fall - Obama as cult leader. This complaint will be accompanied by the people who brought you "compassionate conservatism" and the Bush administration complaining about Obama's supposed lack of substance. They will fail to see how ironic they appear to be.

The word choice, alongside the image, is especially interesting. Beneath a crowd stretching for what feels like miles is the "Obama Mass," dual meaning of mass, implying both greatness in size and religious ceremony. It leads to a conjuring of images of the Pope, or a cult leader holding himself out to be a savior. Most of all, what the right will attempt to do is place in the minds of the voters the idea of the dangerous crowd, a great mass of people, naive, following the commands of totalitarian, unthinking. That is the worst part of it. The attack is on Obama supporters more than Obama. It says his supporters are somehow overly emotional, irrational, they can't be trusted; and so the voting choice can also not be trusted. It's an attack on the candidate through his supporters.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Subversive Superhero

I should begin this post with a confession. I am a comic book nerd. It’s pathetic but true. I love comic books. That being said, I finally have an opportunity to write down some thoughts about the Iron Man movie after having seen it a week ago. One of the things I find most interesting about film is the way contemporary issues of American foreign policy make their way into cinema. Iron Man is no exception to this rule.

The Nazis have been perfect all-purpose villains for decades. There was no shortage of war movies throughout WWII, not to mention the Office of War Information and its influence on popular culture and public opinion. There is also no shortage of Vietnam and post-Vietnam movies, Rambo of course topping off that category. The cold war worked its way into the American psyche in subtle ways through UFO films; hostile aliens being stand-ins for the Communists. It also presented itself more overtly in one of my personal favorites, Red Dawn. WOLVERINES!

It has been especially interesting to see the “war on terror” play out on the big screen. That’s where we find ourselves with Iron Man. Our hero is a defense contractor. What makes him the protagonist of the story is the fact that, after being held captive by terrorists in Afghanistan, the main character is reformed. He announces to the American news media that indiscriminate bombing is not doing the trick and that we need to find more humane and effective ways to battle the terrorists.

The antagonist of the film compounds this critique of the American military industrial complex. The character played by Jeff Bridges (warning: spoiler) is also a high level executive in the same corporation as our hero, the soon to be Iron Man. As it turns out, Bridges is a war profiteer. And not just that, he is a war profiteer who has been selling American technology to the terrorists. The leftist in me instantly goes to Prescott Bush, collaborating with the Nazis (or so the rumors go).

There is an explicitly anti-corporate tone to the movie as a whole. At various points Robert Downey Jr. is portrayed as being aloof and withdrawn from his wealth and power. He is shallow, surrounded by unearned financial largess that he apparently does not appreciate. That is, until he goes through the requisite transformational experience that is necessary to all superhero narratives.

The exclamation point on all of this is what may have been a line of dialogue that most viewers may not find to be too significant but I thought summed up these anti-corporate themes. As the antagonist has our hero on the ropes and is about to leave him for dead, as all villains do in superhero stories, he says to Iron Man, “you think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” And there it is. Throughout the film we see Iron Man labor over technology, his mechanical art, only to have the one character most symbolic of the corporation swoop in and appropriate it for his own means in one twist of the wrist. That line, worded and delivered perfectly, says so much about individual creativity and corporate appropriation of the work of the individual. It seems even more significant that Bridges delivers the line considering that he played Preston Tucker. Iron Man even featured a still from the film Tucker at one point; a movie whose themes are echoed in Iron Man.

Meanwhile, there are also underlying themes of the ability of an individual to outwit a corrupt bureaucracy and accomplish something for the greater good, the role of America as savior to the rest of the world, and the utility of advanced military technology (when it is under the control of that individual rather than the corrupt bureaucracy). In one scene four terrorists are holding innocent Afghani women and children at gunpoint. With a single push of a button Iron Man locks on target and simultaneously kills all four of them. He’s Uncle Sam in a shiny, metal, orange and crimson suit saving the Middle East.

While Iron Man was a surprisingly subversive critique of the military industrial complex and America’s exercising of its power abroad, at the end of the day there is no criticism for underlying assumptions of American military power. The solution is more exercising of that military might, just in more efficient ways and with a benevolent hand that helps people.

Thursday, May 08, 2008