Comic Books, Television, and Who Are Our Heroes?

falcon

Promotional image for the tv show “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”

So I happened to read Cora Buhlert’s review of the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier called Marvel’s “New World Order” – Some Thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (spoilers) expecting something light and entertaining. Not exactly what happened.

First of all, let me say that I haven’t seen any of the WandaVision mini-series and don’t anticipate watching this new show either. It’s not that I think they’ll be bad or I won’t enjoy them. I just don’t subscribe to streaming services. Well, besides that, I don’t have the time to dedicate myself to television shows anymore.

I used to watch all of the WB produced superhero shows, popularly known as the Arrowverse, but they were consuming so much of my free time, I didn’t have any left for things like writing and a life.

Okay, truth be told, as these shows progressed, especially Supergirl, the social and political tone became increasingly “unfriendly” and I really didn’t miss that after I stopped my viewing.

And while I have seen every single one of the Marvel and DC movies (okay, I haven’t seen The Snyder Cut), I haven’t regularly read modern comic books since the late 1990s (I still do read back issues, typically from the 1960s). There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is more or less the same as the reason for not watching the “Arrowverse” anymore.

I used to be a lot more liberal in my youth. My attitudes started to slowly change when I became a Dad in the mid-1980s and accelerated after moving to Idaho in the 1990s and into the 2000s. I think I came to a tipping point between the shift in my beliefs and values and how the comic book industry (and all of entertainment really) as a whole. They were shifting more left as I shifted more right.

I did try to read a Superman comic book during the New 52 but it didn’t do anything for me. I absolutely did not appreciate Superman renouncing his citizenship and Marvel turning Captain America into a Nazi.

Unlike the comic books and increasingly the TV shows, the mainstream superhero movies, since they have to attract a pretty wide audience to make money, aren’t as politicized, which is their saving grace.

Which brings me back to Cora’s review.

Remembering that she’s German, she sees America in a way most Americans don’t. No, it’s not like everyone in the U.S. has an identical perception, but when you live inside of a system, any system, you don’t easily see it objectively.

Hence, she spent quite a bit of time analyzing the national and military implications of the TV show in particular and Marvel movies (well, all American movies that portray the military) in general from what I can only imagine is a European viewpoint. Here’s a sample:

To be fair, Hollywood action films and TV shows in general are very pro-military and give a rat’s arse about the US military operating where it has neither business nor mandate to be. Marvel is far from the worst offender here, compared to the likes of NCIS, Hawaii Five-0 and various military glorifying action films like Top Gun.

True, Marvel has a remarkably high number of characters with a US military background, including some like Sam Wilson and Monica and Maria Rambeau, who don’t have a military background in the comics (Sam is a social worker and bird watcher from Harlem, while Monica is an officer of the New Orleans harbour patrol and her mother Maria is a seamstress in the comics).

and…

As for why there are so many more positive than ambiguous or negative portrayals of the military in the US entertainment media, this Daily Dot article by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw about Captain Marvel explains why. Basically, if you want fighter jets, tanks, military helicopter and planes, etc… in your movie, the US military will kindly lend them to you, along with the people who can actually handle that equipment – provided you portray them in a positive light and help them gain new recruits. As a result, anti-war movies are much more difficult and expensive to make than war movies. They also generally look less impressive, because makers of anti-war movies which portray the military in a negative light have to make do with a single rusty helicopter that barely survived the Vietnam war, whereas filmmakers who make pro-military movies get spiffy new helicopter and fighter jets.

No, I haven’t yet read that Daily Dot article.

My Dad and one of my sons both served in the military, and since my Dad was a “lifer,” I grew up in a military family. A lot of the parents of the kids I played with when I was little were in the military. I really didn’t give it a second thought and still don’t. That means all of the stuff Cora just wrote would probably have gone screaming over my head if I didn’t read her commentary.

She did make one point I didn’t really get:

The fact that this character was portrayed as a villain tells you a lot about what Captain America comics were like in the 1980s and 1990s, when I used to call Captain America “Captain Nationalism” and flat out hated the character. The Marvel movies did a lot to move Captain America away from the old “Captain Nationalism” model and turned him more into what he was intended to be, namely the positive side of America given form. Hell, the Marvel movies actually made me like Captain America.

I wasn’t reading Captain America during those decades, so I have no idea how that Cap compares to the Captain America I was reading in the 1960s and 70s. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed “Captain Nationalism” either.

Oh, and then there was this:

Torres explains that the Flag Smashers want a world without national borders and that they also think the world was a better place during the five years it only had half its population. You can obviously see why the latter might be a problem, if the Flag Smashers act on it, but quite a few critics, e.g. Benjamin Lee at The Guardian and Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at The Daily Dot, wondered why a world without borders is apparently a bad thing in the Marvel universe, since many of us think it would be a very good thing, if at all feasible.

Yes, I did at least scan those other articles for their perspective on borders (and I was reminded of why I don’t read the Daily Dot), since depending on how you define “open” (as in no vetting of anyone entering your country whatsoever), it doesn’t sound super cool to me. I did momentarily look up immigration and Germany and “Germany is the second most popular migration destination in the world, after the United States of America” and “The German Government has been keen to encourage immigration over the past 50 years, to address the low birth rate in the country.” So maybe a European or more leftist perspective on borders equates to more openness, although they still have actual laws and requirements to enter their country and live there.

Racism was the other big topic. Again, a sample:

Once Sarah and Sam get to the bank, the (white) manager is totally thrilled to meet a real life superhero, but still won’t give them a loan, because Sam had no income in the past five years due to not existing (and no reported income before that either due to being an Avenger and basically being financed by Tony Stark). All of those nice programs to help people affected by the Blip don’t apply either, because in essence Sam and Sarah are too black to qualify. Sam is understandably angry at this turn of events, Sarah seems more resigned. After all, she’s been here before.

I’ve long read blog posts by veteran (as in long term not military) African-American writer Steven Barnes and he has also been critical of Marvel Studios because of how they seem to relegate black characters to “sidekicks.” On top of that, he’s been very vocal about how black people, particularly males, are depicted historically in movies. Many of them sacrifice their lives or at least suffer grave injuries (like Rhoady – played by – Don Cheadle – in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War) in order to give the white character greater inspiration to be heroic.

He’s right.

So I’m glad Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) finally gets a past and a family. I’m also glad that the reality of African-Americans and the banking systems was called out. The interesting thing, and I think Cora missed it, was that all of this action takes place after “the Snap” and “the Blip” which took away and brought back half of Earth’s human population respectively. There were supposed to be programs to help “Blip victims” financially, but that reminded me a great deal of how the COVID pandemic and mandatory shutdowns have devastated an endless stream of small businesses (just like the one owned by Sam’s sister). Folding this part of the story into real life, she would probably have identical financial difficulties for that reason.

I’m not going to further dissect Cora’s review, because the other thing it reminded me of (and I mentioned this before) is comic books.

As I said, this analysis is just one indicator of how comic books, science fiction, and entertainment in general is skewing in a single, political and social direction. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, when I was a kid, comic books also had a generally unified perspective, but it was on a different trajectory. It’s probably why I don’t bat an eye when my superheroes all act like cops and soldiers.

My 5-year-old granddaughter loves the Dog Man book series by Dav Pilkey. We even act out the characters and make up our own stories (many of them involve something called “Obey Spray”). Anyway, there are lots of robots in these graphic novels.

Since she now likes robots, I decided to read her a couple of old issues of Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 AD from 1963. She thought they were cool, especially how Magnus had a robot communications receiver embedded in his skull.

I got to a point on one comic book and was startled by how it applied so well today.

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It reminded me of how a relatively small number of people decided to take six Dr. Seuss books out of print, not because a huge number of readers were offended, but because it fit the priorities of those few people, including the current owners of those properties and a tiny handful of academicians.

I don’t like bullies. I wrote about that just recently. No one sees themselves as the villain in their own story. So people like me who object to a small minority telling everyone else what they can and can’t read or which social and political beliefs you must hold tend to be discounted in social media (which are platforms following where the entertainment industry is moving).

No, I’m not putting any of that at Cora’s doorstep. She’s always treated me well, and I’m sure she disagrees with most of my perspectives. Yes, occasionally people can disagree and still be civil.

But you don’t have to take a book out of print to suppress an unpopular image or idea. All you have to do is control the entertainment industry and thus the content and context of what is produced including public dialog in social media.

I think this is why I like old comic books and vintage comic strips (currently reading through several strips from the 1930s through the 1960s and having a blast). I think it’s why I first became attracted to the Superversive movement.

I know there are people who think that movement is made up of nothing but racist alt-righters and yes, there are a few bad actors who are connected to it (I’ve had to block a few myself because I wasn’t conservative enough for them). Being Superversive or liking science fiction, comic books, and comic strips from a bygone era doesn’t mean embracing racism, sexism, or anything like that. Yes, in reading the material today, I have to make a mental adjustment or two and take into account when the story was written, but there’s also a lot of good in those stories.

People are heroic. No, they’re not perfect. Just about every superhero Stan Lee created had terrific flaws. People do good for the sake of doing good. Good wins, at least most of the time. Romance and love (as opposed to blatant sex and “WAP”) are real. Family, country (oh my stars and garters, that means borders), civilization, and hope are all positive values.

I really like the movie Captain America (played by Chris Evans). He is the embodiment of “Superversive” (unlike what is likely going on in the comic books these days).

This may also be why I’ve chosen, in my own small way, to write stories and publish them in the indie space. So far I’m just past 30 published pieces and still going. I can write the sorts of stories with the sorts of people I’d admire and respect if they were real. No, they’re not perfect people. Where’s the fun in that? But I do try to remember that a lot of the reason I started reading science fiction books and comic books as a kid was because it was fun.

Yes, this is one of my favorite Ray Bradbury quotes:
ray
You can teach (and learn) by writing and reading, but there’s a difference between what Bradbury was talking about (I believe) and just baldfaced lecturing in order to control how a person thinks.

That’s why reading old comic books to a 5-year-old and showing her what a tyrant (bully) is must continue. It’s why kids have Grandpas.

When we watch a TV show or movie or read a book or a comic book, we’re going to see different things based on our background, experience, and values. I have three young grandchildren and I worry about what the world is trying to teach them. A lot of parents and parental figures just take for granted that the education and entertainment systems are totally benign and harmless and don’t bother to check out what the kids are consuming.

While there are folks who would happily cancel anything created before about the year 2000, I think it’s important to preserve the positive values of the past rather than proverbially throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there was plenty of wrong back then but there was also plenty of right. The same goes for today. The trick is to know the difference, and then teach and learn (and have fun) out of that understanding.

Favorite quote from the 2012 film The Avengers:

“When I went under, the world was at war. I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.” -Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans)

Let’s try not to lose too much of what is good in our rush to summon the future.

I hope this latest program of Marvel’s does well because I like the characters. I think they can be good, and interesting, and fun, and still embrace the kind of heroism that Captain America represents.

Oh, if you haven’t done so, go back and read through all of Cora’s review. She makes some very good points.

4 thoughts on “Comic Books, Television, and Who Are Our Heroes?

  1. I don’t know how old Cora may be, but her analysis of positive portrayals of the military neglects the ebbs and flows. In the 50s, after people had experienced the benefits of military action against tyrants, portrayals were positive and appreciated by those who had been required to participate in the military. A share of complaints against military bureaucracy also were expressed, along with a sense of achievement in circumventingit, with which many could identify. However

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops! Accidentally posted before finishing.

      However, attitudes and portrayals changed in the 60s, which continued until after successful US military action against an Iraqi tyrant, followed by a reminder in 2001 that survival could depend on military might — after which portrayals skewed positive again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, she’s younger than us but I can’t say she’s very young just by seeing her photo. Since she’s German and living in Germany, it’s possible that her attitudes are affected by a more European perspective on the military. I would agree that the public’s general view of the military depends on whether or not they feel they need it at any given point in history.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “But you don’t have to take a book out of print to suppress an unpopular image or idea. All you have to do is control the entertainment industry and thus the content and context of what is produced including public dialog in social media.”

    This! This right here! Thank you so much for writing this, sir (and for using that quote Cap from “The Avengers” – it’s very timely). Lie about something/someone enough, and it or they become pariahs. At least until the truth wins out (again) and the liars are proven to be just that – liars.

    I also hope “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” does well, but given the direction the films are supposedly heading, I’m not counting on it. “Endgame” was the swan song for the heroes and it finished their arcs well, though imperfectly. Until it is demonstrated otherwise, I’m going to treat it as the finale for the MCU.

    Like

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