The Numbing Sameness of Cheap Spectacle

Charlie Jane Anders is onto something here:

When superheroes clashed in comics back in the day, it was usually either a misunderstanding, or some version of the “tool of the man” argument. Batman sees Superman as a tool of the man in The Dark Knight Returns, and Superman in turn accuses Batman of being a lawless renegade in John Byrne’s Man of Steel #3. Green Arrow accuses Green Lantern of being a tool of the (blue) man in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and a few years later, Captain America discovers that Richard Nixon is a supervillain and changes his name to Nomad.

So baked into the superhero genre is an acknowledgement of deep-seated rage, against those who have made us feel powerless, and a craving to have the power to make everybody respect us. Over the decades, the superhero genre has gotten more self-aware and has tried to critique and examine that rage and that craving—with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns standing as two of the most prominent attempts.

I’d expand on this to say that science fiction, and in a way political fiction, is most often obsessed with these power fantasies. To be specific, they rely on fantasies about power (which Anders recognizes) to drive their stories forward: the fascist ideal of a strongman or overlord enforcing the law and restoring justice to an unjust society. Anders traces this to the current ascent of Donald Trump, but it goes much further back into the American psyche.

In a fantastic book, Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture, Benjamin L. Alpers argues that most of the twentieth century saw Americans as organizing their political identity, as a democratic government, in opposition to dictatorship and other forms of authoritarianism. Yet, during the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, in the early 1930s, people openly hoped for dictatorship from the President — an analogue remarkably similar to the modern day appeal of Trump.

This dual process, of some sort of calamity (whether economic or physical) creating the foundation for a dictatorship, is baked into our popular culture — not just superhero stories, but of our stories in general. The latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is devoted to this obsession, and publisher Lewis Lapham makes a keen observation:

Fear of the future is a long-abiding shadow on the horizon of the American dream (present in the years prior to the Civil and Spanish American wars as in those leading to the year 2000), but since the 9/11 pouring out of God’s wrath on the Manhattan temples of mammon it has moved steadily up the media leader boards into the red zones of near-hysteria. The directors of Hollywood disaster movies shoot scenes from the Book of Revelation, dress their sets with dead children, cries of anguish, pillars of smoke, dote lovingly on blood-soaked deserts east and west of Suez.

This blockbuster imperative to use calamity to appeal to our sense of spectacle is also another manifestation of America’s flirtation with dictatorship. As Sarah Kendzior argued recently:

The ultimate goal of the spectacular state is the restriction of the public sphere, where all ideas of culture and heritage are either filtered through – or respond to – the narrative of the state, ruled by a dictator who has developed a cult of personality. The nation becomes a brand; the dictator, a brand ambassador; the people, a captive audience.

In January, shortly before he began sweeping the primaries after months of hate rhetoric, Trump staged a rally in which three girls–called “The Freedom Kids”–lip-synched a pop song praising the brutality of their incumbent leader. “Enemies of freedom face the music/ C’mon boys, take them down/ President Donald Trump knows how to make America great/ Deal from strength or get crushed every time!” they sang, dancing in their red, white, and blue outfits before an enthusiastic crowd. Many Americans found it baffling. For those familiar with the decadent patriotism of Central Asian national performances, which commonly feature declarations of loyalty from dancing children, it was disconcerting in its familiarity.

This process, whereby disaster meets spectacle and lays the groundwork for dictatorship, should make for good stories. But it just does not. The movies Anders discusses above are one symptom: both Batman V. Superman and Captain America: Civil War appear to be, by all marks, completely bland by-the-numbers stories. More so than the DC universe, in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe the immense destruction wrought by the Avengers seems to be an afterthought — in two movies now, the team of heroes have materially contributed to the destruction of trillions of dollars worth of lives and infrastructure, but they seem to only now begin experiencing some pushback from their masters. The story of Batman and Superman seems… confused, to say the least, but it tries to touch on these themes as well.

But that just isn’t good enough. Most science fiction (and for the sake of simplicity I’m lumping the superhero genre in with this, even though I know people will argue with it) simply assumes a political undercurrent to the massive spectacle and the constant disaster of their stories. Outside the superhero angle, the Star Trek series of movies (for example) have taken on a depressing regularity: the Enterprise is destroyed or unavailable, it’s the crew on its own against some Big Bad guy, etc. The numbing sameness of these stories certainly does not detract from their box office appeal (which is why they keep getting made) but they make for tedious experiences absent a gazillion effects shots to distract us.

This should make all of us sad. In general, storytelling has been reduced to a mechanical formula of “what works,” meaning what will draw in the most eye balls in the shortest period of time. I’m comfortable blaming Blake Snyder for a lot of this (his 2005 book Save the Catwhile very interesting on its own, will also ruin your capacity to enjoy movies forever), but it’s also these other currents bubbling underneath American culture — the demand for spectacle to enact a strongman wish fulfillment — that are creating this oppressive numbness in stories.

There’s a last issue as well: if the spectacular sci-fi story has any room at all for offering a solution to the strongman or the dictator or abusive coercion, it is almost always some form of libertarian anarchism. (Even in cerebral authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, and China Miéville, you see this set up as the best alternative.) It is a state of affairs that simply doesn’t leave any room for realistic alternatives. In real life, the places that defeat dictatorship and wind up with an anarchic society without any institutions or a strong state in its wake are… less than ideal. More to the point, we have a very poor understanding of how one can reliably incubate an effective, rights-protecting, democratic form of government after spectacularly sweeping away a tyranny. Our track record on this front is very poor.

Our fiction needs to do a better job than pumping out dozens of formulaic paens to lone authoritarians and battling anarchism. It is where we should be seeing people grapple with the big questions, but we just don’t see that. We’re still stuck in the 1940s, saying dictatorship is bad but being unable to draw ourselves away from any other story structure whereby catastrophe creates misery and requires a crusader to sweep it away and make the world clean again. That isn’t remotely what happened in the actual 1940s, but for some reason our story telling can’t seem to escape it. It’s immensely disappointing and, ultimately, quite boring.

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