More Missing the Point

Recently “Le Messor” had a post here about “Things Geeks Aren’t Supposed to Think,” which included comments on Watchmen; in the comments section, somebody remarked, “I think people really took the wrong lesson from Watchmen.” That got my brain going in a bit of a different direction from what they intended, and the comment I began to draft in response quickly revealed that it wanted to be a post. So here we are. Following in the wake of Greg Hatcher’s dissection of points missed in media, I find myself adding to his list and rehashing some of it to hammer home the point again.

We’ll start with one that Greg covered, because it still pisses me off. Saying they “took the wrong lesson from Watchmen” is really understating the case. The audience generally missed the point completely, and one of the many reasons the movie was so disappointing is that the director also spectacularly missed the point of almost every scene, slavishly recreating the visuals while trampling all over the text.

Rorschach is supposed to be a howling indictment of the whole masked vigilante genre. He’s mentally ill, a broken man who feels only rage and sees the world with the depth and understanding of a child. He punishes what he deems evil without ever noticing that his own actions qualify for the label. He’s removed himself from humanity, and it shows in his increasing inability to speak or connect, as well as the fact that he literally stinks. Being a vigilante has destroyed him, taken every vestige of humanity from him, robbed him of the ability to hold a job or maintain a single friendship, all in service to his childish understanding of good and evil. He’s also overtly racist and has an appalling opinion of women.

He is not a hero, not a role model, not to be admired… and the fans shrieked “he’s sooooo KEWL! He’s a badass!”

Every single character in Watchmen is meant to express similar themes. The overriding message of Watchmen is that superheroes are damaged people working out their obsessions in costume, and their existence makes the world a worse place. A world with superheroes would devolve into a hellscape pretty quickly. We should be appalled, or feel pity or fear for these lost and broken people, but not admire them. And yet they were rendered shiny and godlike in the film adaptation, because that’s how the director and much of the audience sees them.

As an aside, When Moloch confronts Rorschach after The Comedian’s funeral, it’s meant to show us that the entire hero-villain dichotomy and never-ending conflict is a colossal waste of time that has robbed both men of their life and happiness. Moloch’s comment, “you know the cancer you get better from? That ain’t the kind I got” is intended to be gallows humor, and it’s funny; having Matt Frewer spit that line out with bitter anger is just one of the many little ways that Zack Snyder demonstrated his complete lack of understanding of the comic. But I digress.

Rorschach and Moloch.

You could also make the same case for the film version of Kick-Ass. (I haven’t read the comic, but I’m told it makes the point even more brutally.)

The ridiculous title character in the green and yellow costume is really a bit of misdirection, a Trojan Horse to allow the filmmakers to tell a different story alongside the main one, and that story is simply how horrific and screwed-up the very concept of Batman & Robin really is.

They start by taking Batman & Robin’s relationship and cutting the clutter away, removing everything that distracts the audience from the central core of what’s going on. Where the Dynamic Duo are an adult man and his adoptive son, in Kick-Ass it’s a father and his daughter, eliminating all the salacious innuendo about why this man is hanging out with a little boy. With that element removed, we get a better look at the relationship, and it’s ugly.

The story of Batman & Robin, according to Kick-Ass, is the story of a man so bent on revenge that he turns his own child into a relentless sociopathic killing machine, robbing her of her life and endangering her at every opportunity in the process. She will never have a healthy relationship with anyone, never be a normal, stable person, will always see two blazing guns as the simple solution to any problem and will never shed a tear for anyone on her extensive list of murders. If she ever does face the blood on her hands, the guilt will destroy her… and all because her Daddy had a mad on and used her as a tool to deal with it.

And the audience screamed “She’s sooooo KEWL! She’s a badass!”

Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ legendary Kingdom Come series was intended to be a critique and condemnation of what they saw as a troubling trend in comics, the rise of morally ambiguous super-beings engaging in endless jousts to establish dominance, clashes of titans who pay very little regard toward the innocents they ostensibly intend to protect. The series was meant as a warning, but DC took it instead as a blueprint. I’m actually grateful that WB hasn’t done a film adaptation, because the last thing I want to hear is gleeful fanboys shrieking that Magog is “such a Badass!”

Magog was supposed to represent everything wrong with ’90s comics.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Olympic-level point-missing has to be Keith Giffen’s Lobo. Intended as a send-up of Wolverine and all the other grim & gritty over-the-top characters so popular at the time, Lobo is patently ridiculous, an absurd parody of the testosterone-fueled power fantasy so popular in the ’90s, a character that makes WWE wrestlers look restrained and reasonable. But it seems that Poe’s Law applies equally to characters like Lobo; unless it’s explicitly stated that it’s a joke, it’s impossible to tell the difference between an “extreme” comic character and a satire of one. Giffen spelled it out in Wizard Magazine: “I do hate Lobo. Of course I do. Lobo is a reprehensible character. How could anyone not hate him? The thing is, Lobo was created as an indictment of the sort of mindlessly violent characters you find in too many comics, and instead he became a role model for them. So I hate him, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like telling stories about him.” Alex Ross hammered home the point of Lobo in Kingdom Come; he has the character wear a t-shirt reading “Bite Me, Fanboy.” The fans loved and embraced Lobo unironically; they thought he was “sooooo KEWL! Such a badass!”

A ridiculous cartoon of a badass…

It’s time to accept the fact: like satire, deconstruction is pointless, because no matter how hard you work at trying to show the audience how very very wrong and bleak and cynical and fascist these brightly-colored characters are, the audience will always get distracted by the shiny lights and ‘splosions and will think the monstrous, murderous, psychopaths are “KEWL!”

Francois Truffaut is often reported to have said it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, because film will always glorify violence and celebrate the brotherhood of soldiers. And that’s the problem with deconstruction in the comics. The excitement of the story makes the reader miss the point and admire the monster.

It’s a bit like the Seinfeld series; I’ve never heard any of the cast or writers admit it, but I always felt that there was a stealth message to the show. It’s not “a show about nothing”; it’s a show about four staggeringly selfish and narcissistic monsters who routinely do horrifically terrible things to other people, but the audience repeatedly forgives them and loves them and endorses their cruelty because the characters are likable. In this episode, for example, Jerry drugs his girlfriend so he can play with her vintage toy collection which she has declared off-limits. His friends are okay with it and join in the playtime.

Even when, in the finale, (spoilers for a 20-year-old show? Yeah, right!) the four were arrested for standing by and cracking jokes while witnessing a mugging, were dragged into court, the full depth of all their cavalier abuses throughout the series was catalogued, and the characters sent to prison for it, the audience still stays on their side for emotional reasons. We like them and think they’re funny; what’s a little negligent homicide among friends?

Another example of point-missing: In 1974, inspired by an episode of the Dick Cavett Show featuring the segregationist former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox and civil rights firebrand and football great Jim Brown, Randy Newman wrote a brutally sarcastic song about racist Southerners, called “Rednecks.” It was part of a whole album, Good Old Boys, written from the point of view of a desperately stupid drunken fool from Alabama, expressing his ignorant opinions and ironically condemning himself by his own words. The song ends with Newman, in character as the titular redneck, pointing out the hypocrisy and systemic racism of the supposedly enlightened Northerners. It is, like much of Newman’s output prior to his Pixar days, a staggering display of satirical brinksmanship, and naturally in these context-free and nuance-deficient days, it doesn’t work at all. In the end, Newman found that he had to stop performing “Rednecks” in concert, because the people he excoriated in the lyrics had embraced it; fiercely proud of their ignorance and hate, they gleefully sang along and cheered to lyrics like “we’re rednecks, and we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.” They missed the point of his criticism and adopted his insult as an endorsement. He had inadvertently given them a theme song. Malcolm Gladwell did a nice podcast about the story.

What baffles me about the phenomenon when it occurs in comics is that the core audience is allegedly supposed to be one that embraces concepts like truth and justice; we’re not supposed to shrug and forgive a rapist because he’s a good swimmer, we’re not supposed to overlook injustice on the basis of skin color or voting record. We’re not supposed to celebrate senseless violence. The message we were supposed to take away from all those comics was that there is right and wrong, good and evil, and we’re supposed to be on the side of right and good, not on the side of whoever is the bigger badass. Even if their style while committing multiple homicides does look sooooo KEWL!

Here we go again.

I’m two episodes into The Boys on Amazon, and I’m afraid we’re going to miss the point yet again. The point they are obviously trying to make is that superheroes are essentially a fascistic power fantasy, that supremely powerful people who think they know best and use their power to enforce their vision will invariably become monsters. But as we’ve seen, there is a certain segment of the mob who are enamored of monsters and will happily embrace them, especially if they have shiny costumes and make things blow up good. I can see how easy it would be for them to make the Homelander an endorsement of the current anti-immigrant sentiments, a handsome and charming mouthpiece for xenophobia. I hope the producers managed to keep The Boys’ crew of alleged heroes awful and terrible, so that the audience does not admire them or embrace them as inspirational figures. I hope, but I’m not hopeful.

Me, I still prefer my fantasy worlds to be nicer than my real one and my heroes to be, well, heroic.

29 Comments

  1. hearkencreative

    …and I will say, after finishing the first season of The Boys, I’m still wondering if everyone is going to miss the point again. (Won’t spoil anything) The creators seem to be conflicted themselves: “These are bad people!” and “Wow! Look at all the ‘kewl’!” occupy the same space in the show. Also, they try and make everyone somewhat sympathetic, giving them deep-seated roots for their neuroses.

    Your bigger point is something that our family has been thinking about over the past several years: satire and deconstruction (subtext, metaphor, so many things) are worthless when your host culture is anti-intellectual. That is damning for so many storytelling methods, and I worry about where it’s going to take us.

      1. hearkencreative

        Remember “Starship Troopers”? The book was obviously an anti-fascist satire. The movie played its satire too subtle, and most of the movie-going public thought it was a pro-war sci-fi flick. That was all the way back in 1997, and my wife and I have been discussing our culture’s inability to digest storytelling modalities ever since…

        1. I don’t know about that assessment of the book. Heinlein was not much on satire in his earlier career and when he did try it in later years, it was REALLY in-your-face like the Fosterites in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. His own take on STARSHIP TROOPERS, the novel, was to celebrate everything he found noble about the military and patriotism; he elaborates somewhat on this in his commencement speech to the grads at West Point. (A large part of it was prompted by his incredulous reaction to the Russians getting Sputnik in orbit,and the thought that we were getting beaten in the space race.) Heinlein wasn’t a conservative so much as he was a you’re-not-the-boss-of-me libertarian with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. The Verhoeven movie, however, WAS supposed to be an over-the-top satire.

          I really do like Heinlein’s SF but a lot of it doesn’t age well, and the later years are just not good. Last book of his I thought really clicked was FRIDAY.

          1. Edo Bosnar

            Yeah, there was nothing satirical about Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; it was all about extolling the virtues of military service. The movie, which was supposed to be a satire, actually underscores something that didn’t seem to occur to Heinlein: that the society he posited, in which, among other things, only military veterans could vote or hold political office, would probably devolve into a form of fascism or similar authoritarianism.

          2. hearkencreative

            This is so interesting: I don’t think I realized how much my experience of the movie had overshadowed my (admittedly long-ago) reading of the book. (Way off-topic; sorry, Jim.)

            Back on-topic: I’m really interested in everyone’s assessment(s) of The Boys (Jim, once you finish the first season). Does that show continue this “took the wrong lesson” theme, or is it better — a cautionary tale about superheroes? Or neither? Frankly, I’m appalled by the dumbing down of genre fiction as portrayed on the big and small screen right now. (Also frightened by the love/glorification of darkness, and anti-heroes, etc. … in the broader culture.)

            One of the things that I loved about Aquaman, while totally cheesy and sometimes silly, was that they went back to a more classic hero’s journey, while still giving him some flaws. (Won’t watch the movie again for a while, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Snyder/DC era…)

          3. My sense of it was that Heinlein wanted to hammer on the point that citizenship carries a cost; he makes it obvious by positing a world in which one has to earn citizenship rights by service, whether in the military or some other obligation. The natural outcome, especially in the face of an ongoing war, is that the military people consider it the only legitimate form of service and adopt all the swaggering and posturing that naturally would derive from that.

            Much like what we currently see in the fetishizing of the military in our own culture, where the only acceptable response to anyone saying they are a veteran is a pavlovian “thank you for your service” and an assumption that the veteran can never be contradicted because “they fought to protect our freedom,” even though there has not been a war that could be described that way in 70 years.

            I think where people miss the point of ‘Starship Troopers’ is in thinking that it is either a celebration of the military or a parody of same, when it’s really a thought exercise about the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in a society and how that would affect things.

        2. Jeff Nettleton

          Verhoeven definitely saw Heinlein as fascist; and, since his childhood was spent in Occupied Holland, it was an understandable viewpoint. He equates militarism with fascism, regardless of the alleged virtues of the society. I tend to agree with many of the points he makes with his version and in his commentary track, for the dvd. I’m a veteran of the US Navy, from the first Gulf War era.When I started seeing all of the “We Support Our Troops” signs around, during the Desert Shield phase, I saw it as Vietnam guilt, over how veterans were treated and people were now overcompensating. It got worse as we went into the Desert Storm phase and people are cheering footage of bombing and making jokes about a vehicle narrowly missing a bomb strike, without any explanation of whether it was a civilian or military vehicle. The video game presentation of gun camera footage, the sarcastic press briefings from people like Schwartzkopf, and the bloodlust I saw in some of my fellow officers really made me uncomfortable, at best, and sick, at worst. That was my real political awakening.

          Starship Troopers is required reading for the USMC and I do read it is a rather fascist message, that only the military has sacrificed for freedom. That is total BS. Since day one, civilians have paid the price for wars, from the families of the slain, to the innocents caught in the middle. The people who stand in defiance, unarmed, are greater heroes, to me, than those who took up arms. When I saw the film, in theaters, I laughed hysterically at the overt propaganda that Verhoeven gave it and seemed to be the only person in the theater who got what Verhoeven was doing. In his commentary track, Verhoeven reads a criticism of the film, which accuses him of presenting the fascist imagery and he just unloads on it, pointing out how he grew up under Nazi rule. He pointed to the bug attacks on orbiting ships as inspired by seeing Allied bombers crashing as they are hit, coming over the Netherlands.

          I’m proud of my service, and that of my father; but, I am under no illusions that I was defending anything other than economic interests. When I hear people referring to servicemembers as heroes, in blanket statements, I shudder. It sounds too much like German propaganda. When I hear terms like Homeland, I can’t help but hear the fascist accent. It strikes me as horribly Orwellian. Heroes are individuals who do heroic things, because of their actions, not their uniform. The helicopter pilot who put his chopper between marauding soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, at My Lai, was a hero. Most servicemembers I knew, who really thought about it, preferred that their children never get anywhere near the military. Certainly, a large segment of combat veterans hoped that their children would never see what they saw or do what they had done.

          1. Interesting. Living in a very conservative military town (the Florida Panhandle is extremely red) I didn’t see that “don’t do what I did” much.
            In total agreement about the overcompensating for Vietnam.
            My personal annoyance is any variation of “They didn’t fight so that people back home could — have gay marriage/interracial marriage/get free stuff from the government/disrespect the troops/whatever.” It’s not their fricking call.

          2. Jeff Nettleton

            The worst hypocrisy I observed was a local used car dealer, who was notorious for suckering young servicemembers into car deals they couldn’t afford, at ridiculous interest rates, ’cause they looked Kewl! He had a “We Support Our Troops” message on his sign and I just wanted to throw rocks at it. We used to warn new arrivals to steer clear of the place.

  2. tomfitz1

    A dangerous area to delve into as one could easily say that the current sitting POTUS represents everything that is wrong in politics (or even – society).

    Does anyone care? Seems like a lot of people are saying: “he’s sooooo KEWL! He’s a badass!”

    I’m probably going to catch a lot of flak for this, but will anyone miss the point – I wonder?

  3. It’s interesting that just today I saw tweets about how Jerry Seinfeld was in his late 30s at one point while the show was airing, and was picking up his then girlfriend…from high school.

    On that same note, the characters on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are probably even more horrible than the Seinfeld characters, but because they are mostly likeable, the audience is encouraged to like them and … endorse their behavior might not be it, but it’s close. Perhaps it’s less egregious with Sunny because it almost never works out in the characters’ favor?

    Also, did the “Bite Me, Fanboy” Lobo shirt originate with Alex Ross and Kingdom Come? I swear I saw it before then, but maybe I’m wrong.

    I also saw something about Lobo in what I guess is the latest Young Justice cartoon, and something he did was vile but certainly within character.

  4. Continuing the thinking about Lobo, you can extend it to a degree to other characters who are bad guys but because of certain elements (lots of times kewl visuals) fans seem to engage with those characters in a certain way, and editorial seems to try to tone down the characters in order to make them more palatable.

    I’m thinking particularly of Venom, Deadpool, Joker, and Harley Quinn.

    I think it’s most disturbing that the more body count the Joker has racked up in the last 30+ years (post DKR), the more people seem to love him.

    Maybe that’s a certain element of why some comics fans dismiss certain fans of characters like those as not “real” fans because they’re embracing the worst elements of the characters and of society? Probably not, but one hopes…

    1. I think the editors don’t tone down the popular villains; they amp them up. Venom and Joker got more grotesque, and Harley Quinn’s look evolved from classic Commedia d’el Arte (she’s basically a mash-up of Harlequin and Columbina) to a “psychotic punk trailer park prostitute” look; her cartoon hammer became a real blood-spattered mallet.

      Deadpool is the one where the audience gets the joke, recognizes that he’s a satire, and still thinks he’s a kewl badass. He’s the personification of cognitive dissonance.

      1. The Joker and Harley’s relationship is another one where a certain segment of fandom has totally missed the point and thinks that this abusive relationship is one to emulate in real-life romances. I’ve even seen memes of the Joker and Harley with the hashtag #RelationshipGoals.

        I mean, I get that these are both funny, charismatic characters, but maybe pay just a LITTLE attention to the fact that the affection is totally one-sided and the Joker constantly abuses & tries to kill Harley?

  5. jccalhoun

    I think it is pretty neat that my comment inspired this column.

    I’ve found it really interesting how some characters are created as either villains or anti-heroes and become so popular that they get a place alongside Superman or Spider-Man in big events. In what world would someone like The Punisher ever fight side-by-side with Captain America. Even Wolverine has killed so many people that there is no way he would be allowed on an Avengers team.

    Of course comic books aren’t alone in this. There was a Rambo cartoon after all…

    1. I’ve spent more than a little time pondering my contribution to the world’s problems by writing for G.I. Joe back in the 1980s. Five days a week we told kids about fighting against “a ruthless terrorist organization out to conquer the world”. Come 9/11, our target audience was just the age to start enlisting, and the concept of “a ruthless terrorist organization out to conquer the world” — while far-fetched — wasn’t unthinkable (make no mistake, Al-Q’aeda was ruthless and terrible, but their ambitions were far from world conquest and, had they not resorted to violent terrorism, their goals were completely understandable).

      I’ve had more than a few service personnel tell me they enlisted in no small part because of G.I. Joe’s influence on their childhoods and the thought that people put themselves in harm’s way because of something I wrote as an entertainment weighs heavily on my mind.

      1. Alaric

        Many years ago, during the… early ’80s, I think, at a time when there was a lot of discussion going on about violence (and other “objectionable” qualities) in movies, on television, in comic books, and in games- everyone remembers the D&D Satanic Panic, but no one seems to remember that there were people attacking the game for non-religious reasons, as well- my father told me about something that happened when he was a kid. He had just seen the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a 15-year-old (but much younger seeming) Mickey Rooney as Puck, for the first time (it instantly became one of his favorite movies), and he desperately wanted to be Puck, so he climbed a tree and tried to fly out of it. He was lucky to survive. He told me he in no way blamed the movie for what he’d done- it was STILL one of his favorites. He said without that film he would have probably found something else to ill-advisably emulate, or just have done something equally stupidly dangerous on his own, and, in fact, the movie gave him a beautiful fantasy that helped him deal with the difficult real-world things going on in his life at the time. He said he felt the same away about all these other situations- that kids who acted out the worst parts of their escapist entertainments would likely have found something equally bad to do without them, and in fact that those entertainments could, in themselves, give some kids a better outlet for those tendencies. I have to believe that many of those service personnel you mention would have found something dangerous to do with their lives without the show, and that some of them may well have ended up doing something much worse.

  6. Heinlein grew touchy when people criticized the novel’s premise (which I agree is not satirical at all) and at one point insisted that it’s perfectly obvious to anyone paying attention that any sort of public service would qualify people for citizenship. Someone subsequently went over the book and showed there’s no evidence of this and lots of evidence against it.

    1. I think there’s a little merit to Heinlein’s concept, if it were properly executed. I wouldn’t make it a requirement for citizenship, but I think there could be, say, a tax reduction for each year of public service one provided (and the military wouldn’t be one of the choices); Conservation Corps, Americorps, Peace Corps, working at a military hospital, or any number of other jobs.

      Along the same lines, when one applies for unemployment, there’s usually a week gap before they get benefits; why not have them serve jury duty that week? Continuing the thought, how about a tax credit for voting?

  7. Jeff Nettleton

    This has a parallel to pro wrestling. There have been heels, who did despicable things in the ring and in angles, yet, the crowd embraced them and effectively made them babyfaces. The Road Warriors are the biggest example of this, with Stone Cold Steve Austin a close second. It’s the vicarious wish that they could act unrestrained and destroy those who have wronged or belittled them. The bookers played to that, letting the heels be “cool,” when before they would show the evil wrestlers for what they were: evil. The trend parallels the rise of anti-heroes, in the 80s, in comics. The problem becomes when people can’t separate the fantasy from reality. At best, you get the fanboys who think that stuff is “kewl;” at worse, you get the pathetic failures at life who formed the nucleus of the Nazi party, in Germany.

  8. Peter

    Man, I agree with so much of what you’ve pointed out here… but I still think Rorschach is cool. I know that Moore claims that he was horrified when Rorschach achieved so much unironic acclaim from readers, but I feel like if his sole purpose was to indict the masked vigilante concept, he wouldn’t have created such a multidimensional character. Yes, Rorschach is excessively violent and certainly somewhat sociopathic. These traits make it uncomfortable to root for him (for me, at least), but I think that it’s almost impossible to not admire his strategic mind and his commitment to his own moral code. I think he’s designed to be a character that you feel conflicted about, not one who’s unambiguously awesome or 100% a creepy nutcase. He’s no more or less human than anyone, and I think Moore intended him to be that way so that the reader would at least question why they either blindly trust or blindly vilify real-life authority figures (whom the superheroes of Watchmen stand in for).

    1. I can’t really admire “his commitment to his own moral code” when that code is nothing more than parroting the racist nonsense his long-absent father once said, coupled with scorn for all women because his mother was a prostitute. Which I think was another of Moore’s points; the more fervently one holds to his moral code, the less mature that code is.

      Rorschach is a killing machine in service to the moral code of a broken child.

      1. Yeah, and having a 100% black and white morality isn’t exactly a nuanced or mature moral code. Rorschach’s emotional and intellectual growth was stunted at around age 10 or so.

        You’d think that Rorschach living in squalor in a dirty, shitty apartment and spending his days hauling around an “The End is Nigh” sign might’ve cued some readers in to the fact that this wasn’t a character to emulate, but nope.

  9. I’m reminded how negatively the character of James Bond was perceived >when he was just a book character<. While they toned down the sadism in the movies, they ramped up the libido, and virtually all criticism of Bond's ethics / aims / ambitions were bulldozed over.

    The Daniel Craig movies touch a little on the character from the novel, but even then he's a wish fulfillment character.

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