I took my kids to see Lego Batman a week or so ago, and I’ve been turning the movie over in my head ever since. It’s a weird one for me: while I recall laughing and finding aspects of the film clever, I very much did not like it, and I’m trying to pin down exactly why. I think, in its broadest sense, this movie represents the death of the Batman character for me – the point at which the character becomes a parody of itself.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, while there was nothing expressly wrong with Lego Batman, it made it very, very clear that there is something very wrong with Batman himself. The parts of the movie I liked were the parts that broke apart the Batman mystique and myth – the parodic elements, basically. Batman heating up his Lobster Thermidor in the microwave. Batman’s ridiculous outfits. Batman’s improbable 50 year history in film. I even got a kick out of seeing Sauron and Voldemort and the rest of them bopping around. What I hated – hated, hated hated – was the actual story. Which is weird, right? It was the classic Batman story. Hell, it’s a classic story full stop – my own Saga of the Redeemed has elements of that story in it. And yet I very, very much did not want to see any of those scenes. None of them. I squirmed in my seat as I was watching Batman go through his emotional arc. I literally thought to myself, with a sense of dread, crap, do we actually have to *watch* him develop a relationship with Robin?
This semi-instinctive revulsion is indicative that I no longer actually like the Batman character. We’ve seen all his stories, we’ve played out all the rope we can, and now he’s just…dreadfully dull. Lego Batman makes this really clear, actually – Batman is, in reality, boring. I’m watching the movie and realizing, albeit belatedly, that I totally agree. Batman is done to death – there is nothing more to say. For all the zaniness and crazy action and wild jokes and bizarre plot twists, that movie was utterly predictable. What’s more, we all knew it was predictable. We knew exactly what was going to happen, when it would happen, and why it would happen. We only had to sit back and wait for the inevitable. The excitement from the movie was entirely generated by the peripheral, surface-level effects of cool vehicles, sight gags, and visual effects – in other words, the shallowest kind of storytelling. The meat of the story was as overcooked and shoe-leather gray as a steak at the Cracker Barrel.
What else can we milk from Batman, exactly? Anything? The same tired villains, the same dull monologues, the same staid Alfred, the same basic style…ugh. We are all going through the motions, now – there’s nothing left interesting to delve into. So, you know, it might as well be funny in the same way that Airplane! made airports funny or Caddyshack made golf-courses funny – because, by themselves, those places just aren’t that entertaining. It’s not the same kind of parody that is done out of love for the source material, either (the Star Wars episodes of Family Guy come to mind), but rather the kind done because every other thing has already been said and we are all collectively tired of it. Is anyone out there actually looking forward to the next Ben Affleck Batman movie?
Didn’t think so.
What a sad fate for a character I used to love so much. I wonder how this happened, but I think the answer is rather complicated: a combination of over-saturation and over-reliance of formula are the primary contributing factors. And, you know, maybe I’m wrong – maybe ol Bats has a few tricks left. I do know, though, that we’re gonna have to wait a while before we can appreciate it and, when they do get around to it, they are really going to have to break the Bat-mold wide open.
Happy Monday, folks! While I’m digging myself out from underneath a pile of term papers, I have a guest post for you from my friend, Teresa Frohock. Enjoy, and be sure to pick up her newest installment in the Los Nephilim series, Without Light or Guide.
Every time I think about heroes, I hear Brad and Janet from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, singing in my head. I am completely aware of how strange this sounds. Unfortunately, there is no cure. I’ve just learned to live with it and pass the earworm along at every available opportunity.
The song I’m talking about is entitled … wait for it … Super Heroes, and the pertinent lyrics go like this:
Brad: I’ve done a lot / God knows I’ve tried / To find the truth / I’ve even lied / But all I know / Is down inside I’m
Janet: And super heroes / Come to feast / To taste the flesh / Not yet deceased / And all I know / Is still the beast is
Of course, if you can’t see why those lines excite my imagination, you haven’t been paying attention to my stories.
Also, for the record, I never really had any heroes like Brad and Janet. I just wanted to give you that earworm before proceeding to the post.
I used to have this thing about heroes, that they all should be like Superman (the one from the 1950s and 1960s–not grimdark Superman, and screw whoever thought that up). Heroes should be good. They should be strong. Their moral compass should never waver.
And so on and so forth and so on.
I thought about heroes a lot while working on Los Nefilim. For a bit of context: my “angels” are really invaders from another realm – they are another species completely separate from the daimons, which are earth spirits, and the mortals. The angels start out good and wholesome with the mortals’ best interests at heart, but by the time In Midnight’s Silence begins, some of the angels have spent so much time in the flesh, they have become corrupted by the very creatures they think they’re trying to save.
And the super heroes the angels have created – the Nephilim – are beginning to hemorrhage emotionally from being involved in a continual war.
As a creature who is half angel and half mortal, Guillermo wonders about his place in this cosmic dynamic. He has served as a general in the angels’ army for centuries. He has not always been content with this role, but he has always been duty-bound to do what is right. When he was young, he went out and performed great deeds, but now he has settled down with a wife and a daughter of his own. One day, his daughter, Ysabel, will succeed him as the leader of Los Nefilim, and Guillermo is beginning to wonder what kind of legacy he will leave for her.
Likewise, Diago’s life changes dramatically when he is faced with the discovery of his young son, Rafael. Living unmoored to either angel or daimon is no longer a choice. He must choose a side and learn to fit in for Rafael’s sake.
And all the while, the angels and the daimons continue to feed, like a beast that is never sated.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the old Superman, the one who never had any doubts. I need heroes like that. I need them because when my moral compass goes south, I want a clear indication of the right thing – the good thing – that should be done.
The reality is that life and choices aren’t so clear cut. That is one the themes I wanted to explore with Los Nefilim. How super heroes are just like us. They want to have all the things: to be safe, to be a good person, to do what is right. Yet in spite of their best intentions, they sometimes do the cowardly thing. And sometimes, the thing that makes them feel safe turns out to be just an illusion of safety, just as it so often is with us.
However, I don’t believe that one kind of hero should supplant the other. That is one of the things that bothers me when people start arguing about grimdark vs. other forms of fantasy. The implication is often that a hero must be one way or the other, and I’ve never felt that to be necessarily true.
I need both kinds of super heroes: the good ones like Superman, and the reluctant ones like Diago. Occasionally, I read stories with no heroes at all. Yet each story is important, because they all show me something about myself.
I aspire to act with Superman’s integrity; although, most often I am more like Diago – a little lost and afraid in the world. However, seeing a variety of characters portrayed, I am able to find balance, and within all of this beautiful fiction we’re making, I find bits and pieces of myself – both the person I aspire to be, and the person that I am.
T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.
She is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and numerous short stories. Her newest series, Los Nefilim, is from Harper Voyager Impulse, and consists of the novellas In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death.
I’ve got a game of Warhammer 40,000 against a friend of mine coming up this weekend, which has led me to give the idea of the ‘super-soldier’ some thought, as the Warhammer 40K universe is one awash in so many super-soldiers that the one army that doesn’t use genetically engineered/cybernetically enhanced/psychically modified supermen to fight their battles is a notable exception in the whole length and breadth of the galaxy. (For those of you who care, that one faction is the Imperial Guard, and they make up for it by taking gigantic tanks everywhere)
Anyway, all of us should be familiar with the bog-standard super-soldier storyline. It goes like this:
- Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society creates super soldiers to destroy enemies.
- Super Soldiers Destroy Enemies and HOW!
- Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society no longer needs super soldiers/doesn’t want super soldiers anymore.
- Super Soldiers feel marginalized.
- Super Soldiers proceed to smash government/madman/religion/secret society or their designated representatives.
This is, essentially, the plot of everything from Soldier to the Horus Heresy to Universal Soldier and so on. To be perfectly honest, it’s a fun story, if a bit predictable. The extent to which the story is silly or powerful or interesting varies widely dependent upon execution. That isn’t really what I want to talk about here, though. No, what I’m mostly interested in is the following question: Why do we like this story so much?
I mean, in the first place, when objectively considered, the whole idea is terrifying. Creating people who have no other purpose but slaughter and destruction is bad enough, but then to have them run amok is even worse. The genetically engineered super-soldier isn’t (or shouldn’t) be ‘cool’, since what he/she does is objectively terrible. We, of course, come from a society (among many societies worldwide, mind you) that glorify war, so the whole ‘terrible-ness’ of their behavior is easily lost on us.
Furthermore, when you consider their daily lives and what it consists of, the appeal of the super-soldier should drop even further. I mean, all these guys do and all they can do is practice killing things. I know many of us think that killing things, at least in the abstract, is fun, but I strongly suspect that it is anything but. Even career soldiers in our professional military don’t spend their whole lives fighting in wars against overwhelming odds. Heck, many of them don’t even kill people at all. Those that do have to work very, very hard and those that go into battle wind up dealing with really terrible amounts of stress, anxiety, and, well, violence. Violence is rather inherently unpleasant and, indeed, much of the joy of victory in violent encounters is the knowledge that the violent encounter is over. I would question the sanity of any person who prefers being shot at to not being shot at, full stop. If we consider that a super-soldier has nothing to look forward to at all beyond a violent death, it at once becomes obvious (a) why they tend to revolt against their masters and (b) why being a super-soldier is an inherently raw deal.
This brings me back to the original question, then: if the actions of a super-soldier are naturally reprehensible and the life of a super-soldier isn’t appealing, then why are super-soldiers such popular implants in science fiction writing? Heck, many of these stories make a point of showing us just how terrible it is being a super soldier, and still we think “man, Kurt Russel was soooo cool in Soldier!’ Isn’t that just a little, you know, perverse?
There are, of course, a whole host of answers to this question, some of which are likely contradictory. We, being contradictory creatures anyway, shouldn’t be troubled by this, however. I would like to present, however, a brief list of reasons why I think we love super-soldiers so much.
- We Love Violence, But We Don’t Like Getting Hurt: The super-soldier allows us to enjoy the adrenaline rush of warfare without the pesky realities of human frailties getting in the way. We don’t need to worry about Van Damme in Universal Soldier because he’s not a real guy, anyway. He can take it. The super-soldier is the superhero of warfare: gets the job done and can skip over the pesky consequences involved in murdering dozens of people and being shot a bunch by bad guys. It justifies the things we like about action heroes already, except with ‘Science!’. It is safe to identify with him, since he can survive where we could not.
- Our Grotesque Love-Affair with War: Some super-soldier stories have been referred to as ‘war-porn’, and the metaphor is an apt one. Wars, as far as we violence-loving action fans are concerned, have the disadvantage of being either fairly short conflicts waged by ordinary people in modest theaters or long, drawn-out conflicts involving complex political and social upheaval. In both cases, the act of blowing things up is constricted by the pace of history or the ugliness of human behavior. The super-soldier lets us condense what we want to read about in warfare (explosions and glorious battle!) while leaving out the stuff we don’t want to read about (why are we fighting anyway? Is this war just?). Bah! Phooey! Just bring on the robot-ninjas, give the space marine a machine gun, and let ‘er rip!
- They Can Destroy The Problems We Can’t Engage: Many of us live with unrestrained frustration at the political world. We don’t trust the government. We fear terrorists. We worry over nuclear war. We want somebody to do something about organized crime. Regardless of the respective realism of these concerns, the super-soldier, much like the superhero, gives us an outlet to vent them. In this sense, he isn’t altogether unlike any action hero, except he is something constructed which inherently makes him achievable. None of us are likely to become Superman and there is little chance of there being more than one John Rambo in the world, but super-soldiers can be mass produced. They are the very literal answer to the question ‘what can be done to stop ‘x”. The answer is ‘fifty Adeptus Astartes in Power Armor will Shoot Them All!’ Viola! All our murderous social fantasies embodied!
So, there you go, my .02 on the issue, if, indeed, it is an issue at all.
Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to organize a company of Imperial Fists Space Marines to smite their brothers, the Ultramarines, in glorious battle.
Look, I understand that you’re just following orders, nameless army grunt, but do you honestly think that your little assault rifle is contributing to the situation in a positive way? Let me put it this way: I’ve been cowering behind this old Chevy for almost a full two minutes now, and I’ve watched you pump off, I don’t know, like a hundred rounds of ammunition into the giant, angry green monster over there, and do you know what you’ve achieved? Nothing. I ask you, how is the 101st bullet going to be any different?
You’re reloading? Again? What the hell is wrong with you? Stop! For the love of God, stop shooting the Hulk!
Do you even know the meaning of the word ‘bulletproof?’ Jesus, your buddies in the Apache Helicopter with the giant freaking Gatling gun didn’t hurt him, what the fuck do you think you’re going to accomplish? You’re just giving the freak some kind of long-distance shiatsu massage!
Oh…oh shit. He sees us. Oh crap oh crap oh crap. STOP with the fucking gun, asshole! What the FUCK is wrong with you?
Have you noticed that the more you shoot at him, the bigger he gets? You’re just pissing him off! Cut it out! I swear to God, if that big green fucker throws a trolley car through my ice cream shop just because you’re too fucking stupid not to quit while you’re ahead, I’m taking the yellow ribbons off my front door. No more care packages for you, dumbass.
HOLY SHIT! He just THREW A BUS at that other idiot over there! A BUS! What do you think you’re going to get? This isn’t Superman, buddy – he isn’t going to give you a stern scolding and deliver you to the local jail. He’s going to render your body two-dimensional beneath some massive projectile.
Seriously, you’re still shooting him?
You know what I think? I think you’re suicidal. That’s it. I think you want to die. What happened? Your wife leave you? Miss that promotion to Chief Goon? Find out you have terminal cancer? Look, maybe I can cheer you up, right? I do own an ice cream shop. You want a hot fudge sundae? Everybody gets cheered up by an ice cream sundae. Right?
Hey, what’s that shadow?
Oh…it’s a tank turret. In mid air. Shit.
If I live through this, I am totally suing somebody.