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Sunday, 25 December 2016

The Insidious Passivity of Marvel


It's generally agreed that myth is fundamentally conservative. One of its main functions, aside from explanation of the world, is support of the established order. In any kind of organised society, the question is eventually going to be asked, "Why do I give so much of my stuff to the warrior elite/aristocracy/king/elected government?" Myth provides the answer, in a subliminal sort of way. Myth says it's because these people are the sons of gods and heroes, because they really are special and will provide you with protection. Assuming, of course, that you keep paying for it.

The Marvel universe, like most other comic book oeuvres, draws heavily and openly on myth. From entities as venerable as the Annunaki, to relatively (stress on relatively) newer deities such as Thor, Marvel's connection with the elder gods is close and overt. And what this means is that the comic book world is essentially conservative. I don't necessarily mean socially conservative, but more in the sense that comic book stories are similar to myth not just in the characters they use, but in the fact that they tend to support the established order. Comic books have been generally used to uphold ideas of law and justice and civilised society and, in more particular cases, the Allied war effort and the global monetary system. There's a deeper message inherent in comic books, however, and I don't think it's a necessarily good one.

Sometimes they're references, sometimes they're not
I recently watched Dr Strange, which wasn't at all a bad film. Sure, it's another Marvel 'product' rather than a story with any kind of soul, but I don't look to Marvel for my life changing moments. That'd just be juvenile. What I want from Marvel is wisecracks, explosions, and the comforting sense that the world as we know it, and all the people in it, are worth saving. What I don't want, however, is mental enslavement. 

Okay, so that sounds a bit extreme, but stay with me. Leading on from the obvious connection between Marvel and myth, we can take a step further in our thinking and unpack what all these gods and heroes saving the world actually means. Dr Strange is a very good case in point. In this film, there is the usual American hack and slash job done on Eastern culture, and we see that there is a secret order of wizard-type people who spend all their time defending the Earth from some unthinkable threat. The operative word here is 'secret'. The rest of the world goes on with their petty, day to day lives while this elite cadre of superhumans holds the line in a series of locations which are either hidden or actually non-existent for our given quantity of reality.

This fish wearing dude is Oannes
The strong implication of this is that we can just carry on. That it doesn't matter what's wrong in the world, what the threat is or what needs to change - gods and heroes will provide. Not only are the threats we face beyond our power to meet, we can trust in the idea that there are people out there who are better than us, who will rise to the occasion and save us. And we don't even have to live in such a way that merits saving. They will save us because it is their raison d'etre. This is an insidious and dangerous idea. It's reflected in our attitudes to elites of all kinds. Problem in North Korea? Why not send a SEAL team? Worried about China/Iran/Russia or whoever this week's enemy is? The US Military will provide. Economy up the spout? Let's vote in a larger than life billionaire who promises he has a magic wand.

Let's compare this with something like, say, Doctor Who. The Doctor isn't so much a god in the vein of Thor or Ishtar, but more of a culture hero, like Oannes. Sure, he saves us and promises to protect us, but most of the time he's relying on ordinary people to step up, and sometimes to sacrifice themselves, as a necessary element in any attempt to change the shape of the world for the better. Compare, if you will, these two philosophies, and it shouldn't be too hard to figure out where my preference lies.

We need to guard against world views that reflect our own feelings of marginalisation. It's no coincidence that we have a rash of superheroes in pop culture at the moment. If we look at critical points in history when gods and heroes were most prominent in the last couple of centuries, they've always been the times when the threats being faced were unimaginably powerful and complex. It's vitally important, to my mind, that we don't let pardonable escapism translate into fundamental world view. As fun as powerful, god-like superheroes are, we need to remind ourselves where power truly needs to be apportioned in order to guarantee our future.

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