Thursday, September 24, 2015

Superman - The Embodiment of White Privilege

I'm not a big fan of the term "privilege" as it is used by my fellow liberals. It started with "white privilege" and quickly grew to include "male privilege" but now the use has extended to "straight privilege" and "gender privilege." It seems that anyone who does not fit into a recognized minority and faces discrimination as such is privileged.

Is that fair? Without a doubt, these groups face greater discrimination than their counterparts, but does lack of discrimination equal privilege? As a socialist, I do believe in privilege, but I think it's economic in nature. The biggest difference between Batman and Daredevil is that Batman has a ridiculous about of money while Matt Murdock had to work hard to put himself through law school while raised in a Catholic orphanage. You could say Batman is "sight privileged," but I think that misses the point.

Lack of discrimination is not a privilege... it is a power, and perhaps the greatest icon representing white privilege is Superman. Sure, he isn't rich in the sense of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, but when it comes to happy childhoods, is there any superhero who had a better one than Clark Kent?

Superman's childhood is literally modeled after the American ideal depicted in the artwork of Norman Rockwell paintings. Growing up in the farmlands of Kansas, he is solidly from the heartland of America. Although religion is rarely discussed in Superman, you can't help but think that his upbringing is solidly Protestant (whether that's what he believes as an adult is a question for another day).

The very idea that Superman is invulnerable is a representation of white privilege itself. Superman has absolutely nothing to fear. Those few things capable of hurting him are also things that he can easily avoid, if he chooses to. Unlike the X-Men or Spider-Man, Superman is not chased down and actively discriminated against for who he is (Lex Luthor being the exception). He doesn't even have to wear a mask!

Unlike many of the others I've mentioned, it is virtually impossible to depict Superman as anything other than a white heterosexual male because every aspect of his upbringing and character is compatible with that identity. If Clark Kent were black or gay, we would naturally be concerned that his rural upbringing was full of tragedy and strife that helped shape the hero who he had become. If he were a woman, his gender would be politicized as much as Wonder Woman's. This kind of pathos is great for most superheroes, but with Superman, it is the idealism of his upbringing that makes him into such a pure being.

And yet, Superman is not a negative character. He is not meant to show the problem of white privilege, but rather the responsibility of privilege. Because he is invulnerable, he considers it his responsibility to protect those who are most vulnerable. He wants everyone to have the same chance at happiness that he has had.

Recent Superman comics and movies have been trying to make Superman cool and edgy. They insert a lot of tragedy and pain in his life. They show his frustration at having to hide who he is, creating some obvious parallels to homosexuality. They show him getting angry and frustrated, shaving his head into a crew cut. They pair him up with Wonder Woman to show that he can get the greatest piece of ass in the DC universe... but they are getting further and further away from what makes Superman great.

Superman isn't great because he's like us. He's great because he's better than us, but he is 100% on our side. He isn't you. He isn't your friend or your brother or your dad. He is the mentor that we all want. He is the leader who stands out from a crowd of politicians and speaks to your heart. He's great because we want to be him... not to impress anyone, but just to feel what it is like to be so happy and safe and secure... so much so that you can spend your life giving without ever wanting for anything.

That's privilege... and we should all be so lucky.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How To Patronize Women The Marvel Way - An Agent Carter Review

So Agent Carter wrapped up its short 8 episode run today and I've gone from being pleasantly surprised with the first two episode to gradually being worn down by the countless cliches and Mary Sue tropes. It is a show that wears its feminism on its sleeve, but ironically, the best way I can think to describe it is "patronizing."

Now, please pardon the irony for a moment and allow me to deconstruct the word "patronizing." From the root "pater" meaning "father," to patronize means to treat kindly from a position of superiority. It refers to how fathers raise children to be obedient, how white colonists claimed "Manifest Destiny" as justification for destroying indigenous cultures, and of course, how husbands traditionally dominated their wives. The problem with patronage is that it creates a relationship whereby the one who is patronized is dependent upon the one who is patronizing them for undeserved praise, thereby inhibits personal growth.

The producers of Agent Carter are patronizing their lead character and, by extension, patronizing the audience and the very lofty subject that they are trying to promote, the empowerment of women. By focusing on Peggy Carter's gender, they are not properly establishing her character or developing her supporting cast as anything other than spotlights to illuminate her from every possible angle.

So I'd like to outline how this show fails at the basic elements of storytelling thereby undermining its premise. In short, this is why Agent Carter should not be hailed as a positive example of female writing, but should instead be condemned as yet another misguided attempt at female empowerment.

The most basic element of storytelling is motivation. A character needs motivation to act which creates drama. Lasting comic book characters always have strong motivation (usually involving the death of a loved one). So, what motivates Peggy Carter? Based on the bookend sequences in the first and last episodes, we are led to believe that Peggy's motivation in this series has been the death of Steve Rogers. Yet this motivation does not sufficiently explain her character nor is it properly established in the context of Captain America: The First Avenger.

With every hero, you need to establish where they gained their unique abilities. We know that Captain America can fight a battalion because he has the super-soldier serum. Thor, even without his powers, was trained by the warriors of Asgard and fought in many battles. However, Peggy Carter has the incredible ability to take down four fellow agents in an open room with no weapons while they are prepared for her and twice her size. However, at no point in the series are we given any indication that Peggy Carter has had any special background that would give her supernatural fighting skills. As the story deliberately points out, a woman in that time period would not likely have many opportunities to be trained in combat and would likely be discouraged from trying. So why is Peggy different?

Does it have something to do with her home life? We'd never know. They never make a single mention of Peggy's family. Was she an orphan? There is a lot of room to explain her abilities, but without any clues, it just seems like a huge oversight.

Speaking of oversights, why is Peggy such a patriotic American? She has a distinctly posh British accent, but when we first meet her, she is serving with the US military. I had always assumed this was some sort of Allied troop exchange, but why wouldn't Peggy help out in the reconstruction of Britain? Why go to America to be a secretary for the SSR?

The character of Peggy Carter is hopelessly thin. She is attractive and assertive, always knowing when to throw an insult or a fist, but the writing makes this very easy and convenient for her. Her challenges are annoying and, perhaps frightening, but they are never a serious threat to her.

In the finale of the series, Peggy Carter fights a Russian super agent, a precursor to Black Widow. When we were introduced to her true nature, a very dangerous assassin was holding a gun at her from point blank range and, without distraction, the agent killed him while unarmed. In short, she has a supernatural fighting ability. Yet Agent Carter doesn't need to do anything clever to defeat her when a well-timed kick will do.

So much of Peggy Carter's strength comes not from how she handles her problems or the decisions she makes, but rather from the lead actress's natural charisma, the overly generous writing, and their deliberate "straw man" approach to male characterization. Some misogyny is perfectly justified, particularly in a historical piece with a female protagonist. It would be conspicuous if there weren't a few awful males around, but Agent Carter goes overboard in depicting a black-and-white divided society where the heroine seems to be the only one dissatisfied with their role in life.

Chief Dooley is positively laughable as the gruff commander who acts sort of like a father figure, usually keeping Carter down but occasionally standing up for her. It's hard to identify whether it is his gravely voice or bad makeup, but he makes the show feel cheap and corny like a bad Funny-Or-Die video. He is so easily won over by the phoney Russian defector that it is impossible to have any respect for him. And when none of the other agents question his obviously bizarre behavior, we lose any remaining respect for them. Even worse, the writers try to tack on a backstory with his estranged wife and children right before he makes a heroic self-sacrifice, but its far too little and too late.
The second-in-command is Jack Thompson who is a brash, blonde idiot who thinks he's the hero just because he looks the part. When sent on a mission with Carter, he cries as he admits that he won his medal for firing on people who were surrendering. Later in the episode, we see him freeze in battle and cower in the corner. Repeatedly, he is shown to be ignorant, judgmental, and cowardly, but he is rewarded for it. He is supposed to stand for the different standards placed on men and women. It's a very childishly cynical depiction which suggests that if you look the part, life is handed to you on a silver platter.

Perhaps the most "emotional" scene in the entire season was the death of Agent Ray Krezminski. This is a character who the story deliberately goes out of its way to make us think is a big, dumb, hateful, misogynist pig... so when he dies, we could not possibly have less reason to care. Yet in the very next scene, we see the entire department in silence mourning his death and Peggy even joins in. The entire setup completely falls flat to such a degree that it is hard to understand why the writers expected us to feel anything but glee regarding his death. When I watched this scene, I was positively dumbstruck because I couldn't understand if the show actually expected me to mourn the death of a character that they had tried so hard to show had no redeeming qualities.

Even the three likeable male characters are straight-jacketed by their gender. Agent Sousa has an injury that left him in crutches and is consequently dismissed as half a man. This causes him to be more respectful to others who are dismissed by society including women and the homeless. For all of his positive qualities, he does little to contribute to Peggy's cause and a lot to hinder her.

Howard Stark plays the "amusing" womanizer, which feels really stale when Dominic Cooper does it. He's really no Robert Downey Jr. so we can't enjoy his performance in the same way. His womanizing is a weakness that leads to his downfall. The plot of the entire series is based around his irresponsible womanizing leading to his weapons falling into the wrong hands. Peggy admonishes him as a war profiteer and the series ends with Stark destroying his weaponry, but it doesn't really make sense. If you go back to Iron Man (which is the beginning of the Marvel cinematic universe), we know that Howard continued to irresponsibly produce weapons until his death (presumably of liver failure or STDs). This means that his character development was entirely false.

Perhaps the most likeable male character is Jarvis. With absolutely no fighting abilities and a frequent need to be rescued, he actually follows the traditional role of the damsel-in-distress (without the romantic overtones). Yet where the damsel is usually pure, Jarvis is shown to be complicit in the corruption of his boss, Mr. Stark, which earns him the ire of our heroine. Even before she knows this, Peggy and Jarvis visit Stark's ex-girlfriends who verbally and physically abuse Jarvis because of Howard's treatment of them. Peggy does not make the slightest effort to protect Jarvis, suggesting that she believes he deserves it. Yet Jarvis did absolutely nothing to deserve this treatment. We can only assume that Peggy is indulging in misandric schadenfreude. Because of what men in general do, Jarvis deserves to be the outlet of female frustration through physical violence. This further perpetuates the notion that female violence against men is acceptable due to the presumed ability of men to defend themselves.

Marvel has been getting a lot of credit lately for "empowering women" but I don't believe it for a second. Whether you are talking about Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow or DeConnick's Captain Marvel, female protagonists still lack a strong motivation and sense of self. They may have better representation and they may be treated with more respect, but they lack the depth that makes a character truly endure and resonate with audiences. To do that, you have to take risks with your character.

It's not easy to write an empowering female lead, particularly when you are concerned about media scrutiny. However, the biggest difference between male leads and female leads isn't gender; it's that male leads never had the burden of being representations of their gender. They simply had the burden of succeeding in a competitive creative market. That kept their focus where it needed to be: on entertaining their audience.

We should continue to strive toward writing strong female characters, but this should happen as a natural extension of the creative process. When it is such a blunt and deliberate goal, the result is a misshapen blob of political talking points without any humanity behind it. It insults the idea that women are in fact strong enough and smart enough and self-aware enough to accept a female protagonist who has tangible flaws and weaknesses. It insults their intellect to ask them to accept that Peggy beat the Russian superspy with nothing more than a well-timed kick.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Marvel Migration - Part 1

Marvel is supposed to be set in our world. While the events of DC Comics occur in fictional locales like Metropolis or Gotham, Marvel stories primarily take place in New York City. Because the Marvel offices were located in New York, Stan Lee decided it would be convenient to have all of his heroes live in the city he knows best. Consequently, fifty years later, 95% of superheroes, supervillains, and superhuman events are concentrated in New York City. For those of us in the rest of the world, this can seem a little unfair. If this continues, Marvel will have to schedule an event to explain why New York City is a magnet for supernatural events.

Marvel has announced that, following the upcoming Secret Wars event, the old Marvel universe will be gone and replaced with something new. At this time, its unclear what that means and the comic community is just hoping its planned better than the New 52. However, my hope is that they make an attempt to diversify their lineup by expanding into new areas of the country and the world at large. Personally, I've never been to New York City, but I'm already sick of it from comics and television. I'd love to read more stories that take place in diverse environments.

So I propose a Marvel Migration, a publishing initiative designed to connect with a wider world by moving their star characters outward. Imagine how much Chicago or Seattle or Las Vegas would appreciate their own local heroes. You could create direct marketing campaigns in each region, but the challenge is choosing the right hero for the right town.

NOTE: I left out some popular heroes for good reason Spider-Man and Daredevil are perfectly suited to New York City, Hulk and Namor are perpetual wanderers, and Avengers can gather anywhere they want. 

The Solo Heroes

Captain America - Washington, DC

This one is pretty obvious. Although Cap is from New York, he represents America and he should operate from our nation's capital. This would surround him by politics and the intelligence community. Whether its Steve, Sam, Bucky, or any combination of the three, it'd make us all feel safer knowing that Captain America is protecting our nation's capital. 

Iron Man - Detroit, MI

Why would America's richest man go to its poorest major city? To buy it.

Imagine if Tony Stark bought every piece of land he possibly could in Detroit and vowed to transform our nation's poorest city into the world's leader of industry. Now, can he do it?

With the help of Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Bambi Arbogast, and all of his best and brightest, Tony micromanages his new city with the goal of creating a lasting utopia and an example to the world. As if that weren't difficult enough, his greatest enemies are determined to do everything possible to see that he fails.

Strangely, Wolverine is on a lot of Bulls merchandise.

Wolverine - Chicago, IL

While Logan fits in well both in New York and San Francisco, I think it would be fun to see him with his own city to protect, and I can think of no place better than Chicago. Its associations with organized crime, proximity with Canada, and population of angry hairy men make it the perfect fit.

Joined by his best sidekick and Chicago native, Kitty Pryde, Logan discovers evidence that the Weapon Plus program has reopened in the windy city and is selling "custom-made" superhumans for unique clientele through the black market. While Logan and Kitty can hurt their operation badly, the situation is rapidly spiraling out of control toward superhuman gang war.

Doctor Strange - Boston, MA

Doctor Strange is the perfect image of the mid-Atlantic New England sophisticate and there is no major city that fits that image better than historic Boston. The old world architecture lends an air of mystery and the rich (often violent) history of the town could serve as the basis for ghosts, witches, and demonic rituals.

I'd love to see a series where Doctor Strange really lives up to his names, so I'd create a story about a curse that affects the citizens in unique and unusual ways. Doctor Strange arrives to quarantine the area, treat the victims, and eliminate the disease. However, he soon realizes that there is a method to this madness and he needs to figure out what malevolent force is behind this before he loses the battle.

Thor - Seattle, WA

When it came to Thor, I immediately thought of the rainy city. Its like a halfway point between viking fishing villages and the splendorous spires of Asgard.

I imagine yet another reintroduction of Don Blake. Much like Watson in the BBC's Sherlock, Don Blake would be a military doctor who has returned from the Middle East with PTSD. He's opening up a new practice, but he's haunted by images of war, particularly the near death experience that injured his leg and requires him to walk with a cane. As his delusions become more realistic, he sees images of Loki and dreams that he is Thor, god of thunder. The memories of his battles on Earth and his battles on Asgard become inseparable. Eventually, he finds Mjolnir, disguised as a humble stick, and transforms into Thor, but he cannot return to Asgard and has no memory of its fate.

Dazzler - Las Vegas, NV

The mutant Dazzler is a successful pop singer and mutant who transforms sound into light. She practically is Las Vegas.

If Celine Deon can have her own stadium built in Vegas, Dazzler could easily become the regular act at a 5-star casino. Since she's a known superhero, its great publicity for the casino in two ways. Of course, once one casino gets a superhero, then the other casinos will want one. Soon, Daimon Hellstrom is performing stage magic down the block, a new Mr. Fixit is playing across town, and more are sure to follow. Pretty soon the town is overloaded with two bit heroes and villains, all of whom are trying to make a quick buck in the glamorous world of Sin City.

Nova - Miami, FL

For America's biggest party town, we need a young and energetic hero. When you include the amusement parks of Orlando, the space program at Cape Canaveral, and just the general inbred weirdness of the rest of the alligator-infested state of Florida, it is a perfect location for an off-beat hero like Nova.

Since Marvel's always looking to diversify racially, the largely Cuban population of Miami would create an interesting environment for the half-Mexican, Sam Alexander, the current Nova. This might just be the perfect place for him to go to college.

Ghost Rider - Phoenix, AZ

Like Hulk before him, Marvel's demonic biker belongs in the deserts of the American southwest. The imagery of biker culture is closely tied to the region, so it would strengthen the imagery (as demonstrated in the best moment from this awful film).

Arizona is also the site of a lot of discriminatory legislation and hostility regarding the Mexican immigrant population. This could be the basis for great storytelling with a message. Not to mention that the long highways of the national border are great for showing chases featuring illegal immigrants, border patrol, minutemen, and drug smugglers.

The Teams

X-Men - San Francisco, CA

Following the Decimation event when the population of mutants was temporarily reduced, the X-Men briefly relocated to San Francisco. And I loved it.

While the X-Men were constantly discriminated against in New York, San Francisco has a history of embracing diversity with open arms. This changed the dynamic of the X-Men drastically. Suddenly, they were working with their community against threats from the outside. They could still face broad discrimination outside of the city, but inside San Francisco, they were home.

Unfortunately, this lasted only about a year, but I'd love to see them return. The last time the X-Men were in town, San Francisco faced riots, military law, and invasion by Sentinels, so they might be a bit more hesitant about having them back. Then again, there are probably a lot of people in San Francisco who appreciate that kind of chaos. This is a home for those who are feared and different, and the X-Men have always seemed most at home when they are there.

I'm sorry, but when I searched "Fantastic Four"
and "Texas," this is the best that I got.

Fantastic Four - Austin, TX

When it came to the Fantastic Four, there were a lot of choices. Little known fact, the team first debuted in the fictional city of Central City, which was mapped at Stockton, CA. I thought their celebrity might be ideal in Los Angeles, then the space program in Houston came to mind. Whenever I think of Texas, I think of the strange liberal bastion of Austin, known for being the antithesis of the largely conservative state. What better place for a post-nuclear family?

Reed Richards purchases a closed NASA facility just outside the city borders and starts retrofitting it as the new headquarters for Fantastic Four Inc., an exploratory and development company. Sue manages the book, Ben is in charge of security, and Johnny lives rent free, as always. Of course, their insatiable curiosity and colorful past has a way of bringing the adventures to them, even though they spend most of their time exploring the universe, as always.

New Warriors - San Diego, CA

As for Marvel's classic junior superhero team, San Diego is a great city for exploring adolescence, and as the home of Comic Con International, it just makes sense to stake a claim to it.

With youth teams, the first thing you have to ask is "Do they have a mentor?" An adult-sanctioned team like the original X-Men or New Mutants has a bit more legitimacy, but lacks the autonomy of an independent group. Since Runaways and Young Avengers have the independent youth team covered, I'd recommend the more traditional route.

I could see orphan and perennial sidekick Rick Jones volunteering to mentor a group of teenage superhumans with ambitions of being a hero. Jones might even choose San Diego because of the relatively low incidents of superhuman crime, but little does he know that a low-level crime boss had the same idea.

Next in Part 2!

We continue with teams, both national and international. No "Avengers West Coast." These are distinct teams with their own brands (even if I borrowed the name from some defunct titles).