For the first time, I think, movies with superheroes look at the problems of the low class. Scott Lang, who turns theft into a heroic destiny, has black & Hispanic friends, it seems, only because he went to prison, which he only did because he broke the laws to do justice–to give people money a far wealthier corporation took from them. The arrival of this hero either signals a demagogic top-bottom alliance against the middle class or a new call for national community where the wealthy agree to take care of the needy. How you think about this may depend on your political opinions.
Scott no longer has a family. Why is he divorced? His very white wife now is marrying a very white policeman. She chose law, do you see? His daughter loves him, but he cannot see her unless he is respectable as a father–which means a job & a house, which is not an easy thing to do for anyone in the low class–which might include everyone sent to jail for breaking the law, not merely people we’d all agree are criminals.
The problem here is basic: Is there any common good? Scott has, instead of a family, a new community: Small-time criminals whose outlook on America is basic: Are we getting deported? Have we got any security? Are we getting things we need to live? Even how much you sympathize with these people might depend on your political opinions.
But at the national level, the common good means a common enemy–there are people looking to get an advantage in technology to become able to do terrible things they very much want to do. Heroism in Avengers stories is always about defending the quarrelsome democracy that defends civilization as we know it. The threat is embodied in creatures who see fantasies in science & will use it to kill poor & rich alike.
There is a problem with the plot. Why should Scott be chosen for superhero powers? He says, it’s because he’s expendable. The rich scientist making the decision would rather risk his life than his daughter’s. The daughter thinks, she’s not trusted. The scientist, however, seems to fear losing her as he did his wife, because he trusts she’s as daring & resourceful as her mother was. There is something more than a little startling–the scientist-hero got himself into a situation where his wife died. But there is more to it: Scott is already committed to gaining respectability by crime. The scientist is only giving him the means to do what he has already done. A cause makes shamelessness heroic.
Scott knows little people already, & is apt to cut big people down to size.
For the first time, the hero-villain story is a class story, where the resourceful hero faces a ruthless man of excellence who turns against democracy.
It’s remarkable that so many of the villains & their victims are immigrants. Hell’s kitchen is not entirely American. These people might not tell you they hold it a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, & endowed with rights. Before that comes the question of the founding of laws & the installation of order. You could ask, what does it take for people to believe they can find something good in America, that life is worth living there?
Nobody can make sure everyone is treated fairly or that everyone has what they need. It would seem, then, that enjoying prosperity in freedom requires some blindness to the suffering of others. Both would seem to be natural. It may be called a blessing that our knowledge of human things is limited or else the limits other human beings face would prove intolerable. We want to separate from other people. The man who wants to do justice has to face that.
In a certain way, then, justice is about putting people together or making sure they can live together in some way they find tolerable. One learns a lot if one learns how people who really dislike each other can live together. It may be more than human beings can do to make sure those things do not happen which would make living together impossible. That work is incredibly ugly.
Murdock is learning that there is a great hierarchy among the evil & that holding something good in common & protecting it from evil people has nothing to do with being a good man. He wants justice to mean, some people do not get to exploit others. One wonders how he proposes to do that. This world is a vale of tears & the concerns of unimportant people are taken to be similarly unimportant.
The incredible fights of heroes & monsters that astound the world with their powers & threats have created the possibility that whatever is not similarly astounding is ignored. People who focus on getting what they want can do it undisturbed. Incredible abilities are put together to create a new kind of exploitation. & success can turn evil into good unless someone says otherwise–unless someone is willing to deal with the danger of telling good & evil apart & able to defend himself when he tells people what evil is & that they can stand up against it.
That evil could make an empire out of petty greed, that terror could be used so rationally, & that organizations could come to great prosperity from small, secretive deeds is a modern achievement. It is an ugliness somewhat similar to the good things we enjoy in our modern lives.
The good is something we learn about in whispers. It is tied up with our hopes, & we have learned not to dare to hope. It has nothing of the brilliance of success. Murdock starts anew in a dumpster. He’s so stupid that he never thought people might trap him instead of him trapping them. He does not know that people come to know you. A masked man emerging from the night to terrorize is a myth. Evil men can also use myths.
To some extent, Murdock’s blindness is caused by his innocence. He did not suspect evil men would come after him instead; he did not think that weakness could be a cover for strength. This is what evil men do not understand, if you think about it. This blindness is necessary. Otherwise, we’d have to think what things are & what they seem to be are always different. That would make thinking & action impossible.
A boy finds him & calls a woman who will save him. She is a nurse. Nursing people back to health & their need to be healed have nothing to do with whether they are good people or evil. At any rate, she immediately takes off his mask: It later emerges, she had heard stories about his heroism. She could not have helped herself. For all her knowing attitude, she wanted to see the face of a hero.
Giving people back their life is giving them a chance to act. That preserves the possibility of doing something good. So what changes? Daredevil, now that he has learned at great cost that doing good is walking into a trap, walks into the next trap. What he has learned is that you cannot do anything but sacrifice your life if you’re going to dedicate yourself to justice.
Back to the possibility of acting: The evil men Daredevil is trying to stop now know that what they are doing is dangerous for them as well, not only for other people. Daredevil now knows that punishing evil men is in itself dangerous, aside from the dangers attending on the doing, because it scares & angers them, & they are likely to defend themselves. Everyone is now learning the difference between good & evil, & there is no way of knowing whether good will come of it.
It is strange to think of horror as an education. It seems like what is happening here is a deepening inquiry into what it takes to have justice–to place limits on what can be done to the weakest among us & what can be done by the strongest. Night & secrets recall chaos.
Matt Murdock seems to have turned into Daredevil by accident. He was not in search of a cause, nor was he in search of an enemy. The things he ends up doing have very little in common with the things he started doing. He is not a man who knows many things or who sets much store by knowledge. To the student of political science, he is interesting because he starts from the distinction between good & evil as it is obvious to all of us.
Consider his first fight. A number of men have kidnapped young women for purposes I will not explain, in case you cannot imagine them. The man who runs this business offers them better conditions in slavery if they cooperate. They start screaming, in renewed terror. This is how normal people react to evil. They are not reasonable about necessity overcoming justice. They are not detached from their situation. Chaos is hell gaping beneath their feet.
Daredevil saves them, tells them to flag the first officer they see. The girls are going back to law & order, where what you see is what you get. Daredevil’s blindness is a deep awareness of man’s natural situation. His daring is the daring to act in the situation where you do not know what you’re doing. He beats several men & kills none. Unless he wants evil to reform, it is not clear why he should do that. Maybe daring goes too far. One thing he seems not to know is that God hardens the hearts of the wicked. So he does not know that two of these men, if they are not now killed, will later cause horror.
The devil part is connected to this kind of daring. The laws of men & the limits divine mercy place on our actions come together to protect us from hell. But Murdock does not want that. He will imitate Christ. He will suffer everything human beings can suffer. It seems, he’s only doing this to prove there is a kind of innocence in people.
Understanding the distinction between good & evil is some kind of knowledge. It is not what you need for prosperity or for a long life, but it helps you to understand what makes people what they are. Murdoch allows a young woman he saves to lie to him & risk her life. She thinks she’s so clever in face of catastrophic events because she’s normal. It never occurs to her that some evil you cannot reveal.
Daredevil fights with urgency, heedless of what’s important. The fighting is not about going to heaven. It is about living in hell, taking evil as it comes.
This is one of Marvel’s most compelling stories & it seems it could get the treatment it requires. It is incredibly ugly, but this is not inapposite in a story about what it takes to do justice to the weak.
This is a story about the difficulties the police must face when claims to self-government are complicated by the sense of control & responsibility created by modern media. We think we know what is going on because we see images of people on television. Fellow-feeling & our ability to worry get the better of our judgment–they take ability out of the picture. Spectators who think themselves actors are dreamers.
The police face the plans of a small team of professional criminals who are far better able to conceal themselves–& therefore defend themselves–among the population. They have no trouble killing people, either. It soon emerges, the police is not prepared to deal with experts–it assumes rather than protects the civil peace. Having a private life means the police cannot do whatever is necessary to capture even criminals who murder policemen.
At the same time, it is not able to deal with people who watch the news. The images the police uses sometimes resemble the director’s–because some woman is deluding everyone about being in control, without knowing who is doing what or why. One thing this reveals, accidentally, is the kind of police work that simply cannot be done on camera… The criminals far more resemble the director: They have planned their actions.
The press–then the police–then the criminals learn to use images of people to affect the people, to support or prevent actions from being taken which must be taken. This is a comment on the very shaky liberal distinction between the private & the public. Soon, everyone is trying to look like decent private people in need of support & affection, so that people would be outraged should they come to harm or grief. Apparently, that’s what it takes for policemen to get a great meal.
The criminals take a family hostage & televise the scene–now, the ability of the modern executive to act with dispatch & in secrecy withers away. Are we really willing to risk seeing someone murdered for the sake of doing justice? Then, too, the criminals have charm–whatever people say about glorifying violence, certainly the democratic work of humanizing criminals–they’re not villains!–has made it difficult to take justice seriously. This one happens to be incredibly charming. The police eventually must simply put a policeman on camera talking about fearing for his life & what happened when he had a gun pointed at his head.
Then there is this policeman, ugly, angry, relentless, & unwilling to agree with the criminals that each should go his way. There is a terrifying contrast between this man–blind to the conflicts over the private & public things in the new world of democracy–& the far more reasonable policemen running the show.
This is a story about the dangers that attend those who believe they are fated to love each other. Two musical youths meet by accident–one helps the other–& in the course of their getting to know each other they realize they had known each other as kids. Now that they are acquainted again, they seem to think they have finally found love.
In what way are as yet childish?–Maybe it is playfulness, but maybe it is a kind of neglect. They neglect themselves, are alone, & need care. They seem fated to repeat that first mistake & lose track of each other. They do serve to bring two other couples together. One, their landlords–the people who take care of their dwellings. These people, faced with the choice between running after their neglectful clients or going on a date, choose wisely the latter. They are annoyed, but not endangered.
The other couple–two youths who care for the youths in their time of need. A girl who works at the nearest takeout place takes care of food & medicine for the musician; a doctor at the hospital takes care of the girl, whom he’s known in school. These new youths seem to believe that helping someone you love means they owe you–now they have to accept your suit of love. They are not musical–they are vulgar–it’s beer, snacks, & soccer for them–not poetry & music. Apparently, the vulgar opinion of love is, you give someone good things, you get the love you want. This may be connected to the vengeance they seek when they are rejected.
But these acquisitive people face none of the trouble the musical youths are now learning about–the laughter with which they meet the remembrance of their failed friendship as children turns into despair when they lose each other again. The cruelty is exaggerated when they see that they are always missing each other. Accident looks like fate now–their intentions seem to be defeated by the cosmos.
If there is something that comes out of this suffering, it is the desire in each lover that the other one do well. They do not become cruel or inhuman faced with loss. They seem to accept that they cannot overcome the fate that has kept them apart. In some way, this even inspires them to dedicate themselves to musical things: It would seem, that is the proper activity of the lovelorn.
The story separates the tyrannical part of desire from the part that is obviously noble, & suggests that the latter depends on a strange way of thinking about chance & necessity. There may be no better way to explain why one is able to fall in love.
Another one of Johnnie To & Wai Ka Fai’s romances, based on a story based on this poem by Wislawa Szymborska, Love at first sight.
On the possibility of grounding domestic happiness in a restless society
A successful man in advertising learns from his wife that they apartment needs redesigning–there are all sorts of practical troubles, & then there is this designer from that party who had these nice ideas. The man will hear nothing of it–there’s nothing wrong with the place & the trouble would be impractical. He learns from his daughters that they have learned at their expensive school that he is at fault for the lack of social progress: He simply is not aware of matters of social significance. He is too middle-class.
& midst this tumult, the man seems to turn around entirely, & jeopardize his life & livelihood to acquire some semblance of the peaceful self-contained life of the country, where one need not see nor hear anyone but his own & those of his own choosing. A man is lord on an estate. None of the restlessness & crowding of the metropolis. His lawyer counsels against this newfound ambition.
Witness the confrontation of ad man & lawyer. The lawyer is orderly, skeptical of promises, & comfortable with bachelorhood. The ad man is given to enthusiasms, acquisitive, & uncomfortable with marriage. In a way, that’s aristocracy & democracy for you. The woman chose the restless, charming ad man, but in his moment of failure, he is not so sure he is choice-worthy anymore & begins to fear. He is similarly unsure of any of his acquisitions & not very well defended against despair.
The woman’s good sense, educated, but not corrupted by specialization or the flattery of success in the restless commercial society, is undermined by an inclination to play around like children do, while ordering people around, however. She does not have the harshness required to manage an estate or money. She is remarkably careless about managing her husband, however, presumably because she relies on the workings of society, which are no guide to a man trying to escape.
There is a suggestion that neither man nor woman will accept the lawyer’s advice–although she is far more likely to at least consider it, not to say, try to get her husband to make less of a fool of himself. This, perhaps, drives the commercial society: People will not take no for an answer, they will not be satisfied with good enough, & their fantasies will force them either to be more productive or to abandon entirely this quest for some degree of freedom from the society. One wonders what exactly is dreamt of as home.
& the solution to the plot might be called racist, inasmuch as the middle-class white man appropriates the idea of the working class black woman & makes a bundle of money out of it.
A successful man looking for a happy marriage to protect him somewhat from the restlessness of American life finds out his comparably successful intended has no interest in making a home for him: She has made a home in the sophisticated work of diplomacy. Feminine virtues are of course to a large extent responsible for the great successes of post-war American foreign policy.
The man comes to a reasonable conclusion, almost by accident, being American, but partly by anger, because he’s a man: He should find a woman in a country not marred by modern equality, which makes men & women into competing individuals, & therefore unhappy when it comes to love. This is politically unacceptable, so he has to be proven wrong. He has to be shown that there is no way back to the world where women were not citizens, so that he will reconcile himself to the life which makes Americans so famously happy.
There is a lot of comedy about how so much inequality is enforced in Oriental despotism, which is no longer possible in America. The man has to learn that American private life is possible because of a liberal political arrangement–otherwise, the demands of family & mores are the end of individual rights. The foreign princess soon trades her delightful arts for the political education of suffragettes, women’s emancipation, & the freedom to make dates with as many eager American males as possible.
The American woman, meanwhile, confronted with abandonment, with competition, & with the unhappy humanity of growing old, has to decide whether she is at all interested in attracting men & holding their attention, as opposed to ordering her male secretary or obeying her male superiors. Her confrontation with the foreign potentate shows the femininity of diplomatic arts & seem to recall to her mind that women rule in private life indirectly, through persuasion & pleasure, rather than by revolution.
There is a domestic scene in which domestic arrangements are thrown away or perhaps revealed as an illusion. Autonomous individuals might tolerate each other’s foibles, but they cannot find anything to love. At the same time, this kind of anger & contempt shock the two out of their complacency. One who goes around feeling one’s rights violated or insufficiently respected is, if not completely unreasonable, bound to learn soon that such an obsession with making a federal case out of everything makes any kind of community impossible.
Everyone’s modern pride is hurt, no one will defer to anyone, & a ruthlessness emerges–people end up thinking moderation means getting what you want or what you can. The man & woman seem to have recourse to poetry & drink to make equality tolerable.
This is post-war America, with people returning to their domestic concerns. Young Anabel is complaining that only men get to ask women out, which makes it very difficult for a woman in a hurry to get married. If women are becoming citified, they cannot long endure this situation–living in houses for girls, working for a living, & without much prospect of happiness. Anabel has decided on a mixture of the old & the new–marriage in the big city.
Being American, she is not deterred by her lack of wherewithal or reputation. Americans are self-made & she will make herself into a wife. She stumbles upon a man who looks the part of husband & the more she learns about him, the more pleased she is. Soon, she finds herself chasing this wonderful being, & we might wonder at the qualities that make such a man desirable & in what way a woman could interest him in marriage.
Anabel learns that being together in the same room is not the kind of being together that will do the trick, so she has recourse to weeks of detective work, inquiring shamelessly everywhere about his doings & goings on, such that she can know him so well as to make herself into the kind of woman he would marry–the woman who satisfies his needs. This reveals an intolerable truth: The man holds himself independent.
The woman then tries two different approaches. First, there is the old private remedy: Marriage is about private life & so showing a man that of which he may be depriving himself will do the trick–a rival lover would spur jealousy. This suggests something about modern women: The emergence of competition among lovers will hardly help marriage, but will instead satisfy some sexual predators. That is the price paid by some women who want to make themselves look attractive.
Then, there is a newer remedy, which is public: Marriage is the cornerstone of society in America & therefore women have an exalted role as keepers of the more or less sacred flame. Someone has to guard mores: If they are not granted rule over some moiety of private life, women will not do it. Here, the doctor does something terrible–he angers a gathering of women who, as wives & mothers, are flattered to be helped by a scientific medical man, but find his arrogant independence intolerable. Thus is civilized man acquainted with impossibility of publicizing the view that women are not our masters.
Finally, the failure of these remedies induces despair in Anabel, who has failed by manliness & womanliness both.
Women insufficiently adroit at taking away a man’s individual rights seem to present a real danger to progress.
A note on the hard learning required for moderation
There is a lot of self-flattery in amusement parks–we like to believe we can withstand danger without a heart-attack. But we’re spectators–we are not doing anything, it is not at all obvious whether we would nobly protect or sacrifice, should it come to that, or turn coward–which is more reasonable. For obvious political reasons, the design encourages passivity or requires it outright–this is about being moved, not about moving oneself. These spectacles are not about making choices.
On the other hand, there is a lot of flattery in designing perfect systems, which work whether or not we know anything or can do anything. This is not limited to looking at things & figuring out that all sorts of motions repeat & seem to be unchanging. It proudly goes forward to taking things under control & remaking them to serve or please. It always recounts the story of progress, without any of the ugly parts–we never really have to imagine how weak people used to be in face of danger.
This orientation toward the future is about what’s possible. It suggests there are no limits to human action. It also shows a kind of cluelessness–a lack of care for what’s real. The whole story is framed as parents deceiving their children: The surprise is not the adventure in the park, but divorce, which may be uglier & rather more permanent… The parents want to spare the children the pain of knowing family has an end–but they do not think that what they only dare do in hiding they should not do at all.
When the terrible things start happening, the boys look to the man, not their aunt, for protection. He protects them without paying much attention. The woman is far from powerless & she quickly decides she’ll do anything to get them to safety, but she has no respect for their fears–or her own.
The man rather obviously tries to tame the woman as he does dinosaurs. That’s a kind of show of respect. He’s undeluded by the claim that we know who we are & how to deal with our problems. But if there is a limit to the decent, respectful kind of hero on display here–when real men are facing death, he neither usurps her rule nor obeys despite his knowledge. Self-respect simply cannot tolerate ingratitude…
He is more aware of what our limits are than the other characters, some of whom at least have authority–he looks rather fearless, but he does not attempt things that seem to him insane just because people need impossible things. Maybe that is why he does not usurp rule–he lets people decide for themselves–he is the only moderate man in the bunch.