The desperate humanism of our popular spectacles
But I do not want to leave you with the impression that Marvel, the spearhead of popular culture & the measure of show business success–both in movies &, increasingly, in online series–has nothing but race-class-gender moralism to offer, in some unstable mix with the worship of tech-scientific success. At some level, all these movies are humanistic. They want to rescue people from their problems.
The attack on manliness as monstrous–think of the Hulk, who mostly worries about losing control of his anger–is an attack in the name of science & health. The development of scientific monstrosities is always spurred on by a desire to save lives & prevent any possible dangers from the future. In short, what is attempted is the creation of the end of history–Hegel’s description of a situation where only technical questions remain to be asked & there are no more serious political problems. Change would always be in the direction of more scientific control of life. Temporary setbacks may be exciting, but ultimately unserious.
Of course, the problem is that whoever wants to save people should understand the dangers they face. The poet’s design has been replaced by a kind of ideology of sarcastic individualism, as I’ve noted. So also the orientation of man that leads to heroism has been changed. The old attitude could easily be summarized as: Being is striving. Man’s mortality was thought to be what heightened the human powers to such a pitch that inequalities took center stage & the common mortality of all men was relegated to the background.
The new situation is obviously Christian, but in a scientific way. Marvel is the biggest manufacturer of immortality in America. Just about every story requires a helpless sacrifice for mankind that turns out to be effective, not helpless, & also not a sacrifice. Dying & living with it are too common to mention anymore, but they are the salient facts. A terrible fear of death seems to lead these stories, but at the same time, it is continuously concealed behind technological tricks. The plots have therefore the sense about them of silly, manufactured, hysteric dreams–where the threats are nightmarish, but do not really affect the heroes, the destruction is vast, but impersonal, & the solutions are rather thoughtlessly contrived.
There is something further to notice about this desperate humanim. Almost without fail, the heroes have no family nor no love, & only a very unreliable understanding of friendship. They are therefore creatures without a past, which is one way to make sense of the fact that they are almost always the creatures of scientific power, including the manlier types like the Hulk or Captain America…
In certain cases, most obviously the recent Guardians of the Galaxy, a kind of ideology of orphanhood is on display & in action, so as to explain modern individualism. Of five protagonists, three are orphans or creatures of abusive creators. A fourth has lost his entire family. The fifth is a tree. A similar idealogy of abusive childhood & youth, creating orphanhood as an identity, is on display in the only successful non-Disney/Marvel superhero movie, Deadpool. Recently, Marvel’s only competition in superhero movies, DC, tried to put together the two themes of outsider villains from the lower classes & orphanhood or abused youth or creation in the popular & business failure Suicide Squad, all about anti-heroes. There will be more of this… Orphanhood as the core of individualism is the most desperate form of humanism, after all–attempting to affirm the worthwhile character of humanity almost entirely divorced from family & the past. One could say that the focus on the future typical of democracy goes too far in such cases.