looking at superheroes - myth, pop culture, ideology...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Freaks vs. the ubermench


Popped in to say hello. The following article was courtesy of Aaron. Uni is over for the year - two down, one to go. More soon.

X-Men vs. Superman

Mutation, Eugenics, and the Politics of Evolution
On the surface, both the X-Men and Superman films push a message of hope over fear, but what deeper instinctive fear could there be than that of being genetically supplanted?

::: Todd Seavey

This year, the climactic third X-Men movie made over $450 million at the box office worldwide and Superman Returns (from the director of the first two X-Men movies) nearly $390 million. Despite some obvious religious references (including sacrifices and resurrections for Phoenix and Superman), both movies are, at their roots, about Darwin. Each seizes upon (and misinterprets) a different facet of evolutionary theory, the X-Men taking the more anarchic and Superman the more fascist interpretation of biology.

That is not to say that there is, or should be, a correct political interpretation of evolution—the facts of nature speak for themselves and imply no specific proper course of action for human beings—but there have certainly been numerous attempts to derive political implications from evolution, not just during battles over “intelligent design” like the one fought (and if we’re lucky, ended) in a Dover, PA courtroom last year, but for over a century now. Those politicized takes on evolution have in turn influenced how artists and average people think about evolution itself, and both X-Men and Superman are without question latter-day fallout of that process of interpretation.

Some background on the various distortions, both right-wing and left-wing, of evolution is in order—but first some background on the X-Men and Superman.
The Two Universes

Superman was first published in 1938 by the company that would become DC Comics, and he was a conscious response to the ersatz supermen threatening the world from Germany and the frightening mobsters on the home front who’d been produced by Prohibition. Superman fought both—and later, aliens, superpowered villains, and countless other menaces—for sixty-eight years before, technically, dying just this year, in a comic book miniseries called Infinite Crisis (DC Comics’ latest attempt to revamp their whole fictional universe, as alluded to in a previous Metaphilm piece of mine. Don’t panic—there is another, virtually identical version of Superman still fighting the good fight and protecting Metropolis with his superstrength and rock-solid morals, but the original, slightly grey-haired and wrinkled veteran of decades’ worth of adventures passed away after saving the cosmos and defeating an evil version of himself by plunging with him into the heart of the red sun around which the planet Krypton once orbited.

So now is a fitting time for me finally to stop reading comics—not because I’ve come to look down on them, but simply because life is short and I could use some more spare time to develop adult hobbies. And it’s fitting that this turning point arrives just after the release of an X-Men film and a Superman film, since those two poles defined the parameters of the superhero world for plenty of readers like me over the past few decades.

While Superman was essentially an iconic mixture of golem and master-race muscleman, created as a defensive reaction by a Jewish writer and artist in the 1930s, the X-Men were, from their start in the 1960s, something more freakish and chaotic. Marvel Comics had already given the world Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and other characters, some of them better known to the general public than the X-Men, but in terms of comic book sales, X-Men would become Marvel’s most successful franchise, comprising dozens of mutants—featured, at times, in as many as twenty different simultaneous monthly comic book series. The death of a character or two in X-Men: The Last Stand shouldn’t really shock long-term fans: the X-Men are so numerous that the fallen can quickly be replaced (when they are not simply resurrected).

While Superman was the template for all of DC Comics’ characters (such as Batman and Wonder Woman)—solitary, simple, perfect—the X-Men were relative latecomers in the original stable of Stan Lee/Jack Kirby-created core characters at Marvel. They were less a template than an extreme extrapolation of Marvel’s impulse toward complexity, diversity, and angst (Peter Parker wonders whether he can make ends meet while fighting crime as Spider-Man, whereas the X-Men wonder if humanity will rise up en masse to exterminate them for being mutant freaks, and member Wolverine wonders if the government permanently stole his memories when they poured hot liquid metal into his body to turn him into an assassin prone to “berserker rages”—Parker should count his blessings).

And while Superman arose from the pre-nuclear modernist period’s belief in streamlined, geometric perfection and ideals of health and fitness, the X-Men arose precisely as 1950s Cold War paranoia—with its films about radioactive monsters—was being replaced by 1960s tolerance of weirdoes and the disenfranchised. If Superman is like a Nazi eugenics experiment turned into an instrument of good, the X-Men are essentially an extended network of radioactive beatniks.

To the early-twentieth-century mind (or at least to minds not so familiar with the limits of evolutionary theory as to prevent such political extrapolation), it seemed intuitively obvious that evolution and progress ought naturally to lead to one ideal type, such as Superman. To the mid- to late-twentieth-century mind, it seemed intuitively obvious that change and variety—mutation—were inherently good things, and that if we can’t embrace offbeat strangers like the X-Men, we’re little better than the jackbooted government thugs who invaded the X-Men’s mansion in the second (and best) film in the series.

It’s worth noting that, like David Bowie, the creators of the X-Men were fond of the phrase homo superior, meant to describe the next stage in human evolution, but in the case of the X-Men, even more so than in the imagery of David Bowie songs, superiority implies an explosion of weirdness and diversity, not one ideal type. Bowie no doubt liked the gay sound of the phrase, and it’s interesting that both the X-Men and Superman film franchises have now been embraced by gays as metaphors for oppression and acceptance, hidden lives and secret biological powers.

Of course, according to real science, it is neither the case that evolution leads to one ideal type nor that most mutations are beneficial. The pro-superman and pro-freak positions are both exaggerations. But how did Darwin’s insights end up being twisted in these divergent ways?
Darwinism Before Darwin

The basic facts of biological evolution are not inherently political. As Darwin described the process in The Origin of Species in 1859, living things either reproduce or do not reproduce, and the next generation will tend to reflect the attributes of their parents, the successful reproducers. Exactly which characteristics confer survival advantage on individuals (increasing the likelihood of them bearing offspring) will vary with conditions in the environment. Sometimes environmental conditions reward speed and intelligence, but in other times and places (and mixtures of other living things), conditions may as easily reward creatures for being quiet and unobtrusive, or simply for smelling as if they’d be unpleasant to eat. Indeed, the same geographic area may reward speed and size in one epoch, then reward stealth or smelliness in the next epoch if, say, new predators migrate into the area who tend to eat any non-smelly thing that runs noisily. Evolution is not mysterious, glamorous, or “meaningful.” It’s just a fact of life (regardless of whether that life first arose unaided from a lifeless chemical soup or was nudged by an unseen God, but we’ll get to that later).

Nonetheless, the chief exponent of Progress in the nineteenth century, political theorist Herbert Spencer, believed the idea of evolution applied to more than biology. Spencer also believed in laissez-faire capitalism and “the right to ignore the state,” a view that would today be called libertarianism. All this was fairly mainstream thinking in the Victorian era—today’s political writers can only dream of achieving the popularity and acceptance that Spencer did with volumes such as Social Statics.

For proposing that biological change over time was analogous to cultural change over time, Spencer is now remembered as the quintessential Social Darwinist. That label has been used to paint Spencer as a defender of the rapacious and powerful against the weak and impoverished. But while Spencer believed in capitalism, individualism, and the cultural superiority of the West—hardly a set of a views that would qualify him as a leftist today—he saw those principles as winners precisely because they tended to foster peace, prosperity, freedom, and voluntary interaction, not violence and oppression.

Contrary to the image the public has today of Social Darwinists as exterminators of the weak, Spencer predicted that societies relying on authoritarianism and force would tend to collapse and, as it were, be weeded out of the political gene pool. The collapse of European communism 130 years later was really more a vindication of Spencer than of his contemporary Hegel, though the event has more often been described in Hegelian terms since.

Ironically, the man thought of as the first Darwinian political thinker coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and promoted the idea of social progress as a weeding out of unworkable alternatives before the 1859 publication of Origin of Species (in a sense “Social Darwinism” thus not only had nothing to do with condoning violence and oppression, it also had nothing to do with Darwin, until being viewed through a Darwinian lens in retrospect). To find a specifically Darwin-influenced political movement, we need to look to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, at eugenics.
The Next Step After Hygiene

Today associated with the death camps of the Nazis, eugenics was once considered common sense by well-meaning people across the political spectrum. Margaret Sanger, revered by feminists as an early advocate of contraceptives, did so in part to lower the birth rate of “undesirables.” In the minds of many in that day, eugenics was not so much a plan for racial war as it was a natural extension of the immense and then-recent successes of public hygiene in eliminating disease outbreaks. First eliminate cholera, then the mentally retarded, you might say. The proto-fascists’ calisthenics, open-air hikes, and organic diets were all part of a larger ideal of health and purity that had no place for freaks and genetic defectives.

George Bernard Shaw, too, like many left-leaning early modernists, subscribed to a “superman” ideal (he phrased even his arguments for vegetarianism in strikingly masculine and triumphalist terms by today’s standards, noting in his Preface to Androcles and the Lion that meat-eaters have suffered “the most ignominious defeats by vegetarian wrestlers and racers and bicyclists”). He believed that breeding, like economics, should be “rationalized” by a powerful central state—indeed that a quasi-mystical “élan vital,” or life force, was causing humanity to progress in that direction. Like novelist Jack London, Shaw was equal parts Nietzschean, eugenicist, and socialist (as he made explicit in the lengthy postscript to his play Man and Superman). To think of eugenics, then, as an outgrowth of far-right nationalism and patriotism would be to overlook important reasons for its appeal to some of the brightest minds of a century ago.

Though it appears to be compatible with various political persuasions, “eugenics” has become a useful pejorative for attacking almost any application of evolutionary theory to modern human social structures, not just movements advocating racism and state-enforced breeding programs. The possibility of individuals and families making their own decisions about how to use emerging biotechnology is carelessly lumped in with Nazism and forced sterilization programs in the rhetoric of biotechnology’s foes.
The Parodist Precedent

Oddly enough, one of the earliest works to suggest that the superhuman ideal leads naturally to tyranny was a book that served as one of the chief inspirations for DC Comics’ Superman. In 1930, two years before Siegel and Shuster created Superman and eight years before they sold him to DC and introduced him to readers, Philip Wylie’s novel Gladiator depicted a man who grows up in a small, rural town as the son of a scientist who is obsessed with increasing human potential. The father experiments upon his son while he is still in the womb, and the boy grows up with superstrength and near-invulnerability that he must conceal in order to fit into society. The young man despairs after it becomes clear that scientists and corrupt politicians will want to exploit his abilities to create armies of supermen.

Gladiator (which has since been adapted in comics form by both DC and Marvel and turned into a film comedy that was released just months after Superman made his 1938 debut in Action Comics #1) is one of those strange cases of a text that sounds like a critique or satire of the very genre that it in fact preceded and helped create. Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal and ultimately absurdist detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is another example, and we find a sort of one-man example in the film Dark Star, in which scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon seems to parody not only 2001: A Space Odyssey but his own later screenplay, Alien.

So the possibility of human nature changing, of people transforming into something more, was viewed with a mixture of excitement and fear from the get-go. That didn’t stop us fantasizing about the possibilities.

The X-Men purportedly have a similar inspiration, the 1953 novel Children of the Atom by Wilmar H. Shiras, in which a nuclear accident leads to the victims’ children being born as super-powered mutants who are gathered together for their own protection and the improvement of the world by a kindly psychiatrist who runs a special school for the gifted youngsters.

Incidentally, Shiras’s friend, libertarian Joan Kennedy Taylor, told me in the mid-90s—prior to which time she was unaware that Shiras was often credited with inspiring America’s most successful comics characters—that Shiras was an ambiguously gendered pseudonym; both women had written pulp stories under such pseudonyms in the 1950s when it was still feared that an overwhelmingly young-male readership wouldn’t take stories by females seriously. By the time of Children of the Atom and, ten years later, the X-Men, society was beginning to feel a bit more compassion for its freaks and superhumans, and the fictional villains were as likely to be bigoted mutant-haters as evil mutants.
Surface hope, subliminal fear

On the surface, both the X-Men and Superman films push a message of hope over fear, but what deeper instinctive fear could there be than that of being genetically supplanted? If humanity is grateful to the mutant heroes of the X-Men and the Kryptonian Superman, it is partly gratitude that these beings have not conquered us, as they plainly could.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand goes the farthest in making the danger explicit, with a panicked but still somewhat sympathetic government encouraging mutants to make themselves “normal” by using a newly-developed pharmaceutical to eliminate their powers (tapping into trendy fears and conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies in the process).

Since the gravest mutant threat to humanity—and yet the most beloved member of the X-Men—is the psychic Jean Grey, a.k.a. Phoenix, who possesses both the power to kill and the power to resurrect herself; since the first mutant to consider using the drug is the effete Angel, misunderstood son of the pharmaceutical executive behind the drug; since the previous X-Men film in particular had analogized the plight of misunderstood mutants to that of gays; and since the third film ultimately sends the message that what is best is neither normality nor mutation but rather individual choice about whether to embrace or “cure” mutant powers, the series manages to layer evolutionary biological imperatives, what might be called anti-evolutionary political imperatives, and religious connotations on top of each other in a way that still seems fairly, well, natural. Something as big as the destiny of humanity will surely be decided by some force either divine, political, or biological, after all, so why not invoke all three? The note of individual choice at the end of this third film is somewhat reassuring—and morally laudable—but one can’t help being left with the nagging feeling that Earth’s fate would be decided more by homo superior’s choices than by normal mortals’.

Similarly, Superman Returns offers repeated reassurance that Superman is good and is here to help—but it is surprising the degree to which one is left feeling a little bit of the fear and resentment that Lex Luthor does about being supplanted by this ubermensch from the stars. When, in the movie’s most celebrated and celebratory scene, Superman rescues a space shuttle and deposits a passenger jet safely in the middle of a baseball stadium, it is as if he has simultaneously corrected the Challenger disaster, the Columbia disaster, 9/11, and the lack of integrity in Major League Baseball. And still some complain that Superman is not a promoter of “the American way”?

If Superman were any more American, the Declaration of Independence would bear his signature—or perhaps simply his “S” symbol (so much more reassuring than the X-Men’s mysterious X, not to mention the V of this year’s most anarchist movie superhero). Yet the director of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer, surely knew that even for the conservative and superhero-loving among us, there was something about a stadium full of people cheering a triumphant Superman that seemed just a tad Triumph of the Will (oh, how the villainous General Zod from Superman II would have relished such a moment, shouting to the assembled masses: “Kneel before Zod!”).

What is arguably far stranger about Superman Returns, though (and you should skip this paragraph and the next if you haven’t already heard about the film’s big surprise regarding the Superman-Lois Lane relationship), is that at the same time that the movie bends over backwards to assure that Superman is humanity’s friend, it depicts him doing the one thing all male homo sapiens are designed to fear in their very bones: cuckolding an innocent male. Sure, it’s all a bit complicated by the fact that Superman disappeared for five years to visit the remains of Krypton without realizing Lois was pregnant, but at the end of the day—and, a bit unsettlingly, at the end of the film—Superman is allowing another man, Lois’s fiancé Richard, to raise Superman’s biological son under the false impression that the boy is his own (a secret that surely can’t last long, given that the boy is developing the sporadic ability to throw pianos around). Blogger and evolutionary psychology student Diana Fleischman has noted the strangeness of Superman’s cuckoldry (and asked the more theological question of whether a Christ-figure like Superman having an illegitimate child makes Lois Lane into a Mary Magdalene figure, but the question of whether Lois is a whore is beyond the scope of the current essay, as is the question of whether The DaVinci Code can influence what counts as a Mary Magdalene figure).

If superhumans expect humans to remain comfortable around them, they should forthrightly announce peace treaties in the fashion of the newly-appointed UN delegate (and research biologist) codenamed the Beast in X-Men 3 rather than surreptitiously tamper with our gene pool like the Superman of Superman Returns. Though the dilemma of Superman, Lois, Lois’s fiancé, and their son is treated respectfully and sensitively in the film, one can’t help thinking that Bryan Singer’s homosexuality must have contributed to the creation of a plot twist that likely would have seemed instinctively wrong—and thus as a side-effect sacrilegious—to most heterosexual male genre writers. As director and comics writer Kevin Smith has said, the whole thing is a bit “super-creepy.”

But then, creepy sort of goes with the territory if we’re talking about the transformation of the human race, whether that transformation is real or imagined and whether it’s being described in scientific, political, religious, or comic book terms—that is, whether you think like evolution-popularizer Richard Dawkins (who, when I saw him speak recently at the new 7 World Trade Center, the old one having been destroyed in the name of Allah, said he hopes people will come to see God as a “fictional character” and an “evil monster” to boot). Or whether you prefer the views of current DC Comics writer Douglas Rushkoff (whose comic Testament is partly an outgrowth of his psychedelics-influenced belief, explained in a recent public appearance with the mystic Daniel Pinchbeck, that the Old Testament is “source code” for hacking reality and raising humanity to a new level of awareness). Or if you prefer to think like beloved Christian writer C. S. Lewis (whose Narnia books I’m rereading and whose depictions of angels and other divine beings—including pagan gods like Bacchus—are often impressively scary and show hints of an H. P. Lovecraft influence, an aspect of his writing, much like his endorsement of socialism, often forgotten by his warm-hearted and conservative fans). Or even if you think like my favorite comic book writer, tarot- and alchemy-influenced left-anarchist Grant Morrison (who, fascinated by human potential for transformation, famously ended his run on the 90s Justice League comic with a story in which all six billion humans were turned into superheroes to combat a giant, evil head the size of Jupiter bent on bringing Armageddon to Earth).

Even if these people have radically varying beliefs—and even we disagree drastically about how to arbitrate between them—there’s no question that aesthetically and psychologically they’re all treading on the same dangerous ground. Parallels appear when talk turns to origins and endings and the supplanting of humanity, even if each of us dismisses some ways of talking about those things as nonsense.

In other words, certain ideas and images that are logically incompatible with each other may (for inescapable aesthetic reasons) simply be stuck with each other for a long time to come, like a slow dialectical process or even two strands of a DNA helix that never quite meet, simply because of the shared grandiosity of their aims: science vs. religion, heroism vs. lawlessness, superhuman vs. freak, monkey vs. robot, self-sacrifice vs. self-absorption.

Religious fundamentalists will be the first to deny Darwin and the first to illustrate his core point by elevating the imperative to “be fruitful and multiply.” Stalin promised to create a better world by forging the “New Soviet Man,” yet reportedly dreamt of defeating the Nazis by turning apes into super-warriors. Humanity loves Superman but supposedly “hates and fears” the X-Men, though they’re really made from the same stuff—our own potential, viewed through two different lenses. Some things inevitably suggest their opposites, aesthetically if not logically, and we may just have to live with that.

Similarly, hardcore X-Men fans have to live with the paradoxical knowledge that the X-Men’s co-creator, Jack Kirby, came up with a quasi-scientific explanation for their powers—mutation—but couldn’t resist adding a quasi-divine explanation later on, revealing in the 1970s that humanity’s capacity for benign mutation had been created by thousand-foot-high alien skygods called the Celestials. In an interesting bit of trivia, the Celestials are also credited in the comics with having created the evolution-catalyzing monoliths from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001—making Wolverine and Dave Bowman cousins of a sort.

The bizarre Celestials will almost certainly never be mentioned in the movies (though we are scheduled to see a similar Kirby character, the planet-eating giant called Galactus, in the movie Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer in summer 2007). Indeed, they are almost never mentioned in the X-Men comics, except in so far as the X-Men’s greatest foe serves them—a fanatical accelerator of the evolutionary process known as Apocalypse, who is the world’s first and oldest mutant, hailing from ancient Egypt.

In a way that would make most philosophers and theologians nervous but comes perfectly naturally to artists, characters like these aggressively mix scientific and non-scientific aspirations, making transcendence seem all the more palpable for being a bit crazy, like a mechanical god or a chimpanzee on the cross.

(Actually, If you want aspiration and transcendence—which are at the heart of all hero stories, after all—without unsettling weirdness, maybe instead of staring at an X, S, or V on the screen this year, you should have gone to see what may have in fact been the year’s best superhero movie, Nacho Libre, which as it happens is also the story of an inept but devout monk who longs to make love to a nun, feed the children in his charge, serve God, and become a Mexican-style wrestler—but the same themes keep returning.)

I won’t pretend to be able to resolve all these tensions, but I do plan to set them aside for a while—by making one final, ritualized trip to the comic book store and then dropping the hobby. On that bittersweet trip, I’ll pick up the first issue of a final-sounding series, Omega Men, featuring the return of Star Wars-like characters I loved as a teen, now depicted as outlaws fighting a galaxy-conquering cult that believes the end of the world is at hand. I’ll also pick up the final issue of the Seven Soldiers series by the aforementioned anarchist-mystic Grant Morrison—featuring, as it happens, a guest appearance by the New Gods, another strange set of characters created by Kirby during his brief stint at DC—and the villain in this, the last comic I intend to buy, will be an evil, pale-skinned queen from a dying, drained world that lives under a bloated, red sun, a character Morrison almost certainly based, consciously or not, on Jadis, C. S. Lewis’s evil queen from the Narnia books.

Morrison, who has written popular runs of both X-Men and Superman comics, has depicted a race called the Sheeda in his Seven Soldiers comics, demons who appear periodically throughout history to destroy civilization—and who are eventually revealed to be visitors from the distant future, humanity’s distant evolutionary descendants. It’s a worst-case-scenario version of evolutionary fantasy, in which we do not stagnate, diversify, or ascend but simply develop into pure, parasitic evil. It’s not likely to happen in real life—and, against all reason, the fact that us eventually becoming Kryptonians or X-Men is just slightly more probable still has a certain power to inspire, doesn’t it?

We’re a little frightened about the future, but we still expect a certain amount of fun, no matter how weird things get. If we have to face the occasional Zod or Magneto, so be it. Nothing’s perfect, certainly not humanity—but we do seem to have an awful lot of potential, and that’s why the X-Men and Superman, no matter how dorky and unscientific they may be, ring true and why, decades after their creation, they still seem like harbingers of things to come. :::

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