Saturday’s Power Fantasy
Even for August, a month I heartily despise anyway, this one’s been pretty spectacularly horrible.
Bad news from every direction, national and international. Wars breaking out, rioting in the streets, horrible celebrity death. Even Ebola alerts, for God’s sake. Closer to home, we’ve had one work setback after another, the heat’s been ranging from merely miserable to out-and-out unbearable, summer road construction seems hell-bent on making sure it takes hours to get anyplace we might want to go anywhere in King County, checks that were promised are not showing up… honestly, if I were King of the Universe I’d have called an audible three weeks ago and just said forget it, August is over as of now.
Since that’s not feasible, I’ve been hiding out with my DVDs, books and comics more than usual. At the end of each workday, it’s all I can manage. Escapist fare.
But here’s the part that’s kind of embarrassing.
See, the stuff that relaxes me… it’s all pretty horrible as well, when you get right down to it. It’s dark and violent and nasty and usually involves a lot of guns and fisticuffs and stuff that blows up.
Conan the barbarian. Mike Hammer. Jack Bauer. The Warriors. And so on. We have a houseful of that stuff. Lately, as far as my reading is concerned, it’s been all about Robert E. Howard, and also generally just wallowing in pulp vigilante fiction.
Recently-arrived comics collections for me have mostly been war stuff, Jonah Hex…. books like that. Lots of mayhem and bloodshed, not too much serious examination of the human condition.
Now, I can tell you why I think a great deal of that stuff is well-crafted and entertaining, and I truly do believe that it’s harmless… certainly, I don’t think violent entertainment leads to school shootings or juvenile delinquency or anything like that.
But here’s the thing. I myself am really not action-oriented at all. I’m bookish and nerdy, a schoolteacher married to a social worker. Julie and I are pacifist types who frown on those people hollering for us to take military action in the Middle East, and are deeply suspicious of politicians who talk about getting tough on crime and taking back the streets. Guns terrify me.
But in my choice of entertainment, I always seem to gravitate towards the no-nonsense hard guys who solve problems with their fists and think due process is for sissies. Certainly, I love cerebral characters like Mr. Spock and Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, and we have a lot of their adventures here at home as well– but those stories are not comfort-food relaxing to me in the way that stories starring Richard Wentworth or James Bond are.
(Let me just briefly add that when I talk about James Bond, I mean Ian Fleming’s Bond, the one in the books. The one that Doctor No quite rightly characterized as a blunt instrument in service to the Crown. The guy in all those amazing Frank McCarthy cover paintings on the Bantam paperbacks. That Bond. Accept no substitutes, especially not the smirky movie ones.)
But if I ever were to meet any of these guys in real life, I’d be horrified by them. Especially the righteous-yet-casual killers like Jack Bauer or Richard Wentworth. At least James Bond and Jonah Hex worry once in a while about the direction life is taking them, or the tremendous body counts they’ve piled up.
Moreover, I know how absurd most of this stuff really is. I have lived in high-crime neighborhoods for most of my adult life. There’s nothing particularly cool or glamorous about it. It’s mostly about poverty and squalor and desperation. When we hear gunfire in our neighborhood, it’s just plain scary, not “badass.”
But even so… violence and mayhem has been my go-to place for escapism and relaxation practically since I was old enough to understand fiction in the first place. Adam West Batfights, the Herculoids and Space Ghost, the magnificent brawling of James West… that kind of thing was instantly home for me as a six-year-old, and today, over forty years later, that’s still primarily where my fantasy life takes me.
And yet I have to own up– I’m a bookish nerd who hates violence in real life. So am I damaged goods somehow? Some sort of pathetic wannabe secretly longing to visit similar assaults on real-life crooks and bullies? A sad little man wallowing in images of sadism and brutality?
Well no, I don’t think so. That’s the argument all the people who want to ban this sort of entertainment generally make and it’s just absurd on its face, because there are too many of us out here that love it and still lead perfectly normal lives. We’re the ones that made Wolverine a star, that made Liam Neeson’s Taken a surprise hit, that keep Bruce Lee a cult figure decades after his death. We can’t ALL be mentally ill closet cases, and I daresay that most fans of the stuff are about as scared of fistfights, gunfire, and actual violent crime in real life as I am.
So what’s it all about then? What’s the appeal?
Well, I think it probably really is about adolescent power fantasies, but not the creepy kind the ban-the-violence folks get so worked up about. It’s not about the part where you get to vicariously live through a hero who’s able to use violence casually and without consequence, no matter how much we might cheer when Ajax takes down the Baseball Fury in The Warriors.
See, here’s the component of the fantasy the crusaders always ignore– a big part of it, maybe the biggest, is that the good guys win. Evil is defeated, the guilty are punished, and virtue is triumphant. The reason Jack Bauer gets away with being as horrible as he is on 24– and make no mistake, Jack Bauer is an awful, awful person– is because he is never ever wrong. His every despicable action is justified by the fact that he is preventing a national disaster, and his actions always turn out to be the right ones. All the people he pistol-whips and tortures and hurls off tall buildings absolutely have it coming, and ending them is necessary to save the rest of us. The couple of times the show toyed with the idea of Bauer being fallible or human, it was a huge needle-scratch mistake and they backed off it almost instantly, because that’s not what the audience showed up for. (Fallible in his actual counter-terrorism activities, I mean. Bauer is nothing but fallible in his private life, which is what makes the show interesting. He’s a superlative agent but a terrible human being. On the other hand, everyone else at CTU — everyone that’s not a double agent, that is, they have the worst screening policy ever– is nice, but also incompetent. Clearly it takes a real asshole to save the world.)
And I think you’ll find this infallibility of method is true for all of the vigilante types throughout the years. Every superhero that ever put on a mask is doing it because it’s the only choice left. Just financing a social-work program in Gotham’s ghetto or becoming a policeman would not be sufficient for Bruce Wayne, but that’s not the point– it’s also not sufficient for Gotham City, either. A place that has enough criminal crazy to keep Arkham Asylum as full as it is clearly needs a solution as extreme as Batman.
The appeal isn’t the violence itself. It’s that it’s simple and cathartic and effective. It wouldn’t be at all satisfying for Batman and Robin to beat the shit out of a roomful of thugs only to see them all walk on a technicality. The second a masked hero stops being an agent of order, decency, and the status quo, he also stops being a hero, and a lot of the oxygen gets sucked out of the endeavor. Sure, you get stories like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen that play around with that idea a little bit, but I maintain that those sorts of meta-contextual superhero stories are never going to be as viscerally satisfying as, say, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” the Superman story from the same creative team. There is no moment in Watchmen that packs the fuck-yeah! power of Superman gritting at Mongul, “Burn.”
Which is, by the way, a really horrible thing for Superman to be doing with his heat vision… except that nobody reading the story thinks about anything other than cheering him on, because Mongul totally has it coming.
That’s the kind of cathartic takedown I’m talking about, and I think it’s what separates this particular brand of violent entertainment from something genuinely reprehensible like snuff films. It’s not about the physical harm. It’s about the comeuppance, the serving of justice ….as loud and fast and hard as possible.
We never get to see that in real life. In real life, loud confrontations always make things worse, even when they don’t get physical. More often than not, we don’t even have an actual target for the hostility and resentment that builds up at life’s general unfairness. That’s why, especially in months like this one has been, I find such comfort in spending time in fictional environments where you can actually see those targets and they get what’s coming to them.
Because, believe me, if there was a way to beat the shit out of this last month until it repented, I’d be all for it. And you’re on notice, September.
See you next week.