superheroes and atavism

September 14, 2015

I was on a panel last year with a writer and activist who explained that superhero stories — and particularly the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — are fascistic. They’re about Aryan ubermensch acting as judges, juries, and executioners, essentially becoming dictators, larger than life and certainly larger than the faceless masses they’re supposedly saving. Who do they work for?  Who are they accountable to?  Nobody.  They’re an abdication of democracy and an embracing of authoritarianism.  And I thought — well, she’s not necessarily wrong about any of that. But I don’t think she’s entirely right, either. Because I don’t think superheroes are fascistic.

They’re atavistic.

Atavism:  “The tendency to revert to an ancestral type.” They reach back to a time when the world was large and poorly understood. Think primal, rather than primitive.

The impulse to create heroes with special powers — to believe in them, to celebrate them — is very old indeed. Gilgamesh old. As long as we’ve had writing, we’ve had magical, superpowered heroes. We can assume the oral tradition of heroics goes back even further — those written stories came from somewhere.

Heroes are the tools that human storytellers invented to give us hope.  And that hope is distinctly human.  Not gods, not demons, not supernatural creatures. They’re human beings who take these supernatural powers and use them for good, rather than destruction.  That’s the key, I think:  These ancient heroes, and their modern counterparts, are how storytellers take things that scare us and turn them into things that save us.

In Greek mythology, people were most scared of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. They were capricious, cruel, they caused storms and earthquakes, they blighted crops and killed babies. One committed a lifetime of prayers and sacrifices in the hopes of propitiating these gods, and of averting their attention from your tiny human life. But then came the heroes. Theseus, Perseus, Hercules, and so on. What they all have in common: they’re demi-gods. They’re the children of gods, but they’re also human, and they bring superpowers literally down to Earth. They represent those fearful divine powers, but in a form that will slay monsters and tyrants and rescue the innocent from certain doom. They are semi-divine, but they are human, and they want to help.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages in Europe. Saints were the superheroes of the western medieval world, performing miracles and interceding with an absent God to protect us poor mortals, once again making the thing that scared us — divine wrath — a thing that could save and protect us. Their stories were presented in full color in the stained glass windows of a thousand churches for all to see and celebrate. Medieval graphic novels, read over and over again by the faithful.

Where do modern superheroes get their powers? From radiation. From genetic mutation and manipulation. From accidents, from toxic waste. From aliens and outer space. The terrible mysteries of our modern age, transmuted into a form that is human, that can battle all manner of disasters. Notice the different origin stories for Spider-Man in the comic and the 2001 Sam Raimi movie? A bite from an irradiated spider became a bite from a genetically engineered spider. Because radiation was the big scary thing in the 60’s, but at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it was genetic engineering.

Superhero stories change to reflect the times and people writing them. They’re supposed to adapt — they were built that way.  That’s why we’re still telling this kind of story, after 10,000 years of civilization.  Superheroes are the oldest form of storytelling. Archetype and melodrama and battling monsters and making cosmic journeys and encountering crazy shit like giant scorpions and holy cedar forests. These stories are as old as writing.

Psychologically and emotionally, superheroes are a shield against darkness. Against evil, against death. Against the terrible things that happen to us that we have no control over, like the wrath of the gods. If a portal to deep space and the alien army waiting there opens up over New York City — metaphorically speaking — we want to believe that something will be there to save us. Something human, who we can understand and relate to.  We want to be inspired to maybe do that saving ourselves.

Superheroes aren’t just for fun. We need them. We’ve always needed them.  Superheroes are atavistic, and that’s not a bad thing.


The Man from UNCLE

August 24, 2015

Well, it’s a pleasant change getting a movie that’s a throwback to my mother’s formative years instead of my own.

I find I have very little to say about this.  Shocking, I know!  I was entirely distracted by the women’s GIANT PLASTIC DANGLY earrings.  Seriously, this movie was absolutely obsessed with women’s jewelry.  The women characters were actually quite refreshing — competent if a little cartoony, but the men around them took them seriously as characters and not as accessories, and that’s always nice.  The two leading men were nice to watch.  It was a little odd watching something so firmly rooted in 60’s Cold War spy tropes as an aesthetic rather than a political/historical era.  (I’m thinking now that the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy did much the same thing, in a different direction:  dour 70’s glumness rather than bright 60’s Mod.  And maybe that’s why the movie didn’t thrill me:  It felt a bit like playing dress up, as if a child of now had found her grandmother’s go-go boots in the closet.  Anyway.)

Fun action, fun characters, interesting things done with sound, editing, cuts, and action.  Dragged a bit, despite all that.  I never watched the TV show, and I’m wondering if knowing more about the show would have changed my reaction, one way or another.


happy Monday!

August 10, 2015

I’m not supposed to compulsively check Kitty Saves the World’s Amazon page, but I’ve been doing it anyway.  It has 14 reviews so far.  All of them 5 star.  100% five star.  That’s….amazing.  Thank you to everyone who’s picked up the book and been so supportive.

I reread Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword last week (it’s my favorite book to reread and always makes me happy), and this time decided that Corlath should be played by Oded Fehr.  SWOON.

I’m not planning on seeing the new Fantastic Four.  The bad reviews clinched it, but ultimately I think it was the matte gray color palette that did me in.  Would it kill these guys to put a little sunshine in these movies?  Is grimdark afraid of color?

Instead this weekend, I finally watched The Princess Diaries 2, and I only have one question:  What the hell is Stan Lee doing in this movie?  Seriously, there’s a Stan Lee cameo.  He hits on Julie Andrews.

The only reasonable explanation is that of course Princess Mia is actually a superhero.


Mr. Holmes

July 27, 2015

In a nutshell:  The great Sherlock Holmes finally learns the value of love and relationships before it’s too late.

That sounds like a super sappy cheesy story, and in some ways it is, but because it’s also a British historical so it ends up being grounded and poignant and in some ways very difficult.  This is a rough movie to watch if you have anyone in your life who is aging, and suffering for it.

That gets me to thinking about what must be the very intentional casting of Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes.  A beloved actor playing this beloved character at the end of his life — even if you don’t have a loved one going through that, it’s still really difficult watching McKellen be so old and broken — especially since we get the flashback of Holmes’ last case, with the old but vibrant wizardly McKellen we’re all used to.  And in the very next scene he’s an ancient man scrawling names on the cuff of his sleeve because that’s the only way he can remember who he’s talking to.  I don’t think this would have the same impact with a more obscure actor.

This kind of movie is an acting showcase — McKellen, Laura Linney as his house keeper, and Milo Parker as her son, another one of those utterly precocious British boy actors who all look just a little bit alike. (Seriously, I kept thinking, is this Freddie Highmore’s younger brother?  Asa Butterfield’s?  Neither, it turns out!)  They’re all great.  Watch this to appreciate good actors at work, if nothing else.

For all the tears, this is ultimately an uplifting story by the end of it.  Maybe not a brilliant movie, but a nice one.

The Tor/Forge blog has posted the first chapter of KITTY SAVES THE WORLD.  The countdown to release goes on!  We’re getting closer…

So, Turner Classic Movies was showing George Burns and Gracie Allen movies last night.  I watched some, because I had never watched Burns and Allen.  I grew up with wry old George Burns, the wizened wise man with the cigar.  I knew about Burns and Allen, and whenever there was some kind of retrospective of George there’d be a bit about the first half of his career — and usually only still pictures of him and his wife and show biz partner.  Maybe a clip from the TV show, a one-liner from a comedy routine.

So nobody actually told me Gracie Allen was a phenomenally hysterical comic genius.  Oh my goodness you guys.

There she is, the only comic in a room full of straight men, cheerfully handing them all golf balls out of her purse because Reasons.  It’s not really her jokes that are funny — it’s how she plays the dumb chick with so much glee. (“I heard of vice but I never knew they had a president for it!”)  Her character is constantly, enthusiastically oblivious, but you realize pretty quickly it’s her world, and everyone else has just stumbled into it, much to their horror.

I can also see the lineage of oblivious women comic personae, from her to Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett to Gilda Radner to Sarah Silverman, whose bit in The Aristocrats is gut-busting, best one in the bunch, in large part because she plays it with this wide-eyed innocence, like how Gracie Allen moves through her films.

Burns in these old movies is an angry, edgy Burns that I hardly recognize.  Burns with Gracie was different than Burns without her, and I start crying when I think of how hard it must have been for him to go on for thirty years alone.

Also, they danced:



July 20, 2015

There seems to be this crowd of online commentators who are eagerly waiting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to go bust.  They gleefully look at an offering like Ant-Man and declare:  this is a stupid, obscure character that can’t possibly anchor a good movie and therefore this is the one that’s going to topple the empire. (Never mind that at this point the MCU has earned room for a couple of duds before it’s declared moribund.)  This baffles me, because these are exactly the same complaints the naysayers had about Iron Man, Thor, and even Captain AmericaGuardians of the Galaxy will flop because talking raccoon.  These concepts are obscure, weird, geeky, and mainstream audiences won’t go for it.

You’d think the naysayers would have learned to shut the hell up by now.  Because they’ve been wrong every single time.

Ant-Man is great.  I had so much fun.  SO MUCH FUN. (And that’s really the key to these movies, isn’t it?  They’re so much fun, and that’s what so-called mainstream audiences ping to.)  I will also state for the record that I’m completely incapable of commenting on MCU movies as independent entities.  It’s impossible for me to consider them as stand-alone cinematic endeavors in their own right.  Nor do I think I should have to.  Not when…


…the opening scene has Peggy Carter and Howard Stark in 1989, in the newly built SHIELD headquarters, dealing with a furious Hank Pym, and I ACTUALLY STARTED CRYING because I just love Peggy so much and it’s always so good to see her, and the movie has already won me over in literally ten seconds of film without introducing any story or even the main character.

**END SPOILERS**  (Actually, there are probably a lot of spoilers below as well.)

The way I’m now thinking of it:  The MCU is my favorite show, but it only has two episodes a year (and the Peggy Carter We-Love-Carrie-And-Want-Her-to-be-Happy Holiday Special).  Ant-Man is a stand-alone story, but it’s so interconnected — deeply, and yet appropriately, and seamlessly — with the other movies that it feels like a chapter in a larger story.  And yes, stay through the entire credits because there’s even story in the last bit of easter egg.  (Why do we have to still tell people this?  Why do people still leave the theater early?)

So yeah.  I’m not really talking about Ant-Man as a movie.  I’m talking about it as the latest episode of my favorite show.  And it’s a good episode.

If I were going to talk about it as a cinematic endeavor:  I think the superhero action in this is great.  It’s really original.  I kept thinking about how I’ve never really seen action like this before — and it’s not just the weird and whimsical use of ants everywhere.  (Seriously, if you have an ant phobia DO NOT go see this movie.)  It’s that the action is based on clever movement rather than brute force.  In Cap and Thor and Iron Man battles, concrete gets smashed, people fly across rooms, everything is so heavy.  Here, Scott is growing and shrinking in a flash, he’s dodging, he’s all over the place — we can’t really follow it, but we’re not really supposed to because we can’t actually see him!  But we do see his opponent fall over.  It’s just so different and interesting.

Two more things and then I’ll shut up.  I got a little annoyed at Scott’s three racial stereotype sidekicks, who were saved from being outright cliches by their hardcore competence.  I love competence.  And Luis — Luis was actually just amazing.  My friends and I decided we really want to go to a wine tasting with him.

And the other thing I can’t finish without commenting on:  Wasp.  Wasp Wasp Wasp.  WASP.  Wasp.  WE HAVE THE WASP.  OMFG.  The flashback of Janet Van Dyne in action, even though it was far too brief, made me so ridiculously happy.  And then it turns out we have two Wasps.  And that’s fantastic.

Now, what is the MCU going to do with its two Wasps?  Your move, Marvel.


This is a movie about how GMO’s are bad and how terrible things happen when women neglect the children they’re meant to be looking after.

I finally decided that the filmmakers knew exactly how silly this all was and meant for it to be a comedy when, after the last battle, Chris Pratt’s character and his favorite velociraptor give each other respectful nods across the plaza before the ‘raptor turns and trots off into the jungle.  This is that kind of movie.


**cuddles baby brontosaurus with all possible cuddles**



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 499 other followers