The other day I was reading one of the seemingly endless supply of pieces in which commentators are sharing their thoughts about it being ten years since the attacks on New York City and Washington DC. This was more interesting than most, in that it attempted to look at cultural aspects of what has happened over that past ten years rather than simply to ring the changes on the tired old themes of the War on Terror and Al Qaida. Its basic thesis was that an early outbreak of aggressively Manichean entertainment, such as the inexplicably popular 24, where anything the good did against the bad was justified, had been replaced by a more nuanced world where there were shades of grey and so on and so forth. To be honest, I, as should anyone who has been following the strange process whereby the Republican Party endeavours to find a candidate even less popular than President Obama, have doubts about this. It seems that the idea of American Exceptionalism, and thus that the US (the good) can do no wrong is stronger than ever.
There is, however, one cultural shift that I do think is interesting and worth looking at. It is the, one might say foolhardy, decision by DC Comics to ditch their entire Universe, a mythology as rich and complete as any of those of Greece or Rome, and, in the fashionable parlance, reboot it in the hope of making it more ‘relevant’. I do not intend to discuss the artistic merits of this, but I think that the changes in attitude and character that have happened as a result are strongly indicative of an America that is no longer brave and outgoing, but rather is fearful of the strange and wishes to retreat from the world, locking the doors behind it. We see this in the strangely diminished characters of the great heroes and even the villains, and in the fact that there are no longer the beacons of truth, justice and the American way for us to aspire to. Twilight has come to America and with it we have newer, smaller superheroes for our own time.
The republic of fear
The DC Comics Universe as it was up until the end of last month was, in many ways, quite a dark place. Terrifying monsters and natural disasters abounded, not to mention menacing aliens and even more menacing supernatural entities often bent on the complete annihilation of absolutely everything as only the first stage in their plans. And even on a purely Earthbound level, a whole new class of criminal, the supervillain, existed, so numerous that they formed their own societies and leagues in parody of their opposite numbers in superhero-land. And these supervillains were not just like ordinary, career criminals: they included psychotics so insane that the whole world became a player in their grand plan of not mere robbery or mayhem, but universal madness, individuals convinced that it was their destiny to rule and therefore determined to destroy anything that stood in their way of so doing, other individuals suffering the delusional belief that all animal life was an aberration of nature and should be annihilated, and so on. In fact it’s surprising that the good people of Metropolis and Gotham ever dared step outside.
And yet step outside they did, because they knew that they had protectors. The universe was not entirely dark, for though there were criminals from whom Jack the Ripper might have recoiled in horror, standing between the people and them were not just the forces of law and order, but the forces of law and order helped, indeed sometimes led, by beings so powerful and yet so good that they seemed like the Gods of old truly come to Earth. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Power Girl and the others had powers so awesome that in the wrong hands they could have been simply terrifying, but the whole point is that they weren’t because they were the Gods, and so had an unshakeable devotion to order and justice. They combined unthinkable power with a concern for people that meant that they didn’t retreat into being arbitrary dispensers of their own law, but aided and helped the many. Thus Superman, who could have become dictator of the world had he wanted, was grounded first by his childhood and then by his love for Lois Lane: it would be very hard to treat as nothing but the dirt beneath one’s feet that which one loved. Viewed dispassionately, figures like Superman and Power Girl, aliens with more or less infinite power and no significant vulnerabilities, should be the stuff of terror, and yet they create hope because they have infinite power but are prepared not to use it, rejecting killing even of their worst enemies. Superman was not our master, but our friend and protector. And so he was the best kind of God: the good parent who is there to look out for their children when they fall into trouble, but who otherwise lets them live their own life. ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ may not sound especially inspiring, especially in view of what the American Way has become in the past decade, but in terms of the outgoing, brave America of the past, it is a pretty good slogan to live by.
It is not surprising that this optimistic, outward looking world-view coincided with the time of America’s great expansion from the isolationist colossus hiding behind the Monroe Doctrine into a world power which could be said to have tried (even if it often failed) to have stood for just those values that Superman used to espouse. Unfortunately, the events of a decade ago put paid to that optimism. Now Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ has been replaced by a fretful, fearful inward gaze whose strongest exponents (often, ironically, Reagan’s self-proclaimed heirs) want not to share America’s wealth with the world, but to purify themselves, expelling all that might be considered un-American, as the only way of protecting themselves. Hence we see the resurgence of the creed of American Exceptionalism, whereby the United States is different from the rest of the world not merely by virtue of being the world’s greatest nation (everyone believes that of themselves) or by virtue of having good things that others might like (the American way) but rather because it is set apart, like the Children of Israel in the Old Testament, as an elect that is qualitatively different from the rest of the world. And therefore the old vision of sharing the wealth is no longer possible, and what matters is purity, and casting out the unclean, which naturally includes the foreign.
Now, proponents of American Exceptionalism may argue that it is optimistic, but it is, in fact, a deeply fearful philosophy. If one feels that the world is good, and that right is on one’s side, why should one need to retreat into the fortress of solitude? A creed like Exceptionalism will only arise when one feels that the world around one is a massive threat, and that one’s position truly is dangerous and possibly untenable. In other words, it is the precise equivalent of the citizens of Gotham deciding to stay indoors because they fear the Joker and his ilk so much that they dare not risk going out. And so their trust in the likes of Batman and Superman has been demolished. In the real world it is easy to see how this has happened: a people traumatised by the attacks a decade ago, and shocked to discover that massive firepower is not enough to destroy an ideology, fear that the American way really is under attack, even though it manifestly is not. But what has happened to Superman and Batman?
The heroes have not fared well from this revamp. The old Superman was grounded in humanity by his strong connections with people, particularly Lois Lane. And yet the new Lois Lane has another human in her life, so a constant reminder that we mortals are not actually inferior beings seems to have been removed. More worryingly, the new superheroes seem to be a petty, quarreling lot, more bothered with their egos and playing power games with one another than with their primary (one would have thought) concern of the safety of the people at large. So, in the very first Justice League number, we see Batman and the Green Lantern ignoring weird alien monsters doing frightening stuff in order to have a good argument about who’s better, and when we finally meet Superman he’s not the peaceable, god-like being we expect, or if he is, he’s one of those gods that has a bad temper and enjoys hurting people. In other words, the old nobility that was an essential part of these characters, has gone.
Now, this could be taken in several ways. One could say that this is a reflection of loss of innocence as a result of the fiasco of the War on Terror, and the realisation that the good guys aren’t necessarily all that good. However, there are more worrying implications. For example, if Superman is no longer bound by human rules or human thinking, presumably what he does is right, not because it complies with our moral and legal norms, but simply because he does it. His might is right. This is precisely what we see in a United States where a sizeable proportion of the population believe that illegal acts are justified by the threat of terror, and where a probably illegal raid on a sovereign state resulting in the killing of a public enemy was the origin of outrageously vile public celebration. Finally, without mighty powers to protect one, there is more to fear, the world becomes a more worrying place, because one cannot rely on the state or the superheroes. If the mighty powers are too taken up with their own concerns to notice us, then all we can do is to hunker down and hope for the best. And, of course, try to make ourselves fit for them to pay attention to us. From this to covenantual thinking, the idea that America was hurt because America had become degenerate and somehow un-American, is but a step, and it seems to be one that at least some political leaders in the US have taken.
Equally illuminating is what has happened to the supervillains. They too have undergone both belittlement and dehumanisation. Thus the Joker, though he looks like his old self, is now not an utterly insane master of evil, whose every act is unpredictable and who exerts an unholy fascination by his sheer charismatic insanity, but a simple psychopathic killer. At the same time he is both more frightening and less fascinating. Similarly, Harley Quinn, who had been a frighteningly volatile psychotic with a larger-than-life approach to things and a strangely charming, even lovable, personality, is now simply a psychopath. The same is true for other characters. Now this has two aspects. First, if a character is dehumanised, then their evil is somehow more frightening, because there’s nothing there for one to relate to, nothing to get a grip on. They simply are, and their evil is incalculable and is simply something one must live with and cannot attempt to understand or do anything about. As they are more frightening then any attempt to make contact with them is less likely to work, and therefore abandoning it is more easily justified. If one is already lacking in self-confidence this is a great way of justifying one’s own fear.
The second aspect is more important. If a character is dehumanised then it is impossible to feel sympathy for them. The old Joker may have been a monster, but it was eminently easy to feel some connection, some beginnings of a connection; with the old Harley Quinn it was more or less impossible not to feel a connection. If you can feel a connection with someone, however remote, then that is the beginning of understanding, and with understanding comes the possibility that they can be changed. In other words, if you have enemies that you can connect with then there is the possibility that you may one day become friends. But that is not what the Exceptionalist mindset wants. Enemies are bad, and there is nothing to be learned from understanding them, for the Exceptionalist state is perfect and so there is no need for it to reach out to meet its enemies half way. Indeed, there is even a risk that by attempting to understand the enemy one might become subject to pollution by their ideas, and remember that Exceptionalism is all about purity. So Republicans tell us that the United States will totter if terror suspects are tried on US soil in a normal court, presumably because their mere presence, their mere right to speak, risks pollution. Likewise those of a Republican mindset (masquerading as liberals) demonised Lars von Trier for saying that he felt sympathy for Hitler, which we all ought to do, for how else can we appreciate that something of him is in all of us, and therefore learn how to overcome it? And finally, in the DC Comics Universe, the supervillains lose their charisma and glamour and become simply bad. As such they are something we can hate and reject without thought, just as the thought police want us to hate and reject Hitler, pretending in the process that we are entirely free of thoughts such as his, and the American Exceptionalists want to hate and reject the other which they currently label as ‘Islam’. It is a way of lying to oneself about ones own purity and absolving oneself of having to think about why others may not like one.
In this rather discursive survey I have, I hope, showed that key themes from the change in the DC Universe, from the optimism of the old model to the more ‘edgy’ new approach, appear to parallel directly the changes in American society over the last ten years. As the US has moved gradually from being an open, confident society to a closed, fearful one, with diversity replaced by uniformity as the goal of many, so has the Universe of America’s unique mythology contracted in sympathy. One hopes that the fascism that always lurked in the background of the superhero narrative, and occasionally erupted in such pieces as The Dark Knight Strikes Back, does not arise in either the new DC Universe, or the real United States that it reflects.