Windows and mirrors and Maher, oh my!
I used to enjoy Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” when it first started on Comedy Central — but, around the time he moved it to ABC, I felt like he had become kind of arrogant. In the early days, during the period of time when Prince was insisting that he be referred to only as an unpronounceable symbol, Maher occasionally awarded the “Prince Rogers Nelson ‘Get Over Yourself’ Award” to some public figure. Eventually, I felt like it was Maher who needed to get over himself.
People who know me as a person of faith might think that Maher’s outspoken atheism — the kind that’s referred to as “militant” atheism, because it believes, not just that faith in God is misplaced, but that it is actively harmful and must be actively resisted — contributed to my feelings about him. That’s a fair assumption to make. But I honestly started feeling that way before Maher became outspoken about those beliefs.
Maher was fired by ABC after making some remark that people took as offensive. But networks and movie studios should understand that comics tend to play the role of agent provocateur. If you fire or boycott every comic who’s ever stepped over the line, you’ll be left with few comics.
Anyway, I don’t get HBO, and so I’ve never seen “Real Time With Bill Maher.” But I wanted to respond to Maher’s remarks about comics, and Stan Lee. He dismissed the fascination with superheroes as part of the infantilization, or dumbing down, of America, and griped about the veneration accorded Lee on his passing.
Let me say that, in some cases, there has been a glut of superhero movies, which I blame not on sinking intelligence but on Hollywood’s stubborn determination to jump on the latest fad (whatever it happens to be) and run it into the ground. The superhero movies will eventually suffer the same fate, and there are already some signs of weakening around the edges.
But I do not object to superheroes, or any larger-than-life fantasy, as somehow less worthy than “The Sopranos.” I think there is a place in popular culture for both mirrors and windows.
By “mirrors,” I mean works of art that reflect the truth of ourselves and our society, warts and all, and challenge us to overcome inherent problems. I hesitate to use the word “realistic” because I think it’s well-nigh meaningless. A “realistic” movie would consist of putting a webcam in a random person’s house and televising his daily life to the world, unedited. It would be boring as watching paint dry, and probably quite uninstructive. No movie or novel or TV show is “realistic.” Not one. Any movie must condense, sharpen, frame and define its conflict.
But there are works that hold the light up to who we are as a society.
But in addition to mirrors, we need windows. By “windows,” I mean works of art that give us something to aspire to, that exaggerate and reward goodness and reassure us that there is hope. Are these stories childish fantasies? Not necessarily. I’m sure that there are individual people who respond to such stories in a childish way, but I’m also sure that those people are a much smaller portion of the population than Mr. Maher supposes.
Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell had a series of intense and illuminating conversations on public TV about the nature of myth and storytelling. George Lucas was a disciple of Joseph Campbell and based some of his ideas of storytelling on Campbell’s work. There is a place for myth, for larger-than-life storytelling — and superheroes can be a part of that.
Some modern aspects of superhero culture can be ham-fisted, to be sure. Today’s superhero stories are more serious, and more nuanced, than in the days of yore, and even iconic heroes are shown to be in conflict with each other or to have achilles heels. One of the things that made Marvel Comics famous during Stan Lee’s tenure there was the way that he and his collaborators (with whom he did not always share proper credit) developed heroes who had flaws and conflicts and real lives. That’s what he was known for — transforming the oversimplified heroes and villains of the Golden Age of comics into recognizable human beings like Peter Parker or Tony Stark, making them more relatable, and incrementally more realistic (there’s that word again).
That can be a good thing. But sometimes, in an effort to make their characters somehow more serious, filmmakers and artists paint them in such bleak tones that it cancels out what attracted us to superheroic storytelling in the first place.
I would not want to live in a society where every work of popular culture had the storytelling subtlety of an old Hopalong Cassidy serial. But I would also not want to live in a society where everything was “The Wire” or “No Country For Old Men.”
There is a place in popular culture for mirrors that show us what we, as individuals, as a society, as a species, are truly like. As a person of faith, I believe that it’s important for us to recognize the inherent sin and evil in humanity. I also believe it’s important for us to recognize hope. And I think that myths and legends, from “Robin Hood” to “Lord of the Rings” to “Superman” to “Black Panther,” are one way in which we, as a society, can remind ourselves of the need for hope, for aspiration, for joy.
Sure, there are bad superhero stories. There is bad literary fiction. There are bad Oscar-bait movies. But there are also good ones, and it’s wrong to paint any genre with such a broad brush.