#NOTrelationshipgoals: Toxic Relationship Models in Suicide Squad

‘’Love is patient, love is kind…’’ that’s what the bible says. It goes on to list the many other things that love is too and it’s right love has many forms:

Lust

Desire

Infatuation

Longing

A myriad of angles that many have felt but few can articulate. It is usually thought of with a fondness, a positivity it is one of our most prized values but love can also be twisted. There are forms of twisted love too:

Obsession

Fanaticism

Possession

Jealousy

 

To my mind there has never been a finer example of love’s darker side than that shared by the Joker and Harley Quinn. They have exemplified the chaotic nature of love for the last 25 years, often making a mockery of it. This sinister parody of romance first came to the attention of audiences in the episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS). Harley Quinn was introduced as a female sidekick of the Joker and his lover. When looking at their history, Love might be too strong a term. Throughout her time with him Harley is consistently shown to take the brunt of all the Joker’s frustration, being beaten, abused and left for dead with alarming frequency.

 

When I was younger I would laugh at the way Harley would always return to her man’s side, assuming that nothing was really wrong as there was always a smile on her face. This changed as I grew older. My understanding of the world began to temper my viewing, what was once comedic and lighthearted had turned to something that was undeniably tragic. Harley Quinn was, in every sense of the word, hopelessly in love with the Joker. No matter how many times he would knock her down she would always come back to him. She had to come back to him. Their exaggerated relationship was an analogy for the abusive relationships that can be quite common in the real world.

 

The simple, elegant animation of the Batman: The Animated Series seems ill-suited to the task of exploring such a complex issue, but any fan of the show knows that most of it’s themes are equally dark. The shows creators usually relished the opportunity to do something more mature with the show. Through the masterful storytelling of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, it managed to do so in sophisticated in depth manner. Using the clown and his loving counterpart the pair showed the prison that an abusive relationship can be for the victim.

All too often advice regarding abusive relationships is simply; ‘’Leave him/her.’’ . Sympathy is often found wanting if they don’t. There is a notion that if they don’t want to help themselves there’s no point trying.
This logic is often given a voice by Poison Ivy within BTAS:


Ivy herself is a very traditional model of a strong woman. She has power, fears little and takes what she wants. She is the femme fatale of Noir fiction. Harley as a character represents a very different type of strong woman. She is possibly one of the fleshed out women portrayed on screen. She has a great deal of agency in her ability to make her own decisions (flawed as they are), she is physically capable of holding her own but most importantly she makes mistakes. She is not some infallible creature on a pedestal but a living, breathing human.

This certainly aided her rise to cult status among fans. The paradox of her own agency leading her to a trap helped to raise her from the mire of being a simplistic ‘’victim’’ character to one that fans felt themselves rooting for (Schedeen, 2014). Here was proof that strength does not always indicate perfection.

The creators of BTAS had given an analogy to audiences on how not to love and exactly how cycles of abuse can be so punishing for those involved in them. More importantly they showed this without seeming overly moralistic or preachy. Despite this characters are always open to interpretation and perhaps the layers of their analogy were a little too nuanced and subtle.

In recent years damage has become something of a trend, no doubt in conjunction with sites like tumblr, and with it Harley’s dysfunctional relationship has found new fans for an entirely different reason:

She has become some kind of bizzarre champion for dysfunction, a kind of paragon for devotion for many people. Posts like these can frequently be found on social media as well as posts about the couple accompanied by #relationshipgoals. Her (misplaced) loyalty has been turned into an aspirational virtue. DC has faced issues for this kind of thing before, occasionally they use Harley’s problems as a way of moving merchandise.(Dickens,2016)

It may seem to be a slight overreaction to claim that a cartoon comic romance could inspire the emulation of abusive relationships, they are after all works of fiction and yet posts like the one above are all too common in online communities. While they may not be directly copying the actions of two psychotic clowns they are glamourising the notion of ‘’standing by’’ your partner no matter what. The risk of emulation increases when you give a character like Harley Quinn a flesh and blood counterpart.

 

Margot Robbie is the woman who has been given that particular honour in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. To her credit she is easily one of the better things about the film, as is Jared Leto’s Joker. Many liberties have been taken with both characters, a rejuvenated aesthetic that is fresh and exceptionally modern (perhaps to it’s detriment, there is something mockable about the Jokers grill and love of all things shiny. It occasionally detracts from his more sinister nature ).There is one slight problem though.

It’s sexist. The treatment of Harley’s character is sexist of that there can be no doubt. For much of the film she is little more than a sex object. Entire scenes devoted to her objectification. One in particular where the Joker offers her to a colleague to stir up his own feelings of jealousy so he can get off. A comprehensive account of just how sexist the film can be is available at the AV Club.(Zuckerman, 2016)

The main points are that her character is shallow and lacking in any kind of real motivation. Many think that the fact that she wants nothing more than to return to the Joker is exceptionally sexist. I would argue that all the characters in Suicide Squad have no motivation but it’s down to sloppy film-making more than Harley being a woman. Another point is that she spends much of the movie waiting to be ‘’rescued’’. Harley is no damsel in distress in this film and is actively seeking her own way back to the Joker, just as he is to her.

This brings me to the new dynamic of their relationship in the film. For the first time in the couple’s history Joker needs Harley almost more than she needs him. In other media Harley has always been the first thing that the Joker leaves behind. He rarely cares for her and often doesn’t even want her around. This was well established in Bruce Timm’s Mad Love the comic book continuation of the BTAS episode. One page reveals the level of manipulation that the Joker actually uses:

(Dini and Timm 2011)

 

Suicide Squad’s Joker is a polar opposite. In this incarnation he is obsessed with her. His ‘’love’’ is one born of jealousy and possession, it is more an act of control but to him it is love. He is relentless in his pursuit of her. Harley is more of his equal than she has ever been. Amanda Waller acknowledges as much at the beginning of the film; ‘’she’s as crazy as he is and even more fearless.’’

 

Many people object to the scene in which Harley is ‘’forced’’ into a vat of chemicals. Many people seem to have blanked out the fact that she makes the decision (manipulated but her choice nonetheless) and that it is the Joker who saves her, he can’t walk away. Their relationship is the best it’s ever been.

And that’s exactly the problem I have with Suicide Squad.

 

The couple have a very glamorous Bonnie and Clyde image bestowed upon them in the film. Their psychotic co-dependence has been glorified to tie in with much of the internet culture that aspires to emulate them. Many reviewers have focused on Leto’s controlling Joker, whilst completely overlooking Margot’s enabling Harley. She delivers a speech in which she proclaims that each member of the squad are ugly on the inside and how they should be proud of that. It is a sharp and jarring moment in the film and Harley becomes a bitter unsympathetic character in an instant. Through all the cries of sexism, many have not focused on the fact that both characters are in an abusive relationship and it appeals to many people. The cold abuse of BTAS made sure that it was understood that inside Harley was suffering. In recent years DC has been taking great strides to distance her from the paradigm started 25 years ago:

(HARLEY QUINN #25 )

 

The panel above shows Harley’s breakthrough that they always bring out the worst in each other.

Suicide Squad makes no attempt to keep this new Harley in place. They return to the abuse and more than that they revel in it. The underlying message of the film , at least in Harley’s case, is that any atrocity committed in the name of love is fine because it shows you care. The two abusive people are always there for each other. In many ways it is an absolute betrayal of the original intention for the character:

 

‘’I don’t think of Mad Love as a victim’s tale, but a cautionary one about what happens when someone loves recklessly, obsessively, and for too long.’’(Dini,2011)

 

Words from Paul Dini’s foreword to the latest edition of Mad Love. He goes on to mention that his hope for the character would be that she would escape the cycle. Comics constantly evolve and Harley Quinn is a character who evolves more than most unfortunately on occasion she is forced to revert to something old and finished. Harley Quinn doesn’t suffer from sexism or weakness Suicide Squad she suffers from the idea that she could possibly be happy in this relationship

GIFS taken from Vanity Fair

 

Bibliography:

 

Dini, Paul, and Bruce Timm. 2011. Mad Love and Other Stories. DC Comics.

“HARLEY QUINN #25.” 2016. DC. Accessed August 7. http://www.dccomics.com/comics/harley-quinn-2013/harley-quinn-25.

 

Zuckerman, Esther “Margot Robbie Deserves Better than Suicide Squad’s Sexism.” 2016. August 5. http://www.avclub.com/article/margot-robbie-deserves-better-suicide-squads-sexis-240618.

 

Dickens, Donna. “‘Suicide Squad’ Merchandise Romanticizes Joker and Harley’s Abusive Relationship.” HitFix. Accessed August 7. http://www.hitfix.com/harpy/suicide-squad-merchandise-romanticizes-joker-and-harleys-abusive-relationship.

 

Robinson, Joanna. 2016. “Is Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn the Most Divisive Character in Comic-Book History?” Vanity Fair. August 3. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/08/harley-quinn-suicide-squad-margot-robbie-domestic-violence.

 

Schedeen, Jesse. 2014. “Between the Panels: Why Is Harley Quinn So Popular? – IGN.” IGN. IGN. March 28. http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/03/28/between-the-panels-why-is-harley-quinn-so-popular.

 

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Unlimited Power and No Supervision: the subtle cold war aesthetic that drives Captain America Civil War.

‘’I knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times’’: Early Days

The colours red, white and blue have been used in the flags of many nations many nations but have become synonymous with the United States. They are the colours of liberty; bold, clear and undeniable. In World War Two this was exactly what the world need to see, a strong force joining the good fight. Naturally any character adorned in these colours would share their attributes. This very linear logic is the reason that Captain America was so popular upon his initial release under Timely Comics (before becoming Marvel Comics). He was the strength of America personified, a rallying unstoppable figure that fought for the allies. He was an easy vessel for people to place their hopes for victory in. More importantly, Cap’s brand of fighting was simple and effective, you punched the bad guy he went down (Bellotto 2014). There was no vast enemy army, no insurmountable odds – just the American Supersoldier who knew exactly who to hit.

Naturally as WW2 drew to a close the Captains popularity began to wane. He resurfaced briefly during the Cold War as a bizarre mouthpiece for McCarthyism. This was all retconned and tinkered with in the 70’s reboot. Stan Lee decided to relaunch the Captain as one of Marvel’s aces. However Captain America now had a problem, the glory days of America’s military as a force of global liberation were over. Years of convoluted foreign policy (Parmar, Miller, and Ledwidge 2009) and a growing belief in American Exceptionalism, an ideology that the U.S. views itself as unique and views the globe’s safekeeping as its mission (Finegold and Kenneth 1996), had left a sour taste in the mouths of other nations, particularly in the middle-east.

What was once bold, clear and undeniable had become brash, murky and uninvited.

Just like before Captain America became the embodiment of it.

The all American Steve Rogers, much like Superman, became the boy scout of his universe. He was everything that was (once) great about America. As times progressed Rogers did not. He simply couldn’t become a rounded character. His nature as a Soldier and more importantly as an American Soldier meant that he would always seem little more than propaganda in a superhero suit. This is perhaps one of the reasons that Captain America: The First Avenger was not the hit that Marvel wanted it to be, it was simply too American, and like most origin stories, it simply lacked relevance to a modern audience.

‘’You must miss the good old days’’: A Captain for the 21st Century

Enter Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar, both these writers took the character in a radical new direction. In The Ultimates (Millar, 2011), Millar showed us the classic man out of time angle but this time the reverence for Captain America was lacking. Rather than have each character in awe of Rogers they often look upon him as antiquated and stuffy. His old school morality and gung ho attitude are openly mocked by others. More importantly was the revelation that the WW2 of this Captain was far grittier and that his time in it was not smooth and effortless as his original 40’s run portrayed. In The Ultimates Captain America was usually just another grunt, one who could somersault through gunfire but not the God-like figure who could lead the charge and not lose a single life on the allied side. Brubaker (Brubaker, 2012) took the Captain in an even more radical direction, changing him from the in the spotlight symbol to a shadow operative. His run included retconning much of the characters history and having it become much darker in his version. The Winter Soldier arc and character is entirely his creation.

The Russo Brothers clearly took a great deal of inspiration from Brubaker’s run for their sequel to The First Avenger. Captain America: The Winter Soldier introduced a darker more effective Captain America to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Steve Rogers is faced with the moral dilemma of serving his country in a world that deals exclusively in grey. This is a far cry from the simple black and white times that birthed him. In his own words:

‘’ Yeah we compromised, sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well, but we did it so people could be free.’’ (Russo’s, 2014).

The second installment of the franchise did what most good stories do; it reflected the most pressing concerns of the environment it came from, the brothers themselves have admitted to as much;

“All the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience…That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant. So [Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined. And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president’s kill list, preemptive technology”(“‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Is Actually about Obama’s Kill List, Say the Film’s Directors” 2016)

They didn’t seem to stop at kill lists though. The whistleblowing of Edward Snowden was the primary headline found in most news, especially in the western world. He had revealed a world where trust came second to security, and each nation (mostly the US) were spying on their neighbours. The NSA defended spying on their own citizens by claiming it was necessary in the preemption of possible terrorist attacks. When challenged on the issue many US officials defended their actions claiming that the actions not only kept Americans safe but the rest of the world as well;

“I would argue, by the way, if the French citizens knew exactly what that was about, they would be applauding and popping Champagne corks. It’s a good thing. It keeps the French safe. It keeps the U.S. safe.” (Rogers, 2013)

Meanwhile the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, would frequently add his own insight;

‘’These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.’’(“Edward Snowden’s ‘Open Letter to the Brazilian People’ – in Full” 2013)

It’s not hard to identify the source of the Russo brothers’ inspiration for Hydra’s resurgence and the Machiavellian Alexander Pierce. Winter Soldier remains one of my favourite Marvel films primarily because of the way in which their plots are character driven. This something I have always felt was missing from some of their other major franchises. Naturally directors who put so much time and effort into making good films could never be content simply churning out blockbusters according to a formula. This probably explains why Captain America: Civil War is one of their best yet.

‘’If I misplaced a couple of 30 megaton warheads, there’d be consequences’’: Negotiating Superweapons.

Civil War took the themes of Winter Soldier and evolved them, in doing so they created a brand new aesthetic for the franchise:

‘’We needed to go in a radical direction if we were gonna do another Captain America film, so we were strongly advocating for the Civil War storyline.’’ (Brothers in Arms – Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Featurette 2016)

This is from an interview with the Russo Brothers explaining their choice to adapt the Civil War storyline. In many ways he makes a lot of sense if you look at the way in which Marvel films are being produced of late. There are many heroes featured in the film which reflects the current trend of ‘’ the more the merrier’’ that seems to be steering the direction of most comic-book films. This pitch was sure to satisfy the studio mandate for an inclusive universe.
However looking at the evidence already provided in this essay another reason for the Russo brothers’ success may be down to the fact that they manage to tap into the aesthetic of events that have actually happened in our world. Drawing on such events gives them a series of themes, motifs and references allowing audiences to connect to their stories with relative ease. More than that it gives their movie a far more cohesive style, making it stick in the mind of the audience and branding it with a clear identity. For Winter Soldier it was the world of deceit and shadows that the US found itself at the center of but for their new ‘’radical direction’’ it’s no surprise they chose a completely different theme.

The premise of Civil War is simple; having grown tired of the way in which superheroes operate, in General Ross’ words ‘’with unlimited power and no supervision’’, as a response to this the governments of various nations have decided to reign them in with bureaucracy. This comes in the form of The Sakovia Accords and divides the heroes of the MCU. Each is pitted against each other and the entire affair ends in a kind of stalemate. It could be argued that this reflects the tendency of governments to tackle problems with legislation. Examples of such tactics can be seen in the current European Migrant Crisis. Such work often fails to effectively deal with the strategies treating a symptom as opposed to the problem.(“Has EU Immigration and Asylum Policy Failed? Can It Ever Succeed?” 2014). The notion of corralling beings like superheroes with laws makes about as much sense.

More parallels could be drawn to the character of Zemo. The effects of conflict are rarely limited to the place in which the fighting is taking place. The migration crisis has been pushed to new extents due to the events in Syria also giving rise to extremism. Spawned from the consequences of US Foreign policy much like Zemo is spawned as a consequence of the Avengers actions.

It may seem like a stretch but the comparisons are there. The reasons they are not overt is simple; to adopt such a raw issue would simply polarise, divide and likely offend audiences. Rather than depend on the present and risk a similar film, the Russo Brothers reached into the past using the last time the world stood still for Superpowers: The Cold War.

On the surface it is a simple adaptation. ‘’Superpowers’’ is a word that was just as relative between 1950 and 1966 as it is within this film. They are spoken about with fear. During the Cold War it was mutual fear of the atomic bomb that kept each nation in check; In Civil War it is no coincidence that Ross frequently refers to heroes as ‘’superweapons.’’ No country at the time could be allowed to have such power and in many ways Ross is a mouthpiece for the era, he is also the Russo’s most obvious reference.

In contrast to the simple manifestation of the theme, the brothers spend the rest of the film harnessing the tension of the Cold War, thus lending it to their own story, in a far more subtle way.

They do so by engaging in copious amounts of intertextual referencing. The Cold War itself had a huge effect on American cinema, the government of the time used it as a means of subtle propaganda for audiences (“The Cinema: American Weapon for the Cold War on JSTOR” 2016). Russia had it’s own propaganda and both types heavily affected aesthetic of their time. The Russo Brothers reference the intertextuality of Cold War cinema in three key ways.

    1. Setting
    2. Framing
    3. Aesthetic/ Design.

Winter Soldier was primarily set in locales that reflected the modern threats of its day. The U.S. itself was the primary setting as it seemed that much of the threat to the American way of life came from within.

Civil War chooses a very different setting. The majority of the action takes place in Europe and Russia. While it’s true that America and Russia were the predominant factions in the Cold War, Europe itself was the battleground. This was the primarily due to the division of Berlin, with the Eastern part of the city belonging to the Soviets and the Western part belonging to the US. The entire situation was coloured in shades of grey and the films of the era embraced this especially Noir.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Ritt, 1965) starring Richard Burton is one such example. The Film focuses on Burton’s character, a British Spy, who wishes to continue his work in espionage even though the cold war is drawing to a close. The Film is famous for its depiction of the reluctance of certain parties to end the cold war and come home (the similarities in motivation between Burton and Bucky are glaring here.) but the film also served to show the state of Berlin both architecturally and domestically at the time. There is a particularly tense scene in which Burton raids an apartment. Both the apartment itself and the raid bear a striking resemblance to Bucky’s home in Bucharest.

Fig1: Top CA:CW Bottom TSWCIFTC

There are strong similarities between the framing of both scenes but the most striking parallel can be seen in the décor. Both apartments are wood panelled and even the wallpaper of TSWCIFTC seems to be echoed in Civil War.

This is not the only instance of setting being drawn from the past within this film. When watching Civil War it becomes apparent that character motivation and development are what the Russo Brothers are really focusing on. From the break up of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts’ relationship, to the death of Agent Carter, different motivations for characters are slowly revealed and built upon. The most effective way this is done is through dialogue.. Civil War stands apart from most Marvel films because of its focus and purposeful dialogue, as opposed to snappy one-liners,between characters.

One of the most significant scenes to use such dialogue takes place between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers directly after Rogers’s initial capture in Bucharest. One of the most important factors of the scene is it’s setting. It takes place entirely in a glass office and consists of vigorous debate between the pair.

CapTony Debate

 There are a number of elements at play in this scene. From blocking to costume , numerous factors have been manipulated to mount tension between the pair. Throughout the scene the wardrobes of both men are juxtaposed against each other. At the beginning Tony stands shirt opened, tie loose, he mimics Steve’s laid back demeanour. As tension mounts between the pair the tie is straightened and suit jacket donned as the scene closes, tony has become the figurehead for authority, standing in stark (sorry) opposition to the ever casual Rogers.

The blocking of the scene serves to further the tension even more. In the beginning whilst Tony has the moral high ground, due to extolling the virtues of the legislation and the necessity of it, he stands while Steve sits. As their conversation progresses

both men hint at agreement, meeting at eye level;hope is teased. Stark then makes the fatal flaw of mentioning Wanda . Steve is reminded of exactly what it means to be free. He tells Stark as much and we see Tony concede, taking a seat. Rogers leaves the room, with Stark seated , having wrestled the high ground from him.

The final layer of tension is added by the setting; the glass room in which both men are standing. It is the confined space in which their aggression can only ferment. The room serves two functions. Firstly it shows that even though this is a nationwide issue , the two most important sides are Captain America and Iron Man. They will decide the fate of America. Secondly it is reference to the myriad cold war films that took place in taught, smoke filled rooms, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964). These war room debates are a staple of the genre and utilised by the Russos to great effect.

B. Framing.

Both comics and films are both visual mediums. Often this leads to moments of delight for fans of both when directors take their favourite panels, pull them from the gutters, then immortalise them on the silver screen. The Russo Brothers do this frequently but rarely for the sole purpose of fan service. The final confrontation between Captain America, Bucky and Stark takes place in an abandoned Soviet bunker and showcases the way in which a scene can be used for more than just showing the audience a story. This scene does more than just show it’s audience tension by showing them physical violence.

captain america beatdown (1)

The action is impressive for its fluidity alone and does a wonderful job of evoking just how much of a toll this plot has taken on it’s characters, but again the Russos are more fond of layering.

Beginning with their choice of setting, the Soviet Bunker. On the surface it’s Russian; Russian = Cold War, simple. The architecture of the building itself however is like a love letter to Cold War architecture. The huge concrete monolith seen above bears a resemblance to hundreds of similar buildings constructed during the Cold War, both in the US and Russia. The reason they are so huge and imposing is simple; people though the world was going to end:

‘’The landscape of the United States was forever altered by the Cold War. The dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in1945 decisively ended WWII and marked the beginning of a newworld order that was under constant fear of nuclear destruction.In the United States, bunkers and designated fallout shelters werebuilt almost everywhere, creating the impression that anywherecould be a target of nuclear attack at any time.’’ (Schneider 2016)

The threat was constant and so in response to this people began to design ways to defend themselves. Again there is nothing too significant about this choice by the Russos, it’s a bunker, it’s very dramatic and it ties nicely into the backstory of the Winter Soldier. If the Cultural Landscape theory is utilised however then the choice becomes one with far more complex reasoning.

“landscape denotes the interaction of people and place: a
social group and its spaces…all human intervention with nature can be considered as a cultural landscape.”.In a visual and historical analysis of the everyday landscape, information about the appearance, production and control of space can reveal both present and historic information about society, in times of peace and war.’’
(Schneider 2016)

This is Erin Schneider again, explaining the way in which buildings can soak up the tensions and anxieties of a certain period in time. She goes on to write about the way in which such influences remain in buildings as a kind of cultural hangover, inflicting the fear and anxiety that created them on modern societies.

By referencing the Cold War, the Russos call back to a time when America felt particularly vulnerable. Their society was shifting and events like McCarthyism ( a movement driven by unfair and predatory legislation) were tearing their society apart from the inside. Their choice to use it in Civil War shows the vulnerability and seismic shift that the Sakovia accords in bringing back now. Innocent superheroes, much like the innocent citizens of the 1950s, are to be locked up for no real reason.

Lighting has always been used to alter and manipulate the mood of a scene. Probably one of the most famous of the Cold War era is Carol Reed’s, The Third Man (Reed, 1949). Even then the framing of the film drew both praise and criticism for it’s off kilter angles and murky lighting. Reed said of it that it was his intention to ‘’make the audience uncomfortable.’’(Reed, 1974)

The Russo’s use light in a very different fashion here, particularly at this moment:

Fig. 2: CA:CW.

The lighting here is used to reveal all. It shows us the conflict and more importantly it shows us the clear lines of the structure. It draws the audience’s attention to the bold geometric forms and clear sharp lines that may as well be a calling card for the design consensus of the cold war, particularly within its propaganda posters.

Figures 3 & 4

The attention to symmetry and clear lines send a clear uniform message of solidarity and order in these state propaganda posters from the era. As a foil to this the Russo Brothers have placed all three protagonists in a furious melee directly in front of what should be a similar symbol of order and solidarity. Such an action reflects both the deceit of the Cold War ( a supposedly civil stalemate, that was in fact furiously fought on both sides) and the current fractured state of the MCU.

c. Aesthetic

Deciding to use intertextuality as a resource for telling your story will usually affect the overall look and feel of your text/film/ piece. Civil War is no different – below are some of the smaller, more subtle ways in which the Russos remind their audience of the Cold War. There’s not much deep symbolism here but rather a nod to the era from which the pair draw inspiration.

As with many Marvel films, the plot of Civil War takes place in many different countries at many different times. When this is a central aspect of a film, good scene transitions become essential. They are the easiest way for your audience to keep track of what is going on. In Winter Soldier the Russos utilised a very sleek, spy style scene transition complete with latitude and longitude:

Fig 5: CA:WS

It was subtle, almost unnoticed like much of the film’s themes. For Civil War however they’ve opted for something a little larger:

Fig 5: CA:CW

For anyone who is an old film buff they’ll notice a striking similarity between these plain font transitions and the show card style opening sequences of the films of the 40’s and 50’s.

Fig 6:(Ray, 1950) Fig 7: (Carvalho 1951) Fig 8: (Huston,1950)

Finally there are the props, some nods are so small that it’s a blink and you’ll miss it kind of moment. One of the best in my opinion was Captain America’s getaway car upon escaping from S.H.I.E.L.D.

For those of you that don’t remember it, this is it:

Fig 9

The original Volkswagen Beetle. Not really the car you’d expect to see Captain America driving, but if you were looking for spy in a Cold War era espionage film that would be your first red flag. The car became the most prolific one to be found on the streets of Europe during the Cold War era:

‘’Volkswagen’s most famous product has been called upon as a symbol of the Federal Republic with such frequency and regularity that it seems superfluous to Germans to spell out how exactly this automobile stands for the postwar order. Former West Germans in particular see in the Beetle much more than yet another car. To them it is a much-loved, multi-layered and uncontroversial icon of the Federal Republic.’’(Rieger 2009)

Naturally this omnipresence transcended from reality to film. The car was used by many directors because it was affordable and ubiquitous.

Ultimately Captain America: Civil War is a film where a new kind of weapon, which happens to have a pulse, is threatening the way of life of an established society, yet that was exactly what set the Cold War in motion. The Russo Brothers have given a master class in modern intertextuality, referencing a similar event in the past to enhance a fictional one in their present. Having read the evidence in this essay I’ll hope you agree that they do so very successfully and in a way that lets their viewer feel a tension, even though they may be unsure why.

Further Reading:

Huston, John, 1950. “The Asphalt Jungle (1950).” IMDb. May 23. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042208/.

 Bellotto, Adam. 2014. “74 Years of Captain America: A History of Marvel’s America-Iest Superhero — Film School Rejects.” Medium. April 1.

https://filmschoolrejects.com/74-years-of-captain-america-a-history-of-marvels-america-iest-superhero-9ed077efb670.

Brothers in Arms – Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Featurette. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K5QY8X91vI.

 Brubaker, Ed. 2012. Captain America by Ed Brubaker Vol. 1. Marvel Entertainment.

“‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Is Actually about Obama’s Kill List, Say the Film’s Directors.” 2016. Mother Jones. Accessed May 28. http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/04/captain-america-winter-soldier-obama-kill-list-politics-drones-nsa.

Carvalho, Claudio. 1951. “Ace in the Hole (1951).” IMDb. June 29. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043338/.

Ray, Nicholas. 1950. “In a Lonely Place (1950).” IMDb. May 17. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042593/.

 “Edward Snowden’s ‘Open Letter to the Brazilian People’ – in Full.” 2013. The Guardian. December 17. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/17/edward-snowden-letter-brazilian-people.

 Finegold, Kenneth, and Finegold Kenneth. 1996. “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. Seymour Martin Lipset.” The American Journal of Sociology 102 (3): 872–74.

“Has EU Immigration and Asylum Policy Failed? Can It Ever Succeed?” 2014. Migrationpolicy.org. June 18. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/multimedia/has-eu-immigration-and-asylum-policy-failed-can-it-ever-succeed.

Ritt, Martin. 1966. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).” IMDb. January 21. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059749/.

 Millar, Mark. 2011. Ultimates Vol.1: Super-Human. Marvel Entertainment.

Parmar, Inderjeet, Linda B. Miller, and Mark Ledwidge. 2009. New Directions in US Foreign Policy. Routledge.

Rieger, Bernhard. 2009. “The ‘Good German’ Goes Global: The Volkswagen Beetle as an Icon in the Federal Republic.” History Workshop Journal: HWJ 68 (1). Oxford University Press: 3–26.

Schneider, Erin. 2016. “Apocalyptic Architecture: Cold War Bunkers, Reuse and the Everyday Landscape.” Accessed May 29. https://www.academia.edu/440251/Apocalyptic_Architecture_Cold_War_Bunkers_Reuse_and_the_Everyday_Landscape.

“The Cinema: American Weapon for the Cold War on JSTOR.” 2016. Accessed May 27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3815230?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

“Website.” 2016a. Accessed May 4. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/25/books/review/Chua-t.html?_r=0. . 2016b. Accessed May 27

 .Sorlin, Pierre. “The Cinema: American Weapon for the Cold War.” Film History 10, no. 3 (1998): 375-81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3815230.

Reed, Carol. 2007. “Carol Reed on Directing Orson Welles in THE THIRD MAN.” Wellesnet | Orson Welles Web Resource. May 29. http://www.wellesnet.com/carol-reed-on-directing-orson-welles-in-the-third-man/.

Sherlock and The Abominable Straw Feminist

Sherlock and the Abominable Straw Feminists.

Disclaimer: Yes I’m a man writing about feminism, I don’t claim to be an expert or have the solution, I just like to hear myself talk.

Spoilers, so many many spoilers.

I like the BBC’s modern version of Sherlock. It’s an excellent update on a classic that was fun for me to read as both a child and an adult. Benedict Cumberbatch did a wonderful job of creating a cold calculating super sleuth and Martin Freeman excels at humanising him. I did feel that some of the wry on the nose humour might be missing in the new series. Naturally the announcement that there would be a Victorian new years day special was one that ignited a very impatient anticipation in me. Then last night I finished watching it and began scratching my head. What had I watched? Was it a stunning piece of metafiction that cleverly linked and paid homage to the characters long and colourful history; Was it a love letter from super fans to the stories that had inspired them; Or was it a convoluted mess that only succeeded in jumping the shark?

For all it’s inception-esque cleverness the special never really managed to pull itself together. Originally thought that the Victorian setting was just a very clever ruse under which they would launch a new season of Sherlock in surprise; it was not. Then it seemed to be a strange form of fan service utilising the homo-erotic theories that Tumblr seems obsessed with. All of this taking place at the Reichenbach Falls with some very strong bromantic themes triumphing over the obsessive stalker ones. I’m still not sure if my mind is capable of coming up with any concrete answers for these many and varied possibilities but one question has planted itself firmly in my mind; Is that what Stephen Moffat really thinks of feminists?

For those of you unaware of how feminism was presented in the show it looked a little like this:

The Klan Does Purple Now

So as you can see this is the answer to the Victorian portion of the specials narrative arc. Though it would be slightly unfair to deem them feminists in the vernacular of the time they would be suffragettes, and in Moffat’s world they’re a pseudo-occultist revenge society. A group of clandestine women that have orchestrated the abominable bride of the title so as to strike fear into the hearts of the pillars of the patriarchy as they deem them.

I have a few issues with this. Apart from it being a wholesale rip off of theBatman: Mask of the Phantasm Plot (emerging from and disappearing into the mist included.)

Enter…

….and exit.

it also shows the suffragette movement as ruthless, scheming and little more than vindictive, Sherlock insinuates as much when he brands them The League of Furies. Why do I say vindictive? The subjects of the Brides wrath are not really key figures against the advocation of women’s right but rather men who have wronged members of the group at one point or another. This is not to say that the two men we see punished, Ricoletti and Sir Eustace Carmichael respectively, are not deserving of some form of justice but they do not seem to be obstacles in the road to equality. To have them targeted is to reduce the Abominable Bride from a weapon of change to a scorned housewife’s tool.

Moffat has done a wonderful job of creating a perfectly victorian straw feminist brigade. Straw feminists are essentially an intellectual boogey man designed to allow those made uncomfortable by equality to dismiss them as aggressive and militant radicals. The Bride is exactly that, she engages in violence and terror tactics to affect change. In doing so, she grants Sherlock and Watson the right to stop her, whilst simultaneously allowing the audience to feel okay for viewing them as the enemy.

Why would Moffat do this? Why would he intentionally draw attention to the plight of women only to reduce it to a petty annoyance. A simple solution can be found. He is almost directly referencing the original tales of Arthur Conan Doyle as well as reflecting the actual views of men at the time.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle firstly uses the women in his stories to further the impression that Sherlock Holmes is a man of unmatchable deductive skills. Doyle contrasts the wit and knowledge that Sherlock Holmes possesses with female characters who are typically silent and reserved. The mere fact that the women come to Holmes with an issue that needs solving renders them immediate victims to circumstances, while also ensuring that they are subservient to Holmes both for his talent and for his protection of them (which additionally perpetuates the structural stereotype that a woman cannot care for herself).

This is a quote from Meghan R. Gordon’s essay on women in Sherlock Holmes. She goes on to list the many and varied times that women are represented as meek and docile within the cases of Holmes, each one serving to show the stronger, and by Victorian definition, more masculine traits exhibited by the detective. This meek treatment of women was often coupled with words like hysteria should a woman ever exhibit any form of passion. By today’s standard’s such thoughts are ridiculous, the special can be seen to be taking advantage of them for comedic purposes. Over the top patriarchal dialogue is a feature of the episode. Each exchange is meant to be blatant and on the nose so as to engage in that safeguard against criticism that is Irony. One of the best examples is when Mary asks if she is simply to wait in the apartment while Holmes and Watson tackle the case. Watson looks at his wife, full of understanding and says: ‘’Not at all my dear, we’ll be hungry later.’’

Oh the hilarity of sending your wife to the kitchen. Moffat provides himself another escape from condemnation in the form of Moriarty, who is little more than a late 19th century Tyler Durden. He directly references the over the top, shark jumping nature of the special:

Oh c’mon be serious, the costumes, the gong. Speaking as a criminal mastermind, we don’t really have gongs, special outfits. Is this silly enough for you yet?

So all can be excused, the show is self-knowing, fully aware of it’s actions and simply parodying it’s source. It’s simple. but in the words of Sherlock Holmes,‘’There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

Just because the show establishes a tongue in cheek tone in its Victorian narrative does not excuse the rest of the episode. One of the major criticisms of the special was that it engaged heavily in ‘’mansplaining’’. ‘’Mansplaining’’ is difficult to define correctly but the primary ingredients are condescension and an unearned sense of authority on a subject (which I may be doing right now but apologies, I have included a disclaimer, so we’re good right?). One particular quote that is provoking considerable ire is:

The invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children, ignored, patronized, disregarded, not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes, to put right an injustice as old as humanity itself. So you see, Watson, this is a war we must lose.

Spoken by Sherlock, the main problem with the statement is its permissive nature. It is almost like the terms of surrender being given to men, which will enable them to gracefully step aside and allow women to join them. There it is though, allow, they would not have earned equality it would be granted to them by men. The point is they don’t need help.

Now that last sentence is more mansplaining, me talking to you like you’re not intelligent like you can’t figure it out for yourself. Something that Moffat does throughout the episode. He creates a ridiculous but accurate depiction of an era’s values, one that anyone can see takes the exact form of a victorian man’s worst nightmare. An avenging woman, strong and deadly that is not bound by any of their rules, THE BRIDE.

aaaaah an accomplished woman!

Then he ruins it by creating a completely opposite counterpart for her, it comes in the form of Mary Watson. The term straw feminist is derived from the term straw man fallacy, which is a technique used when arguing a point. In order to back your own argument or refute another’s, you create an exaggerated example that will scare people into believing your viewpoint or abandon your opponents. A straw man is used to prop up an argument and Mary is Moffat’s.

Surely I’m wrong? Mary is a strong, independent, intelligent woman. Throughout the special alone she is seen to frequently best the male characters, both in victiorian and modern England. She technically beats Sherlock to the solution, is trusted by the more intelligent Holmes, then in modern London is shown to be more capable than even Mycroft, besting him for clearence in MI5. Her status as an equal is recognised and remarked upon by the men of the tale. Sherlock refers to her as remarkable choice of wife. She is infallible. That’s exactly the problem, one that is being seen more and more in popular culture, in order for a female character to be the equal of men she must be strong and perfect. Mary doesn’t actually say much in the episode, anything that isn’t a strong female statement or a correction, each time she does it is usually to ensure victory or correct an assumption and Moffat seems to think that’s enough. To be accomplished a woman must be strong and fearless. That is the message of this special. The message itself is not a poor one, empowering viewers is fine, but it is a very narrow range. More and more strength is the new standard that women are held to, but that strips them of being a full person.To be a woman, or an equal for that matter, is to be a complete person. Happy, angry, sad, mean, kind, etc. this is something that the likes of Jacqueline Rose and Naomi Wolf all agree on.

So what has Stephen Moffat done in presenting the opposite? He has excused his show from major equality debate by giving his viewers a perfectly strong character, only it’s lazy writing hiding as progressive. It seems fitting then that the first time we see Mary in the special, it is as a mirror image of the actual Bride:

She is the true Abominable Bride, the Abominable Straw Feminist, a whole new breed, used to feign equality.

Side Note: I’ve just realised my title looks like a Doctor Who Christmas special.

”Only A Great Mind That is Overthrown Yields Tragedy”: The Tragic Case of Rick Sanchez of Earth C-137

Spoilers, So Many, Many Spoilers…

The quotation in the title of this essay is from historian Jacques Barzun, denoting that there is nothing sadder then a great man being overcome by his circumstance, becoming a husk of his former genius.

Happy endings are a given. They have propelled most of the popular narratives of the last 30 years. The standard happy ending usually involves love, romance, reconciliation, even teamwork. Each protagonist learns a lesson thus ensuring a victory of some kind for them. Disney has made a profit off this formula for years, most people in the business of stories do. It doesn’t make them bad stories, it just makes them ones you’ve heard before. Occasionally the happy endings that audiences have come to crave receive a different treatment. This treatment is one that plays a little fast and loose with the established tropes. Instead of a massive, over the top victory, filled with friends and lovers, the audience is presented with a solemn lonely affair. Sometimes the hero simply lives to fight another day. There is a certain tragedy in this that is completely at odds with the happy ending we’ve come to expect. Maybe it just goes against everything you’re taught to believe. The hero has taken all the abuse the narrative has to offer, he has borne the brunt of suffering, failure and loss. Trial and tribulation are, by the end of the story, like two loyal dogs wagging their tails behind him. When he finally lifts the weight above his Atlas like shoulders and hurls it into to the void, what’s waiting to greet him? A pair of mutts by a different name. This could only seem unfair to a modern audience, though it shouldn’t be. Older civilizations had a much better understanding of the catharsis that tragedy drags in it’s wake. You can’t help but feel relief in watching tragedy unfold. It will hurt but it is worth the experience. It has been phrased better by greater men:

”A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions”ii

The persistent tragedy mentioned above, the perfected art of picking oneself up and dusting oneself off is never better exhibited than by Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty. Admittedly it is an unlikely rock to turn over and find the kind of tragedy that Aristotle lauds under, but it is there. The show, which hails from Adult Swim and the minds of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, is a perfect blend of animation, comedy and everything that made science fiction great ( fantastic voyages and cheesy aliens included.) The aforementioned Rick and Morty are Grandfather and Grandson respectively. Rick is a Super-genius, the bastard love child of a twisted three way starring Doc Emmett Brown, Lex Luthor and Hunter S. Thompson (emphasis on the bastard) and the furthest thing from a wise old mentor you could imagine. Morty on the other hand is the very antithesis of the young sidekick. Utterly hopeless in any situation, devoid of any shadow of self-esteem, and nervous enough to keep Xanax in business till the apocalypse. You’d be correct in assuming that any cartoon that can turn such established Archetypes into something as malleable as warm play doh can probably do some fantastic things with conventional storytelling techniques. Each episode of the first season proves this:

The Pilot: A classic dimension hopping skit, involving Rick using his grandson as an intergalactic drug mule.

Lawnmower Dog: A parody of the 1980’s film The Lawnmower Man and the idea of a robot uprising, which takes a surprising turn when dogs are it’s driving force.

Anatomy Park: Fantastic Voyage meets Jurassic Park all inside the body of a homeless man, with guest appearances by Ebola.

M. Night Shaym-Aliens: The Truman Show crashes into Independence Day, all showcasing just how sad Jerry’s (Morty’s Dad) life is.

Meseeks and Destroys: One of the first truly original plots the show creates based around the ” Genie in the bottle” involving lots of blue creatures for whom existence is pain.

Rick Potion #9: Classic Love Potion romp for Morty which turns disastrous after everyone becomes obsessed with him, eventually leading to a mutated planet that the pair have to escape by leaving the dimension (no really)

Rixty Seconds: Endless alternate reality star gazing, with a ton of ”grass is always greener” morality that is slowly inverted to show how mundane life can be.

Something Ricked This Way Comes: A Ray Bradbury homage/ farce that actually inspects and dissects notions of karmic justice, because sometimes all that is required is a roided out beatdown.

Close Rick-Counters of the Rick Kind: The magnum opus of this particular season. A grand affair involving all the Ricks and Morty’s of the various dimensions and timelines. Eventually proving why the ones we watch each week are the best.

Ricksy Business: As the title would suggest a party takes place and Ricks true tragic nature is hinted at, the season ends in a very meta moment of trolling the audience with an almost tender moment.

These brief (and flawed) summaries serve to show how often Rick and Morty comes close to lowering itself to the easy simple feel good moments that plague modern sitcoms, then rises triumphantly to strangle them. Reconciliation, easy fixes, dime a dozen bonding moments are thrown into a abandoned by the shows writers.

What takes their place are tropes that shown nothing but disdain for hallmark moments. They create a show rages against them in it’s refusal to show anything but the strongest and truest of human emotions. These, as Aristotle points out, are the ones often viewed as sad and tragic. The loss of censorship and control they invoke is what grants them sincerity. The show will only concede its irreverent and joking tone when these tragic emotions are present. Seeking to ensure that such emotions materialise, it forgoes the average character development and growth through teachable moments, in favour a far more harrowing premise. It forces Rick and Morty to grapple with a meaningless universe on an episode to episode basis (established through various quantum lives and parallel dimensions.)

Nobody understood the trials of a meaningless universe quite like Albert Camus. . Camus recognised this meaninglessness as absurd (in other words impossible to comprehend and so unbelievably daunting to a normal man). Those who see it and attempt to continue existing within it (as opposed to simply giving up) are Absurd Men:

”The Absurd Man thus catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given. He can decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope ( a masochistic practice in a meaningless universe), and the unyielding evidence of life without consolation”.iii

Each universe the pair find themselves in is limited but have different things ”given” leaving an infinite number of possibilities if only you can access the different universes. This is something Rick’s portal gun allows. Therefore the actions of the pair are limitless and so meaningless. This absurd Rick and Morty universe, affects both protagonists in very different ways. Morty is constantly shocked by the encounters he has with alternate realities and space travel. His shock in the earliest episode gives way to a strange kind of acceptance in later ones.

Where this becomes particularly apparent in the episode ”Rick Potion 9”. As mentioned Rick and Morty must flee their home dimension, having mutated every living human on the planet. Where do they go a dimension that their counterparts recently died in. The episode ends with the pair burying their own corpses. The pair must then assimilate into a world that is not their own and Morty must live with the knowledge that the family of this dimension is not truly his. This does not seem to bother Rick at all. This is something that Morty comes to accept in a horrific way as in the following episode”Rixty Seconds” he convinces his sister not to run away by revealing his secret to her:

”Don’t run, nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody dies. Now come watch TV.”

This is a harrowing truth, difficult to accept by even the most Zen of folk, but Morty’s understanding is tempered by the tragedy that he has endured. In many ways it echoes Camus’ statement on surviving in an absurd world:

”What counts is not the best living but not the most living.”iv

All that really matters is survival, even if that means usurping your alternate selfs life.

Ricks far more callous nature within the show is better explained using this same logic. He never loses sight of the big picture, his knowledge of the multi-verse makes him believe the majority of life is meaningless, therefore he can simply interchange the common elements of his existence with any of the others and never feel a thing. At least most Ricks can, this is shown time and time again with alternate Ricks who treat their Morty’s as little more than necessary space filler and whose families have been abandoned long ago but to paraphrase Camus, the absurd can never be accepted only endured through constant will. This is where the Rick of Earth C-137 (the Rick that we the audience follows week in, week out. Hereby referred to as Prime Rick) becomes the embodiment of tragedy.

In case you're wondering how I know which earth he's from.

In case you’re wondering how I know which earth he’s from.

For all it’s toying with emotion and playing with the staples of a sit-com, Rick and Morty never compromises on it’s depictions of Ricks deeper emotions, most of which are depression and desperation based. His misery was hinted by Birdperson at the end of Season 1, who explains that Rick’s recurring catchphrase ”Wuba- dub-dub” actually means ”I am in great pain, help me” in his language. This is the reason for his excessive drinking and self-medication which would put Hemingway to shame. The show quickly plays this off with the meta finale leaving the viewer to ponder (or forget as the case may be) whether Rick is truly depressed. Why would he be? Simple, Rick is utterly exhausted. Morty’s acceptance of the absurd is mostly down to the naiveté of his youth. He has only been aware of the multi-verse’s existence for a short time. As such he has only endured a small amount of tragedy. Rick on the other hand is a Grandfather, he has been dimension hopping for decades. Who knows how many Beths, Jerrys, Summers and Mortys he’s buried. These constant deaths will have eroded his will against the absurd. Camus’ original question was that should this occur is suicide the only answer to an absurd universe.

This is a question that Season 2 answers with a resounding yes. The Rick the audience follows is marked as an anomaly in Close encounters of the Rick Kind when he is seen to cry when viewing memories of Morty, something that disgusts one of his more evil versions.

and Rick found his heart grew ten sizes that day...

and Rick found his heart grew ten sizes that day…

The notion of Rick caring about Morty is often hinted at in the series but truly comes to the fore in the first episode of season 2 ”A Rickle in Time”. Through a minor mishap Summer and Morty manage to split time over and over and Rick must attempt to fix it. His rescue is hijacked by an immortal trans-dimensional being, whom Rick quantum beats the crap out of ( a feat of plotting and sequence so daring it could only be pulled off by this show). However things fall apart just as he is about to realign the various splintered timelines, as Prime Rick cannot sacrifice his Morty. He can’t do it because he cares.

I'm okay with this...

I accept this…

Again he eventually represses this when confronted but it shows that Rick is nowhere near as numb as he appears.

This feigned numbness is finally obliterated in the episode Auto Erotic Assimilation. This is a darker episode than any that have come before and it grants us a truly tragic insight into just what Rick goes through and how much he depends on his hedonism. The episode is very simple, Rick rekindles a romance with a world conquering hive mind named Unity. By the end of the episode we come to understand just how charismatic Rick can be to those around him, not to mention the destruction his charisma carries with it. Eventually Unity leaves explaining how painful it is to be with him. Naturally her speech ends with a joke as is characteristic of the show. Then comes a silent minute and half that changes the tone of Ricks character completely. It would be pointless to do anything but show it:

SPOILERS

This is true tragedy. A man so at his wit’s end from repression and the numbing of a million failures, only to fail yet again by falling unconscious on his work bench. Rick does nothing but suffer, he leaps from dimension to dimension running away from his problems, engaging in Camus’ ”fatal act of elusion”, drinking, smoking and snorting everything in the process. Each time he meets new people he causes them nothing but misery.

Understanding Ricks motivation, that is to say his tragedy (one which makes Rick and Morty not only one of the most complex cartoons ever created but one of the best shows on television.) portrays Rick as a man burdened by his own infinite experience this alters Morty’s function to a comic foil. Rick Sanchez has saved countless multi-verses but damned others. He constantly attempts to convince others to leave them well enough alone (He constantly tells Morty that he has to be in charge, not because he likes it but because he must bear the responsibility) like a hardened Prometheus who has stolen fire from the Gods only to burn himself beyond recognition in the process.

As long as Prime Rick exists Rick and Morty may be a show that can never find it’s happy ending. He is in every sense ”a great mind overthrown” by an absurd existence that has finally claimed his will, a tragedy as thought provoking as any of the best

i

iiAristotle, The Poetics

iiiCamus, Albert. ”The Myth of Sisyphus”: The Absurd Reasoning.

ivCamus, Albert. ”The Myth of Sisyphus”: The Absurd Reasoning.

Comics, A World Without Limits: the struggle of the average man in a Nietzschean utopia.

Here there be Spoilers, so many, many spoilers.

As the title of this essay would suggest I am fascinated by the philosophy that backs certain superheroes. Many heroes come to exemplify the Ubermenschi ‘of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathursta.ii A seemingly obvious example would be Superman ( He even shares the same name) but this would actually be a misunderstanding of what Nietzsche had in mind. The Ubermensch is called for in direct retaliation to the rise of organised religion globally. As Nietzsche saw it, religion was the means by which those who were weak could rise above their stronger counterparts and enslave them with ideology dedicated to a higher power. The concept is helpfully illustrated by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey in their series Action Philosophersiii (An irreverent summation of philosophical thought from the very beginning in comic form):

Please don't sue me

Please don’t sue me

It is enslavement through equality, generally reinforced by mantras like”all men are created equal”, as seen in the American Constitution. This is something Nietzsche refused to believe, again best summed up by the creators of Action Philosophers

”Equality is a human created concept, bogus and ultimately corrupting”

If equality is in fact a corrupting influence on society i.e. it allows those who are unworthy to rise to power and stay there, then superheroes or indeed any super powered individual may be seen as a beacon of hope in Nietzsche philosophy. They are inherently better than their fellow man and so above the pitfalls of equality. Religion is struck a blow by their very existence. This is focused on in DC’s Kingdom Comeiv:

Again not being sued would be nice

Again not being sued would be nice

We can see from Normans McKay’s (the narrator) words that the average man is left baffled by the powerhouses and superhumans around them. The strong have survived in the purest Darwinian sense. Using the above definiton it would be easy to twist the Ubermensch concept as a justification for fascism. This has been done before as much of Nietzsche’s workr was misappropriated as a basis for Hitler’s Aryan race.v What those taking this view fail to acknowledge is that Nietzsche sees the potential to be an Ubermensch in every human being, there are no chosen, only those strong enough with ”the will to power”; Human drive and ambition giving strength and power. In order to control their desire man must gain mastery of itself. This is an individuals duty in the face of existential uncertainty:

”I teach you the Uberman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … The time has come for man to set himself a goal. The time has come to plant the seed to his highest hope.”vi

Those that strive towards their potential become the Ubermensch through mastery of their desires, they can stare into the face of existence without having to worry about a higher power to guard them. The superhero is a paragon of this less fascist interpretation.

The world of Comics is filled with heroes that have no power and yet through strength of will and determination manage to become some of the strongest men of their respective universes. Bruce Wayne/ Batman and Tony Stark/ Iron Man are two near perfect examples of this. Bruce Wayne may be Nietzsche’s ideal Ubermensch. He is a man who through constant learning, practice and focus conquers even the mightiest of foes. No matter how many times he comes up against a Goliath, his planning and near impossible preparation allow him to prevail. He generally relies on nothing but his own mind and body. He is the Ubermensch personified. These non powered individuals are often greater examples of Nietzsche’s concept as they have no advantages to begin with, they are self made men and women. So far it would seem that superheroes embody a rather positive Nietzschean ideal.

Whilst it is wonderful to think of a world filled with those capable of seizing potential thus mastering themselves, transcending base morality and other such shackles in the process, even Nietzsche realised that not everyone can become the Ubermensch. It is the difficulty in achieving absolute certainty that makes the Ubermensch a worthy pursuit. The task is not for everyone, as noted by it’s philosopher:

”He who cannot command himself should obey. And many can command themselves, but much is still lacking before they can obey themselves.”vii

Which is a fancy way of saying if you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen. But what happens to those that ‘cannot command‘ themselves? Those would be the average man and woman. So what is left for the average in a world without limits? Lets assume for a moment that you are an average man.viii

How does your day go by? Lets take a quick run through:

You wake up.

You eat breakfast.

You commute to work.

You have lunch with Tom and Frank from the office.

You take menial crap from your boss.

You clock out.

You make a deposit at the bank.

You greet your significant other.

You go to bed and look forward to Friday.

Average, boring but secure, right? The description above is tedious to the point of painful, not to mention a remarkably biased definition of an average working day. It fails to factor in the weekend or the true diversity of the global workforce. It does however provide a reasonably accurate schedule of the modern western workday.

Now I’d like you to add superheroes to the equation. That word, Superheroes, in this context is an umbrella term for significantly large and diverse number of unpredictable factions; Meta-humans, mutants, super-genii, sorcerers, genetically enhanced soldiers and insane nemesis. Within this microcosm there is as much evil as good. This is merely the terrestrial list. There is another host of Aliens, demigods and celestial influences.

With these new variables in mind I’d like you to run through your “average day” again:

You wake up. Only this you have to check the news to make sure it’s safe to travel to work.

You eat breakfast, wondering if some powerhouse will come crashing through your office block.

You commute to work. Or you would have if a section of the rail line hadn’t been damaged in another superhuman skirmish.

You have lunch with Tom and Frank from the office. Except all you can talk about is whether or not the particular company you work for is ethically sound (Waynetech/Stark Industries) or the exact opposite (Lexcorp/ Oscorp)

You take menial crap from your boss, actually its not menial as he is trying to make sense of an economy that is in a constant state of flux, caused largely by the constant industrial espionage and villainous plots that make stability a pipe dream, as well as a city that is constantly being rebuilt.

You clock out, thinking how lucky you are that some powerhouse didn’t come crashing through your office block.

You make a deposit at the bank, unfortunately it gets held up by a team of super powered goons.

You greet your significant other, who is distraught as one of her relatives has died in some superhero event as collateral damage in some neighbouring city.

You go to bed and look forward to Friday (if you make it that far).

When superheroes are added to the equation your regular life becomes the stuff of nightmare. Your existence would be filled with constant, fear and dread. The standard psychological definition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is:

”Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.”ix

This is significant within comics, it means that a large amount of people living within urban area’s (the most common battleground for superheroes) would suffer from PTSD and therefore cease to function successfully as productive human beings in their respective societies.

It is easy to dismiss the above theory as unrealistic and facetious simply due to the fact that comic books and their related media call for a suspension of disbelief. They are modern myths created more for our entertainment than anything else. This being said the functions of myth and story are to teach lessons and raise questions. It is no different with modern ones. Superheroes and comics can be used as case studies and testing grounds for certain theories and thought experiments. In other words they suit analysis and comparison very well. There are a multitude of psychological complexes that come with being identified as a God of sorts. Certain comics have investigated with the ramifications of unchecked hero culture.

Garth Ennis’ The Boysx takes a facetious look at what a world teeming with superheroes would be like. It’s a world filled with PR teams, sinister corporations, superhero orgies and an utter disregard by those with power for those without it. The Boys themselves are a CIA sanctioned team that is brought in when the narcissistic, psychotic heroes outlined above step out of line. Much of the comic is humorous. What is serious are the violence and propaganda of the world that Ennis has created. The celebrity heroes are worshiped like new gods, allowed to do whatever to whomever they please, unless the corporation that controls them, Vought-American, steps in. The main protagonist Wee Hughie is brought into the Boys when his girlfriend Robin is crushed by a flung super villain.

The date could have gone better...

The date could have gone better…

There is structure to this world but it is corrupt, the government is constantly infiltrated by the valiant corporation and made to the run the U.S. as a kind of corporate paradise. All the while the average human is utterly clueless.

As I said the world of The Boys has levity and ultra-violence but is very much a parody with a point. For a more in depth look at such scenarios aforementioned comic by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, Kingdom Come, would be better. The comic itself is set in the the DC Universe, albeit an alternate one. A cataclysm has taken place and Superman has left society in self-imposed exile after the death of Lois Lane at the hands of the Joker and his own failure to execute him. In his absence the hero culture of his world has rapidly out of control with a younger generation, one without role models and therefore guidance, coming to the fore. Batman has turned Gotham into a police state, using swift and brutal automatons to dispense justice. The strange thing is that Gotham is a haven compared to the rest of America. Batman’s sudden adoption of totalitarian tactics falls further in line with Nietzschean thinking. He has forgone morality in favour of the greater good. The Flash of this comic undergoes a similar transcendence, forgoing any kind of relaxation or time off in favour of constantly patrolling his city for his lifespan as a living blur. Again the greater good comes first. Superman’s failure to transcend morality i.e. not killing the joker, could be viewed as the source of his problems.

The skirmishes that plague the cities are a near daily occurrence. There is even a Superhero prison in operation. These new heroes still pick sides of good and evil but do so with utter disregard for anyone without powers. The smiles on their faces in the midst of the screaming civilians is evidence of this:

3 lawsuits in

3 lawsuits in

Eventually superman returns to bring order but is opposed by Batman, in a pre- Civil Warxi of sorts.

There are many examples of heroes gone wrong narratives emerging in recent years, Incorruptible, Daredevil: Shadowland, Invincible, Ultimatum, Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis. You get the picture I’m sure. Each one leaves a trail of destruction in it’s wake. Cities are torn apart and body counts rise to staggering numbers. This is run of the mill for comics themselves but their cinematic counterparts take it to a whole new level.

2013’s Man of Steel is one such example in which General Zod and Superman’s final battle erases most of Metropolis from the map. This was a point made very clear by fan boys and redditors, but it is a fair point none the less. The devastation left in the pairs wake really does topple the majority of the city.

man-of-still-best-superman-ever-04

Of course they would just rebuild surely? That’s the problem there’s nothing left to rebuild, by the time the rescue effort was completed at considerable cost there would be nothing left to build upon. The city would literally have to start again, which is completely impossible.

This scenario, in which the Ubermensch actions cost the average man everything is one we see repeatedly, most recently in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. The Hulk (perhaps the greatest example of the average man mastering his potential) is provoked in South Africa and naturally begins to decimate Johannesburg. The police and armed forces of Johannesburg attempt to tackle the issue, but as they are only average men they fail. Another Ubermensch in the form of Tony Stark and his Hulkbuster suit must go head to head with the Hulk.

What ensues is a battle of epic proportions but one that leaves much of the city in ruin.

This incident in Avengers 2 is not the only example of the Ubermencsh causing havoc. It could be argued that the entire plot of the film is a chess match between mastered men. The film opens with the Avengers at their absolute peak, they move through a crowd of Hydra enemies with ease eliminating all in the path. The average man is useless in the fast of their advance, until Wanda and Pietro Maximoff enter the fray. They are called ‘ enhanced’ by Captain America, a direct reference to their status as better men.xii Interestingly the Hulk can be seen as a far more disciplined beast in this opening sequence following requests and taking orders, which could be looked on as a further mastery of self, his desires are no longer his base motivation, he has transcended them. Nietzsche would approve.

Ultimately the Avengers are shown to be the ultimate form of humanity, acting as a vanguard for them. There is a flaw in their Ubermensch status however, they are heroes. This means that for the most part they are governed by morality. As previously stated much existentialist philosophy has no place in it for morality, especially Nietzsche’s:

”Morality is neither rational nor absolute nor natural. World has known many moral systems, each of which advances claims universality; all moral systems are therefore particular, serving a specific purpose for their propagators or creators, and enforcing a certain regime that disciplines human beings for social life by narrowing our perspectives and limiting our horizons.”xiii

This is Nietzche’s view, and so the Avengers are merely a propagators of Americas morality. They are limited by their aversion to change. Enter Ultron stage left.

In many ways Ultron is the ultimate version of Nietzche’s Ubermensch, despite the fact that he is not even human. He is disciplined, calculated and operates with an apocalyptic goal in mind. Most importantly however he is not bound in any way by morality, he says as much in his line ”There are no strings on me”. This ”on paper” description of the character is a perfect Ubermensch. However as it is a blockbuster film, a villain is necessary and so Ultron’s evil vindictive characterisation betrays his very own ‘enforcing of a certain regime’. He is too human and aligns himself to ignoring morality in favour of cruelty.

Naturally the clash of ”enforced regimes” between Ubermensch leaves the average man in the crossfire. This is clear at the climax of the film. The entire country of Sakovia becomes acceptable collateral damage as both regimes tackle one another. The city itself vaporised and another horde of refugees is created. There can be no reconstruction of a vaporised city. Again the economic consequences are staggering.

Marvel is one of the few comic companies to deal with this. Their recent Netflix series Daredevil sees Wilson Fisk lead a cabal of criminals that have taken advantage of the events that occurred in The Avengers. Many of them greet the news of Daredevil with apprehension seeing him as a potential problem. One of their number however, Leland Owlsley, welcomes his arrival stating something along the lines of ”every time one of their kind comes along, our profit margins go up”. There are those who literally profit off the misery caused by the Ubermensch.

The world of comics are filled with heroes that embody many concepts and beliefs. The American Way, Truth and Justice, Defense of the Weak; each is valid in it’s own way. There is a flip side though and some come to embody unintentionally darker concepts; The Ubermensch, Might Makes Right, Only the Strong Survive. Those who cannot strive to meet this new benchmark set by incredible people with incredible powers are left in the dust to pick up the pieces. What is truly tragic is, in Nietzsche own words:

”You are treading the path to your greatness: no one shall follow you here! Your passage has effaced the path behind you, and above that path stands written: Impossibility. ”xiv

Meaning that in a world without limits, only those who can master themselves may prosper, whilst everyone else is left behind lost.

Comics are definitely a Nietzschean utopia, one that is built on the fact that every man and woman seize their potential, crafting themselves into something stronger. Whether that be building a suit of armour, escaping a dying planet, wielding a magic hammer or simply fighting crime with training and dedication, each person holds the key to their fate. The problem facing the average man is that this task is long, dangerous and incredibly difficult. It requires a commitment and dedication that takes it’s too. This is something that not everyone will undertake as a result. Those who choose the latter receive a world that has moved beyond them as punishment, one that means they can only every follow in the wake of the Ubermensch.

iiNietzche, Fredrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale. Penguin Publishing; London (2007)

ivWaid, Mark & Ross, Alex. Kingdom Come. DC Comics; New York (1997)

viNietzsche, Friedrich Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, §3,

viiNietzsche, Friedrich Thus Spoke Zarathustra,

viiiI feel it is important to point out that the reason I keep saying men is more a pejorative term as in Mankind or in direct reference to the Mensch in Ubermensch. It is in no way meant to detract from the women within the text

xEnnis, Garth & Robertson, Darrick. The Boys. Titan Books; Italy (2007)

xii I feel it is important to point out that the reason I keep saying man or men is more a pejorative term as in Mankind or in direct reference to the Mensch in Ubermensch. It is in no way meant to detract from the women within the text or in comics.

xiiiNietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Marion Faber. Oxford University Press; London (2008)

xivThus Spake Zarathursta, The Wanderer.

The Country for Old Men: The Rise of the Ageing Action Hero in Film

Cast your mind back to the 80’s and imagine the top billed names on any action film: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Van Damme, Segal. Each one a bodybuilder’s aspiration, a few of them even credited with being an origin point for the Adonis Complexi. The threats they faced were often an embodiment of Americas enemies abroad Russians, Missile Crises and even the occasional hunter from outer space with shimmering camouflage

The relation between these men, though different in nationality was that they were all in the prime of their lives. Each man was young strong and healthy, a perfect reflection of the Young Macho driven culture they were created for. This culture continued to expand through the decades, finding brand new angst during the nineties, and gaining the mass internet usage by the turn of the century. This meant that youth driven culture splintered into countless sub cultures, with this came the rise of the millennial. These new millennium children were raised with starkly contrasting values to their predecessors, especially with regards to masculinity.

The eighties action film portrayed a very particular type of man; strong (Conan), aggressive ( Predator), tenacious (Rocky). No matter how many of these traits were embodied he always had a clear code of honour (Rambo, Indiana Jones). All of these traits granted their characters strength and capability for whatever Herculean task lay ahead. However this type of masculinity was also laden with restrictions. No Action-man can cry, show fear, pain or be seen to care too deeply. He must always shoulder responsibility and never fail to step up to the mark. This obviously created a very one dimensional male. It also helped to perpetuate the culture of “might makes right”. This societal acceptance or need for strength is the crux of every John Hughes film ever made. Those who fail to exhibit 80’s machismo are exiled to the fringes of society.

Some Examples of 80's Physical Masculinity (Impressive no?)

Some Examples of 80’s Physical Masculinity (Impressive no?)

The 2000’s changed this. Sub cultures began to exhibit different criteria for masculinity. Sensitivity, intelligence, culture each became the vogue of new men. There are even certain films that rally against the usurpation of the male role, 2004’s Closerii being but one. These films often portray the new man as insidious and sly.

The most significant change to youth culture in the 2000’s is the relief from the pressure of employment and more so responsibility. Both pre and post war America preached economic stability. When you left school you should begin a job or trade ( generally a career for life.) so as to contribute to society and stand on ones own two feetiii. This was furthered by the outrageous and unfeasible cost of third level education. Then came the reign of the supportive parent, a parent who allowed their children to pursue a career in the arts or follow their passion. This aided by a vastly overestimated, soon to collapse, economy meant that you had an environment for a middle class devoid of hardship. This supportive parent archetype, abetted by the invention of the internet parenting forum, has a flip side similar to the action man. It results in what many refer to as “political correctness gone mad.”, a world where no one can offend anyone, a world no longer suitable for the action-man. Such rigorous censorship has led to a cotton wool generationiv one which faces little or no difficulty, others a little more right wing would claim that a society of victims is being raisedv.

These kinds of shifts in the social landscape are often addressed in literature and art. One of the most prominent works to do so is Cormac MacCarthy’s No Country For Old Menvi. The novel is a bleak portrayal of the shift in American society caused by the degeneration of drugs, serial killers and greed many perceived the eighties brought with it. The novels title comes from an aged sherries realisation that in the face of this new evil (embodied by the nihilistic pragmatist Anton Chigurh) there is very little use in his brand of decent law abiding justice. He is forced to confront that America really is no country for old men.

If the modern age of America truly is no country for old masculinity then a somewhat paradoxical question emerges. Why are many action films of the last ten years led by old men and what led to their reassertion? If you look at some many  of the action films (some of which were very successful) during that timeframe a pattern reveals itself:

Gran Torino(2008)

Taken 1,2,3 (2008-2014)

Harry Brown (2009)

The Expendables 1,2,3 (2010-2014)

Last Stand (2013)

November man (2014)

John Wick (2014)

The Equalizer (2014)

3 Days to Kill (2014)

Run All Night (2015)

The Gunman (2015)

This is only a few of the action films starring older men. None of the stars in these films are below the age of 50 and many feature men who are retired or “out of the game”. Each man is usually an retroactive form of an eighties action man. There are many reasons that these kind of ageing action hero ventures are continually being made. Many of the films feature the former action-men of the eighties and so invoke a kind of nostalgia for those who grew up in that time. The Expendables is the finest example of this, even utilising it in their marketing, phrases like “They’re back” or posters dominated, not by images of the actors but rather a long list of their names in bold capitals.

An Exampe of Expendables Marketing

An Exampe of Expendables Marketing

Whilst this is a good explanation for the Expendables it doesn’t really explain others films that could be credited with starting this trend. The likes of Taken and the Gunman, starring Liam Neeson and Sean Penn respectively, feature actors who are not associated with the action genre. So why then does the trend persist?

As mentioned earlier there is more laissez-faire approach taken to careers and employment in recent times. This new approach has led to an inevitable easing of responsibility especially on the side of men in western civilisation. This kind of easing combined with the cotton wool society has led to an increase in “the man child” or the Peter Pan effectvii Men no longer need to grow up and face their obstacles because there is nothing to triumph over. No failure means no experience, and society has always valued experience. Without experience there is no way these new men could be ready for a true crisis. The hard work of the 20’s and 30’s meant that the notion of conscription to military service could bear some fruit it is doubtful that the same could be said today. It is true that war has always been a working class occupation but even now the rise of drugs and poverty mean that pool is dangerously drained.

It could and probably will be argued that the above is an exceptionally conservative view of the current middle and working class but it is simply a statement of fact about the culture in which we are living. There is very little in the way of real life experience for the middle classes.

It is possible that on some subconscious level this has been recognised by screenwriters, the success of their films indicating that audiences have too. The rise of old men in action films then is born of an atavistic need rather than an aesthetic choice. If certain films are examined on a case by case basis then more evidence to support the above theory appears.

Taken– An ex CIA operative must find and retrieve his daughter, a task modern policing is helpless to achieve. His famous speech even references ” a very specific set of skills honed over “many years” He literally uses his experience as a threat.

The Expendables– A group of ageing mercenaries take on jobs deemed impossible or suicidal, yet always manage to succeed. In the second instalment the youngest member of their crew, played by Liam Hemsworth, actually dies at the hands of Jean Claude Van Damme. It stands as an example of younger generations being unable to cope with true threats.

Gran Torino– An old man is the only person capable of dealing true justice through his disregard for the rules of a cotton wool society strangled by red tape.

Harry Brown– Similar to the above but set in England. An old man watches as out of control youth terrorise his area, one in which the police are powerless to take action. Realising this he decides that he must use his military training to do just that.

John Wicke– An ex hitman is forced out of retirement in the face of a new generation of young criminals who operate with no rules and no respect. Through his discipline and training he is able to dispatch each new threat with relative ease.

Run all night– Liam neesons son has crossed an old gangster played by Ed Harrison. Unable to cope with the threat himself he must turn to his father. Neeson will not allow him to fire a gun, stating that “once you pull the trigger you can never go back”. The quote showcases experience once again but also that younger generations cannot hand the pressures the elder ones had to.

This brief outlining technique could be applied to a plethora of films with similar outcomes.

Much like the problem facing the sheriff in MacCarthy’s novel, the new menace comes in the form of old rules being broken. The eighties brought a new form of graphic violence to America, rampant gang activity swept throughout the cities of the US. The issue was one of control. It is no different in more modern times as noted in John Wicke a new breed of laissez- faire criminal, one who is ruthless and allowed to act as they choose, has come to the fore. The moral degeneration that forced old men to retreat then continued unchecked. No new blood has risen to challenge it (at least in films) the time has come for those old men to return and finish the task they originally shirked.

The Sovereign: A Villain of True Substance

Here there be Spoilers (serious ones)

You see the word pathos thrown around a lot when it comes to villains in popular culture. It is often used to distinguish an excellent three-dimensional villain from the more run of the mill James Bond, one-dimensional type.

That being said it can be difficult to understand what exactly the term Pathos means, as it is often applied with little on no forethought to any character who proves slightly less than one dimensional. It is actually a concept that Aristotle wrote on heavily in his work Rhetoric. Within this work he states that there are three modes of persuasion that one can use to sway an audience. One such mode is:

awakening emotion (pathos) in the audience so as to induce them to make the judgement desired.”i

In relation to villains this would mean that in order for the audience to sympathise with the antagonist (thus making a far more intriguing and complex creation), the writers would have to give him similar experiences and drives to those of the audience, thus making him easy to relate to and difficult to root against. The finest example of this in modern television is Walter White of Breaking Bad. Walter White is first shown to the audience as a struggling husband and father with two jobs, who is constantly trodden on by life. Naturally many of those watching will instantly connect with his day to day grind. The result of this mutual experience is that as the show progresses and Walter strays from the white to the grey areas of morality, eventually coming to reside in the black, the audience find themselves struggling to simply condemn him as a ”bad man”.

It is easy to see then why pathos is so appreciated by audiences when it surfaces in their villains Simply put it makes the story they are watching more engaging, they are forced to engage. It becomes apparent why the term Pathos is so often thrown around with regards to the greatest villains.

What is often overlooked however is that Aristotle stated that one mode of persuasion without the other two is pointless:

“It is not enough to know one or even two of these points; unless we know all three, we shall be unable to arouse anger in anyone. The same is true of the other emotions.” ii

The two modes which are often forgotten with regards to villainy are Ethos and Logos.

Ethos is defined as ”persuasion through convincing listeners of one’s “moral character.”iii . This means that through a display of good moral character that an audience member comes to trust the speaker because they assume someone of solid moral fortitude would not engage in deception or ideas that lacked morality. This explains why so many of the great betrayals come as such a shock to audiences. Many characters have earned trust through acts of valour and comradeship only to turn on the protagonist. An excellent innovation of this breach of ethos can be found in the 1980’s sci-fi film Total Recall. In it Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Quaid a man working on infiltrating Mars’ resistance movement whilst suffering from amnesia. The huge twist here is that he is actually a spy for the establishment whose mind was wiped to bypass telepathic screening. This is all the more crushing as throughout the film audiences have come to respect Quaid as a man of justice and equality, only to find he holds none of these values.

Logos on the other hand is understood by Aristotle as:

” Something more refined than the capacity to make private feelings public: it enables the human being to perform as no other animal can; it makes it possible for him to perceive and make clear to others through reasoned discourse the difference between what is advantageous and what is harmful, between what is just and what is unjust, and between what is good and what is evil ”iv

Another way to look at this is as a perfect harmony of the first two modes comibne to produce a third. When a man/woman is shown with clear moral clarity and familiar experience their ability to persuade is then added to furthermore by intelligence and education. It can often be seen that a villain will use his intelligence and sophistication to confuse a protagonist on his true purpose, convincing him that his cause may not be as just as he thinks. Recently such a villain was Silva, embodied by Javier Bardem, in Skyfall. When Bond is tied to the chair on his island Silva makes him reflect on his life as an agent of MI6, all with aim of revealing that he is little more than a pawn.

Once each of these modes of persuasion are defined as opposed to simply being dropped into character description it is easy to see that rather than adapt one the best villains often exploit one. Pathos is an excellent mode of persuasion but to be truly effective it must be combined with the other two. However this combination of the three, Aristotle’s very own triple threat, is very rarely seen in any one villain. Enter the Sovereign .

I have long been a fan of The Venture Bros. It first came to my attention when I was about seventeen and I quickly grew to love the way it ruined my childhood cartoon favourites. With parodies of everything from Johnny Quest to G.I. Joe. I loved the ridiculous characterisations and ludicrous B movie plots. As the show progressed I came to love it for entirely new reasons. It is one of the most intricately written cartoons I have ever watched and it’s love of continuity as well as it’s love for it’s own characters is something that sets it well above other ”adult” cartoons (Archer also falls into this category.) With the recent airing of it’s season 6 special All This and Gargantua-2 fans got to see something truly amazing. The show often has throwaway jokes and plot lines that are not revisited until later seasons but finally they were given a near perfect culmination of all there favourite characters and in jokes. What resulted was a special that showcased the respect, passion and storytelling prowess that the creators and their team possessed for both their characters and their own childhoods. This included the conclusion to the saga of The Sovereign.

The Sovereign has been one of the most interesting villains that I have encountered in popular culture. He is a character shrouded in mystery who is eventually revealed as the head of Guild of Calamitous Intent and a puppet master extrordinaire. In the early episodes he only ever shown to be an elongated red head. He is later revealed to be none other than David Bowie.

Sovbow

This is where his character becomes truly interesting, later again it is found that he is not David Bowie but rather a shapeshifter who merely prefers that form. The series slowly drops breadcrumbs on the origin of The Sovereign, each one is murky and covered in hearsay. In season 5 some more concrete facts are brought to light. In episode 5 of this season, O.S.I. Love You, Brock Samson interrogates the super-villain lawyer Monstroso. Who having made a deal with the sinister and ethereal Investors (who will feature in this essay later), is nearing the end of his contract and so his life. Due to his impending demise he begins to tell Samson everything he knows of the Guild, including the Sovereign:

” Monstroso: The man now known as the Sovereign was once a petty criminal, a talented but down on his luck shapeshifter.”

Prior to this Samson tells Monstroso that ‘you and I both know the Sovereign isn’t Bowie’. This episode begins to reveal the Pathos in the Sovereigns backstory the fact that he was nothing more than petty criminal and a ”down on his luck shapeshifter” makes him an automatic underdog for the audience to root for. This sympathetic angle is played for even stronger effect in All This and Gargantua-2, when the Sovereign kidnaps Dr. Mrs. The Monarch. He initially takes the form of Dr. Jonas Venture in another attempt to confuse and confound people. This does little more than aggravate his captive, who confronts him:

”You’re not Jonas or Bowie, you’re a shapeshifting nobody whose in over his head.”

She is referencing a fact that the Sovereign himself made a deal with the Investors and that he owes a due too. His only response to this is ‘that’s about it’. Again in a similar fashion to the Walter White example given previously the viewer automatically understands the notion of being in over ones head. Our greatest glimpse of the Sovereign’s vulnerability comes when he is escaping his own self-destruct sequence and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch asks him who he really is. His response is actually quite heartbreaking and ensures even the most stone-hearted viewers sympathy for him, his smug mask slips just for a moment as he says:

Venture Bros Bowie Bloke

The Ethos elements of the Sovereigns psyche are even more interesting. He is clearly a fan of cloak and dagger tactics, who values anonymity above all else. The pathos evidence is enough to suggest that there are quite a few issues regarding identity and fractured personality, bubbling below the Sovereigns surface each one would suggest that he is a highly complex individual. I would argue that his flexible sense of morality or rather ever shifting sense of morality makes him an even more compelling villain. It is often difficult to discern where the Sovereign’s true allegiance lies. The hierarchy of The Guild of Calamitous Intent is also difficult to navigate. The Sovereign is clearly the kingpin of the entire system, except that later we find that he is a pawn of the Investors. The Investors reveal themselves to be something other than human, deities of some sort perhaps. This only really becomes clear in All This and Gargantua-2 where they refer to everyone else as ”mortal”. They roam the world of The Venture Bro’s, outside the laws of physics, granting Faustian pacts to anyone who would like to strike a deal. Though originally thought to be a trio, the aforementioned special, reveals that Dr. Henry Killinger is a brother of theirs. Upon meeting the three again he states ”You have forgotten your place, we were never meant to rule over these mortals”. In a somewhat comical manner the four then begin to duel with lightsabers (and an umbrella) as shown below:

vlcsnap-2015-02-28-00h07m20s4

The extravagant battle that follows turns out to be a telepathic battle. While the scene is obviously meant to be funny it also acts as a parallel to Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. Killinger has been granting Faustian pacts without the price of a soul, stating simply ”I love mein job”. He is shown to steal fire from the Gods, without the proper sacrifice. The Investors however claim souls as payment and therefore are the personification of true evil in the universe of The Venture Bros , becoming aligned with the likes of the Devil.

So what does this have to do with The Sovereign? Well he sold his soul to the Investors in return for his position as the head of the guild. In the special he has initiated a plan to eliminate the Investors whilst they are aboard the Gargantua-2. In doing so he will kill hundreds of innocent people, this goes against everything we know about the Sovereign from previous episodes. We understand that much of his double crossing as well as his complete change in personality (he becomes far more aggressive in the special, this is in sharp contrast to his usual level headed approach to situations) is because of the impending loss of his soul, but is this his sole reason for such morally reprehensible behaviour?

We see that the Sovereign is capable of heroic acts as well as exceptionally loyal actions. His more admirable traits are showcased in Season 2 episodes 12-13 Showdown at Cremation Creek. In these episodes the Sovereign is revealed to be David Bowie ( or rather faux-Bowie) who is at the Monarchs wedding to walk Dr. Girlfriend down the aisle. A double cross takes place involving Phantom Limb and eventually faux-Bowie actually saves the day transforming into an eagle and leaving. He is frequently shown to enforce the code of honour of the Guild of Calamitous Intent with precision and passion. Why then does he suddenly abandon his own code? Is it purely to save his soul or does he recognise that the evil of the Investors must be stopped no matter the cost?

Again I refer to his conversation with Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, which highlights his own dilemma. He seems to switch between suffering saviour and maniacally self obsessed villain:

”The Sovereign: So I guess I’ll just move on with my clichés… Self-destruct button. Soon all this goes boom, you, the O.S.I., Who’ll be here any second. That about cover all the villain clichés?”

This small amount of dialogue reveals how self-aware the Sovereign actually is, none of this is megalomania but rather the practical plan of a rational man. He understands what is expected of him and how it will be viewed but he will execute it anyway. When Dr. Mrs. The Monarch asks that he not blow up Gargantua-2 to spare her husband, he replies:

” Touching but no…too late for that. The Investors have to go, so Gargantua-2 has to go.”

His line ”too late for that” shows the finality of his thinking, this plan must go ahead. He resumes his callous villain facade as he leaves Dr. Mrs. The Monarch to die. These actions whilst played like a stereotypical villain clash with his previous moral code and leave the viewer wondering what exactly is driving the Sovereign, further embroiling them in his character.

As I stated earlier Logos is often found when Pathos and Ethos are already present. The Sovereign is no different. He is frequently shown to be a man of eloquence and intelligence. He rules the guild with an iron fist and is often seen to solve problems through none-violent means, with threats rather than actually physical punishment. He occasionally crafts catch 22 style situations that can only be resolved through surrender. The plan for Gargantua-2 is in itself an excellent example of Logos in action. It has been carefully plotted over what can only be assumed to be quite a significant period of time. It utilises both double and triple crosses as evidenced by the fact the Phantom Limb is shown to still be in the service of the Sovereign in the special, despite that fact that they seemed to have a bitter three season rivalry. This means that the Sovereign has kept played many angles for a long time in order to bring his plan to fruition. This proves that rather than being a plan born of desperation to save ones soul, it is one born of calculation and necessity.

The function of Logos, to discern ‘ the difference between what is advantageous and what is harmful, between what is just and what is unjust, and between what is good and what is evil’ is exhibited by the Sovereign as well, albeit in a slightly warped form. He is shown to understand the difference between what is advantageous and what is harmful and what is good and what is evil. The fact that he is willing to sacrifice Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, a person that he had previously shown a great deal of affection for (walking her down the aisle) even choosing her for the Council of Thirteen proves that he will do what is necessary for the greater good. He will eliminate the Investors, no matter the cost.

Admittedly none of this may be true, it may simply be that he wishes to spare his own soul, but the possibility that there may be a nobler motive makes him a far better villain than the average one.

Finally these three modes of persuasion come full circle and we witness the death of the Sovereign at the end of the special. His death is tragic and allows Pathos to resurface. He is killed by a random act of chance. The O.S.I. Sniper, Headshot, is startled and misfires into the sky hitting the Sovereign in his eagle form sending him plummeting into the water.

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This death perfectly exemplifies the duality of the Sovereign. On the one hand his death in insignificant and unknown. He has ended in the exact way that he began; as a nobody. This is a universal justice of sorts. His selfish actions to save his own soul condemn him to obscurity. On the other hand his death has not been registered and the search for the Sovereign will continue for years. His noble attempt, whilst a failure, has guaranteed his infamy as one of the greatest super-villains of all time, evading capture. In death he has gone from a nobody to a somebody.

I prefer the latter reading of his death. Overall however I like that the character of the Sovereign had me constantly questioning whether he was truly good or evil? Wgether he was an average man doing his best or a sinister Machiavellian puppet master who deserved death. Either reading proves that The Venture Bros. Is a show with excellent writing and characterisation and furthermore that the Sovereign was a villain of true substance.

i Aristotle, and George Alexander Kennedy. Aristotle On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print. p.119

ii Aristotle, and Johnathan Barnes. Aristotle: The Complete Works:Vol Two. Sussex: Princeton UP, 1984. Print. p.2195

iii Aristotle, Rhetoric, in Patricia P. Matsen, Philip B. Rollinson, and Marion Sousa, Readings from Classical Rhetoric, SIU Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8093-1592-0, p. 120.

iv Paul Anthony Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern: The Ancien Régime in Classical Greece, University of North Carolina Press, 1994, ISBN 0-8078-4473-X, p. 21.