This week, a little bit of everything has been responsible for the outcome of last Tuesday’s election: gay marriage, America’s voting youth, America’s non-voting youth, “moral values,” Christian fundamentalists, the vast middle, Karl Rove, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the Red Sox, the Redskins, the touch-screen voting machine, Osama, Ohio and, of course, New York and Hollywood.
In turn, the election has also been responsible for everything that’s happened since-marital spats, low productivity at work, a bicoastal crash in self-esteem amongst liberal power brokers, P. Diddy’s newfound modesty and, if you listen to the executives at Paramount Pictures, the bad box office for Alfie . (Skirt-chasers are washed up! We’re all conservatives now.)
But apparently, what Americans still want to see onscreen, and to see in themselves, are witty, paunchy, dysfunctional superheroes, if The Incredibles -which swallowed and spit out Alfie at the box office this post-election week-is any indication.
The first hit of the Bush II years, The Incredibles pulled in $70.5 million in its first few days. The movie is about a family of superheroes forced by the government to go into a superhero-relocation program, suppress their awesome powers and hide out in the beaten-down, charmless miseries of suburbia-among tract homes, leftovers, cubicles, commutes, and dreary elementary-school commencement ceremonies in which every kid is celebrated for being “special.”
Eventually, of course, the superheroes-up against it in a dangerous world-release their superpowers, break free of Anytown, U.S.A., and explode with enough personal initiative to make The Fountainhead look like a bedtime story. They’re superheroes! The film is inspirational, a hopeful jolt for anyone feeling like they’ve buried their own superpowers, like they’re losing in this big, crushing society. But the funny thing is that even though the film’s primary target seems to be suppressed America and its credo pure libertarian, among the joyful recipients of its message are New Yorkers-and all blue staters-who, God knows, feel like losers these days.
But it’s hard not to be suspicious of the winners. Any winners, for that matter, and that includes The Incredibles . While The Incredibles ‘ battle against conformity and mediocrity screams anti-oppression to some, it’s obviously Randian to others. In that sense, the film is being touted as the latest proof that, on top of everything else , the right wing has even wit and creativity on its side these days: This is a world turned upside-down!
And even as James Carville threw in the white towel in The New York Times on Nov. 9, admitting that he’d finally got the message that the Democrats were nothing but an opposition party, the conservatives were raking in millions of potential philosophical converts at the movies, the way the liberals used to during the Easy Rider–Graduate days of the 1960′s, when the right wing couldn’t catch a break in the culture. The message of The Incredibles -reported everywhere!-was that the chosen few should have the right to exercise their powers over a wide, bland majority of fans and mediocrity-worshippers, and save the world from a bitter, deadly evil.
It’s very much in the eye of the beholder, but at the moment, to the butt-kicked, discouraged liberal team, the Pixar-built shiny, muscle-bound cartoon characters seem to come very much from the other team.
“And what is The Incredibles ?” said Richard Goldstein, author of The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right. “It’s really a movie about people sort of bursting out of this model of decency and concern for others, and all of those values that now get labeled politically correct, and bursting forth with their true strength and power, like an animated Hobbes. I guess the bet is that the rest of the world, looking at this spectacle, will actually just say, ‘Holy cow-we’d better do what they say!’ And this Hobbesian idea will be proven correct.”
“It’s kind of ironic that superheroes now have these fascist, right-wing connotations,” said Ted Rall, the editorial cartoonist for United Press Syndicate and author of Wake Up, You’re Liberal! How We Can Take America Back From the Right . “The right has stolen the flag and our superheroes, too.”
Is it simply that, after four years of being beaten up with good-versus-evil rhetoric and post-9/11 fear, somehow all superheroes seem vaguely Republican to us? It’s back to Nietzsche for one more shot.
What is a liberal superhero? The last time anyone looked, superheroes were serving the weak and the helpless, not themselves.
According to Chip Kidd, the co-author of The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days, Superman-created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1938, during the Great Depression-was a liberal hero in his original incarnation, shy about his abilities and eager to do social good during the New Deal, when the general ethic sought a strong man willing to protect the weak, not so much to show off his powers as to serve the general welfare.
“The charming thing about the basic superhero myth, as it was conceived during the Depression, was if you’re an omni-powerful being or something like it, your responsibility is to serve the world, not to rule it,” said Mr. Kidd. “The United States, as Bush runs it-he probably thinks he’s doing that, but he’s not. He is trying to rule it, in a way. And that’s where it differs from what I would call a superhero ideal.”
Mr. Kidd may be partisan, but he’s not wrong in the sense that it’s almost impossible to image Superman as a Republican in the 1930′s or 1940′s. Superman was definitely a Roosevelt man. Batman may have been more up for grabs; it’s possible Commissioner Gordon was in close contact with gangbusting D.A. Tom Dewey.
But generally, superheroes have been very strong social workers. That ethic stretched from the 30′s to the 40′s through the 50′s, when comic books got in hot water with the right-wing psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose 1954 study, The Seduction of the Innocent -published the same year as the Army-McCarthy hearings-saw comic books as vehicles for spreading dissolute values throughout American society, even suggesting that Batman and Robin, as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, had a homosexual arrangement. As if that was a bad thing. The comic-book industry collapsed into acquiescence, adopting the Comics Code Authority, a self-policing censorship arrangement that turned the dangerous territory the superheroes patrolled into an Ozzie-and-Harriet society of well-lit frames and middle-class non-danger. By the 1960′s, the biggest danger in Superman’s life was whether he was really going to marry Lois Lane and answer Jimmy Olsen’s super-signal watch. Zee-zee-zee!
By the 1960′s, Spider-Man showed up, “a poor schlub from a lower middle-class background who has these powers he doesn’t really want. He’s called to duty; he doesn’t really want to go, but he doesn’t have a choice,” according to Neal Pollack, comics enthusiast, humorist and author of Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel .
“That’s how a lot of liberals feel,” Mr. Pollack explained. “A lot of those are archetypes that came out of the 60′s: the Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, the X-Men. Things have changed a lot in comics. Spider-Man is a good archetype for a liberal hero-he wants to give up his powers, he wants them back, he’s conflicted, he’s trying to hold down a job, he wants the girl. Whereas a conservative superhero just wants to fight evil.”
And show his own super strength.
The Incredibles ‘ storyline, not unlike most current superhero storylines, will warm the hearts of the Republican elite, and also the scared, ordinary moviegoing folks emboldened by America’s long-time military prowess. Mr. Incredible could be Dick Cheney himself, or Donald Rumsfeld, big-bellied and in mothballs during the Clinton years, watching the world go to hell while nobody needed them, tortured and beat up by the little people and the bureaucrats all around them.
And The Incredibles aren’t the only superheroes at the multiplex who creepily (and not so subtly) resemble Team Bush these days. Liberals who-especially now-can’t laugh at themselves, still feel miffed about the pro-right leanings of Team America: World Police , which, as you must know by now, taps into the conservative mind from a different angle, blowing up what it describes as the liberal narcissists and phonies inflated by Hollywood. It could be following the same exact script as President Bush did in his acceptance speech at Madison Square Garden in September, right in enemy territory, when he declared: “If you say the heart and soul of America is found in Hollywood, I’m afraid you’re not the candidate of conservative values.”
The film is ultimately nihilistic, but in its skewering and gross annihilation of Hollywood left-wing celebrities, Team America exults in destroying another kind of elite from the kind that The Incredibles exalts; in effect, the film appeals to the very common man that The Incredibles disavows.
Then again, that’s the genius of the Bush administration’s brand of conservatism. By cornering the market on strength and religion and good vs. evil, they’ve managed to be both the party of the elites and the party of the little guy, seducing one side with tax breaks and the other with the idolization of the traditional family, and both with the good fight against evil.
“What Bush is able to provide people with is an edge of sadism, an edge of cruelty,” said Mr. Goldstein. “It was very evident at the convention and in the way they dealt with Kerry. It was this incredibly virulent and relentless attack, some of it encompassing Kerry’s masculinity. There’s a great pleasure in that for people. It’s in the way they’ve approached everything, from France to domestic issues, to unleash in people a sort of enjoyment of the spectacle of aggression and cruelty, and a belief in it and its effectiveness. Liberalism has trouble with that, because it stands for an alternative of that.”
The simple message that President Bush managed to dumbly repeat until it seemed true for so many can find itself illustrated in diverse places because it sticks so easily. Team America and The Incredibles are different films that arrive at the same conclusion: At some point the Evil Ones must die, and at some point a special, chosen, brave and happy few will vanquish them; it’s up to the rest of us to sit by and trust them to take care of it, without questioning their methods. In The Incredibles , Mrs. Incredible-voiced by Holly Hunter-lectures her children pointedly: These people will kill you, she says, unless you use your superpowers .
And in Team America , the horny marionettes save the world by seconds from the frenzied, foaming narcissism of the Hollywood appeasers, who would, similarly, have superheroes lay down their arms in the service of Kim Jong Il, the mad and childish dictator of North Korea.
And like The Incredibles , Team America unleashes its fury at mediocrity. One of its greatest moments comes when director Trey Parker has his hero sing:
I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark
When he made Pearl Harbor .
I miss you more than that movie missed the point,
And that’s an awful lot, girl.
Both movies are brutally funny, with the self-righteousness of suppressed truth on their sides.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone also have an idea of who the left’s superheroes are, and it isn’t Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, Al Sharpton or liberal magazine editors. Instead, it’s the beautiful-it’s actors and celebrities. We’re celebrities, and so our job is to read the newspaper every day and say what we read on TV , says a Janeane Garofalo marionette in Team America , stunningly showing the wires and stagecraft, the not-so-smooth tricksmanship behind liberal showbiz intellectuality. Alec Baldwin waddles around muttering about hybrid cars; Matt Damon pipes in with “Matt Damon,” as if all he needs to do to represent his faction is announce that he’s a movie star whose name you recognize.
And Mr. Parker didn’t choose Howard Dean or Al Gore or Bill Clinton for the lefty side of things, either. It’s Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins. It’s Sean Penn. One big, roiling, phony superhero alliance of self-inflated good intentions and inevitable self-righteousness-they’re actors, after all, and plain-spoken sincerity isn’t their strong suit-and this time, in Team America , they have the guns, too.
Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone queasily call the group F.A.G., the Film Actors Guild, a team that’s colluding with a nerdy, Chucky-faced Kim Jong Il. The North Korean wackjob, however, in Mr. Parker’s rendering, seems woefully inadequate to the task of defeating Team America, even with his sharks and weapons of mass destruction and sad musical numbers. It’s the actors that seem downright scary, just as the Team America patriots seem downright idiotic. But perhaps there’s something else to it: What the writers might be suggesting is that the real threat the actors pose is not to the world, but to the party they support.
But if all the celebrities disappeared, who would the Democrats have left? Who would their spokespersons be? In the past year, the left had the Dixie Chicks telling Brits they were embarrassed to be from Texas; P. Diddy’s bizarre “Vote or Die” campaign; Michael Moore decrying American stupidity; Bruce Springsteen singing on the campaign trail; Paul Newman slumming it, knocking on doors.
What kind of heroic, larger-than-life figure could occupy that Hollywood void? If Republican hero Curt Schilling, brave, bloody-ankled, faith-based athlete, challenged a liberal to fight, who could match him? A George Soros?
“I would be in favor of Empathy Man,” said Mr. Rall. “The man who plants the seeds of empathy into the cold, stony heart of the average red-state American.”
According to Mr. Pollack, one thing’s for sure: “A liberal superhero would not move to Canada. Don’t abandon the ship. Canada is already a country full of liberal superheroes. Who are impervious to cold.”
Superman, where are you? Zee-zee-zeeeee! There are only seconds left before … Doctor Karl Rove fixes Social Security!
-with additional reporting by Jake Brooks
Follow Sheelah Kolhatkar via RSS.