On comic book movies & woke-ifying legacy properties. (Clickbait headline.)
I listened to this NY Times podcast expecting to take issue with it & I actually didn’t disagree quite as much as I thought I would. Jenna Wortham has a pretty spot on take about how the MCU movies are about the militarization of super powers & how the X-Men movies are more about (thanks Chris Claremont) identity-driven & whether or not individuals should celebrate their uniqueness or try & blend into society, how they relate to a society that might fear or hate them, & how that works as a metaphor for queerness or blackness or other marginalized identities.
And we’re lucky to have had Claremont writing the X-Men for so many years, creating these stories & grounding his character creation in the question, “Is there any reason this new character shouldn’t be a woman?” & putting minority characters like Storm in major roles when it wasn’t often being done. At a time when billboard was tracking r&b on the “Hot Black Singles” chart, Chris Claremont was writing an integrated team of super heroes who were wrestling with their internal feelings about being othered by society, which was a message that resonated outside of the crowd that comics books typically appealed to.
And yet, if you look back on the ~20 years of his writing, you’ll find things that were problematic. And thank god for it! Because if not, that would mean we hadn’t progressed as a society.
Things will be normal one day, & later they will be problematic. That’s just how it works. One day people will say, “Do you remember when ‘tribalism’ was a buzzword? What a disgusting & exoticist way for Privileged White Academics to market their ideas. Everyone who was trying to point out group dynamics in society in the early 21st century is cancelled.” And who are we to say that’s right or wrong? It’s for different people in a different time to decide.
It’s a cliché quote, but Heraclitus said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” And that’s a pretty good metaphor for society. It’s easy for us to, from our high horse of time transpired, pick apart artifacts from the past. Like looking back at a river from 10 years ago, with 10 years of new fishing knowledge & heckling an earlier you for not being able to catch any fish. And likewise in the future people will look back at us & our torturous factory farming & our pollution & our propping up of destructive late capitalism & our toxic politics & they’ll say, “How did these fucking idiots even manage to tie their own shoes?” Society, like the river, is ever changing, as are we.
And yet we act as if it’s possible to be woke enough that we won’t be eventually cancelled by time & perspective. Our favorite songs. Our favorite movies & tv shows. Jokes that made us laugh. Much of it will be cancelled. Hopefully! Society is a perpetual awkward teenager, full on cringe. We might believe we grow out of it, but we don’t. You’re a sophisticated member of polite society one minute & 10 years later you’re a handsy old man with a public shaming to your name. And that’s called progress.
And by the same token, none of us would be the same were we born in a different decade, be it earlier or later. Most people who, for instance, now approve of the Montgomery Freedom Riders’ protests wouldn’t have done so in the past. Only 22% of people approved of the sit-ins at the time. I’m sure 80% of us believe we’d have been in that 22%, & that’s just not mathematically possible. But the very fact that we think that is progress! We must consider being born later to be a privilege.
So when we dig into the past looking for crimes, I wonder if it’s any more valuable than saying, “Golly gee, those cave people really would’ve been well-served by a cogent understanding of particle physics!” Because no shit.
And I wonder if, as it’s suggested in this podcast, that we “fix” these problematic shows & movies from the past, if we aren’t erasing a paper trail that tells us not only how far we have come, but also how far we’ve still left to go, which is really where we should be focused. I wonder if we aren’t, as a slave to our own ego, creating a case for the future to indict us by villainizing the ignorance of past societies. Or worse yet, institutionalizing the idea that Modern Woke Academia is the end-all, be-all of what we should expect from society.
Of course, one of those approaches — fixing them — allows those works to continue to be beloved. The other — contextualizing them — turns them into curiosities somewhat. But I think the latter is more valuable because, like the disclaimer that Disney now shows before a lot of its older films, it fosters dialogue. We might be satisfied by the former, but we might learn from the latter, & a NYT critic shouldn’t shy away from material that has, over time, become difficult, regardless of whether it was ever intended to be.
Of course, when you’re creating modern content from legacy properties, it’s less straightforward. It’s asked in the podcast how the MCU films have not managed to de-center white heroes over the course of 15 years… but the root of that question is really, “Why are we making top-tier content based on legacy properties that reflect the values of societies from 50 or more years ago?” And there’s no easy answer there because, where answers do not lie in the legacy DNA of the these properties, fundamental changes risk severing the legacy tie that made the property valuable in the first place. (Does anyone actually want to see Natalie Portman as Thor?)
We’ve seen ham fisted solutions. Cyborg overemphasized in Snyder’s Justice League, Rose inexplicably going from mechanic to speeder pilot in the Last Jedi. And it’s clear that representation alone is not enough. If it were easy to introduce new characters to legacy properties, I’m sure we’d have much more diverse casts in these movies. But it’s not. And the diversity discourse around these films time & again seems to discount the fact that these studios have genuinely tried & failed (in film & in print) to launch minority & queer characters because… every writer & artist would love to create the next Captain America but you’d need a WW3 in order to do it. The character’s context is essential.
And so we must find relevant context for black & brown & queer characters & part of that may be admitting to ourselves that these contexts might not exist in legacy properties & that’s not the end of the world. Perhaps the best thing we can do with these legacy characters is to have the characters themselves wrestle with being a product of a different time. And perhaps, instead of trying to make Luke Cage happen or trying to make Captain America black or have Jennifer Lawrence voice some hack screenwriter’s issues with the misogynist implications of a name like “X-Men”, we create a new super hero whose DNA is rooted in something like the modern civil rights movement.
Because what we tend to forget is that before these were legacy characters with decades of history, they were anonymous heroes making first appearances, & they just happened to connect with kids in that moment. They weren’t introduced as a table leg in a billion dollar franchise. And many of them likely would’ve failed, had they been. These were scenarios that were inspired & where the stars aligned, & it just so happens that the period where that’s how creating superheroes was approached happened to be very fucking white & that’s why we have a golden age & a silver age & a bronze age of comics followed by a hyper-capitalist shit show that nearly buried the entire industry in the ’90s & may eventually cause the MCU to collapse under its own weight.
Miles Morales is a brilliant character, but you can’t keep going back to that same well of trying to carve minority characters out of legacy character context. You have to respect the audience enough to find new contexts. And currently there’s a cornucopia of contexts to pull from. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be experiencing a Diamond Age of comics (not a Diamond Distributors joke), rather than the bullshit “Modern Age” which is just a perpetual rehashing of the golden/silver/bronze age stuff, “updated” somewhat for modern times. (In the popular imagination, anyhow.)
So we need to stop treating new properties like tokens… you can’t just launch a queer series & be like “Here’s our queer series! If it fails, obviously there’s no audience for a queer series.” You have to launch 20 & hope that 1, in addition to checking all the woke boxes, is an actually great character that kids connect to. That’s how it was with all of the white super heroes. God knows the ones with movies aren’t the only comic heroes ever invented. They’re just the ones that stuck. And we owe that same breadth of experimentation to people who aren’t white or straight or cis-gendered.
Because creating great characters & great stories isn’t easy, & it can’t be done by working backward from a marketing opportunity or a woke mandate or whatever.
Anyhow, that’s how I feel about it.