Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The pornography of superhero movies - or not...yeah, totally not

I hate the sophomoric habit of many internet writers to compare every trope or cliché in a genre or medium to porn. Porn is sensory and libidinal by definition. It implicates base feelings of power and weakness. Pornography is the reduction of sex to a meaningless act.

It's true that the treatment of some subjects with certain kinds of imagery can be thought of as pornographic.The coverage of war in media, for instance, is a prime candidate. Focusing as it does on the weapons, the bombs, the explosions. It's often used to captivate people by appealing to many of the same basic impulses as pornography, but with non-sexual imagery of dominance and violence. And like porn, this coverage renders meaningless the human and political conflict at the centre of war.

Similarly, the excessive and pointless abuse, gore and viscera of many horror films - divorced from any of the storytelling devices of suspense, foreboding, anxiety or neurosis - plays to those same instincts too. It's a major reason why I can't watch either these films or war footage. Furthermore the dominance and exploitation through violence mimics pornography. Yet violence itself (specifically the loss of innocence, victim creation and the lunacy of the violator) is rendered meaningless, which is the film's entire point.

Not every tired symbol or plot line is pornographic however. Tragedy cannot be porn, it is intellectual and emotional. It is one of the few fundamental types of stories. Tragedy cannot be divorced from story, because it is the story - and without the story there is nothing. More importantly, porn has the characteristic of being disposable. It is devoid of any content except that which is superficially present. Tragedies are often defining events in the lives of story characters. They are the opposite of the meaninglessness of pornography.

I've got a lot of problems with superhero movies, not least of which is the adolescent nature of the tales. Superhero stories use traditional story lines to transform the medium into something more than it is, more than it can be.

Consider the Joker character. He routinely kills people, but none of those murders are considered "tragic". What would qualify as tragic (and undesirable porn) is if the story dwelt on the death of the poor character by linking it somehow to the hero. And what would make it porn is when the violence is "too real", or at least more real than the endless flow of meaningless violence and anonymous victims saturating these movies under normal circumstances. What people really object to when they complain of "porn" is the use of realistic story lines (or what passes for realistic in the medium) to interrupt the actual superhero violence which is the genre's cliché. That's weird to me.

After all, what's more onanistic than watching scene after scene of rippling, muscle-bound superheroes smashing buildings and shooting energy beams out of their friggin' heads? Specifically, what do these complainers think the viewer is experiencing when they watch conventional superhero movies? It can't be different.

The reason death is integral to these movies is precisely because the violence is meaningless. It's an escape from meaning. How many people has the Joker killed? Thousands, probably, but the director is obviously okay with that. Yet when he breaks Batman's or Batgirl's back (I forget which one) and we dwell on his/her misery over the next few scenes, that's "porn"? Some people find it unacceptable to watch even the semblance of a realistic treatment of the effects of violence in superhero movies, because the reason they started watching in the first place was to consume meaningless violence.

I think that logic is totally backwards. If we are going to draw the analogy to porn, then it is more accurate to say superheros are always pornographic, except when they aspire to stories of greater importance to the characters than the typical death scenes.

If, for instance, Watchmen was the ne plus ultra of the superhero medium, then the medium is doomed. Compare that pinnacle with its counterparts in novels, music or other film genres. Those have the ability to change the way we live and interpret memories. They are works of art with density and power of meaning that can take a lifetime to fathom and unpack.

Superhero movies are the opposite. Yes, occasionally a work of significance sneaks into theatres disguised as something conventional. But most of the time, what passes for a good movie is entirely conventional. And it's pretty clear to me that directors and producers aren't to blame for the current movie ghetto. It's the audience.

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