I’ve heard people talk about being born in the wrong time. That they were better designed for frontier life or medieval times or the swinging twenties. Not me. Internet, lasers, comic books, Bluetooth, pizza delivery, 3D movies, word processors, antibiotics, theme parks, the emergence of math as the predominant academia in modern living, progressive metal, Nerd Core hip-hop, Netflix, MMA . . . the list goes on. But most of all, and I truly mean most of all is that the phrase “an objective, external reality exists” is an arguable statement. We are witnessing something great right now. How great will have to be determined later, but it is enough to say, right now is a very interesting time to be alive from a philosophic position. The grand outlook of this will be the focus of the next few posts, but I want to walk everyone through it the same path I took. It begins (somehow) with Iron Fist and the role of the Anti-Hero (quick high school literature refresher; “Anti-Hero” is a protagonist lacking in heroic qualities).
Even before Iron Fist was released it caught bad press. Just coming off of the “Hey, that’s not a Tibetan old man, it’s a Celtic middle aged woman” fiasco of Dr. Strange, Marvel was already put on notice as a possible white washer of Asian characters. That The Iron Fist is a kung fu master from a hidden Asian society caught the attention of SJW groups. “That sounds like an Oriental job. They should cast a Chinaman”, they would say. “A Chinaman of Oriental background”. They wouldn’t say it that way (probably) but that was the gist. However, Finn Jones was cast. Finn Jones, who played the plate mailed, sword fighting knight from Game of Thrones who, apparently, never learned how to fist fight. I won’t get into my opinions on his portrayal here, but suffice it to say, he isn’t Asian at all, but pretty dadgum white.
We have a hero who, 30 years ago, was about as standard as they come: start with an average person then build from there. Orphaned and superfluously rich to free him from daily and familial responsibilities so he can fight crime. Exotic arts and magic of a sort to give his technique interest. A strong moral code to give him reason be against bad guys.
However, the western world turned. “Average person” used to mean straight, white male. Any more, it seems arrogantly exclusive to think that way. Taking away his parents and giving him a nearly unspendable amount of money isn’t a means to free responsibility but giving him an overly privileged life, making him even less relatable than before and putting him into that “1%” elitist category that mildly villainizes him. That he is a white, western practitioner of an eastern art isn’t just a neat hook to give flavor to his style, but now another example of both culture stealing and white saviorism. His strong moral code and personal ethics are good and all, but when you shove it down other people’s throat, especially when you’re so socially inept that you have no idea how business ethics and personal ethics are different, you’ve pushed away anyone who would want to root for you.
That’s the interesting thing! The Iron Fist didn’t change, but the world around him did. Where he was once a formulaic, bland hero, he is now an overly privileged, culturally ignorant, white savior with narcissistic self-righteousness that will only ruin a business that, although he has legal claim to, he has no business running. He is too squeaky clean, too self assured in his decisions, too “righteous”. That isn’t the hero we want any more. It isn’t a hero we’re ready to accept.
I’ve said before how Jon Bernthal as The Punisher is some of the best casting in the history of acting. I am totally captivated by his performance. As a Marvel character, however, he has a different sort of view on the world compared to the rest of the pantheon. He has no powers, no super bank account, no incredible moral code. He has guns, rage, and focus. He’s a trained killer with a body count right around 50,000. The closest thing he has to a moral code is that really bad people should be killed. Justified murder, maybe, but murder all the same.
The Punisher has been the primo example of an antihero when he isn’t a villain. In the comics, movies and TV shows he’s spent time imprisoned. Most other heroes view him as a criminal and yet, he is asked to aid S.H.I.E.L.D, he has fought alongside most established characters as an ally, he has been given three movies, a recurring role in one hero’s show and now his own.
There is an important note to all this. This has less to do with the writers and more to do with the readers. We have witnessed countless bad guys get locked up and released both on the page and in real life. We see the authorities who are bound by law to let known criminals walk free due to a technicality. At a certain point, after Justice is denied enough times, the mind flirts with Vengeance. We want to know that the only important case made is that an evil person has done an evil thing. Then they get Punished. Ignoring privilege, ignoring finances, ignoring glamor and fame and celebration, a bad person is put down because of his bad deeds. The Punisher doesn’t seek fame or restitution. He only seeks to annihilate evil. There is a purity in that. There’s a weird comfort in the boogey man hiding in a villain’s closet. Through this, his position has moved from antihero to just hero. People admire the fact that he’s willing to take on that sin and outcast position himself to do what he sees as right, rejecting the rewards due a hero.
There in lies the twist. 30 years ago, this mentality existed only on the fringe. It has become the norm now. That the morally upright, non-lethal-under-all-but-the-most-extreme-circumstances “hero” has become reviled. The remorseless, serial murderer wearing a giant skull on his chest “antihero” has become admired. It denotes, not just a change in the readership, but in the social spectrum all together. The unacceptable has become acceptable, the meaningless has become meaningful, that acting viciously can be virtuous, and the standard has shifted significantly.
It isn’t isolated to the weakest link in the Defenders, either. Current Superman killed Zod, current Batman kills and shoots guns, The Ancient One makes a deal with an intergalactic devil to keep long life, and Iron Man’s narcissism and increasing xenophobia have created Ultron, lost him his partner/ girlfriend, and half the Avengers. There’s a reason Wolverine and Deadpool can do solo movies. The movement extends to the small screen, too. Lucifer, Legion, Preacher, and Gotham have all been picked up in the last five years as the demand for, not just comic book based series, but specifically dark and gritty comic series has gone up. These are the heroes we ask for now.
People look for reasons to let Superman and Batman kill and deride their pacifist nature as boring and unrealistic. People are less interested neat little bows and deus ex machina just to let a good guy stay pure. They don’t seem to be interested at all in having them keep themselves in the moral right if it means some moral wrong is allowed to succeed.
Think about what that means. Iron Fist lacks social sensitivity and any real personal struggle, which we need to relate. The more alienated we are from our heroes, the less attracted we are to them. As obvious as that sentence seems, it use to be different. Heroes did the things we couldn’t and were the people we wished to be. Instead of just out of reach paragons for us to aspire to, they have become out of touch cartoons our maturity rejects. Danny Rand lacks the qualities we need from a post-modern hero. He has devolved into the current Anti-Hero. He’s a protagonist that eliminates the bad guy, sure, but lacks those traits we now consider heroic (I wonder if it was deliberate. I may go into this more in the Iron Fist review).
That, in itself is interesting. More interesting to me is when we ask the question “Why?”. That is the thread I have been pulling and, I promise, I’m going to do my best to reference comic books and super heroes along the way.