Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  Captain America: Civil War

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Warner Bros.

Director: Zack Snyder

Main Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg


Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Walt Disney Studios

Director: Joe Russo

Main Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie


Here are two big superhero movies that offer two slightly different takes on very similar subject matter.  They both highlight the eerie similarities of the underlying political assumptions.

So, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (part of the DC Comics universe) turns out to be better than it seems like it would be, which maybe doesn’t say a whole lot. I very nearly stopped watching after a few minutes. It gets better though. Like a number of other big-budget superhero movies of the day, this film is long. Yet it also crams in so many characters (and a few useless Lois Lane and Jonathan Kent scenes scenes) that it still feels a bit rushed. The basic premise is vaguely in line with Alan Moore‘s famous Watchmen comic, asking Juvenal‘s immortal question (from Book II, Satire VI: The Decay of Feminine Virtue): who guards the guards themselves [Quis custodiet ipsos custodes]? The film is at its best when it convincingly puts forward that question. But then it hints at a sequel (deferring complete resolution) and, at most, answers the question in an unsatisfying way. Anyway, Ben Affleck is for the most part completely unlikeable as Batman/Bruce Wayne. That makes him the perfect choice for the role. He brings out the arrogant right-wing vigilante qualities of the character’s recent incarnations well. Henry Cavill is also good as Superman/Clark Kent. His character’s dim-witted engagement with Batman is surprisingly convincing.  Jaime Eisenberg is well-cast as the unlikeable Ayn Rand-worshiping villain Lex Luthor. This film was directed by Zack Snyder (slated to make a new version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) and produced by Steve Mnuchin, now Secretary of the Treasury (!) in the Trump administration.

The essence of this Batman/Superman film’s morality is that it accepts Thomas Hobbes and perhaps also Machiavelli as providing the philosophical foundations for the ideal society.  All the usual critiques of those thinkers could be applied to the film.  Machiavelli, of course, is known for his argument in The Prince that in politics the ends justify the means.  Hobbes was a “social contract” theorist, famous for writing in Leviathan that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  G.D.H. Cole described Hobbes’ theories this way:

“Hobbes . . . regarded the people as agreeing, not simply to form a State, but in one and the same act to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it.  He agreed that the people was the final source of all authority, but regarded the people as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself and as delegating its powers, wholly and for ever, to the government which its members agreed to set up.  As soon, therefore, as the State is established, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no further question of popular Sovereignty but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill.  It has alienated its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master.”

Hobbes argued that such a State must be formed in order to avoid a situation of civil war and bellum omnium contra omnes (“the war of all against all”).  The film flirts with these concepts, by asking whether Superman, or Batman, or some larger group of superheroes, should be invested with the authority to fight monsters and villains on behalf of society.  Batman is kind of like Hobbes, a defender of “liberal” aristocracy/monarchy against the divine right of kings-type theories.  Machiavelli lurks behind the story in that the superheroes (technocractically) decide amongst themselves what is best for the people.  What is sad about this Hobbesist argument is that it was a political argument made hundreds of years ago!  In other words, the political background for the film’s plot is reactionary by framing the “relevant” political question as being exactly the same as what was debated hundreds of years ago.  Critics of Hobbes (like Rousseau) who argued that democracy should prevail over aristocracy do not even enter the frame of the debate.  Put another way, the film places “relevant” contemporary American political debate in the pre-Revolutionary War era!

Captain America: Civil War (part of the Marvel Comics universe) is also overly long and filled with too many characters.  It does, curiously enough, probably set some kind of record for the action film with the most debates in conference rooms (I kid you not!).  Much like Batman v. Superman, the movie preoccupies itself with the concept of who guards the guards themselves, or, put more bluntly, who governs the superheros (in this case, many are ordinary mortals with access to special military weapons).  While there is a wide array of superheroes here, allocated proportionately along race and gender lines, the main rivalry is between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.).  Stark wants to submit to a United Nations accord that will govern the superheroes’ “Avengers” group.  Captain America refuses.  The characters’ motivations are mostly absurd and implausible.  Iron Man/Stark in particular just comes across as stupid and arrogant.  The character The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is obnoxious, a character designed merely to pander, and a wasted opportunity (to link the character to the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense perhaps?).  Spider Man (Tom Holland) appears, as does Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and they leaven the proceedings in a good way.  There are many fight scenes, some of them a bit formulaic, and the film struggles to plausibly present these when some of the characters have superpowers of a substantially greater magnitude than others. But some are engaging.

All those details aside, there is an important difference from the Batman v Superman film.  Captain America: Civil War is kind of post-political.  On the surface, it appears that the film is “left” of Batman v Superman because it explicitly depicts a role for the United Nations (UN) as a “democratic” body that overcomes the superhero “civil war” that is a “war of all against all” of sorts.  When the UN creates an accord (somehow in secret; that is, without the knowledge of the superheros), the film glosses over the imperialist corruption of the UN, merely referring to the nearly 200 countries that signed on — creating the false impression that all countries are equal in the organization.  The character of the really-existing UN aside, the details of the accord are never actually discussed.  When the Avengers debate it, the political character of the accord is subsumed in the silly, irrelevant interpersonal conflicts, mostly between Captain America and Iron Man.  While the UN accord is supposedly driven by a desire to curb the collateral damage to civilians caused by the Avengers (just as Batman/Bruce Wayne complains about with respect to Superman), who actually governs the Avengers under it (and how they do so) is never really mentioned.  An official simply throws a large stack of paper on a table — the content of the accord is simply some legalistic/technocratic thing that neither the Avengers nor the audience is supposed to be concerned about.  This leads to another important point.  There is curiously no depiction of ordinary civilians as anything more than background props in a few action scenes.  A largely faceless government of technocrats simply decides for the people what is best for them.  Comparisons to the European Union “Troika” institutions (which push “austerity” measures that favor bankers/finance over ordinary workers) might be apropos here.  So, while there are ample opportunities to critique the aristocratic-leaning political philosophy of Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War instead leaves no room for political debate.  To adopt Colin Crouch‘s term, the film depicts a “post-democratic” world (“A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell”).  From another angle, it is also worth noting that the prior Avengers organization could be called a worker self-directed enterprise, and the UN accord an attempt to override worker self-management with a command-and-control top-down hierarchy (under the guise of the putatively “democratic” UN).

What these films (and Watchmen too) offer, just like similar print comics, is a pretty remedial set of political philosophies.  What each excludes from consideration is any sort of governance system in which ordinary people have equal votes and equal power.  All these films are wedded to the idea that some people are better than others, or at least more suited to rule, and therefore everyone has a “proper” place.  Perhaps there is a belief that such an approach goes hand-in-hand with the genre of superhero films, but it doesn’t have to (*ahem*, Trashman, V for Vendetta, and even the original Incal comics or The Dispossessed).  An interesting counterpoint to the sorts of worldviews in these films is Lars von Trier‘s Dogville.  There, a small town (on a stage set up like the popular Thornton Wilder play Our Town) takes in a woman (Nicole Kidman) on the run from gangsters, and the town votes (the woman excluded from voting) to turn her into a quasi-slave.  The film highlights the deficiencies of the brand of “democracy” employed by the town, with a tyranny of the majority abusing its power and the democratic “vote” doing nothing to prevent the majority’s exploitation.

On top of the structural/procedural political aspects of the DC/Marvel universes, and the usual superhero fantasies of overcoming social problems with the actions of no more than a handful of individual actions, there is also the nagging question of framing the sorts of problems that the superheroes address.  That is, the superheroes in these two films don’t fight poverty, environmental destruction (though occasionally superhero media does address this, usually only in passing), financial exploitation (though occasionally other superheroes do), or other “structural violence”.  Instead of addressing the “banality of evil”, superheroes fight discrete, monstrous villains.  But as often as not, the villains are seen as “evil” merely by stepping out of their “proper” place in globalist social hierarchy — thereby framing the very definition of “evil” in such a way as to exclude a conception of society in a universalist, egalitarian way.

Though it almost pains me to say it, the Snyder/Mnuchin film is considerably better than the Captain America one.  Its politics could be questioned, especially from the sort of Rousseauian perspective (that drives Dogville).  But at least it comes closer to making the politics explicit, and does align itself with some kind of political philosophy (mostly Hobbesist).  And, for that matter, the main characters of the Batman v Superman film behave in a more plausible way, on a strictly interpersonal level.  In spite of the film’s story and character bloat, there are also effective scenes, and the “redemption” of the right-wing vigilante Batman character, who actually comes to realize his mistakes and change his outlook on life (even if still imperfectly), is a rare feat on any level in a mainstream film.

Slavoj Žižek On Political Struggle

Ernesto Laclau has conceptualized . . . the struggle for hegemony.  *** That is to say, class struggle is ultimately the struggle for the meaning of society ‘as such’, the struggle for which of the two classes will impose itself as the stand-in for society ‘as such’, thereby degrading its other into the stand-in for the non-Social (the destruction of, the threat to, society).

“To simplify: Does the masses’ struggle for emancipation pose a threat to civilization as such, since civilization can thrive only in a hierarchical social order?  Or is it that the ruling class is a parasite threatening to drag society into self-destruction, so that the only alternative to socialism is barbarism?”  Slavoj Žižek, Afterword to Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917 (pp. 209-10).

Boaventura de Sousa Santos – Horizons Needed

“The reactionary project shares with rationalist and dogmatic extremism the notion that Western modernity has created too many human beings and that a distinction between humans and sub-humans is necessary, although it does not think that this should come from technical engineering interventions, whether they entail death or race improvement. It suffices that the inferiors be treated as inferior, whether they be women, black people, indigenous peoples, Muslims. The reactionary project never questions its own privilege and duty to decide who is superior and who is inferior. Humans have a right to have rights; sub-humans should be the object of philanthropy to prevent them from becoming dangerous and to defend them against themselves. They may have some rights, but they certainly must always have more duties than rights.” Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “Horizons Needed”

David Bowie – “Heroes”

"Heroes"

David Bowie“Heroes” RCA Victor PL 12522 (1977)


“Heroes” has remained one of David Bowie’s finest albums.  Part of his so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, it roughly follows the same format as the predecessor Low, with the first side devoted to art pop experiments and the second side (mostly) devoted to quasi-ambient instrumentals.  But where Low was a poppier version of German “krautrock”, with an emphasis on intensity of feeling, “Heroes” puts more emphasis on songs as such and adds just a bit more disco influence.  The music is strange in that it goes in the opposite direction of commercial trends of the day, drawing from left-field European rock and twisting carefree disco dance music with harsh industrial noise while still eschewing the sound of the burgeoning punk movement.  Bowie was continuing to chart his own path.  And, perhaps, that is part of what makes this elusive music so enduring.

The opening “Beauty and the Beast” is a great one.  While Bowie’s disaffected, contrarian and almost deadpan vocals are something of their own statement, the glimmering guitar and relentlessly bouncy beat fits comfortably in the disco era, even as the song’s icy, menacing edge is different from a typical disco dancefloor hit.  “Blackout” is another song with hints of disco rhythms.  Of course, the likes of “Golden Years” and “Stay” (from Station to Station) and “Fascination” (from Young Americans) had already ventured into disco territory in the prior two years.

“Joe the Lion” is kind of a tale of staggering, hazy, late-night club life, and the hangover.  Once again Bowie’s vocals are a kind of contrarian abstraction.  The song as a whole recalls Iggy Pop‘s minor hit album The Idiot (produced by Bowie), especially stuff like Iggy’s Stooges nostalgia song “Dum Dum Boys” and even the slower more minimalistic “Sister Midnight.”  Guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson is on the album on lead guitar, and adds distinctive character to songs like “Joe the Lion.”  The mostly instrumental “V-2 Schneider” (in reference to the Nazi V-2 Rocket, which inspired the plot of Thomas Pynchon‘s novel Gravity’s Rainbow), has similar textures to “Joe the Lion” with a more laid-back delivery.

The title track is a Bowie classic.  It is a romanticized mini-epic, complete with a kind of soaring and triumphant progression.  Producer Tony Visconti used a kind of latched gating effect, in which one microphone was inches from Bowie, another was 15-20 feet away, and a third was across the room.  As Bowie sang louder, the gates would trigger a more distant microphone and mute the others.  This allows Bowie to begin singing the song by quietly crooning, nearly at a whisper, then sing loudly, then practically shout, while the distance of the microphones scales back the intensity of his near-shouting to a slower crescendo.  The effect is something of an audio equivalent of the “dolly zoom” camera technique used in Alfred Hitchcock‘s film Vertigo.  Behind the vocals Robert Fripp  plays guitar with “tuned feedback” and Brian Eno contributed electronic effects.  The album was recorded in West Berlin, during the Cold War division of Germany.  The name of the song references the Neu! song “Heroes (from Neu! ’75).  The song title is in ironic quotes, though the intended irony is somewhat difficult to detect in the music itself.  Yet the drumming is quite different from the “motorik” style of Neu!, more conventional, with the bass kick drum nearly inaudible in this instance.  The song’s lyrics, though, deserve some unpacking.  They describe a couple “standing by the wall”, alluding to the Berlin Wall that then divided the city.  While Western propaganda (still) repeats the fable of the wall going up to keep East Germans in, the reality was that the wall kept Western saboteurs out while also helping to limit a “brain drain” on educated Eastern workers to freeloading Western corporations.  Bowie performed the song in 1987 against the Wall as part of the “Concert for Berlin.”  That concert is often cited as prompting the wall be torn down (which it was in 1989).  Even the right-wing Federalist Society credited Bowie for his role.  Of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed the Western Saboteurs (like Jeffrey Sachs) back into the East, with predictably catastrophic consequences.  Most former East Germans later said they preferred being behind the Soviet “Iron Curtain”, and, according to Der Spiegel, “20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany.”  So Bowie’s song should be viewed skeptically.  But no doubt it is one hell of a catchy tune and this is a spectacular recording.

The second half of the album turns to mostly instrumental songs with ambient qualities — just like Low and Neu! ’75.  These are still songs, though, and are much more compact than anything on Low or Neu! ’75.  “Moss Garden,” complete with Zen-like washes of sound and Bowie playing koto, is arguably the finest instrumental track on the entire Berlin Trilogy.  “Sense of Doubt” and “Neuköln” are both solid tunes too.

The album concludes with “The Secret Life of Arabia,” which has vocals and goes back to disco influences, albeit now with vague middle-eastern references.  This scales back the experimentation of the album, and ensures that pop songs remain the focus.

This album was Bowie’s least popular since his Ziggy Stardust breakthrough.  The title track has become one of his best-known songs, though at the time — like most of Bowie’s late-1970s singles — wasn’t a hit.  While it lacks the sense of wonder and daring of Low, the taut, punchy rock songs of “Heroes” are still pretty great.  What this lacks (if anything) in terms of eye-opening creativity it makes up in determined consistency.

Anthony Jeselnik – Caligula

Caligula

Anthony JeselnikCaligula Comedy Central (2013)


I haven’t heard this album, per se, but I saw the TV special of the same name and presume it’s identical.  Jeselnik has a very well-defined schtick.  He delivers “conventional” jokes, rather than telling stories, etc.  His humor is based largely on misdirection, a bit like Rodney Dangerfield, etc.  But his version of misdirection takes on a new dimension.  He usually takes positions that are considered socially taboo or even undiscussable and feigns being a sociopath (as others note, just a step beyond Craig Kilborn et al.).  Often that means jokes premised on hilarious false/extremist dichotomies.  So, he implies he’s a rapist, that christianity is worse than pedophilia, and that others’ deaths and disabilities are an inconvenience to him.  Often he does this by simple grammatical errors, like substituting the present tense “has” for the past-tense “had” to send the audience a false message before the punchline of a joke.  What was kind of interesting in the TV special routine was that in the middle of the show he does this has/had joke involving his brother as a character, but then he finishes up the show with a very similar joke where he kind of “calls out” somebody else for doing essentially the same thing (using “is” instead of “was”).  Jeselnik drops hints all over the place that almost everything he says is a complete fabrication (though I wonder about his comments about being an atheist).  What I like about him is that he’s found a way to actually create some kind of rudimentary social space to discuss or at least think about some (liberal) social taboos, at least by calling attention to them.  It’s a kind of mild meta-humor that recalls Neil Hamburger just a little, but with more general social norms on the table in place of specifically comedic norms.  [Edit: it seems like Adam Kotsko‘s book Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide To Late Capitalist Television makes an argument similar to this review]

Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

Surrealistic Pillow

Jefferson AirplaneSurrealistic Pillow RCA Victor LSP 3766 (1967)


I just don’t know what to make of Jefferson Airplane.  Can’t say I ever listened to them much other than the ubiquitous singles that crop up in nearly every retro “Sixties” movie that uses “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to Love” for trippy atmosphere or “Volunteers” for rebellious protest attitude.  So, giving a few of their albums available from my local library a try, they now strike me as a band a little short on songwriting skills, at least in relation to their guitar prowess, and forcing themselves to do too many ballads and slower tunes that they didn’t pull off well.  They were at their best doing scorching psychedelic jams, with lots of space for guitarist Jorma Kaukonen to stretch out.  So, there’s good stuff here.  “Somebody to Love” is iconic, and it does highlight the darker side of free love and what was to come in the Summer of Love.  But lots of this feels like filler.   And singer Grace Slick is rather annoying, really.  She’s very didactic.  I found Live at the Fillmore Auditorium 10/15/66 (Late Show – Signe’s Farewell) from the pre-Slick era to be equally or more satisfying, and After Bathing at Baxter’s is certainly the band’s best.  Basically, this album was rendered obsolete a few months later when The 13th Floor Elevators released Easter Everywhere.  Otherwise, if you must have Sand Fran psych, just go straight for early Grateful Dead.  But I couldn’t shake the feeling listening to Surrealistic Pillow that I would rather be listening to Easter Everywhere.