“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Did you see the latest Superman update, Man of Steel? An imaginative story filled with heart-wrenching emotion, from a comic book no less. This one, like its cousins Iron Man, The Avengers and X-Men has all the thrilling over the top realism that CGI technology can provide. We hardly need our imaginations any more. Won’t that be a brave new accomplishment, entertainment that we can absorb without even having to think about it?
Lately I keep coming away from these marvelous heroic good vs. evil cartoon reboots scratching my head. I can’t seem to figure out why these modern day superheroes with all of their mythic powers and advanced technology always end up in a kung fu fist fight with the bad guys. Probably because these aren’t really stories told around the campfire to pass on cultural explanations and reinforce essential moral values. What we’re paying millions of dollars to create and watch today in our “cinemultiplexicons” are glorified and amped up video games. These are the kind of games that keep you coming back and dumping in quarters by enticing you to rack up more punches and gunshots.
So I sit back and shake my head at the trailer for Pacific Rim – giant Godzilla like monsters emerge from the ocean depths to wreak havoc on mankind and our advanced means of resistance isn’t an atom bomb or even a little biological warfare. No, mankind ends up building giant metal robots to go out and (you guessed it) engage in a WWE wrestling match.
If you watched Man of Steel already, do you, like me, wonder why he couldn’t have taken the fight to somewhere else, like Antarctica or the Mojave Desert rather than destroying his Kansas hometown and Metropolis? What’s the deal with all the destruction? Is no one else worried about the economy and small businesses? What kind of hero is that?
All of this technology, knowledge, creativity, wealth and possibility have enabled American society to tell the most wonderful stories that seem to live on in our collective memory. They pass on and on truth, fear, honor, and sacrifice. Remember Saving Private Ryan? Star Wars? The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? Sorry about that, had to stick a spaghetti western in somewhere.
My son-in-law told me he thinks we just need a hero. I think he’s right. We want Superman or John McClane to come and save us. We need a hero – can you still hear Bonnie Tyler rasping out the lyrics from back in the ‘80’s? Nothing much ever really changes does it? Nothing new under the sun. Reboot the Man of Steel as many times as you can find a new Hollywood hunk – there will always be an audience craving rescue.
We need a hero who will pound and punch our enemies in 3-D so that we can live out our emasculated existence and find some other way to do gender in a juvenilized culture of boys who can’t seem to figure out how to grow up in society that really doesn’t want them to be anything more than teenagers seeking experiences to buy and mistakes to pay for. That’s one way to keep a stalled economy running with tragically wrecked families and trivialized overconsumption.
I read a review last week and the writer was bemoaning the fact that it was difficult to find much moral depth in some of these big budget blockbusters. People are killed, cities destroyed, life and death decisions made and the characters don’t seem to make any sort of conscience flinch. They don’t have room to think about what’s just happened or the consequences of their decisions, too busy outrunning the newest computer generated airplane collision or growling behemoth.
Maybe that reviewer had fallen into the trap and was looking for answers to big questions from the most expensive, noisiest, and talked about experience we currently have in our civilization. Not a burning bush or a voice crying in the wilderness but a 3D comic book based hero saga (guaranteed to have three installments) with the masses lined up at midnight to pay their homage. Maybe that’s as close as we can get to a sacred experience these days. Disenchanted anyone?
When our descendants look back at these films we created and watched, what will they know about us? What kinds of stories did we tell ourselves and what did we communicate in the process? What lasting and meaningful messages did we manage to pass on? What mattered to our civilization? When it came time to put our money where our mouth was, what did we say with all that possibility? Any truth?