Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Problem with R-Rated Superheroes

Artwork from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, courtesy Warner Brothers
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will be rolling out to theaters later this month. But before the movie even lands in the local cineplex, there’s already buzz about what’ll be on the home video release: A big letter R.
According to, the “Ultimate Edition” of the movie will bear an R rating when it rolls out on DVD and Blu-Ray. Wolverine 3, due about this time next year, will also be shooting for an R. Many speculate that this could just be the beginning of a new wave of R-rated superhero stories. So prevalent is this sudden push for restricted ratings that Ant-Man director Peyton Reed suggested cheekily that this could be only the beginning. “Breaking: ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is going FULL NC-17,” he tweeted.
Some superhero fans, primed by the runaway success of the R-rated Deadpool, are excited to see superheroes go in a harsher, grittier, bloodier direction.
Don’t count me among them.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for a bit of grit in my superhero stories. I wrote a book on the spirituality of Batman, based largely on Christopher Nolan’s darkly terrific Dark Knight trilogy. I’m eagerly awaiting the premiere of Daredevil’s second season on Netflix—a show that walks the line between PG-13 and R. Even Captain America—as straight-laced a superhero as there is—seems to have gotten deeper as his movies have gotten darker.
But when moviemakers push these superheroes into ever more depressing landscapes, I think we risk losing what made them so super to begin with.
Every culture has its myths and legends, be they religious or secular, featuring brave and powerful heroes and heroines who fight for what that culture holds dear. Often these stories had a hint of history in them, but whether they were historical or not was really, in a sense, beside the point. These stories linked generations together and helped give shape to society. And as such, they were often designed to teach younger listeners something about the world and how they should behave within it.
Granted, the characters in these stories were often far from perfect—indeed, they often behaved quite imperfectly—there’s still an aspirational flavor to them. The Greeks had their Iliad and Odyssey and their pantheon of heroes. The English had King Arthur and his knights. And for more than 80 years now, America has had its superheroes.
Like many of their mythic predecessors, our superheroes are often demigods, graced with powers and skills unattainable to folks like us. And they, like Achilles and Lancelot, have their share of flaws.
And from the moment of their inception, they were made for kids. Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, comics weren’t the province of fortysomething guys wanting to add to their collection. Children bought them, saving their nickels to take home Superman’s latest adventures, or reading about the Fantastic Four in the corner drugstore.
Sure, I understand that comics don’t fit that mold anymore. According to a survey by DC (the folks behind Superman and Batman), 64 percent of comic-book buyers are between the ages of 35 and 64. Deadpool, who first appeared in 1991, was never a kiddie comic-book character. And as I’ve mentioned, there’s an upside with even traditional superheroes growing grittier and more complex.
But you don’t adult content to tell a mature story. You can add grit without adding dirt, and excellence does not require f-words.
And while comic books might be the providence of adults these days, the superheroes themselves—the Supermans, Batmans, even, I’d wager, the Wolverines—are still very much embraced by children.
Take a spin through the big box store, and you’ll find legions of superheroes stocking the shelves where kids tend to gather. X-Men action figures. Iron Man birthday streamers. Captain America lunchboxes. LEGO became the biggest toy company in the world, in part, by peddling superhero sets to legions of children and tweens.
Even now, when we talk about the influence of superheroes on the culture, we understand the innate moral authority that these (admittedly flawed) characters bring to the table. They teach us lessons (“With great power comes great responsibility,” Spider-Man tells us). They serve as symbols (For years, superhero fans thought it was a crime that Wonder Woman had been so spurned by Hollywood: Girls, they said, needed to see a female superhero on screen.) At their best, they serve as role models. Even Batman, the poster boy for flawed superherodom, suggests that there’s light and hope that can be found even in a dark, dark world. That’s a message that all of us could stand to hear.
Heroes, even in today’s culture, mean something—especially to children. And it seems that, when we make their worlds too dark or make the heroes too adult, We lose their ability to reach the audience that arguably needs them the most. And we’re not doing just a disservice to kids. We’re doing a disservice to the superheroes themselves.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

X-Files: Signs of Promise

Much has been written about the greatness of The X-Files—how the original series revolutionized television, laying the foundation on which much of today’s prestige TV is built. It was, also, a deeply spiritual show—probing belief, faith and the supernatural in ways really unheard of on television at the time. And when Fox announced that it was going to bring Mulder and Scully back to the small screen for a six-episode season, I was pretty excited.
I was underwhelmed with the first episode of the new six-episode season, “My Struggle:” So much to set up, so little time. But “The Founder’s Mutation”—though far more graphic—hinted that Fox’s new iteration of this legendary show may have some fangs yet. Indeed, it may even be more ambitious than the first.
The new world in which Mulder and Scully inhabit is an even more difficult to have faith in much of anything. “I only want to believe,” Mulder says in the opening episode. “Real proof has been strangely hard to come by.” Forget probe-happy aliens or contortionist monsters: So far, the show’s big bogeymen have been all-too human. And so far, it seems, their evil is rooted (as it often historically is in the show) in a certain desire to play God.
Dr. Augustus Goldman in “The Founder’s Mutation” is just such a man. In the episode’s opening minutes, he seems to be akin to an aloof cult leader, or perhaps even a distant god. He’s called “the Founder” in near reverential terms, and he seems to speak through a proxy—a prophet, if you will, in a suit and tie—informing the Founder’s underlings that he (the Founder) is displeased with their work. But that’s all the Founder’s spokesman will volunteer right now, leaving the minions frustrated and confused.
“We need more than just pronouncements from above,” one exclaims. “We need direction!”
But gods don’t work that way. It’s only when one of the scientists working for him, hearing voices inside his head, kills himself (with a highly disturbing letter opener to the ear) that Goldman is at all touched by the world he helped create. And even though the scientist is well insulated, Scully and Mulder eventually find a way to talk with the guy through a bit of intercession—provided by, perhaps significantly, the Catholic Church. Or, more specifically, by Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital at which Scully has worked a number of years.
Now, a quick step back to the episode’s title—”The Founder’s Mutation.” A founder mutation is a critical component of evolution, according to Mulder. Evolutionary theory is based on the idea that life is a product of such mutations. Most are discarded by nature. But a few beneficial ones hang on and are passed to a new generation, and it’s that process that pushes evolution along. The doomed researcher wrote the phrase on his hand right before he killed himself, and it’s interesting that throughout the episode, we see pop-culture allusions to our own mutative development: An old Planet of the Apes movie plays in the background at a hospital. Mulder watches the opening scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where early, hairy proto-people discover the black monolith (tellingly mispronounced as “mono-myth” by his … son. More on that later).
But the episode’s name may have a deeper meaning. I’ll just let Entertainment Weekly’s great Jeff Jensen explain further:
“Founder’s Mutation” doesn’t just evoke evolution, but the concept that humanity, corrupted by sin, represents a deviation God’s original design. It turned out that Dr. Goldman was one of Our Sorrows’ biggest donors; he was underwriting the maternity ward. In return, Our Lady fed him patients/test subjects for his work — specifically, children born with genetic abnormalities. Sister Mary characterized the pregnant women in their care as “unfortunate or damaged” as a result of drugs, alcohol, or bad choices with bad men. “Desire is the devil’s pitchfork,” she said. And later: “But as long as there is an innocent child involved, we’ll provide for each and every one [of these women.]” In an episode in which several of the characters Mulder and Scully encountered were basically some coarse, corrupt, or cautionary tale analogs of themselves, Sister Mary represented a bad, backward formulation of Scully’s religious faith.
This makes it ever-so interesting that Catholicism serves as an intermediary between the investigation and, to this point, the unreachable Dr. Goldman. Interesting, but troubling. While the new iteration of The X-Files clearly plans to challenge a bevy of institutions, I don’t want to see the Church demonized or for Scully lose her Catholic faith. It’s intrinsic to her character and, by extension, critical to the success of the show. The fact that she’s respectful both of empirical fact and spiritual hope makes her a bit of a role model, I think, to Christians like me.
But we’ll see how those themes develop as the series goes on. It appears that The X-Files has big aspirations, and it could be the most interesting philosophical/theological romp since Lost. Here’s to hoping, anyway.
(A postscript: What’s up with Scully and Mulder’s kid? I would’ve written them off as simply wistful thoughts of what-might-have-been, but the fact the child’s story arc in both Mulder’s and Scully’s alternative world turned seriously creepy may suggest otherwise.)