It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s an Ethical Vernacular!

The response to Squelchtoad’s thought experiment has been delayed until tomorrow (I got a little snowed under by Udacity).  I’ve been doing a number of replies in the comments of that post, and I’ll have something more coherent for you tomorrow.  To tide you over, I’ve got a couple quick thoughts on a defense of superhero movies written by the guy playing Loki in the Avengers.  Quoth he:

[S]uperhero films offer a shared, faithless, modern mythology, through which these truths can be explored. In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out. Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the deaths of kings – stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility. It’s the everyday stuff of every man’s life, and we love it. It sounds cliched, but superheroes can be lonely, vain, arrogant and proud. Often they overcome these human frailties for the greater good. The possibility of redemption is right around the corner, but we have to earn it.

I’m already looking forward to Avengers (the duct tape I need for my costume arrived this week) and I like a lot of what Loki is saying here.  It can be a struggle to find a set of shared cultural references when you want to thrash out ethics with someone.  You need some kind of vernacular so your abstract philosophical discussions don’t become totally unmoored.

Because of my age, I’ve mostly had this experience with Harry Potter.  Everyone I went to school with read the books, so asking someone whether they thought Snape would turn out all right in the the end was a guaranteed conversation starter.  Because of the moral dimensions of the story, it was a particularly helpful philosophical lingua franca, but I’m broadly in agreement with Richard Feynmann that “Everything is interesting if you look closely enough.”  (Though some works may currently be beyond the reach of even James Cameron’s meaning-seeking submersibles).

This is something I do quite like about the liturgical calendar.  Back when I was still dating my Catholic ex-boyfriend, we could call each other on Sundays and discuss the readings we’d heard at Mass.  The homilies could vary a lot, but the calendar of readings meant we were always in sync and primed for conversation.

In a pluralistic society, Loki is correct that we don’t have many shared references to draw on, so we should be more attentive to the opportunities for conversation sparked by blockbusters.  In high school, I used the recaps on Television without Pity to be able to keep up with conversations, because even if I didn’t like the show in question, I was probably interested in some of the questions it raised.  There’s plenty of use in recruiting other people to read and watch other works, but we can do a lot with the tools that are available.


Recommended reading: First year teacher Ferny talks about the extent to which his job as a social studies teacher is just as much about cultural literacy as it is about historical fact.

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  • I’ve been saying for a while that superhero movies are our version of the ancient epics, and people just laugh.

  • Joe
  • “(Though some works may currently be beyond the reach of even James Cameron’s meaning-seeking submersibles).”

    The interesting things you find are not always “meanings”. That is, the author may not have put them there.

    Otherwise, the only thing I have to say about this is that it creeps me right out whenever anyone says that a culture, nation, etc. has “shared hopes.” Not by a long shot. The best was can hope for is shared points of reference, which is what you’re talking about, and what Loki winds up talking about. It’s not what he starts talking about.

  • My non-religious students always like Spiderman’s Uncle Ben’s remark that “with great power comes great responsibility” when I bring it up in class. For some reason it’s easier than Jesus saying “to whom much is given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48).
    Partly it’s that the common narrative of Christianity has been lost, and the movies are now the next best thing.

  • The superhero movie that most hit me like this was The Watchmen. It ends with the sacrifice of Manhattan’s reputation and continued existence on earth. He was the only supernatural one, and he was detached from human feelings, which is often a view people hold of God.

    Rorschach was the “fundamentalist” with an absolute moral view, rather than the fluid moral objectivity that seems to be a part of human culture, the old rules maybe don’t work so well, so we should revise them. Of course for the plan to work, he had to go, and he became another sacrifice, a martyr for his beliefs.

    The moral dilemma the other “heroes” found themselves in due to the thinking of the initially abhorent case put forward by Ozimandias, was interesting. Would you help an old man onto a boat with a bunch of kids if his weight would cause it to sink? Would you toss him off if he was on and going to cause it to sink? All they had to do was nothing, what if he’d asked them to “pull the trigger.” This leaves us wondering, does one cling to their perception of right and wrong, even if wrong seems to lead to the greater good?

    As a Christian, I think to push the comparisons to far could be dangerous, but I do think it provides a stamping ground where people of different belief systems can talk about morality faith and belief without directly attacking each others beliefs.

  • deiseach

    I wonder about a shared vocabulary of meaning. I think there is a change between generations (and it’s not just because I’m old enough to be the mother of a lot of those I interact with online). Taking superhero movies as an example, in that vein of “the good guys versus the bad guys” and we all know how it’s supposed to work, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

    What makes me say that is a discussion about a 70s English tv crime-action show called “The Professionals”, where the episode being discussed involved the bad guys using dum-dum ammo and the good guys disapproving of this. The comments revolved around (what to me) was absolute incomprehension of this, perhaps largely because these were younger American fans whose experience was an armed police force as the norm, but they could not understand why the older guy (and one of the younger guys on the team) were both agreeing that hollow-point ammo was nasty. They were law enforcement! Shouldn’t they be using the most effective ammo? (To quote Wikipedia on this: “(H)ollow-point bullets are one of the most common types of civilian and police ammunition, due largely to the reduced risk of bystanders being hit by over-penetrating or ricocheted bullets, and the increased speed of incapacitation. )

    And anyway, they would be shooting the bad guys, so if it comes down to it, you want a stopper – and if that means a bullet blows off an arm or a leg, so be it. What was the big deal?

    I didn’t contribute, because I didn’t think I could explain: it truly was borne in upon me that the past is indeed a foreign country. I was just old enough to have been brought up with the tail-end of the ideals expressed by the characters in the programme, but the children born in the 80s and 90s had missed all that.

    It wasn’t a simple case of black-and-white morality on the one hand versus the nuanced shades of gray, either; while there may have seemed to be a more practical or utilitarian or pragmatic attitude at work, there was also an equal black-and-white division of bad guys and good guys. But for the older generation, there were some things good guys did not do; for the younger, it seems more like anything is justified if it is done against the bad guys.

    All of which is only to say that shared cultural referents may not be as shared as made out; Old Fogey and Young Whippersnapper may both agree that Batman is the good guy and the Joker is the villain, but for Young Whippersnapper the movie ending may be spoiled because he can’t understand why Batman doesn’t use his martial arts skills to snap Joker’s neck in their climactic fight – after all, sparing this incurably insane super-criminal to pack him off to Arkham Asylum from which he will only escape again just means that more innocent people will be killed in future, so why doesn’t Bats just off him when he gets the chance?

  • Sean

    > stories that taught us of the danger of hubris
    Yes: Oedipus, Achilles, Odysseus, Bellerophon, Gilgamesh, et. al.
    > and the primacy of humility
    No. Excessive pride was punished, but the contrary — humility as such — was not rewarded.