I don’t understand the world most days, nor do I try to, which may explain my Walter-Mittiesque obsession with cinema. Not only is film my escape from reality, it is also how I try to make sense of the world. It’s quite possibly a rare form of autism where I can only process my emotions via cinematic reflection, but more than likely it’s just my toxic-masculine programming making it impossible for me to relay my feelings. Either way, the movies have taught me more than the US education system ever could. Film informs my very character. However, real world events this past month have completely shaken my grasp on cinematic reality, and have sent my moral compass spiraling out of control. I don’t know which way is Russ Meyer’s Up! and which way is Downton Abbey.
Good versus evil is the fundamental story and zenith of Campbellian monomythology. It’s the story trope every child in every corner of the world learns. It’s just so incredibly and universally simple, that I was deceived to believe we all had the same simple understanding.
Let’s take Star Wars for example, mostly because it doesn’t even bother naming its sides more than light and dark. It’s become so painfully obvious who is good or bad, that Sith Lords actually walk around saying they are dark-side. Now, when my left-leaning brain sees these movies, it is unquestionably clear that the Sith Empire is a fascist regime, not only by the empire’s tyrannical dictator, but also its rigid hierarchy, Hugo Boss authoritarian-chic attire, and utilitarian brutalist architecture. Opposite to them was the Republic, a representative democracy, a.k.a. the United States, European Union, United Nations, or any other legislative assembly succumbing to inefficiency, impasse, and corruption. Now, I thought this was very clear and if you asked any person on the street to relate Star Wars to world politics they would say the same, right?
That’s what I thought until January 6th, when a man wearing Captain America apparel stormed the capital. No, he’s not in Star Wars, but Captain America is equally basic, if not the most basic version of a good guy the world has ever known. A soldier that loves America in a wholesome Christian way. Someone who even my anti-military-industrial-vatican-complex couldn’t manage to dislike. Now, I’m assuming that these men, who were off to storm the capitol, were not making any more fashion statements than red-white-and-blue.That specific shirt probably was the only thing he had in his closet with all the colors necessary to storm a capitol. His shirt could have as easily been Pepsi-Cola, or less likely the Kool-Aid Man, though he did have a knack for busting down walls, or, even less likely, but maybe ironic to their flat earth views, a NASA tee-shirt. What is certain is he would have definitely worn a graphic tee and his unintentional selection of the shirt multiplies his genuine love for Captain America. This man bought that shirt for a reason. But when he wore that shirt at that very moment it actually broke my heart. His Captain America is not MY Captain America. Unfortunately, I thought we at least shared that. I hoped that we all enjoyed the same movie and the core values ingrained in them, I hoped that resonated through political lines. It was like sharing your action figure with your play-buddy and then he incepts the doll with racist thoughts and plays immigration police. Or, alternatively, staging a donkey show with your My Little Pony, after which the toy just feels tainted. Bill Cosbied even.
Despite all their monomythlogicalness, these films are still ambiguous, empty calories, cheap thrills, amusement park rides (except for Thor by Taika Waititi because that man is a genius-saint-legend of a man who understands the trifecta: pathos, laughter, and badassery (and you can’t tell me any different)). People often call for superheroes to be treated with greater respect and to be lauded as modern mythology. However, myths generally serve to transmit a certain value or social protocol. So if that’s the case, what do our modern myths teach us?
All I suggest is wait and hope that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune captures all the complex value system Frank Herbert laid out, rather than being just a fancy CGI explosion montage in space and fail us like we all know it will. Otherwise, til then and after, just watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for your daily source of ethics. You won’t be disappointed.