Saturday, November 7, 2009

SUPERVILLAINS AND PHILOSOPHY: "The Supervillains Have Won..."

"I'm going to tell you the most important secret in modern comic books: the supervillains have won."
-Ben Dyer

In the comments of his review of the Saw movie franchise, Landon writes of the film's villain/anti-hero Jigsaw: "Unlike many people, I can never bring myself to truly think of Jigsaw as a villain, but he is, at the very least, most certainly an anti-hero."

Landon and I disagree on the status of Jigsaw as a "villain" (he can't come to see Jigsaw as a "straight-on villain," and I make my arguments in the comment section of that post.) But I had to laugh ironically at this: "He's the ultimate scene stealing villain without an 'anemic' hero in sight. And at the end of the day he's the supervillain who won the culture wars." Ironically, because I was planning a review at the same time of the recently published Supervillains and Philosophy: Sometimes Evil Is Its Own Reward, a sequel to the Superheroes and Philosophy book in the Popular Culture and Philosophy series. In the intro, I had planned to quote editor Ben Dyer's opening salvo:

"I'm going to tell you the most important secret in modern comic books: the supervillains have won."

Synchronicity? That would suggest something acausal. But as Dyer will explain for me, there is most certainly a cause:
It did not happen in a massive battle that no one remembers, and it's not the result of hidden schemes concocted by secret puppet masters. It happened in comic ship conversations and writer's rooms in the 1970's and 1980's as the kids who'd started reading Silver Age comics in the Sixties began to grow up. As those kids' innocence gave way to adult maturity, they brought their funny books with them from childhood, and they forced their heroes to grow up too.

"Since then, the cri de coeur of the comics literati is that our superheroes have feet of clay, and a sidelong glance at the heroes of the Silver Age reveals battle scars of an entirely different kind."
After listing a litany of sins, Dyer adds that "(n)o supervillain ever accomplished so much. It had to be us."

In contrast, "It's obvious that supervillains haven't fared as poorly. On those infrequent occasions where they take center stage, supervillains are humanized and sympathetic, and they might have been us but for an untimely accident or mischance." Or, as Ayn Rand said of her tragic character Gail Wynand, "a man who could have been."

Even though I disagree with Landon's portrayal of Jigsaw's status as a villain, I do see the logic behind it: Jigsaw is not simply a villain, but a dark, twisted funhouse-mirror reflection of the idea of justice. (Again, that argument is fleshed out in the comments of that post.) But Landon, whose judgment, he admits, is one made on a sliding scale, also laments the fact that, "As such, this villain is more of a hero than many heroes... which isn't necessarily a good thing." Again, this sentiment is paralleled by Dyer, who says "that supervillains are now barely distinct from their superheroic counterparts is a criminal lapse in judgement..."

Dyer goes on to say that "the source of that important mistake is quite subtle. Stan Lee once said that the most important character in any comic is the supervillain." In Lee's words, "Sure, you always need the hero, but ask yourself this: how eager would you be to read about a superhero who fought litterbugs, jaywalkers, or income-tax evaders?"

Dyer quickly counters this:
"Stan's exactly right that each and every villain...should be as formidable as the hero's powers are extraordinary. But it's not the powers that make someone a hero, it's the character beneath the cowl. The same is true of supervillains. Today's supervillains wield powers and abilities that make them every bit the superhero's equal in physical power, but where is the moral or existential challenge to match the modern superhero's new psychology? Tragically, there is very little contrast left between the moral cynicism of modern narratives and the sympathetic lens through which we encounter the modern supervillain."

Here, I disagree (as usual) with Stan Lee, and agree with Dyer. Indeed, WHERE is the moral or existential challenge to the superhero's anemic new psychology? Well, in the aforementioned comments section, I play devil's advocate for Landon's view, arguing that Jigsaw can possibly be viewed as a metaphorical force of nature, or a "trickster," an amoral figure who appears at life's crossroads when traditional morality prevents a traveler from making a choice, and "gets things going again." Nietzsche, in The Antichrist, called this the "transvaluation of values." I don't know that Jigsaw fits this that well; he's more a dark reflection, rather than a true challenger, of conventional morality. But, at the very least, it does parallel the idea that when traditional morality prevents life from going forward, the solution may come from the unlikeliest sources, and explains why we may come to see villains as heroes. (Even an author like Ayn Rand, who disagrees with Nietzsche fundamentally, came to invert traditionally villainous characters into heroes in her challenging of "two-thousand years of Christianity.")

At any rate, Dyer's query and comment about "the moral cynicism of modern narratives" answers why Landon's examination of Jigsaw's status through a "sympathetic lens" is even possible. It is because, as both have stated, the supervillain has, at this point, won the culture wars; it is why this blog is subtitled "For Heroes in Exile." But, to answer Dyer's query on the location of "the moral or existential challenge to match the modern superhero's new psychology," I contend that the answer is in Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which improves upon Nietzsche's "transvaluation of values" without the need to become the "twisted mirror of justice" of Jigsaw or succumb to the amoralism of the classical Trickster figure.


Ben Dyer said...

Thanks for the kind words! I like the concept of your blog, and would love to hear more about how you guys thought about some of the book's other essays.

I can't say I've seen the Saw movies (I'm rather averse to that particular brand of horror), but I think there are good reasons to class Jigsaw a villain, even though he offers a rationale for his acts. Since you mention Rand, she certainly would have objected to the use of paternalistic coercion as an alternative to rational persuasion. Jigsaw's failure of means-ends reasoning is what compromises him as a candidate (anti-)hero probably.

As long as we're on this topic, one of the interesting things I've noticed about slasher-type horror movies (among the limited number that I've seen) is that they frequently attempt to moralize the killer's violence by compromising the "innocence" of the innocent victims. (Those two kids who snuck out for a midnight rendezvous had it coming, you see.) Doesn't this kind of writing seem to warp our sense of proportional sanction?

Anyway, glad you liked the intro, hope you liked the rest too.


Joe Maurone said...

Hi, Ben, and likewise, thanks for finding us. I found your intro essay an interesting companion piece to Peter David's essay on villains in a Wizard magazine special edition dedicated to villains, The Dark Book. In that, he writes that "Superheroes have one purpose: to stop the villains." In other words, in the older myths, heroes initiated the action, while the villains got in the way, but in comics, the opposite is true.

I think THAT is part of what is tempting about seeing Jigsaw as a hero, or at least, the protaganist. Not that he's good, but that he's the one initiating the action. There is something similar to the depiction of Dr. Doom in his actions, in the paternalistic sense, (or, as one of the essays in your book calls him, the "benevolent despot.") Devil's advocacy aside, though, I'm in agreement that Jigsaw IS a villain, and certainly evil, and I agree that Rand would have objected to "the use of paternalistic coercion as an alternative to rational persuasion." (Certainly she'd categorize this as part of the "malevolent universe premise." And she demolishes the arguments of seeing "benevolent despots" as heroes...sorry, Doctor. Doom.)

As for the other essays, they were all thought-provoking (like most of the books in the series! I can't believe how far they've come.) I personally was fascinated with the essay on Wanted; when time permits, I'd like to comment on that.

Again, thanks for finding us, and great job to you and all the writers on Supervillains and Philosophy.