I’ve been a Marvel fan over DC since I started reading comics—the first single issues I ever bought were the starts of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel run and Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye. Marvel continues to put out some amazing, progressive, and inclusive stories from its B-list characters, but at the same time it’s also putting out some of the most tone-deaf unpleasantness I’ve ever seen from a major media company in its flagship titles. What’s most frustrating in this whole complex fiasco is that, in making these terrible writing choices, Marvel is not just being problematic and offensive, but is actually dramatically undermining the entire history of the characters they’re messing with.
I’ve been reading about the impact of Donald Trump’s “anti-war” message in the 2016 election campaign, and I’m only now beginning to make sense of it. Trump is obviously no pacifist: he repeatedly advocates violence as a solution to global problems, often extreme violence.
But by opposing the Iraq War—or rather, by claiming to have done so from the start—Trump staked out an unusual position for a right-wing candidate. This should have been a liability: how can a Republican run so far from the party’s last president, much less hold that position against a Democratic critique? Yet it was enough to give Trump a victory.
The only way I’ve been able to cut through it is by looking at John Rambo, and the complex critique of the Vietnam War in First Blood and its sequels, even as they lionized the consummate American soldier. Rambo offered a vision of America so contrary to Marvel’s Steve Rogers, that it’s easy to forget that the two protagonists tread very similar paths.
By centering Captain America, rather than Rambo, as the ultimate American warrior, I missed the potency and dangers of Trump’s argument. And not for nothing did Chris Evans back Hillary, while Sylvester Stallone sided with the president-elect.
Plenty has already been said about heroes and anti-heroes. Superman was created over seventy-five years ago, and yet America today prefers its heroes to have a bit more grit, like Tony Stark. What’s undeniable is that a dichotomy exists between light heroes and dark heroes. It’s a way of looking at protagonists that has ancient roots, but manifests differently in male and female characters.
The light and dark dichotomy is very old and very ingrained in our storytelling traditions. On the surface, “light” stereotypes give the character traits that are traditionally associated with positive ideas and symbolism. More often than not these characters will wear white or light colors, have light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. “Dark” characters tend to have dark hair, skin, eyes, and clothing. This color dichotomy is associated with good and evil, for religious and historical reasons. If you don’t have electricity you can be more productive when the sun’s out, while it’s easier for robbers and rule-breakers to hide in the cover of night. White is associated with purity and goodness, especially in Christianity, while black is associated with evil and the consequences of evil (like sin and death).
While light heroes cling to a traditional morality, dark heroes have a more subversive attitude. There’s something bad or wrong or broken with a dark character, which is usually the source of their darkness. Men tend to be gallant, chivalrous heroes or troubled rogues, while women tend to be virginal maidens or seductive vamps. It’s taken generations to move beyond this rigid dichotomy, giving the light and dark new and interesting implications. But if we really care about smashing gender stereotypes, we need to move beyond the light and dark gender axis. Both Luke Cage and Jessica Jones from Marvel’s respective Netflix series take the light and dark dichotomies and smash them to bits.
Spoilers for all of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones below.
Sexism is something all of us here at LGG&F are familiar with. Positive gender dynamics, or the relationships between people of different genders, is an important component of feminist storytelling. We all know that the messages we consume in our favorite media will normalize positive behaviors and ideas, or negative ones. That’s why it’s so important that everyone gets fair representation, and everyone gets treated like a human being, not an object. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case, even in geekdom. More often than not, men are treated like people and women are treated like objects: by the plot, by other characters, and in real life. Recently I stumbled upon a particular trope that is especially good at articulating this double standard: “Men get old. Women get replaced.” Not only do some of the most popular geeky stories take this trope for granted, but incorporate it into the basic plot structure.
Spoilers for the Captain America movies, Doctor Who, and The Legend of Korra after the jump.
So, I have to tell you how happy I am to be able to keep this series going by jumping from Ned and Catelyn to Iron Man himself, Tony Stark. That happy little coincidence would justify this post on its own, but worry not friends, I have actual points as well!
We’ve covered Captain America: Civil War a bit so far, but we’ve been light on the endorsements. And I certainly can’t speak for the entire LGG group here, but while I admit that there is no way I could ever say no to Steve Rogers if he asked for my help, when you give me a moment or two to think it through, I’m with Tony.
Readers, life is great! The Rogue One trailer was cool, Captain America: Civil War was awesome, and there is a brand new set of Splatoon based Amiibo. Included are a set of the Squid Sisters who are very adorable, and a recolor set of the original girl, squid, and boy. Imagine my excitement when I saw that the new palette for the boy was a Black Inkling! I was incredibly hyped. But then as I looked back at the girl Inkling, I made an unfortunate observation: there is a striking lack of women of color in a lot of our media.
Captain America: Civil War is the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has also tacked on an additional nine seasons of television, between four series, with more on the way. If nothing else, it’s an incredible feat to keep producing quality stories, and Civil War may even top everything that came before it.
The movie has considerable moral and philosophical heft, which it accomplishes by asking difficult questions about right and wrong. What makes it unique, especially in the current media landscape, is that it achieves this without turning its protagonists into antiheroes. We’re not asked to accept a series of atrocities in service of the greater good, or weigh the need to tamp down our emotional attachments to do what needs to be done. Simultaneously, we’re not asked to see goodness as simple and self-evident.
Instead, we get a smart, nuanced contest of ideas between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, with a conclusion that’s ultimately ambiguous. Despite the high stakes and increasing violence between their factions, the audience is never asked to see either superhero as corrupt or shortsighted or evil. Neither is brainwashed or deceived or misunderstood. The audience sees both as they see themselves, and as they see each other: as good men who have reached incompatible conclusions about how to do the right thing, who are heartbroken by their conflict.
Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War after the jump!