Superheroes and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Test of First-Rate Intelligence

While reviewing Kick-Ass 2 for ebert.com—the place I used to go for the late great’s wonderful writing—Mr. Ali Arikan made some sweeping statements about superhero films that not only insulted the genre and its fans, but also undermined the whole fabric of pop culture and criticism. So let’s try and put the pieces back together.

It’s important to note that I don’t care a thing about Kick-Ass 2. If Arikan found it “reprehensible,” it’s his duty as a critic to shout that warning from the rooftops of the interweb. The big missteps start in his second paragraph, where he digresses to bemoan the perils of reviewing this kind of movie.

If a critic takes a superhero movie seriously and chastises it for its shortcomings, fans pounce with the age-old mantra: ‘It’s only a comic book film!’ But if the critic dismisses a superhero movie, the fans shout: “There is real meaning to this work, and you are biased.” As such, the critic can’t win.

First and foremost, Arikan’s complaint fails to acknowledge the great disparity in quality, when it comes to superhero movies. It’s true that if he were to chastise something like Green Lantern, some superfan unwilling to admit defeat would have no recourse but to fall back on “it’s only a comic book film.” It’s also true, though, that if he dismisses something like The Dark Knight as absurd (we’ll get to to that), we might be justified in suspecting the critic is biased against the genre.

But more crucially, does Arikan really believe that a critic wins if he manages to review a film without upsetting anyone? Is the ultimate goal of movie criticism to generate a comments section full of smiley faces and bereft of disagreement and fan-rage? Really, by this single complaint—that it’s hard to “win” when reviewing superhero movies—Arikan disqualifies himself as a suitable critic for this kind of pop. Still, let’s read on.

The superheroes present a very simple solution to the complexities of the modern world. The various shades of grey that line the surface of apparently ‘deeper’ superhero films, such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, are mere distractions from the utter ridiculousness of the core concept: a man in a costume fighting crime!

Though he only means to skewer superheroes here, Arikan unwittingly punctures the balloon that keeps elevated most popular stories. In one way or another, just about any story that ends properly offers “a simple solution to the complexities of the modern world.” Stories can’t go on for eighty years the way life does, so storytellers find ways to tie up the plot threads, allowing us all to get home at a decent hour. These are basics. Comedies end in beautiful weddings, tragedies end in somehow eloquent or cathartic deaths. If presenting simple solutions is sufficient grounds to condemn an entire genre, we can do away with horror films, romantic comedies, kids movies, and musicals. Resolution is not a sign of absurdity in a movie.

Perhaps he means that these movies present vigilantism as a viable option to its audience. If so, it’s a cheap shot, insinuating that superhero fans can’t filter fantasy out of reality. Do musicals present dancing through traffic as an effective means of mediating romantic conflict? They do not, though it’s true that I might try it if Gene Kelly made the recommendation.

Before getting back to the movie he’s actually there to review, Arikan makes another sweeping judgment, saying that “superheroes overpower their opponents with brute force, and as such are the most hideous display of power-worship.”

Let’s skip over correcting his usage of the phrase “as such” and deal with the blanket statement. Arikan has now implied, swipe by swipe, that The Dark Knight is a film about power worship that presents violence as a simple solution to the complexities of the modern world. I fear Arikan didn’t actually watch that movie, skipped the last half, or is just morally opposed to any story with even a hint of traditional heroism.

It’s perfectly alright if he is offended by King Arthur, Superman, Indiana Jones, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, and Tin Tin, but perhaps this further disqualifies him as a judge of superhero movies.

“As such,” Arikan writes, again misusing that phrase, “taking superhero fare seriously amplifies both its absurdity and fascist overtones.”

Now I’m running out of space, so I’m going to skip right over the fascist thing. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

To really enjoy and effectively discuss pop art like superhero movies, musicals, and video games, it seems you need that double-minded ability. Even at a young age, normally-functioning kids know that the toy they’re holding is made of plastic, but also that if that toy doesn’t fly ten laps around the bedroom in as many seconds, the world will explode. Likewise, when we watch Gene Kelly sing in the rain, most of us can entertain the thought this scene is absurd, while at the same time thinking this scene illustrates our human ability to project our emotions onto our environment, which might be a key to how we ever feel safe and happy on this impersonal planet.

At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I have to say it’s a shame that Roger Ebert’s reviews have been replaced by this breed of heavy-handed, narrow-minded, badly-worded sanctimony. If taking superhero fare seriously only amplifies its absurdity to you, it’s possible you’re watching a bad superhero movie, but it’s also possible you’ve flunked Fitzgerald’s test.

 
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