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Superheroes versus Tragedy

Since much has been made about superhero films as modern American mythology, a deeper comparison between ancient myths and these modern ‘epics’ might be warranted. Specifically, with the Ancient Greek tragedies, which provide a perfect contrast with the infantile passion plays Hollywood regurgitates into the eager open mouths of its soyboy followers, like a bird feeding its chick.

Even the passion play comparison is giving the superhero film too much credit. The biblical stories retold through passion plays are of far greater literary and cultural value, and while the illiteracy of their peasant viewers was mostly no fault of their own, modern soyboys are willing accessories to their own intellectual retardation. The basic plot of the superhero film is goodie against baddie. This is the easiest kind of story to tell, and more of the work falls on the CGI studios tasked with filling in the two to three hours with fight scenes than to the writers. The goodies always win in the end, and the baddies lose. Good triumphs over evil and the audience walks away feeling that all is well with the world. It’s much like the older opiate for the masses (to quote Karl Marx), religion, except the source material is so tightly controlled one need not worry about the masses misinterpreting it and turning on their masters. Ancient texts have nothing on screenplays!

The simple goodie versus baddie plots also allow for the laziest kind of moralising. Simply dress up the goodies in whatever idea you wish to promote and the baddies in whichever idea you want demonised. While passion plays had some variety in the evil they condemned, with audiences taught the dangers of everything from lying to sexual infidelity to blasphemy, the evil in these modern performances always comes down to white men, or ‘white supremacist patriarchy’ in respectable cant. It is so shallow that moral the messaging could be reversed with so little effort as switching the costumes so Wonderwoman fights for, instead of against, the Third Reich.

The Ancient tragedies couldn’t be more different. There were protagonists and antagonists, but no villains. Deciding which character was in the right at the end was besides the point, because these stories were about people trying to live as rightly as they could in a world of eternal struggle, and inevitably clashing up against others doing the same. The audience came away sobered by tales of good men bringing each other and themselves low, and through actions that would seem just to any spiritually healthy person in their circumstances.

In Antigone both the titular character and the antagonist, Creon, are heroes. The story is not good against evil, but a good king against a good woman. The conflict is between two virtues; filial piety against the public interest. When Antigone‘s two brothers selfishly slay each other over the crown, their uncle, Creon, declares that the one that defended the city will be buried with honours, while the one that attempted to seize the city with the help of a foreign army be left to the dogs. In forsaking his own kin Creon is guilty only of patriotism and devotion to the greater good. But when his niece Antigone cannot leave her brother to the wolves and buries him in defiance of her uncle, he has her sealed in a cave to die. Though he understands that her only crime was devotion to her family, he places the public good over his own family. To be a good king is to condemn a good woman to her death. To be a good woman is to betray one’s sovereign. There is no moral conundrum here, just tragedy.

No doubt a modern audience would re├Ąct with confused anger to the story. There isn’t a happy ending, nor could there be. The actions of the characters, and the results, were preordained by their own true natures. And those true natures are good, healthy ones. The world is not always happy, and good, even exemplary people, even kin, must sometimes fight. That is the moral of the story, and it is as tragic as Antigone’s fate. A soyboy that never intellectually matured past twelve could never understand or appreciate that.

Medea is one of the greatest stories ever told, but the soyboy in search of goodguys and badguys trying to make sense of the story could only come away with ‘you go girl!’ and no real appreciation either of the play or Medea’s pain. Medea, a barbarian princess, betrays her country and family for the Greek hero Jason, only for him to set her aside like yesterday’s lunch for a Greek princess. Devastated, Medea gets revenge through the most abominable act under the Ancient Greek moral worldview; she slays her own children she had with Jason. The genius of the play is that it makes the audience sympathise with Medea. Despite her divine pedigree, Medea is one of the most human characters in all of recorded literature. Betraying her family out of love, she is in turn betrayed and humiliated by her love.

Such a story is impossible for a soyboy to appreciate. There is no happy end, nor could there be. Medea survives but doubtless spends the rest of her days in agony over her lost children and husband, her only victory lay in forcing the same on Jason. And her only alternative was to live out the rest of her days in humiliation and jealousy as she took second place to Jason’s new wife.

Nothing misses the point more than the feminist analysises of the story as a kind of blow against patriarchy. What they could never understand is the lesson of tragedy; the world is not ours to fix. Not every tragedy is preventable, or the fault of a clear villain, or a call for social reform. Not everyone can win, and sometimes winning can be as bitter as losing. That is the takeaway, and it is too bitter for the soft Marvel fan raised on sugary drinks.

For the bugman, breastfed Jewish media since he could see and hear, the world ought to be without unpleasantness or grief. Because he can’t accept the world for what it is, he needs a scapegoat for why it is not the nice safe playground he thinks it ought to be. And that is where the baddies come in. Those that think unlike him, that are intellectually developed enough to accept reality, are actually monstrous villains making the world imperfect. And the same Jewish media that has kept him in a state of arrested development provides him with catharsis. He gets to see those baddies beaten by heroes with values as lacking as his own but with superhuman prowess. In watching a superhero film he gets to enjoy a feedback loop as sick as any Weimar sex act; he is fed the twisted morality and gets to enjoy watching the Hulk smash those reperseting health at the same time.

What could be more alien to the soyboy and his Marvel films than Antigone sacrificing her life to fulfill her female duty to her family, or Orestes slaying his own mother to win vengeance for his father, or Menoeceus dying for the good of Thebes? Nothing.

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