I took Ryder to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings last Thursday. It was the first time either of us has been inside a movie theatre in almost two years, thanks to… the world, you know, that shit. I’ll expound on the movie itself and other things in a minute, but first, let me say how exhilarating it was to actually be inside a movie theatre again. These places have always been my haven, my escape, the place I felt the most secure, and I’ve missed it dearly during the COVID times. We went on a late weeknight on purpose – I wasn’t about to try to see it on opening weekend, especially a Marvel opening weekend post-reopening, plus I’d rather to go the movies without crowds even before worldwide pandemics made that dangerous. I love being one of only a few people, it not the only person, in a dark theatre. It really satisfies my need for solitude while also feeding me the stories I love. There were maybe 30 people in a theatre built for at least 500, so we had plenty of room to ourselves. We sat on the top back row, and the people closest to us were a good twelve seats away. Safe distance for an eleven-year-old with severe COVID anxiety (waitin’ on October 31, y’all, waitin’). But more than anything, it was the reinstatement of our father-son ritual: going to the movies, me and Ryder.
And we had a blast. The movie is a spectacular in every sense of the word. Plot holes? Sure. Questionable character arcs? Natch. Bloated, overlong action sequences? In my opinion (and Ryder’s), yes. But it was a helluva fun ride, gorgeously shot and executed, and a story with a decent, if not slightly trite, message about family. I won’t throw in any spoilers, despite my desire to critique and dissect, but it’s a solid, worth-the-ticket summer blockbuster and an excellent next step in the progression of the MCU franchise. And I loved seeing it with my son, especially now that he’s old enough to really dig into the movie as a film, not just a fun way to spend two hours. He had opinions about the storytelling, thoughts about the execution of the movie itself, and even questions on the process. It was a gas, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the young man my son is becoming. He’s gonna be fascinating – well, he’s already fascinating, but I can’t wait to see what else he does.
But back to the movie: I want to talk about a specific thought I had about midway through the film, mid-action scene. I was watching Lethal Weapon on HBO Max, because yes, and it was a gas. Dated, sure, a little cringey due to Mel’s current status in the public view, but still a fun, ridiculous nostalgia ride into the 80s action cinema of my youth. And, it still has one of my favorite lines ever spoken in a movie, but you’ll have to ask me about that some other time. But there was another line from that seminal action movie that resonated with me, and that somehow came to mind as I watch Shang-Chi beat the piss out of multiple trained assassins while swinging on scaffolding fifteen stories above the street in Macau. Danny Glover is being tortured by the bad guy, and said bad guy is about to do something nasty to his daughter. Glover, being the good guy, says, “I”m warning you: Don’t”, to which Bad Guy replies, “Spare me, son. It’s over, There are no heroes left in the world.”
At which point, of course, Mel comes charging through the door with dead Bad Guy #2 over his shoulder, throwing the body into Bad Guy #3, then killing Bad Guys #3, 4, 5 and (probably) 6 in quick succession, all while just wearing soggy jeans, which, if you’ve ever worn wet jeans, you know is absolute torture itself. But it was the last line that popped into my head during Shang-Chi: There are no heroes left in the world.
I suddenly had a thought about all Marvel movies (and pretty much all action movies in general), and it had to do with heroes. Yes, you can talk about how these movies boil problems down into Good vs, Evil, you can talk about how regular people aren’t represented in the genre – i.e., you don’t see anyone onscreen that isn’t exceptional doing anything but getting killed or saved from being killed; you can talk about how superheroes can represent a new form of elite ruling class; you can posit (as Marc Maron does) that the popularity of these movies is due to a refusal of its fanbase to grow up and deal with reality. You can talk about all of that, and toxic fandom is some absolute bullshit, I will readily agree. But my thought was basically this: at the moment, we don’t seem to have too many real-life heroes in the world. Obama was an icon for a generation of Americans, but even his shine has worn off post-presidency due to some of his questionable decisions as well as his reluctance to engage in politics in the post-Trump era, when left-leaning people could most definitely use a hero. Biden was the better choice in 2020, but he wasn’t really who I thought was the best choice for the job of defeating Trump, and he isn’t nearly as inspiring as Obama was. So where do we turn for heroes if we can’t find them in real life?
Fiction. Where else?
And I find this comforting. I wrote about my love for Superman way back in 2013 in the early days of this blog, but I’ll quickly reiterate what I said there: comic books and superheroes are the foundation of my entire sense of morality. Superman specifically, but really just the idea that there were people in the world who would stand up and do the right thing simply because it was the right thing. Not expecting reward, not looking for a way to profit, not even expecting a thank you. Just simply a good samaritan, an altruist, a decent human being who would step in to help when help was needed. I stand by that. Hero stories resonate with us because they remind us that heroes SHOULD exist, that there ARE things worth fighting for, and that you should always, ALWAYS, stand up to bullies, whether you have superpowers or not.
Superheroes aren’t supposed to be real people, despite the excellent job Marvel has always done of giving them flaws and honest human personalities. They’re supposed to represent the best versions of humanity, the kind of people we aspire to be. And we NEED them right now. We NEED solid examples of people willing to do what is necessary and good for society, because so many of us seem to be stuck in a place of absolute selfishness, not caring at all about what others might need and only concerned with what THEY want RIGHT NOW. It’s upsetting, demoralizing, and incredibly ironic considering how much we claim to love “heroes” in this society.
This became glaringly evident recently at school. The day after I took Ryder to the theatre was September 10, and the elementary school the boys go to celebrated “Patriot Day” for the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. I honestly don’t know if this is an actual national holiday now or not, and the school talked little about it except that the kids were encouraged to wear red, white, and blue to school that Friday. Matter of fact, when the notice went home, all it said was “Spirit Day” and to “wear red, white, and blue”. I’m suspect of that combo regardless, but the fact that they seemed to have changed the name of the celebration without telling parents smacks of indoctrination and backdoor politics.
The word “patriot” is a loaded term, thanks to the events of twenty years ago. And somehow it’s now how we’re supposed to commemorate those who died in the attacks, is that right? When Duncan and I arrived at school that morning, the entire school was on the playground, and the principal and the school mascot led them all in the pledge of allegiance over a PA system. The day was filled with “patriotic” activities, including a word search about the attacks (The Fuck?!?) as well as an art project where they built a construction paper US flag that had silhouettes of the Twin Towers on top of it.
I agree that the first responders on the scene at the Towers and the Pentagon are all heroes. I agree wholeheartedly that the passengers on United 93 are heroes. They took it upon themselves to do the right thing, regardless of the cost. But the jingoistic flavor of the school’s activities, the sneaky lean towards indoctrination – that bothers me still. I stopped saying the Pledge a VERY long time ago, and I will NEVER require my sons to say it. Swearing an oath to a nation disturbs me, because I believe that the entire world matters, not just America. I live here, I’ll most likely die here, and I’ll do what I can to help make things better. But this country is by NO means perfect, or even Great. It can always be better, but there’s no reason at all to claim is has ever been “Tha Best”, nor is there a reason to strive for that. Being “the Best” implicitly means that everything else is worse, and there’s no reason or excuse for that anymore.
America can be great. It SHOULD be great. But it’s nowhere near that yet. It does have heroes, yes. Of course. Doctors, soldiers, cops, first responders – these professions naturally can lay claim to that title. But in the past year and a half, we’ve seen even more evidence of “heroes” that live among us: grocery store workers, for example. Those who risked their lives Every. Single. Day. to make sure that the rest of us could still eat, carrying out their jobs while selfish idiots refuse to take even the simplest of precautions to protect them, wearing a fucking mask. And yes, the “hero pay” was a gesture of goodwill toward these people who break their backs for us Every. Single. Day, pandemic or not. And when things even start to calm down, what happens? We take the money away and act like nothing ever happened. We go back to treating them like shit, because we need them less now. Or we pretend we do, anyway, because numbers are going down, and we mistakenly believe that the danger is over, so why shouldn’t things go back to the way they were?
Because things were so Great before, right? Poverty and homelessness are still rampant, unemployment is still high, and rich people still manage to avoid actual suffering. Because most of the people who live like this? They’re not white. And that’s always been okay.
Not anymore. The tide is turning. Like it or not, white people, your days at the top of the food chain are almost over. And, just like “Defund the Police” or “Black Lives Matter’, this statement can easily be misinterpreted or weaponized, and most likely will be. But those who would weaponize it do so because they know it’s true, and they cannot face that truth, that yes, ALL lives DO matter, not just white ones; that cops are not and never should have been a stateside quasi-military substitute; Because what it really means is that you should be careful how you treat people on the way up, because you’ll meet them again on the way down. Racist white people are terrified of losing their privilege because they’re terrified that non-white people will treat them the way they have been treating non-whites for centuries. I can see why they’re scared.
The interesting thing about heroes in action movies or comic books is that they usually support the status quo; they basically try to get things back to normal. And the thing about that is, “normal” hasn’t been working for a whole lot of humanity for a while now. REAL heroes shake things up; they disrupt the status quo. They see that the way “things have always been” doesn’t make it the BEST way. And they do what they can to change that. Because that’s what must be done. If you want to see a great take on this, read Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen. It turns the entire concept of superheroes upside down. And the “hero” in that story does some very questionable things by the “heroic” standards of the medium. But he does indeed change the world.
UPDATE: I wrote everything before this sentence almost a year ago (It’s September 29, 2022 as I write this) and I never got around to posting it. Fixing that now, but I’ll attempt very quickly to finish the thought. Interesting fact: You know who is a great example of a hero who was a rabble-rouser, a shit-stirrer, an agent of change? JESUS. He was NEVER interested in maintaining the status quo, from anything I’ve read. Those who shout the loudest about following his example should consider that.
Heroes can and do change the world. They stand up, see that something is wrong, and they do their best to make it right. Sometimes – often, even – there is a cost, not only to the world, but to them personally. King, Kennedy, X, the list goes on of heroes whose efforts cost them their lives. But they continue to inspire.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about martyrs, although this often happens. “Martyr” carries with it a certain darkness, an ugly intent that I don’t care for, and that I think is often the pollutant of whatever cause a martyr dies for. Martyr implies not just a willingness to die for a cause, but a desire to do so, and that’s something entirely different. No more martyrs. Let’s look for heroes. Let’s strive to BE heroes, not just wait for them to show up on their own. Let’s remember we’re all in this together, and maybe we’ll survive.
And let’s not forget that the very first person your child considers a hero is you.