Monday, April 4, 2016

On The Power of Myth and How DC Films get it Wrong

     Modern film serves an important role in culture, and older generations that fail to recognize it are doomed to either do it wrong, or misunderstand its power altogether. As they display the stories of a culture on the big screen, they undertake, through an audio/visual medium, to tell tales that have a history stretching back into the ancient world that fall into three distinct, yet overlapping categories: stories about (1) gods, (2) demigods, and (3) mortals. These tales often spill into each other, but will have emphases that spotlight very different needs of the people that spin those yarns. Let's briefly discuss below what each does for us.

Stories about the gods: From the Enuma Elish of ancient Mesopotamia to the Greek legends of Olympus, stories about the gods and the heavenly realm have helped humankind to organize the world in our mind. The inexplicable is made relatable by means of attaching it to the diversity of deities given expression on those epic sagas. Why does the thunder and lightning appear so violent in the sky? How did the diversity of creation first come to be? Who oversees the chaos that is the vast mysteries of the oceans? Why does the natural order sometimes get out of whack, resulting in natural disasters with which the mortals must contend? The "old world" had its share of the deity tales, but so did the "new world" also. Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, Inca cultures all had the myths and stories of the gods that helped explain why creation operates how it does, and what obligations humans have to those deities because of it. Stories of the gods are not designed to make them relatable characters. Audiences do not gain inspiration from them to better themselves. Instead, they receive information and instruction on the nature of the gods, and their spheres of responsibility, in story form. The ancient world did not seek to write propositional doctrines and systematic theologies as began in the West during the medieval period. Instead they taught of the gods (their nature, their power and their behavior) by means of creation and clash mythologies.

Stories about demigods: While mortals and gods may be completely separate categories, so that mortals have no need to find the gods relatable or even interesting, the middle area is needed that would inspire humans to reach beyond the mere drudgery of everyday life. After all, credible histories could account for heroic feats among the ranks of men (and in some cases women) that far exceeded the abilities and accomplishments of the average person. Even actual history can be mythologized over time, exaggerating the deeds of heroes to keep them awe-inducing for subsequent generations. Thus, the tale undergoes subtle revisions to eventually make them a child of the gods, or a product of deity/human union. In the ancient world, these become not just examples of divinely enhanced human potential, but also can serve as lessons for teaching ideal human behavior. The self-sacrificing hero battles the forces of the netherworld, or some monstrous aberration, for the win... and their story is told to inspire the hearers to comparable deeds. This, or they serve as a morality tale to instruct on what virtues the gods find praiseworthy, rewarding the hero with victory because of their own journey of character. The hero is superhuman, but relatable to the human experience, opening up a wealth of applicability for the audience.

Stories about mortals: Human life, with all of its peaks and valleys, drama and drudgery, has always provided rich material from which to glean lessons for wise living. Relationships of all types, struggles and celebration, adversity and elation, are rightly dramatized into tales with which the audience can empathize and emote, gaining wisdom and practical knowledge for enjoying life to the full. The documentary, the comedy, the crime drama, the romance tale (sometimes called a "chick flick"), all have their place in that repository of human stories that the audience, in exploring the themes and imbibing the sentiments along with the storyteller, actually become more "human." The varied recesses of the human soul are exercised and quickened by considering how the story illuminates the nuances of relationships, the diversity of human experience, the joys of laughter or the messiness of justice. We need stories that often expose or remind us how the world really is, and not just trafficking in how we'd like it to be.

     Along a literary spectrum, it could be said that the gods are fully "two dimensional characters"(lacking struggle, development or growth through a lesson journey) with the mortals being fully "three dimensional" (relatable to the audience in areas of human experience). This would place demigods somewhere in between, with considerable overlap. The short version is: gods are boring, people are interesting. So if you're going to tell a tale of superhuman heroes, it's necessary to "humanize" them considerably so that they can be analogous for or inspiring to the human audience. Demigods that lack development through lessons, romance, tragedy or joy, or lack the humor found in human relations, slide precipitously toward the genre of "gods" mythology. This is as much a detriment to the demigod category as if it were to lack superhuman ability and thus become just another mortal tale. In a sense, the demigod story is a balancing act in which the storyteller keeps the superhuman nature and the mortal nuances in a delicate tension. If we don't believe the hero was in love, we don't care that he saved the girl AND the world too for that matter.

     Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the latest installment in the new DC films cinematic depiction of their comic book repertoire. It builds upon the groundwork laid in 2013 by the reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel. According to Rotten Tomatoes, a movie/television review aggregate web site, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has received a current score of 29% out of a possible 100, with audience reaction being tepid at best. Opening weekend, predictably, found DOJ (Dawn of Justice) making considerable money because of the hype and subject matter. However, audience reaction can often be responsibly gauged by repeat viewings. For DOJ, second weekend grosses had dropped dramatically. Reports of second weekend declines are commonplace, but movie news articles add that a 68% drop for the second weekend is quite extreme. Being a lover of films, my daughter and I saw it opening night as well, and later shared critiques that ranged from objective evaluations to inside jokes that only we understand. To date, we appear in in the majority of viewers that found it an adequate spectacle to witness at a theater, but not remotely worthy of its hype, and unworthy of money spent on repeat visits.

     As an anthropologist, I am quite curious as to what explains this phenomenon beyond the mere nuts and bolts of good film-making. Lessor skilled directors have been able to grasp the sentiments of audiences and conjure them back to ride that ride over and over again. What makes DOJ different and less able to connect with moviegoers? Incidentally, among the more pointed critiques leveled at "Man of Steel" in 2013 was that it "was not inspiring." This has not been true of all DC movies. On the contrary, the Dark Knight trilogy (started with Batman Begins in 2005) directed by Christopher Nolan, enjoyed tremendous success, and appears to have been as much a watershed breakthrough for comic book hero films as was the 1978 blockbuster Superman with Christopher Reeve. In addition, audiences appear well conditioned to receive these fantastical tales and enjoy them repeatedly (rf. the current Marvel comic universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008, has enjoyed positive response from critics and audiences alike). The Marvel success stands in stark contrast to the DC films in those two areas; critics have praised them and audiences have affirmed them by spending dollars on repeat visits to the theater. I believe this is explainable through the lens of the role for ancient stories described above.

     Societies and technology may change, but people don't. Many of the basic human needs in the ancient world still are plainly evident in the modern day; with this exception though: audiences today are even less interested in stories of the gods than in ancient times. To keep the modern (and especially postmodern) audience engaged for a superhuman story, you must go easy on the "super" and heavy on the "human." The powers must be incidental to the struggle, with emphasis on the seemingly "mortal" experiences of romance, remorse, joy, laughter, wit, wisdom, multiplicity of motives, etc. Without it, people may show up once to watch the "gods do battle," but be quite satisfied to have taken in the data it conveyed, with no need to return and experience it again. What's more? They'll share that "data" with friends, essentially negating the need for those friends to go see the film and get that data themselves. The characters are not "heroes" that we empathize with or are inspired by. They are deities that held their apocalyptic conflict, and that explains why we have the occasional geologic phenomenon of destroyed cities.

     It's not that Zack Snyder, the director of Man of Steel, DOJ and upcoming Justice League movies, isn't a skilled moviemaker. On the contrary, he's demonstrated considerable prowess in the past. It's just that he (and DC studios) has adopted a storytelling strategy that falls mostly in the first of our categories listed above. They're not attempting to tell a relatable story from which mortals should glean inspiration for achievements or analogies for life lessons. They're essentially sitting around the campfire, like old fellows wrapped in a thick cloak to protect from the night breeze, and regaling us with the myths of the ancient Greek gods, and how their conflicts resulted in the natural world we experience today (coincidentally, Snyder directed the film 300, which was a decidedly mortal tale, stylized to appear more like a deity story also).

     Comic book hero films cannot fit within the realm of mortal stories. They are not meant to reside in the ordinary, mundane aspects of everyday experience. This leaves two categories remaining they can fall under: stories of the gods or demigods. DC appears to be choosing the former, and Marvel the latter. This is ironic because before their cinematic manifestations, comic enthusiasts recognized that DC enjoyed greater readership than Marvel for the exact same reasons, only reversed. In this way, Nolan's success with the Dark Knight trilogy was attributed to being "so true to the comics." The DC comics were demigod stories (heavy on the human, easy on the super), with Marvel comic heroes pushing the limits of fantastical. Now the roles appear to have switched. Marvel seems to have understood the above analysis and is cashing in on it, but DC will continue to suffer mediocre results if they do not.

     I, for one, have likened the contrast to two roller coasters at a theme park. One is loud, shaky and exhausting; the other is thrilling, joyful and exciting. After getting off the second one, you look to see if the line is very long, and if not, exclaim "Let's do it again!" But after exiting the other one, you wiped your brow and sighed "Whew, I'm glad that's over." I believe stories are important. They are not mere movies, and not merely comic book heroes. These are tales from which we, as humans being, are supposed to glean inspiration for achievement and analogies to unravel the enigmas of our mortal experience. Storytellers, as writers of novels or directors of films, are custodians of those stories, and are to convey them in a manner from which the audience will derive the greatest benefit. It's too bad DC has decided to tell campfire stories of the gods. The relatable demigods on the screen are turning me into a Marvel guy.

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