Monday, 25 July 2016

Gothic Agents of Chaos Villainy in Comic Book Movies and Liberal Vigilantes

The Gothic and pop culture have found a fruitful common ground in television series, graphic novels and movies. Moving away from the traditional mode of the novel, material that has Gothic elements has found its way into most aspects of our everyday life, revealing pervasive elements of otherwise ordinary items and icons of everyday life and culture. Graphic novels and their respective film adaptations have entered the public sphere for good in the 21st century; they are not anymore the byproducts of underground fandoms, nor the mediocre commercially successful projects from maverick studios. The two blockbusters that came out this year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from DC Comics and Warner Bros) and Captain America: Civil War were met with phenomenal commercial success, despite the negative critics regarding the first one. I will mainly concerned with the comic book villains in these two movies and how they create, or even follow a Gothic tradition of descent into darkness, violence, despair and self-destructiveness.

What made the movies stand out for the following analysis was not only the incredible team up of popular comic book characters (even if the case of the DC hit this team up had never occurred before in a live action film); it is the villains that moved the interest of the viewers from heroes, be those (white and dark) knights, (neo)liberal icons and white-red-and-blue strapped boy scouts to tortured souls, “abominations” and megalomaniac deluded scientists-geniuses.

In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (from here on BvS) as well as in Captain America: Civil War (from here on Civil War) the premise from the very beginning of the film is bringing the heroes face to face with the consequences of their actions, as presented in previous movies installments. Helmut Zemo, the main adversary in Civil War, whose family was all tragically killed when their town was destroyed in a previous installment of the Marvel cinematic franchise (Avengers- Age of Ulron), has no supernatural powers, nor is he a career-criminal mastermind. Much like a hero from Poe’s tales, he is driven over the edge by despair over a personal tragedy. He loses his family and sets out to destroy the “heroes” responsible facilitating the postmodern reality around him so as for the public to see them as he does: menaces that need to be put under control or be jailed and killed.

Zemo, in a noticeably BARON looking room
... it's funny, trust me.  

Zemo’s paranoia follows a Gothic tradition that sees the protagonist to use extreme means of persuasion and torture, change multiple identities, and constantly mislead those hunting him down to his own ends. In the age of surveillance, the Internet, social media, and fluid identities Zemo does not hesitate to use all means necessary to mislead the public and ultimately reveal the worst selves of whomever the world considers role models. He will present himself as the “Other” that is always someone else: a psychiatrist, a brainwashed assassin, a delivery boy: whatever is necessary to confuse and create chaos. He hunts down a manuscript that will allow him to control super-soldiers, but as the viewers will realize, this is only a pretense that is also not part of his identity. The stereotypical use of all comic book clich├ęs here are used to deceit the protagonists as well, as there is no overarching plan, only the basic human desire for vengeance. A vengeance that is self-destructive, one that once completed leads Zemo to attempt suicide (and fail due to another superhero).

The prevalent Civil War theme is whether or not those with powers should be controlled by governments and laws, namely international ones, is also at stake at BvS. The movie has become all too uncannily familiar, as the Capitol is bombed by a seemingly lone wolf terrorist, a person that lost his legs and his family after a fight that levelled half a city between Superman and General Zod. In this film the criminal mastermind is the heir to a multimillion corporation, a friendly face similar to what we see today as millennial CEOs and owners of successful startup companies. He is all out for power, and as we see in the course of the film, he organizes with clinical precision a mass murder in Africa, a bombing in Washington DC, a clash between Batman and Superman, and finally the birth of an abomination, very similar to Frankenstein’s creature. Lex Luthor is a child that was abused by his father, is generally (and up to the very end of the movie) considered a model citizen, has a love-hate relationship with certain parties in the US government and cannot fathom that he can be possibly outsmarted.

If the first films of the new millennium were mostly concentrated on origins and the so called “good guys”, or as Luthor calls them “the capes”, then BvS shifts the focus to the people themselves. The opening scene features not Batman, but Bruce Wayne at the epicenter of destruction, one of mythical proportions and uncanny, in that the creatures from above that cause all that look like humans, but their actions portray them as otherwise. The Batman, a vigilante that moves into the shadows, one that even the people he rescues are terrified of, is not the most frightening icon of the film. The hauntological concerns of postmodernism prevail and we see humans that are not only afraid of what lies beyond, but also what the next day will bring. The two movies operate in parallel universes with all too many similarities to ours, and it would be safe to say that out post-9/11 world is pretty similar to theirs as well. Even if in BvS no one mentions New York, even if in Civil War their New York has buildings such as the Avenger’s tower that is all too futuristic for our reality, it is clear to the viewers that the same tensions from our world apply in the cinematic universes as well.

At the center of the concerns over the limits of technology and the duality of human nature lies Doomsday. He is a combination of Alien technology and human blood (Lex Luthor’s) and it is a creature that is born with the sole purpose of killing Superman. From its very birth it’s called an abomination; both the AI and Luthor himself name it like that, and it is indicative of the morally dubious process that is followed that even by alien standards it is illegal and contrary to any kind of customary tradition. Luthor desecrates a corpse, uses his own blood, and through what may look like a dark magic ritual, only in this case technology becomes the “othered” force majeure, Doomsday is born. He is by all means and purposes the Gothic image of capitalism. A monstrous creature that keeps getting stronger if someone attacks it, seems indestructible even by the most extreme weapons mankind possesses (nuclear weapons), it is born in the middle of an battlefield, on the ruins of skyscrapers, and not even the guy that represents “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” cannot defeat it without sacrificing himself. Doomsday, in name, nature, appearance, and actions is everything the 21st century citizen should be afraid of. It is no accident that this gothic monster, this abomination, kills the symbol of hope in the film, Superman. Doomsday is not Frankenstein’s creature. He is not abandoned by his creator, he was not a person that his creator was too afraid to cultivate and claim responsibility for; he was exactly what Lex Luthor wanted him to be, a tool for destruction and murder. His existence was not robbed of meaning; the only purpose it had was mayhem, a nemesis for all who thought that their way of life was back to “normal.”

Lex Luthor, as played by Jesse Eisenberg
At the end of both movies, the viewer naturally is promised of more sequels and more team-ups. But what is left for us to wonder is what lies ahead for the villains that we saw. On the one hand, Zemo is incarcerated and there is a cosmic threat looming over our beloved Avengers, that of Thanos. However, the tensions and the secrets of the grounded Marvel superheroes tell a story quite Gothic, the return of repressed secrets and desires, and characters that are not the role models have learned to admire them as. On the other hand, in the DC Comics blockbuster Lex Luthor from his jail warns of a bell that has been rung and “cannot be unrung.”The Lovecraftian promise is not only foreshadowing a great cosmic threat, but also shows how the Gothic ultimately functions as a language that makes turns popular culture icons to problematic and troubled characters; heroes and villains alike that act in quite unpredicted and unprecedented patterns, bound to face the consequences of their actions as the latter gradually become their own nemesis.

Generously written for us by Michail-Chrysovalantis Markodimitrakis:

I am a PhD student at the American Culture Studies Department at Bowling Green State University. I hold a BA in English Language and Literature from Aristotle University and an MA in English with a specialization in Literary and Textual Studies from BGSU. My research interests include but are not limited to the Gothic, postmodernism, graphic novels, science fiction, steampunk, propaganda in popular culture, and the Absurd in literature.

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