Tag Archives: Heroes

The Future Of Villains And Villainy

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What is happening to villains these days? That’s an entirely reasonable question to ask. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in how we approach villainy in movies, TV, comic books, and video games. I’m not just talking about the superhero media, either. However, that happens to be the most visible manifestation of this change.

As a long-time fan of both superheroes and quality villains, I welcome this change. At the same time, I’m curious about where it’s leading and what it means for the future. Villains are as old as storytelling itself. From the Bible to “Star Wars,” these stories work best when there’s villainy to oppose the unfolding narrative. Villains have always evolved alongside the heroes that oppose them, but that evolution seems to be accelerating.

I’ve discussed the unique journey that villains undergo and how they set themselves apart from heroes. Traditionally, a villain’s primary purpose was to both oppose the hero and highlight how heroic they are. The sheer malice of characters like Lex Luthor help contrast the pure selflessness of characters like Superman. It’s easier to appreciate those heroes knowing they have to deal such malicious opponents.

Then, something remarkable happened. Audiences began demanding more of their villains. It wasn’t enough to just have a villain oppose a hero. People began wanting villains who were understandable and even relatable to some extent. Ironically, they wanted a villain they could root for.

That helped lead to characters like Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” His impact was so profound that I even called his influence the Walter White effect. However, I think there were others who paved the way for Walter White. If I had to pick one villain that helped kick-start this trend in villainy, it would be Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight.”

From this portrayal of villainy, the emerging state of villains emerged and it may very well set the tone for the future. On the surface, this version of the Joker wasn’t too different from the one who had existed in the comics for years. He’s dangerous, destructive, murderous, and callous, like many villains. Unlike most, though, he does what he does with a laugh and a smile.

What made this version of the Joker so memorable was the principles behind his madness. To him, society is corrupt and people aren’t inherently good. As such, he seeks to point out how laughable it is when others try to save it. Batman’s crusade against crime is the biggest joke of all, which helps drive their rivalry.

It’s a philosophy that few other than terrorists and extreme nihilists would buy into, but it’s one that’s understandable to some extent. We don’t have to agree with them or their methods. We just have to see their twisted logic. They can’t just be standard James Bond villains whose motives are indistinguishable from fascists, communists, or terrorists. There needs to be something more personal at work.

We saw plenty of that in 2018’s biggest movies. From “Black Panther” to “ Avengers: Infinity War” to “Incredibles 2,” the villains all had something personal at stake. Erik Killmonger saw his villainous actions as heroic. He wasn’t out to just take over Wakanda. He had a vision in mind that felt justified to some extent, especially to those familiar with real-world historical injustices.

Thanos raised the bar even more in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He never tries to come off as a hero, but he never sees his actions as villainous, either. In fact, when heroes like Dr. Strange call him out, he frames his desire to cull half the population in the universe as mercy. For him, it’s simple math. Half a population is better than no population at all.

These motivations, as devious they might be on paper, have some semblance of merit to it. Both Thanos and Killmonger think they’re doing the right thing. That significantly impacts how the heroes in their stories go about thwarting them, although I would argue that one story was more complete while the other remains unresolved.

In “Black Panther,” T’Challa doesn’t just stop at defeating Killmonger. He actually sees some of his enemy’s points and takes steps to address them. He doesn’t revert things back to the way they were. Wakanda doesn’t return to the same isolated state it had been at the start of the movie. Instead, he seeks to find a middle ground. That, I would argue, is the new template for how heroes defeat this kind of villain.

The resolution in “Avengers: Infinity War,” however, is not as clear. That’s largely due to the story not being complete. There is a sequel planned, but at no point in the three-hour spectacle did the Avengers attempt to prove Thanos wrong. They only ever tried to stop him. That oversight has not gone unnoticed by audiences.

This, in many ways, sums up the new dynamic between heroes in villains. It’s no longer enough for heroes to just defeat their adversaries. It’s not even enough for villains to be exceptionally devious. There have to be larger principles at work. It can’t just be reduced to general greed, ego, or bullying.

Thanos seeks to kill have the population because he believes that it’ll prevent the complete extinction of all life.

Erik Killmonger seeks to empower oppressed minorities to right past injustices.

Dr. Doom seeks to conquer the world because a world under his rule is the only one free of suffering and want. That’s actually canon in the comics.

It’s makes crafting compelling villains more difficult, but at the same time, it opens the door to more complexity. On top of that, it demands that audiences think beyond the good versus evil dynamic that has defined so many stories, going back to the days of fairy tales. It’s a challenge that some are certain to fail. Some already have, sadly.

It also sets the tone for future forms of villainy. How that villainy manifests is impossible to predict, but given the current trends, I think there’s room to speculate. At the heart of this emerging villainy is the idea that the current system just isn’t working. It’s so bad that the only viable option is to destroy and rebuild it. There’s no room, whatsoever, for reform.

This is where the heroes will have to evolve, as well. They can’t just play “Super Friends” and save the day. They have to actually make meaningful changes to move society forward. King T’Challa did that at the end of “Black Panther.” Other heroes need to be as willing. Otherwise, they won’t be able to call themselves heroes. They’re just defenders of a status quo may not be working as well as they think.

It’s an ideological struggle that parallels many real-world struggles. People today have less and less faith in established institutions. As a result, more people are falling sway to populist rhetoric that promises to break down the current system entirely. By and large, people today aren’t content with just preserving things as they are. They seek more meaningful change.

That presents a serious problem for heroes and a golden opportunity for villains. Historically, heroes haven’t been able to effect change beyond a certain point. Some of that is for logistical reasons. A hero can never create a functioning utopia without ending the story completely, which is something major media companies cannot have. There’s too much money to be made.

Logistics aside, the future of villainy will have plenty of raw materials to work with and plenty of societal angst to draw upon. Heroes who save the day, but do little else won’t be able to call themselves heroes in the world currently unfolding. Villains who have a real vision with understandable motivations will find themselves with more supporters than before.

It’s no longer taboo to root for the villain, especially when the heroes don’t confront the flaws in their rhetoric. In what seems prophetic now, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” may have put it best when Ultron stated:

“I’m sorry, I know you mean well. You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.”

That’ll be the key to the future of villainy, change in a world that resists too much of it happening at once. It’ll make for some complicated villains, but it will definitely make the struggle of heroes even harder. However it plays out, I believe it’ll be worth watching.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature, movies, philosophy, psychology, superhero comics, superhero movies, television, X-men

Never Forget: A Tribute To The Victims Of 9/11 (And The Heroes It Inspired)

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Today is a solemn day, but one we should never forget. I don’t think I need to tell anyone over the age of 25 why September 11th, 2001 is a day we’ll never forget. Even for those born after, it affects them. Nearly two decades later, it continues to affect us all. That’s why we shouldn’t forget. We need to remember because we need to learn from it.

There’s a lot I can say about the issues surrounding September 11th, 2001. I could spend the next year, writing an article every day about the lives lost and the families shattered by that terrible incident. It still wouldn’t be enough. It still wouldn’t heal the scars.

With that in mind, I won’t lament over what and who we lost on that day. Instead, I’ll take the advice of the late Fred Rogers, a man whose capacity for love and compassion is legendary.

In the spirit of those wise, caring words, I think the best thing we can do to honor the victims and learn from the trauma we all experienced that fateful day is to acknowledge the heroes. You don’t have to look far to find stories of heroism on day like September 11th. On a day like this, though, those stories should carry even greater weight.

In the end, the losses are always going to hurt. However, it’s important to remember that even in the face of atrocity, good people find a way to be good. Amazing people find a way to be heroes. That, more than anything, is worth remembering.

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Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

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Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Robocop

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Even in an era where masculinity has gained way too many negative connotations, there’s plenty of room for men who distinguish themselves in respectable, honorable ways. There are countless male characters in popular culture who attempt to set themselves apart. Sometimes, it brings out the worst in men. Sometimes, it brings out the best.

I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on the best aspects of masculinity. To date, I’ve profiled two characters, Joel from “The Last of Us” and Hank Hill from “King of the Hill.” I’ve cited both characters as examples of noble masculinity. It manifests in different forms, but it helps bring a unique strength to their characters.

They have a wide range of traits, some of which aren’t distinctly masculine. When those manly characteristics do emerge, though, they don’t just reveal the greater subtleties in who they are. They demonstrate just how powerful masculinity can be when it’s channeled. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight another character who channels that kind of masculinity in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and full of memorable one-liners.

That character’s name is Alex J. Murphy of the Detroit Police Department, but most know him as Robocop. He’s not just a cop who got caught up in a greedy corporation’s agenda. He’s not just a man in a machine carrying out the duties of a cop. When you take in the entirety of Robocop’s story, including the Jesus connotations, you find a character whose masculinity shines even in the R-rated violence that is Detroit.

Now, before I go any further, I want to establish that the version of “Robocop” I’m citing here is the original 1987 version played by Peter Weller. This profile will not draw from the 2014 “Robocop” played by Joel Kinnaman. I’m not saying that version of the character is without merit. I enjoyed that movie. However, it did not come close to demonstrating the level of noble masculinity that the original conveyed.

On the surface, the original “Robocop” wasn’t that groundbreaking for its time. Stories about urban decay and dystopian cities were already popular thanks to movies like “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner.” In terms of substance, though, “Robocop” achieved something profound in terms of crafting a memorable male character.

The core of Alex Murphy’s character, even before he became Robocop, is that he’s a good, honorable man in a city that doesn’t have many of them. This version of Detroit, which is sadly very similar to the real-world version, is full of deviant criminals and corrupt business types. The very company that creates Robocop, Omni Consumer Products, is full of ruthless individuals who see crime only as a hindrance to profits.

A man like Alex Murphy is a precious rarity in that world. As such, it doesn’t take long for it to get snuffed out. On Murphy’s first day on the job, he’s callously killed by a gang of sociopath criminals led by Clarence Boddicker. All that innate nobility and idealism Murphy had was literally shot to death within the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, that was not the end of Alex Murphy’s story. It was only the beginning. When he’s turned into Robocop by OCP, who see him only as a means to further their business plan, the extent of the noble masculinity he portrays only grows. The fact it does so while he cleans up Detroit’s rampant crime is a nice bonus as well.

From the moment he awakens as Robocop, we see what looks to be only a shell of a man. In fact, OCP goes out of their way to remove as much of the man as possible, not bothering to salvage his hand or anything below the neck. The only part of Alex Murphy they keep is his brain and part of his face.

It’s a total deconstruction of a man, ripping away the very flesh that makes him masculine and yes, that includes his genitals. To OCP, he’s a machine who just happens to run on human parts. They try to filter out the humanity in hopes of creating an obedient commodity that they can then mass produce, market, and utilize for profit.

It’s dehumanization to an extreme, more so than what characters like Wolverine endured. For a brief while, it looks like OCP succeeds. Initially, Robocop carries himself like a machine, confronting Detroit’s worst criminals with an efficiency that wasn’t possible as Alex Murphy. He could’ve become a perfect example of reducing all men to machines, devoid of emotion and focused only on a task at hand.

Then, the story takes a more human turn and Robocop suddenly becomes more man than machine. Despite everything OCP took from him, including his body and his free will, Alex Murphy still emerged. Even after everything that made him a man was deconstructed, literally in some cases, he fought to regain control.

In the process, we get to see Robocop learn about the man he used to be. We see glimpses of his life as a father and a husband. We find out just how good a man he was to his wife and his son. It contrasts heavily to the ruthless criminals and callous business people that affect much of the story. That’s critical in terms of establishing Robocop as someone who conveys a heroic brand of masculinity.

From the outside perspective of the audience, Alex Murphy’s home life seems mundane and even a little corny. However, when put into the context of a crime-ridden urban dystopia, it becomes instrumental in elevating Robocop’s sense of duty. They make his prime directives more than just base programming. By adding Murphy’s humanity into the mix, they gain greater meaning.

It’s an inherently masculine trait, protecting those who cannot otherwise protect themselves. Murphy already embodied that trait because he was a cop and a family man. However, he could only accomplish so much on his own, as his fatal encounter with Boddicker proved.

By becoming Robocop, that role is elevated because technically speaking, he’s better equipped than any man has ever been. He’s got a human mind, but he has a robot body, complete with bullet-proof skin and the ability to shoot with inhuman accuracy. Instead of stripping him of his masculinity and his humanity, becoming a robot actually enhanced it.

That, more than anything, is what elevates Robocop’s noble masculinity to another level. An act that should’ve utterly dehumanized him ended up making his humanity even stronger. It had to be in order to overcome OCP’s control and uncover the plot to exploit him as just another product. The fact that OCP tries and fails in the sequel to recreate him further reinforces just how unique Robocop is.

Through that journey from utter masculine deconstruction to total reaffirmation of his identity, the line between Robocop and Alex Murphy blurs. The line between carrying out noble acts and following basic programming blurs as well. In the end, Robocop isn’t just a machine following a program. He’s a man inside a machine, doing the same job he did as a man, but with much better weapons and more memorable catch phrases.

Robocop” is hailed as a classic for many reasons. Robocop, as a character, continues to be an icon, despite sub-par sequels and a failed reboot. I think a big part of that appeal comes directly from how the first movie managed to portray the best traits of masculinity within a setting where the worst often thrived.

Even in a contemporary context, beyond the current state of Detroit, Robocop conveys a powerful message that men and women alike can appreciate. You can put a good man in the worst situation, destroying and deconstructing him at every level. That same man will find a way to re-emerge and do what needs to be done.

It’s a testament to the strength of manhood and our willingness to protect innocents in an unjust world. Robocop combines the spirit of a man with the power of a machine. One need not subvert the other. In fact, one can supplement the other and, dead or alive, the criminal element of any gender doesn’t stand a chance.

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Why Lex Luthor Is The Ultimate Villain

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What makes a villain truly evil? It’s a question with many answers that apply to both the real and the fictional world. History is ripe with real people with villainous tendencies on par with that of any mustache-twirling villain in fiction. The world of fiction is just as vast, full of all sorts of cruel, sadistic, greedy beings that range from alien conquerors to psychotic killer clowns.

Then, there’s Alexander Joseph “Lex” Luthor. What Superman is to heroes, an ideal and a standard to which others aspire, Lex Luthor is to villains. Think back to the question of what makes a villain evil. Lex Luthor checks every box and even a few others you probably didn’t think of.

In the spirit of celebrating Superman’s 80th anniversary, which I went out of my way to honor, I think it’s just as important to appreciate the other, less heroic side of the spectrum. Superman occupies the extreme end of that spectrum, namely the side that embodies truth, justice, and the highest of morals. Lex Luthor, conversely, is at the other end, one where the depths of greed, hatred, and outright cruelty are at their worst.

To that end, it’s impossible to appreciate the values Superman stands for without also appreciating the villainous traits that Lex Luthor personifies. I’ve noted the major differences between the journey that a villain takes, compared to that of heroes. I’ve also singled out characters like Walter White, who have given a new level of complexity to modern villains. However, the villainy of Lex Luthor is as basic as it is profound.

Lex Luthor doesn’t need the same complexity as Walter White, nor does he need the tragic circumstances that help forge villains like Magneto. Lex is a villain to his core. He needs no catalyst or motivation. He is, by his own nature, an arrogant, selfish person who will go to any length to get what he wants and/or deserves, regardless of cost or ethics.

Despite that simple, if not inelegant approach to villainy, Lex Luthor still finds a way to elevate himself above the many other villains that occupy the real and fictional world. It’s not just because he’s Superman’s primary adversary either. At his core, Lex represents something that highlights the breadth of true villainy.

Like most iconic villains, Lex Luthor’s status was closely tied to that of the hero he opposes. He first appeared in Action Comics #23 in 1940, a full two years after Superman debuted. Like most villains in those days, he didn’t get much development or backstory. He was simply the extra devious bad guy who tested Superman more than most.

Over the years, Lex Luthor’s story has evolved, but the extent of his villainy has never waned. The modern version of Lex Luthor, which became canonized after the big 1986 event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths, is defined largely by his greed, ego, and extreme xenophobia. He became less a mad scientist and more heartless narcissists.

Through that evolution, Lex establishes a blunt, but powerful method to his villainy. He is, at his core, a selfish egotist. There isn’t an altruistic cell in his body. Everything he does is for one purpose and that’s to profit and/or glorify himself. It doesn’t matter whether he’s battling Superman or creating a community of low-income housing. It’s all to serve him and his interests.

In the same way you can assume that every decision Superman makes is in the name of truth and justice, you can also assume that everything Lex Luthor does is in the name of benefiting Lex Luthor. Even by Ayan Rand standards, Lex’s motivation are extreme. At the end of the day, he’s out for himself and no one else.

To some extent, though, that’s what makes him even more devious. In his endless crusade to serve himself, Lex will portray himself as less a villain and more a hero who is out to use his unrivaled genius to make the world a better place. He has even become a hero on multiple occasions within the annuls of DC Comics.

Lex Luthor will save the world. He’ll even work with Superman every now and then. However, such efforts are never in the name of doing the right thing. It always comes back to Lex serving his own agenda. He understands, at the end of the day, that no one can glorify him if the world is destroyed.

Even with those circumstances, though, Lex still finds a way to set himself apart from other villains. Characters like Dr. Doom, Thanos, and Darkseid definitely fit the mold of a villain, but even they have motivations that go beyond their ego. You could even argue that villains like Dr. Doom often blur the line because their actions sometimes align with what most consider the greater good.

With Lex Luthor, though, there are no blurred lines. He is not Dr. Doom in that he feels he needs to rule the world to ensure that it’s free from want and suffering. From Lex’s point of view, ruling the world and destroying Superman are simply a means to further glorify his ego and fuel his narcissism.

That’s what makes him so dangerous, but it also reveals something profound about villainy itself. It’s not always simply a product of being greedy and sadistic. To some extent, it’s a byproduct of being entirely self-serving and having no inclinations for selfless acts.

Whereas most people would feel some level of guilt for that level of selfishness, Lex feels nothing of the sort. That’s not to say he’s a sociopath on the level of some serial killers. He just feels that he rightly deserves all the power and aggrandizing he wants. It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of him just being better than anyone else.

It’s in that domain where Lex’s rivalry with Superman becomes truly adversarial. Unlike Superman, Lex is human. However, he also happens to be the smartest human in the world, as well as one of the smartest beings in the entire DC Universe. That means he doesn’t just think he’s better than anyone else. He can actually prove it.

That’s how he’s able to craft insanely advanced technology. It’s also how he managed to get elected President of the United States at one point. It’s not enough to have a massive ego. It’s that he’s smart enough and ruthless enough to outwit anyone into serving him. There’s simply no way for any other human to match him on an intellectual level.

That’s where Superman enters the equation. That’s also what fuels Lex’s unparalleled hatred of him. From his point of view, the very existence of Superman undermines his ability to establish himself as the most superior person in the world. More than that, though, he see’s Superman’s presence as a degrading force to the human race as a whole.

It’s a sentiment that isn’t often touched on in the comics or recent movies, but it is perfectly articulated in the animated feature, “All-Star Superman.” If ever you want a perfect demonstration of Superman’s heroism or Lex Luthor’s villainy, this movie is the current gold standard.

Beyond the condescension, the bragging, and the insufferable ego behind his words, Lex Luthor makes some uncomfortably valid points. In light of Superman’s impossible ideal, every human being falls short. Even him, the smartest human being of them all, can’t hope to match it.

From Lex’s point of view, that’s not just profoundly insulting. It undermines the entire human species. The existence of an alien god-like being reduces humans to a bunch of ants under the boot of a titan. By relying on that being, looking up to him as an ideal, people can only ever hope to be better ants and nothing more.

Even if that thinking is valid on some perverse level, Lex takes it even further by making it the ultimate excuse. By establishing Superman and heroes like him as affronts to his rightful place at the top of humanity, he can basically justify anything. Read into his history and you won’t find any shortage of atrocities.

It’s for that same reason that Lex rejects any notion of truth, justice, and the American way. As he also articulated in “All-Star Superman,” he sees those concepts as inherently flawed. They’re just vague concepts that can’t be touched, measured, or quantified in any meaningful way. In Lex Luthor’s world, all that matters is what he can do with the forces around him and how they can be used to glorify him.

As a villain, Lex Luthor doesn’t live in a world of abstracts, ideals, or faith. His world is cold, calculating, and deterministic. Much like Superman, he puts a face and a name on a particular archetype. Unlike Superman, though, he doesn’t evoke hope or inspiration. He inspires fear, hatred, and mistrust.

By standing against Superman, challenging him in ways that even other god-like beings can’t, Lex Luthor demonstrates just how far someone can take true villainy. In his world, nothing is ever given. It’s either earned, taken, or stolen. Things like compassion, empathy, and love are weaknesses and not strengths. They are barriers to overcome and not strengths to embrace.

Even by the standards of Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty,” that kind of extreme callousness is excessive. At least under Rick’s nihilistic outlook, there’s a context to his action. For Lex Luthor, though, the only context that matters is the one that serves Lex Luthor.

Superman is a beloved heroic icon and for good reason. He represents the best to which a hero can aspire. However, the extent of those aspirations and the power of that heroism is hard to appreciate without also acknowledging the villainous side of the struggle.

Superman is the hero he is because he has a villain like Lex Luthor to battle. Lex Luthor is the villain he is because Superman pushes him. However, even in the absence of Superman, Lex would still be the kind of villain who hurts, exploits, and deceives anyone and everyone to serve his agenda. That, more than anything, is what makes him the ultimate villain.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature

Why Wonder Woman Is The Most Important Member Of The Justice League

There’s a lot that can be said about the “Justice League” movie. Granted, not a lot of it has been good lately. The horrendous critical reception, despite the solid audience reception, has effectively muted the sheer accomplishment of creating this movie in the first place.

It is a hell of an accomplishment, creating a live-action “Justice League” movie just two decades after “Batman and Robin” nearly ruined the genre completely. While the success of movies like “The Avengers” has undermined the novelty of the concept, it still means something to those like me who grew up loving these characters in comics and cartoons.

I could spend multiple blog posts discussing and dissecting the issues with the “Justice League” movie, but I’ll save them for another time. For now, I want to take a moment to highlight an important point that the “Justice League” made, despite all the controversies and shortcomings that hounded it. That point is this.

Wonder Woman is THE most important member of the Justice League.

I know that sounds like something a hopeless fanboy would say, particularly those who enjoy talking about the kinkier elements of Wonder Woman’s history. It’s probably something most Wonder Woman fans would agree with and not give much thought to. However, I’d like to take a moment to make my point, even to those die-hard fans of Superman, Batman, and even Plastic Man. You know who you are.

Even among those die-hard fans, there’s no denying that Wonder Woman is part of DC’s superhero trinity. For decades, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman have been the anchor of DC’s entire superhero universe, both in terms of popularity and importance. That superhero foundation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Most of the time, though, Superman or Batman wield the most influence. Between Batman’s cast of iconic villains and Superman’s iconic status, they have a lot going for them, in terms of influence and depth. I don’t deny the strength of their status, nor do I think Wonder Woman trumps them on every level.

However, I still contend that Wonder Woman is the most important member of DC’s superhero pantheon in terms of impact, theme, and narrative. She may never get as many movies as Batman. Considering she has the same number of movies as Catwoman, though, I don’t think that’s a fair measure of Wonder Woman’s importance.

The reason I believe she is that important has less to do with her role within the world of DC and more to do with how she goes about being a hero and an icon. Her situation is very different from that of Batman, Superman, or any other hero in the DC universe, male or female.

Wonder Woman didn’t enter a flawed world that needs heroes by accident or tragedy. In fact, she had every possible reason to not join that world. Her situation before becoming a hero was as ideal as it gets without ripping off a Disney movie.

She was a princess on Themyscira, a literal island paradise. As the daughter of Hippolyta, she wanted for nothing. She was surrounded by love, support, and luxury of every kind. Who would ever be inclined to leave such a place to begin with? Those who saw the “Wonder Woman” movie remember that her mother did not want Diana to leave and did what she could to dissuade her.

Despite this, Diana still left her paradise home. She chose to enter a world full of gender inequality, oppression, and bad reality TV. She chose to confront all those flaws and fight them, both with her fists and her heart. She didn’t need to lose someone or be forced by tragedy. That alone makes her a greater hero than most can hope to be.

Contrast that with Batman or Superman. Batman became who he is because of tragedy. Crime took his parents so he built his entire heroic persona out of a response to that tragedy. It helped drive him to become the hero he is. It also led to some pretty insane feats, even by comic book standards.

Superman’s heroic persona wasn’t built on quite as much tragedy, but like Batman, he was somewhat guided into the heroic role. From the time he was an infant, these ideals were in stilled in him. Those who saw the classic 1978 “Superman” movie remember the message his father gave him, through the famous voice of Marlon Brando.

Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…my only son.

Whether by accident or luck, Superman ended up with perfect loving parents who helped nourish those ideals in him. Between those ideals and his immense powers, him not being a hero was never really an option.

With Wonder Woman, she didn’t need circumstances or guidance. She chose the path that led her to becoming a hero. She even chose that path when there were obstacles in her way, namely her mother. Beyond that choice, though, Wonder Woman’s heroism takes on an even greater context when you look at how she goes about it.

Superman may be the ideal when it comes to heroic values. Batman may be the ideal when it comes to seeking justice. However, Wonder Woman’s ideals are even greater in the sense that they’re concepts that ordinary people can relate to. Despite all her power, her approach is something that is wonderfully unifying, if that’s not too fitting a term.

She doesn’t just provide a standard with which to measure heroism. She goes out of her way to confront the good, the bad, and the frustrating of the modern world and not always with her firsts.

In the “Wonder Woman” movie, she doesn’t just criticize the attitudes of early 20th century England, which weren’t very progressive to say the least. She smiled and cheered when she saw a woman with her baby. She also went from fighting alongside men on a bloody battlefield to celebrating with them afterwards.

Along the way, she always wore her heart and her emotions on her sleeve. However, they weren’t a weakness, as they’ve been with Superman. They weren’t her primary motivation either, as is often the case with Batman. She channels her emotions and her passions to win over the hearts of men, women, children, and everyone in between. That’s a power that far exceeds anything form Superman’s strength or Batman’s gadgets.

That ability to embrace a flawed world, confronting its ugliness and its beauty, is something that everyone can do and not just Wonder Woman. She just does it better than most and inspires others to join her. She certainly inspired Steve Trevor in the “Wonder Woman” movie. The fact it got Chris Pine naked was just a nice bonus.

It’s an approach she utilizes in every other medium, from comics to cartoons. For those who enjoyed seeing Wonder Woman’s capacity for heart and strength, I urge you to check out the “Justice League Unlimited” cartoon from the early 2000s. There’s no naked Chris Pine, but Wonder Woman still shines in so many meaningful ways.

Every one of those ways comes back to her heart and her willingness to embrace a flawed world with love and compassion. It’s not just about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, or masculine or feminine. It’s about tempering hate and oppression with love and compassion. Those are powerful principles that work just as well in the real world as they do the fictional one.

While those principles might not help the critical reception of “Justice League,” those who’ve seen the movie have likely seen all the ways Wonder Woman uses her heart and her skills to the utmost. It may not convince everyone that she’s the most important member of the Justice League, but I hope it makes a powerful case.

It’s a concept that will likely carry over into future movies in the DC Extended Universe, but has already shown itself to be true throughout the comics, especially in recent years. Superman and Batman have their place and their status among the world of superheroes. However, Wonder Woman’s impact extends far beyond any comic book or movie. It’s an impact that we would all be wise to learn from.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, gender issues

In Memory Of Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who (Literally) Saved The World

Stanislav Petrov

Today is an important day, one that became even more important this past year. You probably didn’t realize it and for good reason. Until recently, the significance of this day had been lost to history, but it’s a day that deserves recognition, albeit for a very sobering reason.

This day became one of the most significant days not affiliated with a holiday sale at the mall on September 26, 1983. On that day, the world as we know it almost ended. That’s not a hyperbole. That’s not a conspiracy theory out of a an Alex Jones fever dream either. It’s painfully true. The world almost died in a nuclear fire on that day, but it didn’t because of a decision made by one man.

That man’s name is Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and if you were alive on that day, or were born after it, then you owe your existence to this man. For a brief moment on that day, 35 years ago, he literally held the fate of the world in his hand and he made the decision that saved it. As someone who regularly lauds superheroes and the values espoused in comics, even I can’t overstate the significance of what that man did.

The incident that almost ended the world and made Stanislav Petrov a man for the ages widely known about until the mid-2000s. It involved an incident in the former Soviet Union that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. In terms of worst case scenarios, this ranked right up there with an invasion by aliens armed with atomic anal probes.

At the time, Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces and had been on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. In terms of Soviet defense strategy, his role in that bunker was pretty damn important. It was tasked with monitoring Soviet air space to detect an incoming nuclear attack.

It’s worth mentioning that this was a time of heightened tension. President Reagan, at the time, was going long and hard on anti-communist rhetoric. Being a former Hollywood actor who’d just been elected President, the Soviets had no idea if this guy was just going to shoot nuclear missiles at them because he thought it would make a great movie.

In a sense, this was the worst possible time for the systems at the Serpukhov-15 bunker to give a false alarm, but that’s exactly what happened. In the middle of Petrov’s shift, the systems began blaring every alarm it was possible to blare, telling them that America’s new Hollywood President had done just what they’d feared. He launched a full-scale nuclear attack to wipe out the Soviet Union.

I’d say it’s a nightmare scenario, but no amount of killer clowns armed with chainsaws can do justice to this kind of horror. As far as the men in that bunker knew, their country and everyone they loved was about to die in a nuclear inferno. It was the policy of the USSR and the Red Army to respond to any nuclear attack with a devastating retaliation, as specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

It was Stanislav Petrov’s job/duty to inform the Soviet high command of the detection. Every bit of his military training demanded that he inform his superiors to retaliate, thereby destroying the United States and Western Europe in reign of nuclear fire. In a state of such heightened tensions, he might have been justified in doing so.

All it took was one call to his superiors. That would’ve been it. That would’ve ended the world, as we knew it. Try and think about that for a second. In that moment, the fate of the world and billions of lives lay on the shoulders of Stanislav Petrov. If he makes that call, then the world as we know it is over.

However, in that moment when he literally had the world on his shoulders, he didn’t make that call. In that moment, he made a decision that saved the world and its future. He did it by not following the protocol that he’d been trained to follow and by the Soviet Union, no less, who were not known for being understanding to disobedience.

Petrov, with his duty and the weight of the situation bearing down on him, believed it to be a false alarm. He had good reason for believing this. The systems were detecting only several missiles, which was pretty small, given the sheer size of America’s nuclear arsenal. If America’s Hollywood President really wanted to wipe out the Soviet Union, he definitely would’ve used more.

Even so, his training and his duty told him to inform his superiors. He only had 15 minutes to do so because that’s how long it took for a detectable missile to reach its target. That’s right. In the time it takes to watch an episode of “Robot Chicken,” Stanislav Petrov had to make a decision that would’ve determined the fate of this entire planet.

The fact that no nuclear bombs went off and billions of people didn’t die is proof that he made the right decision. It was later determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the erratic orbits of the Soviet’s satellites.

It seems so trivial now, but keep in mind that these were tense times during the Cold War. It really didn’t take much to spook either America or the USSR. It could’ve easily become a perfect storm, of sorts, for accidental nuclear annihilation and nobody would’ve been left on this planet to admit they screwed up.

It’s because of Petrov’s decision that day, to not follow protocol and trust his instinct, that we avoided Armageddon. For that decision, Petrov received no metal, commendation, or recognition for his decision. He just got a pat on the back, which was the most anyone could hope for in the Soviet Union at that time.

This man literally saved the world in the most painfully literal sense, but was quickly forgotten. There were no parades, movies, or free tickets to a Madonna concert. Petrov just went back to living his life until he retired from the military.

It really wasn’t until 2004 that Petrov began getting recognized for his actions, that day. By then, though, the weight of that moment had lost its place in the public consciousness. The fact I have to write about it on this blog shows just how little awareness this man and that fateful day have in the annuls of history.

Well, in this year, that day became a lot more important because back in May, Stanislav Petrov passed away at age 77. It wasn’t widely reported. It didn’t even get mentioned on any of the major news outlets in America or Russia. This man who saved billions of lives isn’t even alive anymore to appreciate.

He lived a quiet, unremarkable life towards the end. He never considered himself a hero. He never even tried to put that label on himself. He was just the right man in the right place to make the right decision. In doing so, he saved billions of lives and preserved the future of this planet.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the decision that this man made on that fateful day 35 years ago. Some may brag that they saved the world or are arrogant enough to think that they can. Stanislav Petrov didn’t need to brag because he did it. He saved this world and most people will never know what he did.

Now that he’s passed, let’s all take a moment to appreciate what this man did. By trusting his instinct and his humanity, not wanting to make the decision that would destroy this world, he proved just how heroic a person could be in the worst of circumstances.

From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of all those who are alive because of the decision made that day, thank you Mr. Petrov. Thank you for doing the right thing in the worst of circumstances. This world is still spinning because of you. Rest in peace knowing you saved it.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Jack Fisher's Insights