June 2nd 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Greens: the political equivalent of bilgewater

EDITORIAL Malaysian election sends shockwaves across South-East Asia

GENDER AND SPORT Transgender playing in women's football league gains attention

CANBERRA OBSERVED Beyond tomorrow a bridge too far for politicians to plan

ENERGY Why renewables destabilise the power grid

LAW AND FREEDOM Exemptions: at issue with Dr Zimmermann

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Behind the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Two to tango: Where to now for U.S. and China?

LIFE ISSUES So, is this not pro-life?

POLITICS AND CULTURE The West won the world but may lose its soul

MILITARY BIOGRAPHY Commanders: the men who resolve questions of life and death


MUSIC Eurovision: Wailing and gnashing of teeth

CINEMA Superhero movies: A Chestertonian consideration

BOOK REVIEW A man for all seasons and hemispheres

BOOK REVIEW Mid-century gem of Catholic fiction



ECONOMICS Vatican document nails some of the causes of the GFC

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Superhero movies: A Chestertonian consideration

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, June 2, 2018

The world is awash in superheroes and comic book adaptations. They dominate both the small and big screens, attract some of the biggest budgets and stars, and an astonishing number of people are watching.

They have come to be the pre-eminent modern mythology, a pop-cultural exploration of ideas and themes both light and heavy, a shared fund of experiences and understandings. They appeal for the way they blend the fantastical with the real, the moral with the marvellous. They act as a mirror to society, a reflection of people’s hopes and concerns.

The roots of storytelling go back to ancient religious rites, re-presenting the stories of gods and heroes in ritual form to act as both a participation in those events and as a way of forming the attitudes of the audience. This participation is both enlightening and cautionary, emphasising the right way of being by making the spectators go through the story with the hero, feeling with them and learning from their mistakes.

The ending is a purgation or catharsis that rids the spectator of the sins of the hero – sins that they themselves share. As such they not only echo the values of their culture but inherent human values. Their effectiveness comes from the way they affect the audience in their heart and their gut, more so than their head.

Right up to the modern era therefore, storytelling employed exaggeration for this end. Stories depicted a heightened and selective “reality”, one that grew organically from the values and understandings of the storytellers – values and understandings that were shared by the community at large. The modern era, however, saw those shared understandings – which were precarious at the best of times – coming apart. In their place, an artificial division between the “popular” and the “artistic” came to the fore, one emphasised by a newly established “critical” class and justly lampooned by the likes of G.K. Chesterton.

Instead of a heightened reality, the “critical” preference was for a lowered one. Instead of an enchanted world full of possibilities, the preference was for a disenchanted one full of disillusionment. But people still wanted ripping yarns – penny dreadfuls and potboilers full of drama and peril, romance and adventure. Over time these morphed into comic strips, and later, comic books – dramatic, fantastical tales that encouraged heroism and denounced villainy; stories that repeated themselves, but in new ways, as if they were echoes or reflections, rather than reproductions.

What began as children’s stories became something more. They maintained a childlike belief in adventure and the battle of good and evil but they gained dimensions and depth, much like children growing up and realising that there was more to this adventure than they first realised. Their creators started deliberately to draw on more. The X-Men series, for instance, was influenced by the Holocaust, eugenics and the American civil rights movement; while Superman and Batman took on the corruption of their society.

2000 saw the cinematic debut of the X-Men and the comic book idea, but it was 2008’s Iron Man that created the juggernaut of multi-part shared universes of heroes and villains, with each instalment being another chapter in a continuing story, much like a comic book or their cartoon adaptations.

Until this time audiences were treated to Superman or Batman movies with a raft of villains, but a lone central hero. Now there were multiple heroes and multiple villains, and much of the drama was driven by the personal, rather than the peril.

Apart from the ideas they represent and the ways in which they strive to fashion works that are both popular and artistic, superhero movies also represent the triumphant return of the studio system. Maligned for decades for the way they apparently forced creative types to act against their better judgement, now the studios are in control. This means that the “creatives” have a lot of leeway – but they must create within the confines of a structure.

As artists learned throughout the centuries, such restrictions do not kill creativity, but rather, push it in new directions by subordinating the individual’s will to the tradition in which they operate. Ideas are explored, but, as in Greek tragedy or Shakespearian drama, they are explored viscerally, and their exploration does not take precedence over the story itself – for the story itself is the central idea.

These tall tales with their unexpected depths and their mass appeal have their flaws, but their strength is in their very humanity. That humanity is heightened and exaggerated, much as it was in the Greek myths; and, much like in the Greek myths, it does not distance us from them but can make us reflect on our own heroisms and villainies.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member  of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA). He dedicates this review to the memory of the late Tony Evans, founder of The Australian Chesterton Society.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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