Thursday, June 21, 2012

TL; DR: On Willing Suspension of Disbelief, John Carter of Mars, Superheroes and Sci-Fi

I was reading a post at The Onion AV Club offering a reconsideration of this spring's commercial disaster, John Carter, and a single statement stuck out at me.
On the run, Kitsch ends up encountering a Thern in a cave and is teleported to Mars. (I’m sorry, I mean Barsoom).
And with that, I had to re-evaluate everything else in the article.

Rightfully, elsewhere in the article the reviewer points to the pulp roots of the movie, that it was a film that perhaps reflected a different era not just of writing sci-fi (or, as it was called, "Planetary Romance" before "scientifiction" had been coined, which, of course, became "science fiction") but of film making.  Sure, I'm onboard with "not the right place on teh spacetime continuum for this movie, and not the right marketing"

But what struck me was the curiously quasi-anglo-centric/ xenophobic/ concrete thinking that belies so much of why sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes, etc... have such a hard time with an adult audience.  In short, I'm guessing this same author wouldn't have phrased it as "Kitsch end up encountering a Man in a cave and is teleported to Japan. (I'm sorry, I mean Nippon)." 

Before you saying anything, Jason, yes...  The Barsoom of the John Carter books is entirely fictional and we're not talking about real people or places.  Taken as fact.  But the creation of fictionalized peoples, cultures, technologies, geographies, flora, fauna, foods, etc... is also a key feature of science fiction or fantasy.  If you want to bag on a sci-fi epic for having the locals have another name for their own stuff - you might want to reconsider whether reviewing sci-fi is the correct path for you as a writer.

Sure, everyone who comes to a bit of media is allowed their opinion.  One nicety of the internets is that you aren't locked into just At the Movies and your local film critic for a first-look opinion.*

In Supergods, Grant Morrison makes an interesting point about why superhero comics are so much a harder sell for adults than kids.  Kids, Morrison argues, don't ask questions about capes and secret identities and wearing outfits under your work clothes or how Batman can stay awake long enough in a day to be Batman.  He's just Batman, and that's cool enough in itself.   

Intuitively, this isn't really news, but as a mass culture we do have a very weird relationship with sci-fi and fantasy.   Those who think they're holding the bag, culturally speaking, get apoplectic that sci-fi and fantasy are hugely popular in mass media while "important" or "movies for adults" flail (what these movies are varies wildly, but it does not mean "has chest bursting aliens").   Worldwide, we're clearly not completely rolling our eyes at this stuff.

Comics are an interesting place to examine where and when and how we deal with the transition from media aimed at children versus media aimed at adults, especially if we look at the chronology.  We talk about how the Marvel explosion was this shift to "more realistic heroes", but...  what's more realistic about Hawkeye than Green Arrow, who'd been kicking around the DCU for a while?  I think you can successfully argue (or argue to a standstill) that Spider-Man isn't more realistic than Superman (irradiated spider-bite versus alien orphan is a draw in my book), and I'm not sure endlessly circling the drain of the picked upon nerd is "more grown up" than a dude who manages to have his act together enough to save the world daily AND hold down a steady job (because he's an adult with priorities, that's why).  But Marvel addressed the stuff DC comics of the 1950's rarely bothered to tackle.  And, of course, the 1980's enabled the 1990's to move the entire market away from the kiddie market, all while piling on supposedly grim'n'gritty, all of which had the feel of something for "adults" the way a Meatloaf album cover really speaks to your Uncle Bob, the one in the sweater vest who drives a Volvo. **

Nolan's Batman is the ultimate Batman with the adult explanations.  He doesn't really go "patrolling" by swinging from building to building.  He's more of a one-man SWAT crew that responds to crime as it pops up, (for God's sake, the only crime you're actually likely to see whilst wandering around is some jaywalking) with the occasional foray into torturing people into handing over information.  We're given Lucius Fox to explain away the fiscal impropriety of what Bruce Wayne is up to with WayneTech finances and equipment (in the comics, Fox never knew about Bruce's dual identity).  Our Bruce wears armor.  He basically steals his own tank for the Batmobile rather than building it, and he uses an abandoned basement for a Batcave rather than having a cave outfitted with 23rd Century technologies installed entirely by a single thin-boned butler (who is also a doctor).  Nolan got people, adult people, to buy it.

But that's not necessarily science fiction.  Most certainly, by choosing to stick even remotely to the source material of the original John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter director and showman Andrew Stanton had to chuck science reality out the window, more or less from the "and then I teleported to Mars" bit.  

I'm not sure there's a conceit for how many "gimmes" you get en route to telling your story with science fiction trappings, but it is limited no matter whether you're talking sci-fi or fantasy.   Fantasy doesn't get carte blanche.  Half the text in any fantasy world seems to be setting up the "rules" and then adhering to them or working around your fancy made-up wizarding notions.

Let's take Prometheus (please).  I actually will buy their cockamamie "seeding planets by disintegrating ourselves into the water stream and hoping for the best in 2 billion years" approach as your "gimme", but what I can't buy into is the crew that travels to and lands on another planet where no human foot has trod (I'm with you there), a crew that consists of highly trained scientists (right!) who immediately remove their helmets upon arrival (annnnd... you lost me).  Maybe a kid wouldn't worry about that, but this movie was also rated a hard "R".  

So.  Barsoom.

It's probably worth noting that in 1912, when A Princess of Mars appeared, we were only a decade from an amateur astronomer writing a few volumes of irresponsibly speculative conjecture about what he saw when he peeped through his telescope at our neighboring hunk of space rock.  Those books were pretty popular in the US.  Some people actually thought there were canals, we just didn't know what or why.

Clearly nobody thought ERB's adventures of John Carter were real (and far fewer bought into the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast than popular myth and lore would lead you to believe, so eject that thought before you give it martian canal traction), but the loose, everyday knowledge of the canals gave him a nice springboard, probably not too different from how the rise of AOL led to the Sandra Bullock thriller The Net.  

There's context there that I think one doesn't need as a kid reading these books (somehow I missed them as a youth, but a lot of other people I talked to read these in middle and high school).  Awareness of where and when Burroughs wrote the books is key to still enjoying them in your 30's.  It's the adult factor of being able not to be horrified by the misogynistic undertones had this been a modern writer, and actually appreciating some of the nuance given to race in the books even for their time and for a writer who wasn't entirely a world traveler sort.  The bottom line is, if you decide you're going to have a problem with the locals having their own name for something in a fantasy novel or movie...  You sort of have to go off and watch movies based on Nicholas Sparks books now, don't you?

But returning to whether or not you're a good fit for reading superhero comics or enjoying sci-fi...  

I never quit doing either of these things.  I know some/ many people do give up the ghost on what they perceive to be childish things and men in red capes soaring above the city.  But I half wonder if and when you step away from the cartoons and comics and movies featuring robots if something in your psyche ossifies as you grow older.  Perhaps when you start taking yourself seriously as an adult and you quit exercising this area of the mind, maybe things get put into a lockdown mode, only to get tapped occasionally when you're confronted with the right set of stimuli.  Press the right buttons, the secret code has been entered and suddenly Avengers is making $600 million at the box office.

BTW: I'd argue Star Wars is high fantasy set in a world with a sci-fi backdrop.  Over the decades Lucas introduced the oddball situation of cashing in on the "gimme" of The Force early on, and then back-pedaled and adult-explained all that away with midichlorians.  And every Gen-Xer to die a little bit inside.  But I think it illustrates that something changes for us as consumers AND creators over the year as we tell these tales.

But as someone who never quit enjoying those things, I also sometimes find myself caught by surprise by what I've taken for granted or forgot might not make much sense.  Why didn't the highly advanced Kryptonians believe Jor-El?  Why was Jor-El the only one on a planet of highly scientific folks who noticed this was a problem?  Why was the rocket so small?  Why why why why?  (Some of this gets addressed lightly in various forms from Superman: The Movie to the comics, but mostly once we started moving into that "well, this is for adults" era).

Here's what I obviously don't understand and am trying to explore:  Why is John Carter ridiculous but The Avengers totally reasonable (you know, for that kind of movie)?

Why can we suspend disbelief enough to place a Thunder God, an unfrozen WWII super soldier, a giant green man, a guy in a metal suit, a lady with two pistols and a man with a bow (fer chrissake) fighting aliens on Flash Gordon rocket cycles beyond criticism, but calling Mars "Barsoom" is eye-roll worthy?  It's absolutely fascinating.

All that said, reading and watching a film for enjoyment is well and good, as is critical viewing or reading.  Nor are these activities mutually exclusive.  What I think I ask is that when reviewers who know they are not predisposed to sci-fi come to a film, they consider what they're not buying and why.  On the flipside, it's often quite funny to read reviews from established critics who had their willing suspension of disbelief unlocked and suddenly decide some miserable sci-fi dreck as pretty neat, and they go on and give it a good review.

Directors like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi did wonders of sci-fi and superhero movies and media by working with what was on the page and making it make sense for the adult audience.  It wasn't that they necessarily brought anything all that new, it was that they found the right way to turn a phrase or shed the light upon the right aspects.

At the end of the day, I suppose it's about how well your narrative sells itself that really allows the viewer to give themselves over to the implausible or the fantastical.  And that can't be discounted.  It's that proper sequence of buttons, and so for some of us, it's John Carter who gets us to buy the story, and for some folks it's the storyline for Twilight.  

So, you know.  

*And lord knows I grew up in the 80's where even extremely high praise for a sci-fi flick was inevitably tempered with a snorting "you know, 'good' by the standards of these kinds of movies".  But then and now we're also deluged with fans who may have bought so much into the fact that this movie is even happening that any objectivity or desire to put on the critical viewing hat gets checked at the door (I give you the fact that Stargate was a huge hit with several TV follow-ons).  

**and I'd argue that the audience has fought back furiously against the push to do anything more than what the 90's brought to comics, stranding 95% of superhero books on the island of material neither for children nor people with a retirement plan, and always confused why all the stabbing, shooting and boobies eventually fails to pay dividends.


JAL said...

Opening my big mouth about Prometheus....

I thought the most unbelievable thing in Prometheus was that an intelligent person believes in God.  Ho ho!

Here's what I took from that scene: it is about faith.  Shaw is pretty adamant that he not remove his helmet, despite that he's thrown out some science-y reason that the air is breathable.  Ultimately, he has faith in science, so he takes off his helmet.  His faith is no different than her's, I'd argue. If anything, he has more reason to believe the air is breathable, than she does to believe that we ultimately came from a deity.

On a simpler note, one could argue that he does it simply out of bravado, since he didn't exactly get the warmest welcome at the briefing on the previous scene.

The League said...

Yeah, I sort of got that later as once the cross hanging around Rapace's neck kept getting shown but was never really a plotpoint. It was an "ah ha! Hollywood Humanist Faith Imagery! Oh. I see where they're going with this. My, but that's clunky".

I don't think I got some other stuff I read about later in another review about various myths and legends Scott was making calls back to, apparently. I am not up on my various ancient myths enough, I guess. Fair enough. Shame on the public schools I attended.

I suppose that early on in the movie when characters were utterly unestablished (and nobody in the film but David and possibly Theron's character ever really established any character), it just felt... uninspired.

I dunno.

From my point of view, Scott's attempts at symbolism were the typical mixed bag we get out of Hollywood when it comes to either discussing faith or the meaning of Christmas. To my point of "how far will I follow you as a member of the audience" - that shouldn't have been where he lost me. There's a line between faith and idiocy, and that was sort of the space equivalent of faith based Russian Roulette. (I know, I know... sez something about my own belief system, I guess).