When we started this blog, I opined that pretty much anything we watched, listened to, or read could be the subject of an off-the-cuff philosophical rant, and while I did this a few times without much exertion, I’ve since let movie after book after album after TV show fly by without so much as a comment. Have I lost my ability to see philosophy in anything? Do I have too much respect for you the readers to subject you to my frivolity. Certainly not.
And so I force myself, late at night, less than an hour after turning 40 years old, to spin out a pseudo-philosophical paragraph each on a few things I’ve enjoyed recently:
1. Big Love: Is polygamy inherently exploitative? The message of the show seems to be that while certainly it can be, it’s an open question whether it needs to be. At least some of the characters involved seem for the most part psychologically healthy, and have a rationale for what they do. It’s depicted (presumably based on research) as a matter of real religious conviction; is it meant to thus be a reductio ad absurdum against religion itself? Certainly there are some scenes (featuring a self proclaimed prophet on a polygamist compound) that strongly convey how duping religion can be, but at the same time, nearly all of the characters depicted are religious in some way; it’s just a matter of disagreement between faiths. Pretty engaging overall; nice, subtle comedy, and thought provoking without being heavy handed about it.
2. Game of Thrones. We had free HBO for a weekend, so I splurged on this, and have reread the first two books in the series (I’d read the first three several years back), which I enjoyed immensely. It’s set in something like Hobbes’s state of nature, where life is cheap, unless you’re of noble birth, in which case offenses upon you are met with hundreds riding to your aid to be slaughtered, and then you probably get killed or at least maimed anyway. A lot has been written on the sexual politics, but more interesting is the moral ambiguity: even characters set up as horrible in the first book become protagonists (the narrator rotates each chapter between half a dozen people, which change somewhat for each book) as time goes on: everyone has their rationales and is trying to make their way through a horrific situation. I don’t feel like I can rate the TV show, as I see it only as an illustration of what I already know and like in the books,
3. Kickass. This movie/comic is based on the premise that if people actually got in superhero fights, they’d end up in the hospital. Pretty much, in superhero comics (which is much too much of the history of comics, and a point of reference even for those comic artists that hate superheroes), the “what if superheroes were real?” thing has absolutely been done to death, but there are still refreshing variations. The obvious characteristic of this one is the over-the-top violence, which makes it all-too-familiar as a movie trope, but it’s interesting that it’s done here in the superhero genre without its being all dark a la the Punisher or Watchmen. It’s got more of a comic, Fight Club vibe, with some added elements: a kid raised to think murdering bad guys is normal (with some amusing father-daughter sequences involving Nicholas Cage), and the main character actually getting freaked out by the whole thing and deciding (temporarily, at least) that getting involved in this sort of mayhem was a terrible, insane idea. So, you can take this movie as a comment re. our relation to violence. The comic was better, of course: no sentimentality there that I can recall.
4. X-Statix. Somewhere in the early 2000s comic companies started letting crazy-ass indie writers (like Mark Millar, who wrote Kickass) take on some mainstream comic titles, and while in some cases this just meant actually readable-by-adults comics (e.g. Grant Morrisson’s and later Joss Whedon’s New X-Men, Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil, and I know similar things happened at DC that I feel less competent to talk about). The very trippy Peter Milligan inherited X-Force, which is a spin-off of the X-men that sort of makes me ill to think about (really, despite my apparent nerdiness here, I find most mainstream 80s and 90s comics to be just unreadably horrific. The kinds of stuff I’m talking about here is not any more esoteric than many movies you have likely seen, even if the whole media form sounds bizarre and distasteful to you).
So for a couple of books (trade paperbacks, that is; I don’t know if I’ve ever actually read a real comic book at the time of its publication) around 2001 or so, Milligan created all new, mostly gross characters (e.g. the mutant who barfs acid) that he had no compunction about killing off rapidly, and answered the “what if superheroes were real?” question by making them all media whores who film their exploits a la reality TV. So, in between the cheap gags, or maybe interposed on them, there’s some nice media-culture commentary, a few ethical questions, and a bit of playing with the 4th wall that always makes you feel so included and clever. After a couple of books, the whole “X-Force” pretense was dropped and the book acquired its own, new title, X-Statix.