Friday, June 17, 2022

Disney, Marvel, and the change in movie formats and values


It's no secret that the culture war has touched on essentially all aspects of American life, that everything divides between liberal and conservative views and preferences, well beyond entertainment media and news coverage.  Since I've been watching more Disney content than usual lately (my wife subscribed us to Disney + last year) those patterns are becoming more and more familiar, related to their input to Marvel movies and television shows.  Probably it would be for the best if I just eased up on hearing any related commentary (online views on their content), since that has moved from interesting and insightful related to outlining the two related points of view to quite tiresome, creating conflict where there only really needs to be preference differences.

Here is one latest reference I just saw, mentioned in a Joe Rogan Reddit subforum:

That subforum is a good example of what I need to stop being exposed to.  Does it really matter if cartoon movie characters are gay?  I don't know; I guess opinions on that would vary.  Probably it would be more of an issue how they framed that status and general acceptance of it, the perspectives of different movie characters.  I'll get back to placing it further.

A seemingly deeper issue has been Marvel television series and movies "ruining" comic book characters and themes by swapping out white male characters for female and minority equivalents.  Any problem there?  Again it depends.  Plenty of that came up in renewing text comic series, making female versions of Thor and the Hulk, for example, so these are based on existing in-print character versions.  Beyond that it seems to mix with problems with creating good stories, which would seem like a real issue.  This Youtube "Critical Drinker" reviewer post seems to outline the conservative side of this perspective divide, in this post "Ms. Marvel:  How Not to Build a Hero."

One might expect that the problem is that the hero in question is a minority female, a Muslim Pakistani American teenage girl.  It's not really that, or at least as that Youtuber frames things it's not.  He outlines how a movie needs to go about setting up a good superhero story (which we should consider and critique, rather than accept, but at least initially the points seem reasonable).  You need these elements:

1. a hero, with some sort of origin story 

2. that hero's well defined powers (or some just have extra capabilities, like using a bow)

3. an internal conflict to be resolved in that hero, enabling some sort of character and story arc

4. an external threat, typically a primary antagonist, but this could take different forms

So the problem is that this story misses most of that.  This story's hero wasn't like that (as described in the trailer, a preview, since he didn't see the episode then, since it hadn't come out yet).  The Ms. Marvel character (Kamila) has a background, so in a limited sense 1 is met, but 2 didn't seem to be clear in that preview (although later it would be; origin stories can develop that over time).  Based on his assessment, which turned out to match the first episode, since I just saw that, there really isn't much internal conflict to be resolved in the hero, besides her being a teen, and a minority, and being into comic books (although in that story the heroes are real; it's set in the Marvel world, so it's really just the in-movie real life characters).  The external threat might come later; as of the first episode and the trailer there isn't one.

Does what he is saying work?  In one sense sure, but in another maybe not.  This is a primary earlier paradigm for telling comic book stories that he has outlined, for sure.  But do Disney and Marvel need to stick to this template for every movie or television series?  Not really.  Traditional action, adventure, and fantasy story telling tends to follow this form, but leaving a part out or replacing one might be fine.

A common critique is that in this new liberal oriented version, as in Captain Marvel, the hero--or heroine; I'm not sure which term is more acceptable now, probably hero?--is granted powers by an external agent or force.  They're not tied to a development story, or linked with character limitations the hero needs to overcome.  Then again Green Lantern was just given a power ring, Superman was born that way, Spiderman got bit by a spider; like that.  It's not as if Marvel themes are a completely different paradigm, but they do tend to follow their own somewhat rigid patterns.

It's worth noting that this paradigm is part of a much older "hero's journey" theme that evolved in older mythology, as something that was written into stories about Green and Roman gods, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and so on, up until the modern day.  Jordan Peterson--claimed to represent conservative perspective, and to some degree he does--attributes this form to Disney stories like Pinocchio, and it seems to fit.  This list of 4 plot points would need to add a rescuing of an external valued good, fulfilling a societal norm or family expectation, and probably transforming both self-understanding / actualization and also a broader framework of valued roles and actions.  Heroes often tend to "save the world" in some sense, not just overcome a serious threat.

What if a storyteller wanted to throw out most of these four "rules?"  It should be possible to still tell a different kind of story, which still may appeal to a broad audience.  Something like a tragedy form of story is different; it's not like this.  Of course a Disney television show can't be a tragedy, but I mean that the normal template isn't required, it's not the only one available.  Love stories set up a similar conflict / resolution theme, but they are also different.

All this makes me think back to when we saw forms of story telling change in the past, related to shifting how stories were framed, and which values and forms were promoted.  Star Trek tried to explain, justify, and lead societal changes by promoting inclusiveness for racial equality (represented by aliens, but clear enough in meaning), gender equality (to a limited extent), and the use of reason and value of promoting common good.  It all kind of worked, in a limited sense.  The parallel with the Cold War and roles of the Russians and Chinese (as Klingons and Romulans) was a bit heavy-handed, and they really weren't promoting a mature form of gender equality, but it was fine for the 1960s.

Prior to that what kind of rules could we derive from heroic story forms like Westerns, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rodgers, previous equivalents of stories like Star Trek and Star Wars?  Maybe these:

1. a central hero is a white male, matching that real life societal expectation, for example that every US President was of this type.  This paradigm is from earlier European culture, but these movie forms are based out of the US, from Hollywood.

2. a sidekick role can be used to promote positive value of minorities, females, or youths, with these secondary in importance, personal strengths, and story resolution effectiveness

3. characters need to be truly good or truly evil.  They can change from one to the other, but there can be no anti-heroes (a character who is both), or heroes with deeply flawed characters.  A character arc can transition a deeply flawed but basically good hero to the more uniformly positive form; this is really the most typical form.

4. antagonists represent negative character, not just an equivalent moral value separate interest.  Limitations in character (morality) and competence link together and cause their downfall.  Again I'm referring to an old paradigm; in the most modern form it's better if people can relate to the villain's perspective as somewhat reasonable.  Even the Heath Ledger Joker made some good points, and he was clearly evil.

5. there is room for arbitrary "other" character range as background.  These rules for main hero and main antagonist don't apply to all other characters, although the others are generally aligned with one "side" or the other.

Can we still tell this form of story?  Sure, but it's not going to work out like that in most cases.  It's a dated form, and a far more interesting story theme to move on to the Marvel template, or even beyond that.  Superman is written in this older form (for example he has no character flaws or arc), and it makes stories too simple sticking to that.  This is why they tend to include "evil Superman" arcs in comics, or add shortcomings for him to overcome in movie versions.  Not so effectively in recent films, really, because it runs against his entire character type.

Why is it a problem to include a protagonist / main hero who faces absolutely ordinary and mundane background and challenges?  Why can't being normal be a problem, like being a minority teen seeking out a self-identity and clearer social role?  Or I guess a drug or alcohol problem, or losing a job, or physical injury.  Dr. Strange overcame a physical injury, but his real arc was about character transition, and change of direction in terms of what he values.  But a more mundane form of story might be more relatable, without taking up magic use being so central, or leading on to saving the world. 

In a sense having the Moon Knight (tv series) character experience mental illness followed a related form, even though Dissociative Identity Disorder isn't conventional or mundane.  Mental illness sort of is conventional; lots of people struggle with depression or schizophrenia, and so on.

I'm not sure that Marvel made that work, setting it up as an internal challenge to be resolved.  The two primary internal personalities quickly became friends, although I guess per the writers' intent maybe that was a series long challenge and resolution, and it only seemed thin to me.  The wife of one persona immediately felt a strong personal bond with the other, which I guess could be a basis for later tension and conflict, but it missed an opportunity to write in real conflict to be resolved.

Per the Star Wars story and character arcs what this liberal "side" wants to write are stories where characters are granted special powers, without facing an internal arc, replacing older characters as superior than them, and later triumphing based on those received attributes.  Some of the "life lesson" form intended in old myths, and in not nearly as old Marvel stories, then drops out.  That was about overcoming setbacks, conflicts, and personal limitations.  Is this really a problem?  It's hard to say for sure.

To succeed as a form of mythology, to transmit values for ordinary people to take on as lessons, it might be a problem.  It doesn't take much adjustment for a new form of similar lessons to enter back in.  Per one interpretation Captain Marvel succeeded because an accident gave her powers, and per another she realized her then-inherent potential through deeper self-understanding, and through accepting risk of failure in testing her own limits.  Rey of Star Wars played out a similar revised form of character and story arc.  She did nothing to earn being the most powerful force user in existence, with the movie #8 explanation being that random chance caused that, and there were no unusual choices involving her taking on the hero's path, she was pushed into it externally.

On the conservative side of the perspective divide it looks to some people as if Disney / Marvel / movie content producers overplay this theme by not only having the central character granted special powers, without going through any internal challenge and transition, but the same happens with supporting characters.  In the Shang Chi story one main hero was a sidekick--a minority, without physical gifts or aptitudes, representing an ordinary person--who saved the day in the final battle with a lucky shot with a bow and arrow, after a few hours of practice, hitting a small moving target 1 km away.  Roughly the same happened in the Star Wars series, based on almost exactly the same character type, and to some extent the exact same action sequence.

The lesson here is that ordinary people can be heroes, even if being a main protagonist involves special circumstances and in-born or granted attributes.  In a sense that really is ok.  It just doesn't match an earlier expected form, and per one set of expectations it makes luck way too central to main movie turning points, versus effort and earned aptitude.  It doesn't try to teach people to work to earn special status, and the ability to resolve difficult problems, the lesson is that luck determines most things.  Or there just is no lesson, really.

From there intentionally including a lot of reference to gender, race, and sexual preference is off-putting to conservative viewers.  Female heroes are more effective in many recent Marvel stories, and older central heroes are "nerfed," reduced in power level and importance.  In the new Hawkeye series Hawkeye doesn't take part in the final "boss battle;" his younger female sidekick does instead.  If a very high proportion of primary protagonists are female or minority race, or gay or trans, in a sense that's still fine, but to viewers of conservative political inclinations it won't work well.

Surely all this came up related to the old Star Trek series, and that earlier paradigm shift.  Everyone had to get it that female characters were playing a greatly expanded role, even though, as in James Bond films, those roles were secondary.  It must have been clear that it was all allegory about race or nationality.  Looking back that shouldn't have been a problem, because the Klingons (Russians) were evil, and Romulans (Chinese) were also evil, and also somehow less respectable, so from both of "that time period's" conservative and liberal views the stories should have still worked.  They broke new ground, but from this time period's perspective they were careful about limiting that.

Next we might guess at where all this is leading.  It's possible for better story tellers to use these potential new forms in more developed ways, that support broader acceptance.  That's another sticking point; these stories being told could be appealing to people valuing these minority and gender representations, but they're not great stories in terms of building compelling characters and plot lines, setting up conflict to cause tension, and leading to engaging action as resolution.  The real shift to acceptance should be based on that.  The Star Trek form, and those old shows, are still popular today because it was all so well done, while a series like Battlestar Galactica was novel but largely faded from view, for not pulling it all off as well.

Then it's a problem that new stories aren't being told, as often as old characters and franchises are re-used.  Television shows will need to lead this form, since it's a risk to spend $150 million on a major production not based on a known story context.  Or presumably small-scale drama oriented stories could lead action / fantasy / adventure story context changes.  Streaming platforms are definitely helping drive this.

In the meantime if you listen to liberal or conservative film and television content commentary both "sides" come across as a bit "toxic" (most typically a label the left applies to the right).  They both make reasonable points about these issues, but tend to miss that they are opposed to the sub-contexts that they don't prefer, based around story-telling mode preferences and gender and race character context.  Any one person should only see one set of opinions in their Youtube or Facebook related secondary opinion commentaries, given how political preference filtering works out in those platforms, so that side would seem more right.

Digging deeper into secondary issues and contexts

What about the starting point of opposing or being open to movie characters being gay, or self-defined in other less traditional ways?  That's back to a simpler sticking point of the culture war divide.  "Hollywood" really does want to press a liberal context acceptance agenda, and half of the US population isn't on that page.  Or maybe it's really 45%, with 10% not as actively involved in the left and right divide.  It may come down to which proportion of movies and television content take up that context and portray it as a normal life theme, a standard value norm, and which other content sets that aside.  

The last Marvel movie I saw, Dr. Strange, included a gay character (America Chavez), but they didn't include that portrayal in the story, beyond having her wear a "pride" pin.  I don't remember it coming up in the last Spider Man movie either, and the Eternals had gay characters kiss, as a reference to it.  It's an active culture war; it's going to come up.

As I consider further the challenges faced by the Ms Marvel character it seems like I'm overstepping "internal struggle" concerns as trivial that are being addressed as serious, and of primary significance.  That character was a Youtube content creator with no following, and she had friends, and participated in social activities, but wasn't popular.  Completely normal, right?  Sure, but to not see this as a problem trivializes how younger people, and people in general, relate to their own life experience.  If she was a very attractive girl, with parents pushing her to be popular, and academically successful, or probably if she was wealthy, her conditions would be quite different.  She would experience other status and benefits from social acceptance.  

Her minority status seems to not be problematic at all, as portrayed, but I suppose incidental challenges might be seen as more important than I'm attributing them to be, for example her character having a tighter curfew.  I suppose it's understandable that such context as personal challenges has to be inconsistent, to fit episode plot lines, for example that one week she can't go to a comic convention (real life hero convention "in-story"), and the next she can go to a party.

She isn't really identified as experiencing mental health issues, like attention deficit disorder, but it's implied there.  As a parent I can relate to the general concern that all kids who spend more than half their free time consuming media, playing games, or on social media might naturally develop a limited real-life context attention span.  Dealing with this in a story line is probably going to be problematic, for that show, so they won't go there, but waving aside the issue as trivial isn't right either.  Teens experience this as a problem; they have to deal with it.

The same parallel can come up related to kids who are gay, or who now see themselves as gender neutral, or gender fluid (which I really won't try to unpack here).  To them it's a serious concern and challenge, and it doesn't work for a more conservative viewer to just see that as normal, as nothing to be concerned about, as not a significant internal conflict.  

I'm reminded of one gay roommate experiencing a significant internal struggle with exactly this issue, and after some degree of dealing with self-image and external social image he came to see it as normal, as not particularly unusual or challenging.  But that process took years, probably a main life theme for him between 15 and 25.  It works better for Spiderman to work through challenges of having superpowers and balancing saving people as a demand than for him to be gay; it fits natural fantasy story lines.  I don't mean that it has to be off-limits, or that it's a story that can't or shouldn't be told, but it's complicated, and a lot easier to move plot points along related to having superpowers.  My roommate put it all together little by little, one discussion and social exchange after another, and it took that full decade.  Spiderman tends to go from the spider bite to stopping muggers within a few scenes, only delayed by uncle Ben dying in two out of three portrayals.  He could come to terms with a gender or sexual preference issue in 3 or 4 short scenes too, but it would conflict a lot with real life experience.

Back to the theme of good storytelling form, I think one main problem is that these can be real character concerns, internal struggle for them to overcome, but that in the movies or tv shows I've cited they're not actually addressing and resolving these issues, these are just background concerns for them to deal with.  In one sense the Moon Knight character resolved having multiple personalities, so that's a potential counter-example, but really it went from impossible to work with and relate to on to being completely resolved with very little struggle or resolution effort on the main character's part (the two of them, two personas).  It would've required very developed, nuanced, and abbreviated form story arc to change that, and I suppose to some viewers that's exactly what they pulled off, and I just didn't see it that way.  The same could apply to Captain Marvel; to many maybe she really did overcome personal self-limitations and fear, through long struggle and introspection, and that's just not how I saw it on-screen.  She realized that she had a control device on her and pulled it off; problem solved, easily.

Maybe these personal development arcs are going to need to be like that, to match real life forms, drawn out across running threads and many personal exchanges, across more scenes and screen time.  I'm referring to the abbreviation issue tied to my friend and roommate's case.  These Youtubers who are criticizing this content themselves spent years building up to 100k follower counts, learning their craft of developing content, managing algorithms, telling their own stories, networking to build viewer base, etc., and the Ms Marvel character can't be shown doing equivalent things.  Maybe in a montage sequence of some sort, but even that would look mundane, beyond the limitations of showing it in a half dozen visual images.  Her own resolution needs to be about having superpowers, as occurred in the Spiderman story.  Peter Parker struggled with relationship issues and job concerns, so they balanced all that, but it took careful storytelling to do so, adding a moving depth to that character.

There's one additional problem, a big one, that relates to why the news media divide thrives on developing this perspective divide, instead of helping resolve it.  That "Critical Drinker" Youtube video has 1.5 million views, and that content creator has made another 20 videos with almost exactly the same theme, across different Disney or other producer characters and stories.  It's his job, literally, to take that side on this issue, to express it and for others to consume that content, and for him to get paid for making it.  Over the next year he will make another dozen videos complaining about the same issues, in exactly the same way, and he will draw the better part of another 10 million views for doing it, and earn the related ad revenue.

He's not exactly an outlier in that regard; this other channel, Nerdrotic, made roughly the same video ("Marvel PANICS After Year of M-She-U FAILURES | Ms. Marvel DISASTER Undergoes EXTENSIVE Reshoots"), at the same time, which has so far drawn 680k views, for a channel with less than half a million followers.  It seems like a Youtuber equivalent to doing what it takes to succeed in a corporate job; maybe it matches their views and maybe it doesn't, but it pays off either way.  I don't know that liberal supporters of this content form draw quite the same following, but that content does exist.  Drama and negativity work better for drawing viewership, and this "conservative side" can build on attachment to earlier forms of the same stories, complaining that Disney is ruining comic book stories.  Maybe they are, per one valid perspective and set of expectations?

One might wonder how people in other cultures place all this.  I live in Thailand; what do people here think of sticking to more traditional forms of hero stories (like Iron Man had been), or moving away from that, embracing diversity issues over a main central character arc, like in the Eternals?  They don't tend to think about it.  

I recently discussed superhero movie preferences with my wife's cousin, who is on that page, and his main comment was that he didn't like the way general story tones became darker.  For example, the Infinity War story killed half the universe, Endgame killed off a few main characters, and even the last Spiderman movie killed one main one (aunt May), for no clear story support reason, just to add tension and impact.  The good guy tended to win in the past, and at most they dabbled in offing a secondary character to mix things up.  It's not unprecedented in written comics, but not a sub-theme he likes.  In the written comics characters could die and come back, which also happens in films, but it has a different feel to it.  

Characters being minorities or gay doesn't seem to hold positive or negative value for him, I don't think.  Gender perspective isn't transitioning here, and it was fairly open to begin with, so that people can self-define as they like.  No one is going to learn any extra pronouns, but in general people will call trans individuals according to the role they take up, without anyone overthinking that.  They're not exactly "fully enlightened" in relation to such issues, but a liberal and conservative culture war wouldn't have the same divide to build on, so one has yet to start.

Does it seem like I'm tipped pretty far in one direction related to all this?  I feel as if I can relate to both sides.  If these newer, more progressive hero stories were just better stories I'd be fine with them.  The Loki television series (on Disney +) included a powerful, compelling, well-developed alternate universe female character that completely worked for me, framed within a good story.  It's a little late for me to be newly introduced to the idea that a woman can be a superhero too, since Wonder Woman covered that in the mid 20th century, and Gamora is one of my favorite Marvel characters, but it added to that legacy.  Folding in more social role commentary might be tricky, but if it somehow told an integrated story it could be fine, maybe even if I didn't fully accept the point of view being suggested.  

It will be interesting to see if Disney ever can succeed in normalizing normal internal struggles as part of a new form of hero's journey.  I mean mundane ones, like normal teen social development.  It should work.  It might fail for a reason I've not brought up, that it's too ordinary, and fails to fulfill the function of fantasy escapism.  It was nice having Neo of the Matrix escape life in an office cubicle, but what if he worked there for the entire movie instead, and a main sub-plot was about mundane office politics, him not getting a raise or promotion?  Maybe the imbalance in parallel themes could be interesting, as they started to play off of in Fight Club.  But it took great writing to do what they did in that movie.  They didn't include sub-context just because it made for a cool background aspect; every point brought up was woven together into story lines and character development.  

In the Eternals one immortal character was a child, just because they happened to be that, as one seemed to be a teen for the same reason, and characters were gay just because they were.  It can frame these contexts as normal, as they should be, but without being a part of a story about characters and developed plots it doesn't mean anything.  Could an immortal being maintain the status and personality type of a child, instead of developing mature social perspective, matching an adult form?  Would such beings face and overcome conflict related to same sex gender preference, and would that form shift over historical time periods?  The movie didn't develop these points.  

This is really why a more standard path is to start with origin stories at a more detailed level, to build up how these inputs work, instead of starting from a team-up movie theme context.  It's just good story telling, versus showing cut and pasted versions of expected images, exotic locations, action packed fight scenes, and novel superpowers.  To do justice to supporting new social role definitions and issues movie makers will have to build up interesting characters and tell good stories.

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