Thursday, March 5, 2009

No atheists in foxholes.

Watchmen is coming soon. In the event that someone slipped you a mickey in mid 2008, the graphic novel Watchmen has been translated for the big screen and millions of fanboys and fangirls sit in breathless anticipation for the first screenings (presumably tonight at midnight).

Truth be told, I never read Watchmen. I have flipped through it a lot and I am enchanted by the themes I am told it contains and the taboos it broaches. I did read Frank Miller's Dark Knight series which followed closely on the heels of Alan Moore's first couple of efforts. Dark Knight is in many ways far more iconoclastic than Watchmen, largely because it tears down not the shibboleth of the super hero in general (a type of character who was fast becoming tired and stale by the late 1970's anyway) but a specific super hero - Batman.

Batman is interesting (and I know others have broached this subject before, but it bears repeating) because he is the one super hero who does not have any powers. Bruce Wayne's sole power if dogged determination and a resolute conviction in his own rightness. From the creation of the series until Frank Miller's treatment, he always seemed to derive all of his strength from his convictions. Bruce Wayne is the christian soldier, confident that God is on his side. The Dark Knight however, tore down this archetypal image of Batman as a powerful force for good in a world gone bad. Instead, he is presented as a highly flawed, vengeful near-maniac who is fightingevil by killing and destroying everything in his path (including, potentially, good people). Superman is also addressed in the series, but not as the man of steel we know. Instead, we see him as a Reagan-bot, do-gooder pain in the ass who has traded moral certainty for pragmatism in the name of upholding some nearly dead ideal of America held only by conservatives and fundamentalists.

I bring all of this up for a couple of reasons. First, super-heroes are the ultimate anti Rand-ian characters. They are selfless largely because they feel their powers must be used for good since they are so, well, powerful. Wayne is simply a rich guy who is pissed that someone killed his parents and he is determined not to let it happen to others. Where most superheroes represent some kind of idealistic notion of how the rich should dispense their wealth, Wayne represents a practical application of the no-atheists-in-foxholes concept. Wayne would have been spoiled bastard if someone hadn't gunned down his family in an alley when he was young. Wayne represents pragmatism raised to idealism.

Today, the economy lies in shambles - largely because of a failure of individuals to rise towards an idealist standard. The economy of the dot-bomb era and the Bushian years was one which celebrated not community activism or the accumulation of wealth for societal betterment. Instead, it celebrated individual attainment of personal needs and wants. The people at the top increasingly felt that not only did they not owe anything to those beneath them, they often felt owed by those same individuals.

Now, we are seeing morality plays such as Watchmen and Dark Knight (made much closer to what was originally intended) becoming popular. My opinion is that their popularity is rising largely because they reflect not an encomium for an era but instead a cold eulogy. They are flourishing as a vehicle for catharsis by the viewing public. More and more, people are rejecting the ideology of individual attainment at the sacrifice of any obstacle (financial, human or otherwise) and embracing the ideal of prudence, restraint and assistance of those around them. There are indeed no longer any atheists in foxholes.


  1. You say 'made much closer to what was originally intended'
    When were they created? What was the political and economic 'vibe' when they were created?

  2. Good point. The context in which Watchmen and Dark Knight were created is important. They were both made in the early to mid 1980's when America was still reeling from the effects of a protracted recession. The interesting thing is that optimisim was on the rise (especially on the heels of Reagan's "Morning in America"). Yet, the zeitgeist among popular entertainment remained largely negative or "hyper-realistic" (for examples of this in popular culture, think Blade Runner, Terminator, Flock of Seagulls [more mod than dark, really] and many other dark (read negative) examples of the expression of the weltanshaung (a Berard-word, by the way) that was in place at the time.

  3. Ah yes, the 1980's. They didn't call it the "me" generation era for nothing. Or was that "mi"? Or "shui"? Hmmm.