Robin and Batman vs. The Deadline of Doom
On two very different columnists and their two very different approaches to religion and column writing.
Previously: Hell's Diplomat.
Henry Kissinger is dead but the newspapers' habit of making excuses for him lives on. Here's my review of the op-eds and obits.
Programming note: There’ll be an edition of this newsletter over the weekend looking at the coverage of Boris Johnson at the Covid Inquiry. In the meantime, here’s one about… columnists.
To the weekly newspaper columnist, a deadline can become what kryptonite is to Superman. The requirement to have a fresh opinion on demand saps their energy. It leaves them flailing around in their own fortresses of solitude (at best a study, at worst, as James Marriott once said on Times Radio, “hunched on [their] bedroom floor bashing away at [their] column”) in desperate search for an angle.
Marriott’s column today is a good example of columnist’s kryptonite sickness in action. A thin and far-from-original premise — superheroes have replaced religion — is stretched to 900 words and glazed with a layer of false novelty.
Beneath the headline Devotion to superheroes is the new religion — which he’d remind you he doesn’t write — Marriot begins:
The idea that superhero films are getting worse will perplex film snobs. How can Ant-Man get worse? But it is so. The scepticism of critics has turned into something more like despair (“mostly meaningless” was the haunted judgement of The Time’s reviewer on Ant-Man’s most recent outing, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania).
Most importantly, popular enthusiasm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the most profitable film franchise in history — appears to be sagging. Ant-Man and the Wasp was a flop. The Marvels (released last month) was a positive catastrophe, the worst-performing instalment of the MCU ever. DC, Marvel’s rival, has failures this year, too: Shazam! Fury of the Gods and the unprepossessingly titled Blue Beetle.
There’s rhetorical sleight of hand at work here: Critical responses to Marvel releases have always been ‘mixed’ and even some films that have been box office smashes have received indifferent notices. For a decent critic, what a film earns should be irrelevant to its worth as a piece of art.
Marvel is being judged by a bar its previous movies set and the expectations of its parent company Disney. Yes, The Marvels — budget $200 million — brought in $46 million at the US box office on its first weekend and $187 million over 3 weeks, but what about other films considered successes in the same period? Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Ridley Scott’s Napoleon both had $200 million budgets and earned $154 million and $138 million at the box office.
Of course, all those films will have a much longer tail in digital sales and streaming revenues, but the point stands: If The Marvels is a “positive catastrophe” then so are the other two more ‘worthy’ movies, both of which will get plenty of awards buzz regardless of their takings and the lukewarm reception from some reviewers.
Critics hail “superhero fatigue”. Highbrows fondly hope that a chastened public has repented of its vulgar addiction to the entertainment franchise… Surely audiences yearn for new characters and new stories! It’s a compelling theory but it ignores recent successes like the seventh Mission: Impossible film and the fact that the franchise is a novel form of entertainment quite distinct from traditional cinema. It is not going away.
Here is the difference. An old-fashioned film, such as Brief Encounter, aims to entertain and perhaps move you. A franchise like Marvel or Harry Potter aims to take over your entire life. Franchises are not so much films as commercial religions.
There are two common columnist’s tricks at work in those paragraphs:
One is the arrogantly authoritative passive (AAP) — “Highbrows fondly hope that a chastened public…” — which avoids the need for specific examples and demands the reader accept that a statement is universally agreed.
The other is young fogeyism, where a writer drags up as someone decades older than themselves to cosy up to an ageing audience. James Marriott is in his early thirties but reaches back to Brief Encounter — a film released in 1945 — to make his claim that franchise fare is about cold commercialism alone. If that were true, Howard the Duck would be as equally beloved as Star Wars.
Marriott goes on:
[Franchise] devotees visit sacred sites (Platform 9¾, Disneyland, Marvel Studios). They join online forums to pore over the sacred texts with kabbalistic intensity. They purchase votive objects to display in their homes: wands, figurines, bedspreads. Marvel has made more than $40 billion from merchandise and Harry Potter more than $7 billion.
When arguments like this are consumed at speed, flipping through the newspaper or clicking around the Times website, they can seem superficially compelling. But you could say the same of Jane Austen fans or people who love Downton Abbey. Every popular piece of art or artist is subject to merchandising in the modern world. Is Frieda Kahlo — her likeness splattered across thousands of products — a religion?
While the first half of the column just about holds together, it’s when Marriott starts to stretch his premise that it begins to break:
Indeed, it is no coincidence that the rise of franchise entertainment coincides with the decline of religion. The Harry Potter generation was the first that was really post-religious, for whom Bible stories no longer provided a common stock of characters and tales. But the disappearance of the Bible from the popular imagination does not imply the disappearance of the human need for shared stories that provide identity, community and values.
The most successful franchises take a strikingly religious view of morality. The traditional artistic virtues of moral complexity and ambiguity are replaced by a simpler, more reassuring message: good must overcome evil. Frodo v Sauron, Potter v Voldemort, Batman v the Joker.
Harry Potter is strikingly Christ-like: a supernatural figure guided by a kindly old man with a white beard, he suffers death and resurrection before participating in a final apocalyptic battle against the forces of darkness (death, resurrection and apocalypse feature in Marvel and Lord of the Rings, too).
There’s the AAP in action again; franchise entertainment’s rise didn’t begin in the 90s, it didn’t even begin in the 70s with Star Wars, but with the adoption of the printing press and the arrival of mass-market books. Were you inclined to be particularly sly — and I am — you could argue that Christianity itself is a franchise, a highly profitable spinoff from Judaism, part of the Abrahamic Faiths Extended Universe.
The final paragraph of the three I quote above is the most embarrassing in the piece; it is the inciting notion of the column spelled out — “Hmm, all these heroic stories are a bit religious in nature.” But that idea has been explored more entertainingly and provocatively by numerous writers, towards whom Marriott doesn’t even nod.
He doesn’t even mention Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces introduces the idea of a monomyth — the hero’s journey — which provides a universal plot:
[The hero] ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won…
Yes, the Harry Potter stories, The Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel films adhere to that structure but so do The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and… the Gospel.
If Marriott had wanted to refer to a more recent comparison of superheroes and gods, he might have looked at Grant Morrison’s Supergods, in which they define Superman as “the ur-god”, comparing him to Moses, Jesus, and Karna; and frame him as The Beatles to Batman’s Rolling Stones.
Yeah, absolutely. At least with superhero characters, we know they’re not real. That takes away some problems of the old legends. And they do fill the gap in a secular culture because they open up dimensions of the cosmic and transcendent, which is stuff legends usually have to deal with. It’s not so much that they are new versions of the gods, because the gods were always just our eternal qualities.
Superman possesses the qualities of the very best man we can imagine at any given time. In that sense, he’s divine. Batman is representative of our dark subconscious, who nevertheless works for the good of humanity. They embody the same ideals.
There’s more in those two paragraphs than the entire Times column considers. One of the problems is that Marriott leans so heavily on the AAP while making mistakes that someone who wasn’t just alighting on the topic for a week wouldn't. Take this part:
Films are usually praised by critics for questioning social conventions but franchises tend to uphold the prevailing values of the time. Just as the romances of the Middle Ages taught chivalry, courtly love and Christian virtue, franchise films preach tolerance, hard work and (that pre-eminent theme of modern culture) the unlimited potential of the individual: an ordinary hobbit becomes a mythical hero, an ordinary boy becomes a magical wizard, an ordinary news reporter becomes powerful Superman.
Each of those summaries is wrong: Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings does not become “a mythical hero” but remains an ordinary hobbit who completes his quest thanks to the help of his friends. Harry Potter is not a very good wizard in comparison to other characters and again relies on his friends to win out in the end. Superman is a powerful alien who takes on the alter-ego of Clark Kent to blend in with people who are easily fooled by someone popping on a pair of glasses.
Having claimed mere paragraphs before that “the Harry Potter generation [is] the first that was really post-religious” and franchises caused that, Marriott writes:
Repetition, not innovation, is the leitmotif of cultural history. Bible stories have been retold for centuries. Countless medieval poems deal with the adventures of the same small group of knights. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based on “existing IP” (the story derives from the 13th-century historian Saxo Grammaticus and had been retold many times before).
It makes the column deeply contradictory. Why should the Bible — which still shifts around 80 million copies a year, according to the Guinness Book of Records — cease to be powerful IP because of the existence of super-hero movies?
Having shown that IP has been created and reused throughout history, Marriott writes a conclusion that tries to flip back to his original argument:
Just as religions derive their potency from repetition and ritual, the recycling and rehashing of franchise stories exploits the power of the familiar: reinforcing a compelling sense of community, identity and shared moral values. This is a new and extraordinary kind of influence for an entertainment brand to exert on our lives and our culture. I do not think it can be so easily displaced.
Science-fiction serials and Westerns had a similar grip on the collective culture in the past and a larger one because audiences simply had fewer choices. But go further back into the history of religion and you’ll see that its stories recycled and rehashed elements of older tales to “[reinforce] a compelling sense of community”.
For example, the early Christians didn’t believe in a virgin birth. Instead, their version of the nativity story had Jesus as the son of Joseph and later adopted by God either at his baptism or resurrection. The notion of the virgin birth comes from ancient Greek culture where heroes were often born of a human woman and a god, usually Zeus or Apollo up to some shapeshifting or some sordid shenanigans with a lightning bolt.
All of that is understandably a bit complicated for someone trying to file 900 words while burdened by the columnist’s kryptonite. We get that last dose of AAP — “This is a new and extraordinary kind of influence…” — because Marriott needs a kicker that hammers home his argument even though it crumbles entirely in the preceding lines.
Each to their own, and all that, but I do occasionally enjoy challenging those who profess to have not one iota of religious belief. Nothing too heavy, you understand, as serious theology is quite beyond me. And I’m certainly not evangelising; often as not, I’m just trying to keep a conversation ticking over.
I restrict myself to a single aphorism, which goes like this: there are no atheists in a penalty shootout. I contend that most fans of the teams involved engage in something approximating prayer. The only exception, generally, will be the fans behind the goal who support the team whose goalkeeper is attempting to save the penalty about to be taken. As the player prepares to strike the ball, these fans may well pause their prayers to make hostile noises and obscene hand gestures in an attempt to put the penalty taker off. But by the time a player on their team is preparing to take the next penalty, they will silently resume praying.
Those paragraphs could’ve been written by a large language model trained on Chiles’ previous output — bar room theology mixed with football terrace theorising — but it’s entertaining and he doesn’t try to present himself as in possession of more wisdom or foresight than the reader. He continues:
This aphorism began life in the context not of sport, but war – although nobody seems sure which one. I thought the contention that there were no atheists in foxholes was first expressed at the time of Vietnam, but it turns out there are examples of its use in the Second World War and, albeit referencing the trenches rather than a foxhole, in the First World War. The same idea was alive and kicking in the previous century too, when sinking ships were cited as a good place for faith-testing. Before that, I suppose the idea that there wasn’t some deity in charge of things was thought too absurd to merit challenge.
That’s research lightly deployed. Chiles had a thought and wondered how and when other people had similar notions. The whole tone of his typically short piece is self-deprecating and humourous; in Chiles-World, he’s the protagonist and the butt of the joke at all times:
This all came to mind during the making of a series called My Life at Christmas for BBC One, which, I should point out, is a much cheerier watch than the above implies. In each show, I spend an hour talking to a well-known person – or people, in the case of Martin and Shirlie Kemp – about what Christmas means to them. I was worried it might come across as a bit, well, cheesy, but once I had reluctantly caved in to the producer’s demands that I wear a Christmas jumper, I decided to just embrace the idea. I’m good like that.
He uses the rest of his space up recounting conversations with other people — the dancer Oti Mabuse, the actor/singer Martin Kemp, and the foreign correspondent, John Simpson — managing to make it a fun read and a good ad for the programme.
There’s a sense that for a lot of people, Chiles is a ‘guilty pleasure’ or an ironic one at least, beloved for his vaguely Pooterish perspective on the world or at least made very shareable by the blunt headlines affixed to his pieces by Guardian subs. I like him as a columnist without any irony at all. His columns are funny, come from an interesting perspective, and crucially, unlike many of his contemporaries, don’t actively make the world worse. In this godless universe, that’s good enough for me.
Thanks for reading.
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