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In defence of philistinism

Don’t feel guilty if you’d rather read a Fifty Shades of Grey sequel than Proust. 

For many people I know, the LoveFilm DVD rental list is a graveyard of good intentions: Three Films by Jean-Marie and Danièle Huillet, some Ken Loach, a smattering of Andrei Tarkovsky. Look closely and you’ll see that they’re all set to “low priority”, which translates as: “Please don’t actually send these movies to me.”

Though I love Cassavetes and Welles as much as any discerning film fan, I can sympathise. I could spend a Thursday evening after work watching The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which, LoveFilm tells me, is “at once a love story, a documentary, a socio-political statement and a film of the music of Bach” – but I’m more likely to go for an old episode of Beverly Hills, 90210.

“Great” cinema, like much of “great” literature or art, can be challenging. It can also be a downer. Susan Sontag wrote in 1963: “The truths we respect are those born of sickness.” More than half a century later, this equation of pain with potency remains the conventional wisdom, and many lauded films – Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, say – combine “challenging” and “downer” in a relentless onslaught. And Manchester is apparently a great movie. Maybe I’ll put it on my LoveFilm rental list . . .

Difficulty serves as an aid to intellectual engagement. “Small bursts of mental complexity – also known as cognitive disfluency – encourage us to think more clearly,” explained Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing at New York University, in 2013. When Robert Browning wrote his notoriously difficult poem Sordello, he doubtless intended to use disfluency to corral readers towards truths hitherto unexplored in verse, but Tennyson’s response to it summed up the dangers of the strategy: “There were only two lines in it that I understood.”

Academe celebrates complexity in part because it gives scholars obvious things to write about. Canons are formed through critical consensus, but to what extent and how accurately do they reflect a society’s values and dreams?

Avatar, Titanic, Star Wars: the Force Awakens, Jurassic World and The Avengers: these are the most profitable films of all time, and none is canonical in any meaningful sense. They are, to be frank, dumb and devoid of complexity yet millions of people love them. Critics may howl when something deemed trashy captures the public imagination – for instance, the music of Ed Sheeran, who recently topped the charts with his album Divide, despite warnings from reviewers about its “flagrant sense of scheming” and “deeply uncool whiteness” – but our relationship with culture is a personal matter. There’s no shame in loving what a bunch of journalists have decided is a bit rubbish.

After all, what the critics in one era think great can become a laughing stock in another, and the reverse is also true. Douglas Sirk was largely dismissed as a pedlar of sentimental “women’s pictures” in the 1950s, even as he made films later accepted as masterpieces, such as All That Heaven Allows.

And it’s worth remembering that even Christianity initially got terrible reviews: Nero had followers of the faith burned alive as human torches and torn apart by dogs in 64AD. Less than three hundred years later, the then Roman emperor, Constantine, had converted. Perhaps in a couple of centuries, Highlander 2 (“a movie almost awesome in its badness”, according to Roger Ebert) will similarly be reappraised as vital to human happiness. Or maybe Sheeran will replace Bob Dylan in the history books as the musician of our era. I doubt it, as they really are bogus – but, as the song goes: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round . . .”

A critical consensus forms and then is eventually replaced by a new one. What matters in the end is whether you are moved by something or not – it’s the only mark of quality that you can be sure of. To argue for the binning of established canons to make way for the lionisation of, say, Dumb and Dumber and 90210 would be absurd, yet it is just as daft to deny that “low” culture can have a powerful, and therefore equally valid, effect on us. So don’t feel guilty if you’d rather read a Fifty Shades of Grey sequel than Proust. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.