‘Batman v Superman’, ‘Young Justice’, and a Contemporary Lex Luthor

I’ve talked a lot about Batman v Superman before, including this post about how much I love its version of Lex Luthor. And I’ve talked about Young Justice plenty as well. But I don’t think I’ve ever actually discussed the differences between the two different interpretations of one of the few elements they have in common – Lex. That’s a shame, because it’s important. Especially as of season three. So here goes.

Let’s start with the reminder that Young Justice took eight years to release its three seasons. That is extremely important to this, because the first two seasons were very different from the third in a lot of ways. I…didn’t really enjoy season three. You might have noticed that from the fact I never actually wrote anything about it. Sure, episode four was the best episode of anything ever. But the season as a whole was trying too hard to lean into the cultural zeitgeist. It was trying so hard to be relevant to today that it a) felt instantly dated and b) didn’t actually delve deeply into any of the political themes it seemed to think it was exploring. A bunch of teenagers used social media as an organizational tool; there was a fissure between the heroes based on what they believed they should do; no one appeared to learn any lessons from the previous seasons and continued to lie, deceive, and abuse their powers to be met with no real consequences. None of that really went anywhere meaningful. They were just disconnected points without a coherent narrative connecting them and driving them forward. And arguable the biggest victim of that was Lex.

A very vocal group of people expressed a lot of hatred for the BvS incarnation of the character. He’s not physically intimidating, they said, he’s too goofy, he’s more like the Riddler than Lex! Let’s for a minute accept that premise. So BvS Lex is “too goofy”. And yet…season three Young Justice presented Luthor as an goof, blathering about fake news and far less competent and intelligent than the versions we saw in the preceding seasons. I didn’t see nearly as many complaints. How is that different? Well…I think that goes to what people really expect to see out of Lex. Just as with Superman, we’re talking about a character that’s been around for decades. There are many possible interpretations, each as valid as the last. Others might disagree, but I personally believe the version that’s best in a situation depends upon which version of what character he’s being pitted against. That’s something Batman v Superman did extraordinarily well. It’s something Young Justice didn’t really do at all.

Young Justice leaned into the idea of Lex as a fictionalized version of Donald Trump. It was the pinnacle of how season three sought to tell a more political story. And it’s understandable. Of course it is. We’re talking about a villain known for his hatred of an immigrant, real estate ties, and brief tenure as president of the United States. The problem isn’t the interpretation. What is…Trump is a symptom, not the real problem. Trump is not the be all, end all of racism and villainy. So taking shots at Trump is fine…but without actually taking that somewhere, in terms of him as a counterweight that reflects something in a different character, it doesn’t end up meaning anything.  And Young Justice placed him in opposition to Gar, not Clark or Halo or M’gann, and did so without leaning into the idea that Gar doesn’t quite fit in. So making him a Trump analogue fell flat for me, because it didn’t mean anything, didn’t explore what’s actually terrible about Trump. Trump == Bad. Sure. True. But that’s not anything challenging. It’s not a real argument or a political stance. It’s lazy. It’s the easiest shot that can be made, the argument that there’s one bad guy that’s the real problem and not the systemic issues that led to that one guy. It’s the equivalent of Resistance Twitter, those signs at protests claiming that if Hillary won, we’d all be at brunch and reminiscing about Obama, professing to have strong opinions about politics when those strong opinions can be summed up as “I hate Trump”. It’s shallow. It’s empty.

This kind of political story does nothing to challenge some of the worst abuses of power in today’s world – CEOs paying starvation wages to workers whose labour built the companies in question while raking in millions themselves; tech companies that disregard all data privacy laws; the fossil fuel executives that gleefully set the world on fire and are doing everything in their power to stop anyone from putting it out. That’s what I love about the BvS interpretation – at its core, it’s a story about power and corruption.

What makes this version of Lex scary is he’s not over the top. He’s not at all laughable. He’s not a direct parody of any real world figure, but he brings many of them to mind. He’s unthreatening looking, but powerful beyond comprehension. Because it’s not about physical appearance or public image or any such thing. It’s Lex Luthor broken down to his base components – hatred for Superman, wealth, power – and an exploration of what that actually means and how those parts connect. That leaves us with someone whose money leaves him able to do pretty much anything he wants and threatened by the very existence of someone with a different kind of power. It gives us someone who can hire mercenaries and actors, bribe senators and kill them, do pretty much anything he pleases with no oversight…until people start to stand together in opposition of that. It’s a villainy that goes beyond a person and into systemic corruption.

BvS presents a much more compelling, nuanced, and meaningful take on a Lex Luthor for the modern age than Young Justice does.  And it does that through not trying so hard to be relevant. By not giving into the temptation to reference current events through politicians or businesspeople, it yielded an enduring take on a villain. It’s one that was relevant when the movie came out, relevant now, and will continue to be meaningful as time progresses.

Political Opportunism and the Sheer Sliminess of Lacking Principles

Every now and then, I think about Anthony Scaramucci. The Mooch. That guy that lasted about six days before being fired – before his official start date, at that. Today, it was because of his comments regarding parent child separation at the border. They reminded me just what it is about him that bothers me so much.

Scaramucci disgusts me. I find him an appalling excuse for a human being. The reason for that is that he doesn’t have any real beliefs. Or at least, none that he won’t cheerfully throw aside and argue against if it serves him. He supports gun control and same sex marriage. He thinks that family separation at the border is inhumane and that it can’t be pinned on the Democrats. Those are positions I agree with! And as such, it makes me even more repulsed by Scaramucci, because he holds these beliefs, but still chose to work for this administration, however briefly, knowing full well what it stands for. He believes that human lives are worth less than what he can get for himself . It’s a sign of an utter lack of empathy, a lack of compassion for other people. He doesn’t have the courage of any convictions. He lacks principles of any kind. He can be bought. Maybe not with money, but certainly with attention. He’s painfully opportunistic.

People like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio repulse me for different reasons. They’re spineless cowards. I find their beliefs and personalities awful. But they still believe things. They’re bigots, even if they’re less open about it than the Trumps of the world. They may accept NRA blood money, but they don’t say the complete opposite of what they would say without it. They have the same disregard for human life as Scaramucci, they’re equally opportunistic, but their opportunism stems from callous beliefs and bigotry, not an impersonal lack of consideration as to how their words or actions will affect others.

Back during the week when he was part of the Trump administration, I thought Scaramucci was kind of funny. And that’s for the same reason I – like a lot of people – used to think Trump was funny. He said outrageous things that blatantly contradicted what he’d said earlier, things so stupid I didn’t get how anyone could take him seriously, things that were clearly more because they were politically convenient than because he actually cared. But that’s not funny. That’s just despicable, and the reason I can no longer even think about Scaramucci without getting upset. A person that defends a bigot is a bigot, and that makes Scaramucci one of the worst.

Growing Cynicism In A Show Built On Optimism

I wrote a post a while back on the fundamental optimism of Designated Survivor. Weird, huh? I’m calling a show that opens with the US Capitol blowing up and hundreds of people dying optimistic. But that’s what it was. The premise of the show is rebuilding after an enormous tragedy. And it’s not subtle about it – the first season is all about Kirkman trying to bring the government back Even his Secret Service codename ties into that – he’s the phoenix rising from the ashes of the government. He’s an independent. He’s honest. He cares about the country. He’s an all around good dude that stumbled into the presidency rather than being elected into any office, and as it turns out, he’s surprisingly good at it.

Jimmy Carter is the obvious historical comparison to Kirkman, even if the writers don’t seem to notice it. Carter had to rebuild after Watergate, when the public’s faith in the presidency had been blown to hell. Kirkman had to rebuild after the entire government was literally blown to hell. Carter clearly had more political ambitions than Kirkman, seeing as he actually ran, and he faced a lot of challenges, resulting in a presidency less effective than it could have been, but still, we’re talking about two people that really aren’t natural politicians, whose fundamental decency makes the job hard for them. They both care more about doing the right thing than being liked.

When Carter became president, he said that his goal was to build a government as good as its people. On the show, Carter was only mentioned in a negative light and in passing, when the Speaker of the House told Kirkman that if something he was trying succeeded, he was Reagan, and if it failed, he was Carter. It was justified in context – after all, the woman that said it was a Republican, and the GOP has spent decades building the myth of Reagan and slandering Carter. But the whole spirit of the first season seemed to be pushing the idea of that quote. Of rebuilding a better government. Of doing the right thing, because there will often be a choice between doing what’s right and what’s easy.

I knew season two felt different from the start, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was at first, just that it didn’t have to do with the absence of the conspiracy or anything like that. But I eventually got it: season two was much more cynical. It didn’t hit me until the whole Kunami arc, but once I saw those episodes, I realized that it was Kirkman that was different.

Season two Kirkman declared war on a country with insufficient evidence and against the recommendations of all his advisors, who specifically told him it would be disproportionate retribution against someone they weren’t even sure was responsible. When did he stop listening to people? What happened to the man who, in the early part of season one, when completely inexperienced and under pressure, refused to bomb al Sakar until they were a hundred percent sure who the perpetrator had been? The only answer I can imagine is that the show got way more cynical about the world.

Even moments that hearken back to the most optimistic moments of season one have fallen flat this season. Like the impact study of Kirkman’s project. Instead of it actually being his fault and something he has to fix, it’s magically just the character we met at the beginning of this very episode that was lying to him. Yes, it would have been out of character for the Kirkman we know now to have not done his due diligence, but it’s believable for his younger self. Maybe he’d made a mistake in his desperation to keep his firm alive. Maybe he rushed the study because he needed to this contract and just missed it. Maybe he figured, this company living on will matter more than this one project, because there might be a negative impact on this one tribe, but if the company survives, I can help more people. But none of that was the case. It wasn’t his mistake,

That episode didn’t bother me at first. In fact, it made me feel kind of good. It was a reminder of why I love Tom Kirkman – his morals, his sense of right and wrong, his belief in finding a way to help people no matter what. But then I thought about it, and the more I did, the worse it sat with me.  I find this idea that this show seems to push sometimes – watch your back because the people closest to you are just looking to stab you in it – so out of place in its cynicism. Like, a mistake you made when you were younger and just starting out wasn’t your fault, it was your first hire and close friend lying to you and betraying what you stand for! Doesn’t that make you feel better? What’s more optimistic, the idea of never making any mistakes or doing anything with negative consequences and someone else always being the guilty party or the idea that you will inevitably screw up from time to time, it’s on you to fix it, and you can?

Okay, so it’s not fair to say Kirkman didn’t make any mistakes of his own that he then worked to atone for or work to fix. He did. He had to work to overcome his indecisiveness and excessive caution after Alex’s death. He talked to a therapist. He got better. And I do think one of the most idealistic moments the show had was in the second season – when the Democratic senator refused to agree to let Kirkman conduct a drone strike on US soil because even  though she trusted him, it would set a bad precedent. But overall, I think season two got more cynical.

Some of his mistakes just seemed out of character, because there was no effort into illustrating how he got to the point where he’d make them. How did he go from slowly trying to regain confidence and the ability to take decisive action to impulsively declaring war on a country and bombing them without waiting for evidence? All throughout season two, things like shootings, bombings, and what have you all had much less of an impact than in season one. All those things existed in season one – of course they did, the very premise of the show was a bomb destroying the Capitol – but they weren’t passed off as, oh, whatever, stuff like this happens all the time. Sure, that’s truebut it’s vaguely horrifying to think of how desensitized to them we’ve become.

Throughout the show, one of the most unrealistic things that I’ve seen are the public outcries at every single action the administration takes. I can’t tell if that’s optimistic or pessimistic – certainly, it’s optimistic to believe that the American people care enough for there to be an outcry over so many things, but it’s hugely cynical to suggest that they’ll react just as much like that when a politician is clearly trying to do the right thing and be open with the public as when it seems like he’s not. Kirkman has occasionally withheld information for short periods of time as a matter of national security when it comes to an ongoing investigation. That getting treated in the same sense as an actual lie doesn’t sit well with me. Nor does the semi-related issue in the second season – the idea that an entire Cabinet would be ready to invoke the 25th Amendment, not so much out of real belief that Kirkman is unfit for office, but out of ambition and loyalty to a different politician. Is it true that a great many people involved in politics would do such a thing? Sure. But it doesn’t work with the kind of show Designated Survivor started off as.

All the issues were amplified in the second season finale. The only way I know how to describe it is messy, especially when you think about how it’s the series finale as well. It was filled with corny dialogue, like the random woman asking Lyor what Seth’s name was because he’d saved her family and carried her grand kids onto the roof, like someone recognized that people like watching because it’s an optimistic show where good people succeed at doing good things, but had no idea how to write that in a non-ridiculous way. It was anticlimactic, what with the previous episode ending with Emily getting shot but this one starting with her in the hospital with just a few stitches. Leo showed up, for the first time in forever, as if the writers finally remembered he exists. Hannah ended up with Damian’s daughter hanging around. Chuck didn’t get to do anything or have anything resembling an actual character arc, much less resolution on the two seasons long plot point of his feelings for Hannah. It involved another step in Emily’s character assassination, because now apparently she’s a traitor, regardless of how little sense it makes. Nothing about it felt real or meaningful to me. I certainly didn’t see any of the earned optimism I got used to in the first season. All told, it was one of the worst episodes of the  show.

I like Designated Survivor. I’m still going to love the first season, because it felt hopeful and optimistic while still being relatively realistic in terms of how people would react in different circumstances. Season two, though, manages to be more cynical and saccharine at the same time, as if cheesy lines are the same thing as genuine optimism, and that disappoints me. I’ll rewatch season one. But I can’t see myself revisiting season two any time soon.

The United States and Mass Shootings

For years now, The Onion has published the same article every single time there’s a mass shooting. The only change they make is the place and time where it happened. Because it’s always the same story. People die, Republican politicians say there’s nothing to do prevent it, we hear that it’s too soon to politicize it! And then the cycle starts again.

Somewhere along the line, we decided that we don’t care. Not about people going to church, not about people that just wanted to enjoy a night out at a club, not about elementary school children. For some people, the ones that aren’t in public office, it’s out of desensitization. That’s understandable. It’s exhausting. After all, how many times can someone scream and yell at a Congress that won’t do anything to act before all the shootings start to blur together? Before the countless deaths turn from tragedies to statistics? But for the politicians that have accepted blood money from the NRA, it’s not because they’re desensitized to anything. It’s because they honestly don’t care about the people they’re supposed to be representing. They’re actually willing to trade the live of children for campaign contributions.

This is a country that banned Kinder Surprises because they have small parts and someone might choke on the small parts. After 9/11, the reaction was to ban liquids and scissors, stop letting people without tickets through to the gate, and check people’s baggage. But shootings? Nah, gun rights are more important than lives. The families can have thoughts and prayers, of course, but concrete action? Anything to stop something like this from happening again? Of course not. The victims aren’t worth that much.

Every time, it gets blamed on mental health, because it’s easy. Because it’s convenient. As if they’ve ever cared about mental health and the lack of access to health care for the mentally ill at any time other than immediately after a shooting. As if the mentally ill aren’t more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators. This country has a gun problem that we refuse to face. This is exhausting. How many more people have to die before Congress decides that enough is enough? How many more tragedies do we have to face? Human life has got to be worth more than money from gun lobbyists.

It brings to mind the old joke about a drowning man that refused all help because he’d prayed to God to save him. Upon drowning, he demanded to know why God hadn’t helped him. God responded by saying that he’d sent him two boats, but he hadn’t gotten in. Actions have power. This country doesn’t need anyone’s thoughts and prayers to solve its gun problem. It needs Congress to actually do something about it.

 

‘Designated Survivor’ and Political Optimism

Courage, my friends, ’tis not too late to build a better world.

Tommy Douglas, an icon of Canadian progressivism said that. Designated Survivor  embraces this concept completely – no matter what bad things happen or how scary the state of the country and world looks, Tom Kirkman doesn’t give up. He keeps fighting for a better tomorrow. Fitting, seeing as Douglas was Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather.

We don’t have to agree upon everything, but we do need to share common values and believe in the principle that all people have a right to equal treatment and protection under the law. Kirkman is a registered independent that leans left in his political views, but his most important ally during the first season was a Republican Congresswoman. And the reason that’s important is that they disagreed on policies. Not issues.

The polarization of politics isn’t bad if it’s about actual issues. Of course not. We shouldn’t compromise on core values. There are things in this world that are a matter of right and wrong, with no room for debate. Discrimination, gun violence, abuse, workers rights violations – we might not agree on how to fix them, but if the disagreement is over whether or not they are problems, then someone is wrong. Polarization becomes a problem when it’s over superficial differences. When it’s a matter of, it’s okay when we do it.

There was a fantastic moment in the second season when the Kirkman administration was trying to get approval to launch a military strike on American soil against Patrick Lloyd, an American citizen. Senator Hunter challenges it, and when Aaron questions her and asks her to trust Kirkman to not abuse his power and to not ask for this if he had any other choice, she says that she does, but that she still can’t let him to order the strike, because a time will come when there’s a president she doesn’t trust to make that decision.

That is something I wish we had today. One of my issues with the Democratic Party over the past several years was the blind Obama worship. I touched upon it in this post. I do believe that Obama did good things, while also finding some of his positions abhorrent. But now, every time someone criticizes Obama or the Democratic Party, people jump in with the same whataboutism they rightfully criticize when it comes from Trump or the Republican Party. Saying that I disapprove of the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistleblowers or his extrajudicial drone strikes does not take away from my disapproval of Trump and his travel bans and incitement of racist violence. We have to hold everyone to the highest standards, otherwise there’s no point.

Congress does not exist to blindly support any president and be a yes-man. It exists to separate the judicial and executive branches of federal government. It exists as part of the system of checks and balances required for a functional democracy. It exists to police the executive branch and force it to make the best, most ethical decisions it can.

I loved that Designated Survivor actually shows what a government should be. It’s not perfect, because the world isn’t perfect. There are bad politicians that care more about their own agendas and prejudices than about helping people. There are hard choices that need to be made. But Kirkman is a good man that wants nothing more than to do the right thing, both in and out of the country. Senator Hunter sometimes opposes him, but she’s also a good person, just with a different role to play. And together, they worked to rebuild a devastated country.

The world is messy. Not all choices will be easy. But it is possible to make better ones and improve the world we live in.

Exclusion and Covert Racism: Canada’s Relationship With Minorities

During the leadership race of the New Democratic Party of Canada, there was a great deal of racism directed towards the man that eventually won, Jagmeet Singh. You wouldn’t know it from the way it was covered, though. Jennifer Bush and her heckling were what got the attention of the general public, something that the general public could decry. That was the story that got international attention. But that wasn’t remotely the only racism Singh’s campaign dealt with. Continue reading “Exclusion and Covert Racism: Canada’s Relationship With Minorities”

Jimmy Carter and Inspiration To Do Better

President Jimmy Carter has been one of my heroes my entire life.

I was born years after his presidency, so I never knew him as a politician. I grew up knowing him as the former president that was out there building houses, fighting disease, and negotiating with world leaders. I remember reading an article once about how he nearly punched the then-president of South Africa for refusing to allow AIDS to be treated. Just a few months ago, he fainted from dehydration on a Habitat for Humanity build site in Canada. He’s ninety three. He’s been doing this kind of thing for decades, and every time I read an article or a quote or one of his books that discusses what he’s up to, I’m inspired. Continue reading “Jimmy Carter and Inspiration To Do Better”