I Couldn't Make This Up
(Due to the extraordinary energy demands of the last weeks of the school year, this essay was written in two bursts: Sunday, June 4, and Saturday, June 10. Some details in the first half may have become dated by the time the second begins.)
I love science fiction movies, superhero movies, spy movies, adventure movies, pretty much any movies that are most typically released during the summer or winter holidays. If they're part of any expanded universe, there will be at least one film that explores the hero's origin (Superman-The Movie, Star Trek (the reboot), Casino Royale/Skyfall, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and so on and so on and so on). There is almost always a supervillain, as well, whose origin may also be explored in parallel with the hero's. There will be at least one false ending, when, right on the verge of victory, the hero is beaten seemingly beyond redemption. This will be followed by a miraculous redemption, concluding with the defeat of the villain. Somewhere along the way, the villain will "monologue" (a term I borrow from Pixar's The Incredibles, one of the best superhero movies I've seen), spilling all the details of the evil plot and either giving the hero the time or the information needed to turn the whole situation around.
I've loved movies like this since childhood, though there weren't nearly as many of them around when I was in my adolescence, the prime hero-movie-loving stage. I loved them enough that I sought them out, even the dreadful ones, the plots so ludicrous and villains so obvious they made my eyes roll. I've become more discriminating in middle age--I'm being especially skeptical of the DC Expanded Universe--but for the most part, if a movie of this sort is deemed by critics to be at all watchable, I'll check it out. My eyes will roll, my credulity will be strained to the point of bruising, I may audibly scoff at what I'm seeing, but by and large, I'll have a good time.
It's become dogma that a heroic action movie, whatever the genre, lives and dies on the quality of the villain. Whether it's Die Hard, Goldfinger, or Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie has to have a villain who is interesting, at least somewhat believable, and woefully in need of a heroic drubbing. That's why movies like Iron Man 2, Spiderman 3, the Star Trek reboot, and Casino Royale have proved ultimately unsatisfying, however detailed the world-building involved: the villains just aren't super enough.
That's always been the case, but in coming years, I'm afraid it's going to be much worse. The reason is simple: the news cycle is rife with stories of super-villains who outdo anything the movie studios have ever imagined.
I am speaking, of course, of our president, his family, his cabinet, and the world leaders he prefers.
Take a look at his qualifications: most supervillains are super-rich. It helps immensely: you can't just build a planet-destroying weapon on a public school teacher's salary. (Breaking Bad is, of course, the exception that proves this rule.) Supervillains have incredible egos, believing they are the absolute best at everything they do. Supervillains are typically quite deluded about their evil schemes: they really think they can make the world a better place by sinking the Eastern seaboard, wrecking the economy, or victimizing millions of innocent people. They surround themselves with minions who eagerly do their bidding, implementing the evil plan no matter what the cost to themselves. They form alliances with other supervillains: evil dictators, dark wizards with glowing orbs, rapacious tycoons eager to turn their billions into trillions. And they monologue: their plans are so brilliant, they can't help but blather on and on about all the details, even if in the process they are sowing the seeds of their own destructions.
Sound familiar? If not, you need to read the news more often.
Fundamentally, however brilliant they may be at concocting their evil schemes, supervillains are actually quite stupid. Perhaps it's the price of pouring all their energy into those schemes: there's no room left in their brains for the filters that will keep them letting the world know about the deadly secret that will soon disrupt the global economy.
In the Trump regime, there are a significant number of cabinet secretaries, advisers, nepotistically appointed family members, and, of course, the blatherer-in-chief, who have gone about their schemes so ineptly, with such ignorance for common sense precautions, that were a fictional movie villain to act in such a way, I'd roll my eyes to a painful degree, scoff so loudly the couple making out in the row behind me would loudly shush me, and eventually walk out of a movie too unbelievable for even me. But it's not fiction: these idiots are really running the country, thanks to an astounding confluence of chaotic fractal events that led to just enough of the right people voting in the right places, and not enough of the smarter people going to the polls. Their plans are transparently evil, their subterfuge leakier than a shipwreck, their damage control efforts more hopeless than the Bush administration's FEMA work after Hurricane Katrina. And they monologue: with his entire staff scrambling to spin his latest stab at being the Most Corrupt President Ever, Trump will simply blurt out the true evil of his plans on national TV, or fire it off in a Tweet to millions of followers.
That's why I think it's time to coin another word to describe these villainous clowns: they are Trumb. Yes, it's a portmanteau of Trump and the word "dumb."
It's hard not to think of it as a joke, as something dreamed up by a screenwriter and rejected by a producer as too hard to swallow. But it's really happening: wretchedly corrupt stupid people have taken over the levers of government. One of them controls the launch codes for the nuclear arsenal Superman hurled into the sun in Superman 4: The Quest for Peace. (Yes, I saw it. Wish I hadn't.) He's blowing up relationships with our country's most important allies while cozying up to dictators and mass murderers. He's deep-sixing policies and agreements that will diminish the impact of global climate change. His health care policy is to destroy the most complete coverage the nation has ever had, in the interests of padding the wallets of people who already have so much money they couldn't spend it all if they tried. And no, he's not a Bond villain, he's not Lex Luthor, he's not Hitler or Nixon or Ming the Merciless or even that lame Star Trek Romulan Nero: all of those characters, whether historical or fictional, were far more intelligent and competent than he and his court. And the worst part is, all those millions of people who voted to turn the White House into a B-movie supervillain's lair bought his lies, believed he knew what he was talking about, and for the most part, still believe in him.
You've probably figured out by now that this crazy movie plot is missing an essential element: the character that, while usually far less interesting than the villain, still matters the most: the hero. Which brings me to:
Amazingly enough, in the time between me putting down this essay Sunday afternoon and picking it back up again Saturday morning, the insanely hyperactive news cycle provided me with a hero. I also saw a superhero movie that gave me a great fictional analog for that hero, so I'll start there.
The movie is Wonder Woman, and it's 66% great. For the first two thirds, it serves up all sorts of superhero goodies: an origin story which, like that of Marvel's Thor, is literally (rather than, as with most superhero origin stories, metaphorically) steeped in mythology; a rare female superhero, whose first heroic act is rescuing a rugged male hero who has just ditched his airplane in the sea; a period setting we rarely see, namely the War to End All Wars; and the moral complexity of the impending armistice that will deliver a twenty-year pause to that war. Viewers are not treated like idiots: much of the subtext is left unspoken, as we are shown, rather than told about, the strange new world Diana, who is never given her eponym, explores with Steve Trevor, pilot and spy. Make no mistake, this is still a gorgeously visualized comic book: the baddies chew the scenery with gusto, most of the characters are simply drawn, and until the third act, it's easy to follow. In many ways, it's reminiscent of the first great superhero movie of the modern age: 1978's Superman: the Movie. Gal Gadot's Diana Prince has a lot in common with Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent: she's awkward, sincere, honest to a fault, incapable of setting aside her principles to understand the complexity of modern evil. That's a sharp contrast with the morally tormented heroes of 21st century superheroes, including the most recent screen incarnation of Superman. The final reveal of the biggest baddie at the end crowds all that off the screen, unfortunately, for an all-too typical explosion-drenched climactic battle that desperately needed a firmer editing hand--and a director brave enough to say, "So what if we've still got $50 million to spend? It's better without a twenty minute orgy of explosions."
With my movie review completed, I'll turn back to the reason I inserted it into the middle of an essay comparing the Trump era to a superhero movie: this week, we finally found our hero, and it turns out he's a lot like Diana Prince and Clark Kent. In two words, he's a Boy Scout. The former FBI director is so convinced of the rectitude of his moral code that his actions sometimes open the door for a greater evil to take place. Washington, DC, is a place of great moral complexity. In the Trump Era, the old comparison to a sausage factory has become obsolete: a tour of such a factory would be a big step up from the incredibly sloppy way the Republican party is running things. In Marvel terms, it's as if Hydra took over and turned out to be hopelessly inept, but was still evil to the core.
Last summer, the FBI director stepped into this morass to deliver a non-indictment of a morally complex politician, Hillary Clinton. His agency's investigation of her use of a private email server had gone on for far too long--one of Comey's principles is thoroughness--but it had ultimately revealed nothing criminal, just misguided. If that had been the end of it, we wouldn't be in our current crisis. Unfortunately, there was an October surprise: just two weeks before the election, more evidence surfaced, and Comey felt he had to let Congress know about it. The country should not go to the polls uninformed. In the end, there was nothing to that new evidence, but it very likely skewed just enough votes in the right places to put a monster in the Oval Office.
This is often the case when principled heroes refuse to act subtly: evil pounces on the opportune moment, and all hell breaks loose. That's how Comey wound up without a job, testifying this week about being called into the supervillain's lair to be tempted with violating the principles that made it possible for that villain to be there in the first place. He stood fast, took detailed notes of every encounter, and was fired for holding to his code. Thursday, he used his superpower--his steadfast insistence on presenting just the facts, in detail, couched in his repeated insistence that Americans ought only to be influenced by each other, never by foreign powers whose evil is far more competent than that of the monster they helped elect.
Highly principled superheroes ultimately clash with the complexities of the real world. Captain America's Boy Scout ethos can't live comfortably with Iron Man's flirtation with police statism. Wonder Woman's ultimate defeat of Ares doesn't end war, it just lets it become more banal. Batman's refusal to take lives almost leads to his defeat, until Catwoman comes to the rescue by doing the dirty job instead. They wrestle with them, refuse to compromise with them, sometimes have to turn away and let the fantasy subside so a far worse reality does not come into play.
It remains to be seen what will become of James Comey and his heroic testimony: will the highly compromised Republican party, most of them minions to the incompetent monster in the White House, be inspired by Comey's example, set aside their selfish motives, and take action? Will it take a 2018 voter rebellion to turn the tide? Will the whole mess dissolve into true American fascism?