Fascist aesthetics

Posted: 14th July 2015 by Christian in Blog

Part II

Last time we spoke of how superheroes had moved into territories I thought they had no business being. I let them be.
Then, the movies came.
Arguably, with the first X-Men film.

The genre ‘superhero’ film is inescapable. They dominate the discourse concerning any fan of fantastic cinema. Even trying to avoid them seems a fool’s errand. I try hard not to give money to the big corporations but like everyone, I live in Capital and cannot be expected a perfect record. So, I’ve seen a few and was dismayed.

The neoliberal school of thought jumped from comic to film in a single bound. Iron Man was again a weapon’s merchant. But he felt bad about it so he made the ultimate weapon and, like any good Western citizen of the world, illegally invaded countries, killing terrorists. While drones strike children in the name of freedom, we tell ourselves stories about the sad, but noble, necessitates of carnage.

Captain America started out as a kid who was clearly co-opted into the military that was playing on his innate sense of decency and his desire to be a social actor. But then he was quickly subsumed into the myth of WWII as a good war. But WWII was an entirely avoidable war that was fought to support the status quo, not to fight fascists and Imperialist. The Red Skull’s rogue science squad of Waffen SS bastards might well have received funding from the US government. A better character piece than the hateful, smug billionarre Tony Stark feeling sorry for himself and fixing his mistakes with colonial violence. But poor old Cap was not the troubled, thoughtful figure of the 70s and 80s comics, casting doubt on what championing America meant. Or even a werewolf.
Nice as he was, just another solider now.



Last I saw him, he was enthusiastically hitched up with US Intelligence, apparently aghast that a Nazi remnant existed in the Government. You have to wonder if the script-writers had even the most casual understanding of history. I guess we can only be glad we didn’t see Cap murdering Rutilio Grande or working with Pinochet.

Spider-Man was no longer the physically ungainly youth Steve Ditko imagined but rather a lovable man-child who was just waiting to take of his glasses to get the girl, sending messages out to young men everywhere that meeting a girl was less a case of being fun and respectful and just hanging around resentfully. In the next film, I can’t help but worry Peter Parker will be on Reddit, typing furious resentments.  Wolverine was not the short, hairy, stocky brawler, but a tall, lean, depilated song and dance man, fighting off secret rogue governments who killed people. What happens every day to foreign political opponents is a horrifying act of villainy against a white, liberal citizen.

The wonderful Amanda Waller was no longer ‘fat, black and menopausal’, but was a striking beauty with a bad haircut. Beauty and physical wellness became paramount. Heroes have always been about the body but in film, it was a once size fits all gym-sculpted leanness that had no interest in any physicality but lean, ‘ripped’ white flesh.
Batman was reimagined as a man set loose on the world with incalculable wealth, vast rage, and an agenda that seem blisteringly unfocused. Was he against corrupt police? Sure. But also, the physically imposing billionaire was beating the underclass in the streets. Gotham was depicted as a place where no social institute was anything but leprous with human weakness. And crippling finanical recessions weren’t a predictable, necessary part of capitalism, they were the work of foreign ninjas.

Fighting the Joker was a step in the right direction, as here was a supercriminal outside of our current social contexts. And at least the magnificent crime and chase sequences were masterfully shot.  But along came Bane, taking advantage of those fools, popular social movement, who had no idea that protesting wealth inequality was a sure path to falling in with terrorists and madmen. Who didn’t cheer when giant masked bastard destroyed Wall Street? No, he was a baddie all along, though, and you were all fooled by his rhetoric, you Two Cities scum.

The aesthetic of fascism was on us.

The People’s Poet is Dead

Fascism (or as we should call it, Corporatism) authoritarian nationalism at it’s most severe, most radical. It is the logical end to conservative and reactionary ideas and lurks at the heart of all rightist thought. It should have been destroyed forever at the end of WWII as the death camps and profound corporate influence over the State came to public knowledge. But here we are, especially in my country of Australia, openly flirting with notions that dissent from the Government is treasonous, that corporate interests are in the best interest of the folk, and that dissent from that ideology is immutably flawed. This is a hopelessly truncated list but should give you an idea of what we’re dealing with.

And fascism promoted itself through careful use of aesthetics, of notions of what was beautiful, exciting, fun.

Fascists introduced aesthetics into political life. In Germany, it was cool uniforms, cool banners, cool symbols, cool salutes, cool everything. They openly outlawed certain kinds of artists, writers, film makers and rewarded those who incorporated Nazi semiotics into their films. Strong healthy bodies, obedience to the state, the moral value of violence, extreme nationalism and… any of this sounding familiar?

Then came the worst film of them all. Superman, once the champion of working people, suspicious of any government who would aid fascists, unconvinced by patriotism, became one of the most sniveling, wretched characters in all of contemporary fiction. But perhaps it’s not his fault after father told him his private life was infinitely more important than the public service he felt compelled to perform, as a boy. The laughing, confident Kryptonian man-god who once sought to inspire, who fought slumlords and war profiteers was reborn as a petty, arrogant prick. When picked on in a bar, he excused himself to destroy a mean-truck drivers livelihood and then flew away without accounting for himself. Who murdered his foes.

It is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia only because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl’s films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached…

Susan Sontag, Fascinating Fascism
Today, I watched the trailer for Batman Vs Superman. Once, these two were the finest of friends. World’s Finest, they were called and they’d go on amazing adventures together, through time and space, respecting and admiring each other’s skills and attitudes, looking for ways to defend those who needed it. Now Batman hisses at Superman that he’ll bleed.  Superman appears before a court that, of course, has no right or ability to judge him. Society is atomised, not knowing how to deal with this man who can destroy cities in moments, who’ll grant himself powers to destroy whoever he deems an invader or criminal.

Only Batman, physically perfect Batman, brave enough to run into explosions, (like a fool) can save us.

You might care to count how many of the worrying fascist notes the two minute trailer hits. Take a shot each time and you’ll be drunk by the time the barb wire comes out.

This is art that celebrates hierarchy, state power, the moral certainty of violence. This isn’t the fantastic, this isn’t the contextless battle of Thor vs Troll or Green Lantern vs Stupid Space Thing. This is carefully, lovingly, creating images that fascists have used over and over to justify their crimes and excesses. To introduce their ideas into a culture.

Visually sampling the destruction of the Twin Towers is a dark kind of nostalgia. Fifteen years ago those blooming clouds were everywhere in action comics. Seeing them again is a sure sign that we’ll be focusing on the terrible otherness of terrorism. “Gentlemen, in one hundred years’ time they will be showing a fine color film of the terrible days we are living through,’ said Joseph Goebbels, propaganda boss of the Nazi regime, a man keenly aware of the politcal power of art. But I guess he was out 75 years.


But what really makes art fascist,  what really sets the scene for the trailer to be genuinely worrying, is apocalypse. In the past, things were better, there were Golden Ages. Wonder Woman, barely glanced, certainly not talking, is no longer a warrior who doesn’t use weapons. She’s a sort of Greek hoplite, a recurring symbol of a perfect past lost or stolen. Because in fascist world view, fascist art, something went wrong. Betrayl. Common to most fascist regimes is a ‘stab in the back’. (Ah, poor Metropolis. We trusted you Superman.) Then, apocalypse. A change that must overcome all society. Once again, we are greeted with images of endless destruction. An society on the fringe. Our only protectors, the wealthy and beautiful.
I am convinced of this.

Don’t take it personal

Now, I shouldn’t have to spell this out, but no, I’m not concluding the people who made this film are Nazis or fascists. I’m sure they’re all very nice people. But nice people make very bad art indeed. Often by accident. I think that they are responding to a turbulent, frightening world where old ideas of American superiority and moral clarity are openly in doubt. I suspect they are wholly apolitical film makers who are creating images the Right can and will use.

Relegating superheroes to live in a fractured, weak society is using the same imagery as fascists. This endless interchange of muscular bodies is fascist. This focus on apocalypse is fascist. This obsession with death is fascist.

Art influences life. Anyone ever moved by a book or song or, God help us, a poem, can tell you that. When we create art, especially massively popular art, we introduce ideas and moods and emotions into our culture. We create entrance points for ideas to come into our culture that we know are seductive, dangerous and ruinous.

If superheroes are symbols, they can mean what we want.
They don’t have to mean death and ruin and the failure of our bonds with each other as citizens and society as a whole. They don’t have to celebrate wealth and political power and misunderstandings of history.

Wouldn’t you like the heroes in our dreams to be the kind of people who say ‘let me help,’ rather than a pack of rich pricks? Do you want to be a part of art that in the future people will look back aghast on the way we look back on WWII comics?

In the comics, the Suicide Squad was a response to the vast absurdities of the Cold War. In their film, just sexy cool bank robbers. All-Star Superman is a comic about how a man with every power, including Super-Empathy, would love and understand us and help us come together. Not a weird stalker, deadbeat dad or wretched bully. Don’t you want an Avengers who come together to help against world-ending threats because they are good and compassionate people, and not part of a military/industrial complex that invades countries, murdering millions, takes their resources, and then leaves them to face radical fanatics? A Superman who never abuses his power who makes enemies friends, or a Batman who doesn’t abuse his physical inferiors?

Wouldn’t you like to feel rewarded by these films? Wouldn’t you like to know something good was going on inside them?