We’re back and Welcome to Our Junior High Trauma Month! Let’s talk about a book that neither of us wanted to read during a pandemic and time of intense social unrest and racial inequality.
When I was growing up and watching the shows that went on to influence me, the villains were mostly cartoony. And not just by the fact that they were animated but also that their plans were quite out there. Think of The Joker in Batman The Animated Series, his plans were almost always just to ruin Batman’s day and maybe hurt a few people and rob a bank or two. Even Dr. Doom’s plans for Marvel weren’t huge, he just wanted to be left alone and rule his made up world. The villains all had tangible goals and their plots were usually just an inconvenience to the hero. It’s one of the reasons the egotistical Loki of the first Avengers movie was such a trip for me: I’m used to comic book Loki who rather just steal Thor’s underwear or something.
But as you’ve seen during this magical adventure we’ve had this year discussing framing, villains and villainy: you’ve likely noticed a theme. That theme is that the current bad thing of the era is genocide. And I don’t mean that hyperbolically. It’s literally the aim of most evil dudes in movies recently.
A Buzzfeed article recently discussed that the theme of the last 10 years of movies has been animals overtaking humans as dominant species as a social commentary for our misuse of the planet. But I think the real theme of current movie bad is the systematic or sudden removal of a large amount of people. You’ve seen me mention it over and over again as I rant about framing.
And it continues to bother me each time because I get more and more angry that the prospect of hundreds, thousands, millions of people can die in a narrative and we still side with the villain. So in today’s post I want to talk about when that shift seemed to occur in comics and movies and why it’s so terrible.
Earlier I mentioned the motives of comic book villains during the Gold and Silver age. Most of them had pretty small goals or mostly non-lethal lofty ones. There was a lot of desire to enslave a population or take over a planet or rob a bank. Many of the Gold and Silver age villains barely even had a body count back in the day. It wasn’t until the 70s or so that comic villains got more intense about wanting death as part of their domination. This actually starts to appear around the first introduction of Thanos in the comics during the 1970s. Thanos’ goal in the comics was to woo Lady Death and the only way to do that is to send her souls. She’s impressed by numbers (the O.G. size queen) and so Thanos does all he can to add to his body count to please his mistress. We didn’t get a shift in his goals being objectively genocidal until much later in the comics. Then his motivation becomes the weird meditation on resources we get in the Infinity War movie. We’ve seen comic book characters go down this route before. Parallax wants to eat the Galaxy in Green Lantern, Galactus wants to do…whatever his motivations are and that usually involves a ton of people dying.
The first mark in the shift of genocide as plot point can be seen in a comic that means a lot to me but I don’t get to discuss enough: Watchmen. Moore’s brilliant graphic novel tackles this issue incredibly directly with Ozymandias’ terrible plan being spelled out quite clearly: killing millions, to save billions. There, there’s the shift. Suddenly, the madman isn’t mad, he’s just an extremist looking for the most rational solution to a major problem. And I adore Adrian’s plan. His motivations to stop the war by zapping in a psychedelic interdimensional space squid to wipe out most of New York is flawed but that’s the beauty of Moore’s prose: you can sort of see where he’s coming from. But even though the framing tells us Ozymandias’ plan is rational for that universe, the way everyone else treats him after the reveal of his plan reminds us that this is terrible. The movie is a hot mess but the film also does a great job of demonizing Ozymandias’ dumb plan even though he uses Dr. Manhattan nonsense to vaporize a bunch of folks rather than the space cephalopod.
The only mass death in comics that could possibly rival death toll mounted by Ozymandias was House of M for Marvel. This storyline saw the end to mutants in the decades long run of Marvel comics and in a simple phrase more than half of the characters that made Marvel great simply vanished. It was a heartbreaking event in the comics and we considered Scarlet Witch to be a villain for years after her fateful choice: even if we could empathize with her grief that lead up to the choice to utter that powerful phrase, she’s still a monster for wiping people off the face of existence.
DC Comics did have Crisis on Infinite Earths and there were many many deaths as a result and Blackest Night which is a crisis entirely created by Booster Gold because he wanted to be the hero, dammit. But as we’ve discussed, no one considered Booster Gold to be a hero of anything.
Most of the genocidal villains we get in comics and movies are framed as bad guys because that’s what bad guys do: they suggest that removing an entire section of population is expendable. Think of Star Wars: Darth Vader wipes out an entire planet and we know he’s a bad guy for it and earlier when Vader is still just annoying Anakin, he slaughters a bunch of children and Tusken Raiders and it is firmly shown that he is a bad guy for that. And even though Vader is ultimately a very sympathetic character, we don’t ever forget that he’s still a mass murderer.
Speaking of the 2000s, it’s around this time that genocide seemed to be less of a taboo. By this time, I was watching a ton of anime and several series flirt with this idea: you’ve heard me discuss Death Note frequently but also Bleach flirts with a subplot of wiping out souls and Soul Reapers for the sake of a goal, Trigun hints at this with Knives’ subplot and even if it isn’t straight up death as the goal, several anime focus on purity or a unique group rising to the top. Japan is very eugenics-friendly, which should terrify everyone. Media be it Western or eastern has a ton of focus on Chosen Ones and more pure people and if any part of that sounds scary to you, good. We’re on the same page.
Here is the problem with romanticizing genocide and eugenics: we’ve had actual genocide happen in the world. Hitler wanted to remove Jews and other “undesirables” from Germany, Pol Pot wanted to forge a new future by eradicating the past, ethnic minorities all around the world face persecution and death simply for being a little bit different. This is a real thing with real consequences and our continual sugar-coating of the slippery slope nonsense logic that continues to minimize the dangers of racism, misogyny and homophobia only makes those problems worse. When Thanos’ idea in Infinity War doesn’t sound so crazy, that’s a problem. When Killmonger’s Reconquista sounds logical, that’s a problem. We live in a world that is full of natural disasters, terrorism, racism, homophobia, sexism, hatred, bigotry and population concerns: these are real problems and to far too many people the idea of simply poofing some folks out of existence sounds like a great way to solve all of these complex problems.
I think it’s a sign of the times that genocide seems to be our main macabre obsession as was slavery and colonialism were the macabre obsessions of the Gold and Silver age of comics. We have to confront that if eugenics, social Darwinism and wiping out parts of the population for a “clean slate” ticks any box for you, you are on a dangerous path. I’ve had to confront that in myself and it’s made me infinitely more critical of the media I ingest.
I hope you enjoyed this discussion on the deaths of too many fictional characters.
I promise the next topic will be lighter.
“Prejudice is the child of ignorance.” William Hazlitt
Nikola Tesla. Charles Lindbergh. Thomas Malthus. Francis Galton.
These men were eugenicists. Eugenics is the idea that there are some traits in human beings that can be selectively bred out creating a more robust and better human being. Conditions like anemia and asthma; even death itself, could be selectively bred out to create a more superior person. A person without illness, of strong mind and body. A pure individual. Eugenics arose from Charles Darwin and his theories on Evolution via Natural Selection. In theory, natural selection could be applied to humanity with a little help from doctors and mystics to bring about a more capable and heartier person.
Let’s back up a bit. Because I’m sure by now you’re asking me: Amanda, why are you talking about eugenics? If you ever have the pleasure of meeting me or being a close friend or family member of mine you have certainly heard me claim that something was “the Ghost of Darwin” when a person trips over a patch of heavy air or after hearing a news story that seems to come straight from The Onion but is entirely too true. The Ghost of Darwin became a code to myself and my friends to rationalize when bad things happen to people that per the situation seemed to deserve it. We were practicing social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is a viral and visceral form of schadenfreude: a way to enjoy or take pleasure in something bad happening to someone else. It’s a rationalization for people who drive drunk through the PlayPlace at McDonald’s or to the man who falls into a fountain after aggressively catcalling a young woman. It’s more importantly a way to separate yourself from those receiving those misfortunes: deserved or not. It’s a means of distancing yourself from the general population. To a Social Darwinist they are above the rabble, they are somehow even slightly more superior than the rest. It’s a passive-aggressive eugenics way of thinking. Now again is probably the time you’re asking: Okay, Amanda. That’s all fine and good. But eugenics?
I love movies and recently a few of my most beloved films have had a eugenics plot behind them.
The cult action thriller Machete Kills features a demigod-like villain named Voz. Voz is an almost Steve Jobs sort of man who has grand delusions and dreams about creating a perfect world and destroying Earth as it is. He then rounds up the creme de la creme of humanity and encourages them all to hop aboard one of his space ships to fly out into deep space while Voz destroys the world with a complicated matrix of catastrophes and man-made disasters. Voz and his followers were to enjoy luxury among the stars, even bringing servants with them to continue their elitist ways in the heavens.
Kingsman: The Secret Service pits villain Valentine against the top-notch spy agency The Kingsman. Valentine is a charismatic media mogul who decides that the world is terrible and the only cure for the world is to remove humans except for those he finds or ‘persuades’ into joining him. Valentine seduces politicians, dignitaries and elites with his mentions of how climate change is our fault (which it is) and that the only way to save the world is to trim the fat. Valentine then programs an app in his new free smartphones that triggers uncontrollable rage in the brain. This meant to cull the population of the world through hyper-violence and keep those treasured few safe to repopulate the world.
The ever so controversial Django Unchained features a Southern slave owner named Calvin Candie who rationalizes his cruelty and ownership of human beings with phrenology. Phrenology is a pseudo-science that dictates that you can measure and learn a lot about a person based on bumps and sections of the human skull. Candie states that because of a defect in the skulls and brains of Africans they cannot simply live on their own. They need slavery to function and he was a white landowner was doing everything right by owning other human beings.
Why is this dangerous? Because it glamorizes eugenics. Especially with Kingsman I remember leaving the theater thinking Valentine “made some good points” and it wasn’t until I was in the car with my friend driving back home that I realized how insane it was to say that. I was rationalizing what was effectively genocide, albeit a fictional one. We see these movies and we believe and understand the points made by these charismatic men. What we don’t see is the result of people being swayed by eugenics.
The result of eugenics and social Darwinism is nothing short of death. The result is the Holocaust. The result is the KKK and modern racism and racially motivated crimes. That’s the price of eugenics. When you believe you are better than someone else it’s very easy to more actively wish to remove them from the planet. Hitler ruled Germany through these poisonous thoughts and it allowed for the slaughter of millions. Plantation owners and racists used eugenics and Darwinism to enslave others and subject them to unspeakable terror. When we allow pop culture to even humor eugenics, we validate what these people’s thoughts; that there are people that are radically other than you and it is right and justified to separate yourself from them.
Charles Lindbergh was a noted American eugenicist and didn’t see the error of his ways until visiting the concentration camps of Germany and saw the horror that his perfect world that he wanted to create via selective breeding caused. He recanted his views on eugenics and never looked back on those ideas. As Americans we still have racially motivated crime and terror in our very recent memory and any movie, song, book or even joke that makes light of a movement that rationalized terror seems to be at odds with the needed eye-opening moment Lindbergh needed to have to stop his insidious passion for eugenics.
What’s the most concerning about these recent pop culture mentioning of eugenics and social Darwinism is who gets to decide who lives and who dies. In Machete Kills, it’s Voz and he decides on the elite and the rich. In Kingsman it’s Valentine who also for the most part chooses the elite, rich and academics.
So why the rise of eugenics in popular culture? Crisis. We are in a perceived time of crisis. Like Germany after WW I and the Antebellum South. Most people in the West see our current time with climate change and terrorism both domestic and international as a time of chaos and crisis. So when there is crisis, many find comfort in the idea that there are those that can and will rise above the masses and that the world will be reborn new and different with only the best and brightest. Sound familiar? A lot of dictators used this same rhetoric. The only reason it sounds familiar? It’s the base of the Judaeo-Christian Bible and many other creation myths. The story of the flood is one central to many cultures from Sumer to the Nile and beyond. The flood mythology has a giant flood as its main conflict and “god” or a series of deities select a good righteous few to carry on. The rest of the world are left to die in the flood and the good righteous few are left to repopulate the world with their goodness.
I’ll never police fun and things like The Darwin Awards are hilarious and the occasional jest at the expense of the specter of Darwin aren’t all in bad taste. It’s a habit I’m all too aware of and one that I and my friends do still sometimes commit. However, there’s a darker history is sometimes allowed but it’s important to remember the murky legacy of the statements we made no matter how light they may be in moments.