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Reels of Cultural Mix-Ups

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I've had a shocking week. I haven't read a single comic book. I haven't read a strip, or even one cartoon, and I honestly didn't think it was possible to go through an entire week without reading a single cartoon. I was working on an entry on Superheroes for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Religion and Film from Greenwood Press, so I did see a lot of movies about superheroes. It's so satisfying to see those exciting stories of struggle against evil and injustice brought to life in glorious color and CGI. I feel like a heretic, but I'll say it: I like superhero movies better than superhero comics.

It's a rather nice week when you are provoked to put all your other work aside in order to roll around on the sofa watching and re-watching superhero movies. I love them all, even the bad ones -- even Catwoman and Elektra! Those two are beautiful to look at, so if you completely ignore the plot and the dialogue, you can still enjoy yourself for a couple of hours. In fact, if you turn the sound off, you can imagine a much better story than the one that is told.

One problem with Catwoman and Elektra, and to a lesser extent Batman Begins, is that they use pseudo-Eastern mumbo jumbo to make important plot points. Catwoman tells an utterly fantastic story of the Goddess Bast and her kitty messengers who go around testing women, causing their deaths, and then resurrecting them, imbuing them with cat-like powers. This would be rather clever if it were made up, but instead it's a bizarre perversion of an actual Egyptian cult that had social, political, and economic importance, and was at the center of a rather joyous annual festival.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne learns his stealth in a place suggestive of the Shaolin Monastery in China. He emerges from the monastery with ninja powers that let him appear and disappear without making a single sound, and unsurpassed martial arts skills that let him bring down a small army of New York City drug dealers in hand-to-hand combat. The effects are breathtaking, and oddly more believable than "memory cloth." But it uncritically imitates an entire ideology that smothers our consciousness of the realities of flesh-and-blood people.

China is not about masked men with mad martial arts skills. China is full of people tending to their mundane tasks of going to work and cleaning their toilets, or struggling for greater political and economic freedom, that is, people just like us. Batman Begins posits China as exotic and mysterious, pushing tired old racial buttons about Asian inscrutability, secret societies, and implacable revenge lust. It also indulges Western pretensions to superiority. The characters played by the white men Christian Bale and Liam Neeson have mastered that ninja stuff way better than Ken Watanabe's character, or any of the nameless parade of Asian warriors with the League of Shadows.

The most egregious use of the East as a source of mystical and exotic power appears in Elektra. The movie is flush with ninja stuff, martial arts galore, and legendary abilities like telepathy, telekinesis, and the ability to control time. "Since time began," the story goes, "a war has been waged in the shadows between the armies of good, and evil. It may be fought on a grand scale, or within the heart of a single individual, or even a child. The evil has taken many forms, and used the darkest of arts. In our time, they call themselves simply, the Hand.

The good follow the way of Kimagure. Its masters can see the future, and perhaps even bring back the dead. Legend tells of a unique warrior, a lost soul. This warrior is a woman, a motherless daughter, and it is her destiny to tip the balance between good and evil. She is a treasure, and both sides seek her out as a final weapon in an ancient war."

The army of evil is called the Hand, and the army of good is called the Chaste. The Hand is governed by a board of Asian men, and led by a man of nonspecific Asian nationality who plays "inscrutable" to the hilt. They are overtly and unapologetically sexist. When they decide to go and get the Treasure for themselves, they send Kirigi, the son of the Chairman of the Board, who is an accomplished warrior able to move at the speed of light. He calls up a posse of supernatural beings, including a vampire and a shaman named Tattoo who can deploy his tattoos (hawk, wolf, spider, and snake) to attack and kill his enemies.

When these beings, and Kirigi's ninja warriors, and Kirigi himself die, their bodies turn into a weird green-yellow smoke-light, and don't appear to leave any dust. Death entirely, and mysteriously, eliminates all traces of their corporeal existence.

The Chaste is less developed in the script, but then, good is rarely as interesting as evil. Think of ninjas in white. They have all the same powers as the warriors of the Hand, but their hearts are pure. Therefore they follow the way of Kimagure, the mystical power that lets them foretell the future, and raise the dead. The Chaste is led by a blind Englishman named Stick. In the racist, exploitative formula that Elektra applies to Eastern cultures, it couldn't be any other way. The good guys are led by a Westerner.

I love superhero movies that mine the cultural repositories of the West for their stories of power, evil, love and redemption. Look at the imagery and the humor in clever, inventive movies like Constantine and Hellboy, that tell fantastic stories of monstrous supernatural evils combated with strength, guile, reliquaries, holy water projectiles, and a whole host of supernatural charms and amulets, from horseshoes to a screaming beetle from Amityville.

These trappings resonate in beautiful ways with cultural memory and traditions of which we may be barely aware. These movies work because they remind us of our lived ideas about God and humanity.

It's distasteful to use the cultures of others in inaccurate, reductionist, and racist ways to try to make films about self-discovery and redemption. It's notable that with the exception of Batman Begins, these movies have also largely been critical and financial failures. Sometimes it's nice to see the market at work.

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