Empathy-Free Entertainment

The histories of franchises like Star Trek and The Avengers reflect the stories they tell: Icons matter, people don't.

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Art, we're often told, encourages empathy. By watching or reading about different people, or different situations, we become able to understand and sympathize with a broader range of perspectives. Fiction connects you to other people—or as Chuck Klosterman said, "Art and love are the same thing: It's the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you." There was even a study last year that found that "experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes." Literature broadens you; science says so.

Does it always work that way, though? Laura Sneddon's recent piece on DC and Marvel superhero properties in the New Statesmen suggests otherwise. Superhero comics and films are literature and art of a sort. But theirs hasn't been a history of empathy and expanding consciousness so much as a history of cold-blooded calculation. Ever since DC paid Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster $130 for the rights to Superman back in 1940, superheroes have been carefully and deliberately separated from the living, breathing folks who thought them up, to the point where the vast majority of people probably only vaguely realize that those living, breathing folks even existed.

Exploiting superheroes, then, has long been an exercise in disconnection—prying Superman apart from Siegel and Shuster, leveraging Captain America or Iron Man away from Jack Kirby, splitting Watchmen away from Alan Moore. Which is why, per Sneddon, it's not a surprise that Marvel appears to be threatening to dump the actors who powered its incredibly popular Avengers film in favor of cheaper substitutes. Hulk is bigger than any puny actor playing Hulk.

As Sneddon says, it's hard to feel that sorry for people like Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth, who are still rich movie stars even if they're making a pittance compared to the Avengers box-office haul. Along similar lines, it's worth pointing out that DC has actually paid Siegel and Shuster and their heirs millions of dollars over the years in an effort to settle rights issues around Superman. Still, even if they haven't quite been spat upon, it's pretty clear that Hemsworth and Evans, Siegel and Shuster, are more expendable than the characters they created. That's because the fiction and art that is at the center of much of our current pop culture experience doesn't lead, and doesn't seem intended to lead, to a better understanding of real people. Rather, this fiction and art seem designed to supersede real people.

This isn't just the sense you get from watching the behind-the-scenes monetary negotiations; it's often the barely repressed narrative of our most popular fictions themselves. Star Trek: Into Darkness, as just one example, deliberately engages with our recent history of drone strikes and imperial adventure. But I don't think it raises those issues to take one side or the other (as Noah Gittell argues.) Rather, it mentions them mostly to demonstrate its utter unconcern. The real energy of the film is directed to a compulsive rejiggering/pastiche/homage of The Wrath of Khan, complete with radiation poisoning and iconic screaming. The 9/11-esque climax, with an airship smashing into buildings and civilians dying in droves, is just an off-hand special-effects fillip with neither diegetic consequence nor emotional weight. Dead bodies are referenced simply to add an appearance of moral importance to the cherished spectacle of Kirk and Spock emoting. Our investment in their repackaged psychodrama is predicated, almost cheekily, on our indifference to our own national tragedy.

J.J. Abrams's carefully orchestrated callousness is hardly unique. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra used 9/11 imagery and dead civilians in much the same way as Trek a few years back. Similarly, The Dark Knight Rises dabbled in the imagery of class warfare for no other reason than to highlight the dramatic self-actualization of its billionaire protagonist via rock climbing.

It may seem like a leap to link the treatment of the artists who created or brought to life fictional characters with the narratives in which those characters do their deeds of daring do while less important ones die around them. But both seem of a piece, to me, with the media industry playing an increasingly essential role in the economy, and its values, in every sense, becoming increasingly pervasive.

Stories like Dark Knight Rises or Star Trek Into Darkness teach the same lessons that Siegel and Shuster learned, or that the guy who plays Thor is learning. You don't matter, and your neighbor doesn't matter, and the folks way over there on whom you occasionally drop bombs don't matter either. What matters are these soulless, hollow, fungible icons, and the assurance that they will continue forever as around them all the mere humans effervesce like ghosts. This art isn't about empathy or love. Instead, it's about worship, about pledging fealty to our invented, charismatically uncaring, gods. Our corporate fictions offer the blank joy of not caring, whether about creators, actors, strangers, or ourselves.