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I now find myself taking my son to birthday parties where all the kids are dressed as tiny, ultra-violent technicolor fascists. Disney has succeeded in making American superheroes an expected part of small children’s lives all over the world.

I hate that American superheroes are so boringly unrealistic. No human on the planet, if suddenly granted magical powers, would become Spiderman. There’s no part of Batman’s journey from billionaire to leaping-around-the-streets-at-night-hitting-people that makes sense.

Why did Americans fall so hard for their superhero mythology? Maybe it’s a consequence of millions of children growing up with the comics as their only literature. When it comes to superheroes, it’s as if America has a blind spot. The comics made by Marvel and DC are bizarrely naive and the resulting films like Superman unbearably straightfaced.

In the 70’s they thought making superheroes psychedelic might give them depth. By the 80’s they’d taken the whole thing to its logical conclusion: anyone acting like these ‘heroes’ must be a psychopath; so the stories got darker, but they still couldn’t break free from the internal contradictions. Things didn’t change until they imported British writers – like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison – who were free from the constraints of the mythology and could see it for what it really was. These guys came from a tradition that created 2000AD comics, where Judge Dredd is an explicit fascist and the stories are about abuse and corruption. They weren’t going to be able to take ‘superheroes’ at face value, without any sense of irony or social commentary. So Alan Moore wrote Watchmen and killed the genre by taking it seriously for the first time. For a few years afterwards others had fun with the corpse and got a few books out of it (Flex Mentallo is a good one), it was easier to write non-boring stories now the spell had been broken.

Post-Watchmen, there were some good superhero movies. One successful approach was to acknowledge the high camp of the premise, like Tim Burton’s Batman films. Another was to just go full anti-hero like Wesley Snipes’ Blade. And that was that, until the new batch of Marvel movies came along and repackaged the whole thing to sell to a new generation of kids. Relieved of irony, the movies were free once more to pretend that it was totally normal to hero-worship besuited fascists. And now my son’s school asks him to come to sports day dressed up as a character who preaches violence as a solution to the world’s problems.

I wouldn’t mind so much if it was at least good fascist art. “Of course,” I can hear you saying, “in these stories the superheroes represent more than people.” They represent the fascist ubermensch, ruling the world. Maybe ‘Iron man’ is America with nukes, feeling insecure about its position in the world. Even if I accept this obviously retrofitted meta-narrative, the stories are still bad allegories. The world has plenty of religions, there’s nothing much to learn from more stories about unrealistic gods beating up aliens. The only point behind endlessly repeating the same stories is to comment on today’s culture. However, when you’re so wrapped up in it that neither the writers nor the audience can admit that the story is allegorical, the irony is lost. Religions suffer from the same problem. Unable to step outside of their faith and see their religion in the context of wider culture, believers miss the lessons in their own doctrine. And they end up making bad art. I guess I’m saying Marvel movies are the cinematic equivalent of plastic figurines of the Virgin Mary covered in flashing LEDs.

In Spielberg’s Ready Player One, humanity has built the matrix and uses it exclusively for playing VR remakes of 40 year old video games. In True Names and Neuromancer cyberspace was an anarchists’ playground. A base to fight back from against despotic governments and corporations. In Snow Crash, cyberspace was a maker’s paradise – a hackerspace to rule them all.

Ready Player One is a fun movie with a failure of imagination. Set in 2045, the film is more evidence that sci-fi writers can no longer imagine the future. Fashion hasn’t changed at all, everyone still wears suits or blue jeans and checked shirts. Technology hasn’t changed either, although there are lots more drones. Drones, facial recognition, VR bodysuits – the future has no tech that would look out of place in 2014. Of course, “the film is a comment on today’s society,” but I’m pretty sure the filmmakers would have added more futurism if they thought it would work. The point is that right now any future predictions feel anachronistic, even when you are actually trying to predict the future.

The film has a justification – people are hopeless so they escape to the matrix. I just find it depressing that all they want to do there is play Minecraft and Halo while dressed as Disney characters. Ready Player One seems to think that playing EA’s latest games is an act of cultural rebellion. It’s against makers and creating, and in favour of fanboys and consuming.

But maybe that’s not far from the truth. People who jack into the matrix in 2018 are mostly only sharing memes about Trump, posting baby pictures and, yes, playing EA’s latest video games. Or more often, watching someone else playing them. The tragedy of today’s online networks is that they’re so corporatized and boring.

‘That was our old religion, Master Harker,’ Cole said, nodding towards it. ‘It was nothing like so good as the new, of course, but it was good fun in its day though, because it ended in a feast.’

‘You didn’t eat horses,’ Kay said, ‘did you?’

‘Ah, didn’t we,’ Cole said.
John Masefield, The Box of Delights

I’ve just been reading John Masefield’s The Box of Delights with my son. It’s set in a wild English countryside of county towns, villages, railways and Roman camps. Magic and magical technology are everywhere. Motor cars turn into aeroplanes that disappear into caves. Herne the Hunter helps the children battle pirates. Swarms of unsuspecting children and clergy are scrobbled (kidnapped, that is) by the wantonly evil Abner Brown while our hero Kay rummages around Europe’s past.

Earlier this month, we read Watership Down by Richard Adams. Both books have a vision of Christianity at their heart. I am an atheist, but I think the authors’ belief gives something interesting to the stories. Watership Down has sacrifice and redemption and a Christ figure, El-ahrairah. Its Christianity is personal and private. The Box of Delights describes something different, a folk religion made up of traditions that tie communities together. The book’s resolution comes when the townsfolk pour into Tatchester Cathedral to begin the imperiled Christmas service, held there every year for more than a thousand years.

I adore Watership Down, but when it comes to religion I prefer Box of Delights’ blend of paganism with the new world through ritual and history. In Tatchester the old Gods are still there, keeping the wolves away.