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What our extremist politics owes to Batman and Captain America

For those who agree to take it, the journey in The Sky Is Falling isn't as propulsive or as fun as in Biskind's other books

Patton Oswalt | NYT 


How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made Great for Extremism

Peter Biskind

The New Press

252 pages; $26.99

It’s too soon for this book is the problem. has previously explored pop culture and film history in fizzy, captivating works, including Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures. But those were written from hindsight — the eras he dissected had formed, plateaued and ebbed. Biskind illuminated facets of those eras that until his came along had remained outside the light source of accepted opinion. He excelled at this task, peppering film analysis with gossip, empathy and playfulness.

With The Sky Is Falling, Biskind attempts the same feat. Except here he’s trying to illuminate a multifaceted jewel that’s still spinning in the air, nowhere near its apogee. America’s current crisis of fracture and can’t be clearly explored through the lens of pop culture — especially if that lens is focused even more narrowly on superhero, fantasy, science fiction and apocalyptic horror. The range of vision is too myopic for the task. We’re in the middle of an upheaval. The paranoid, extremist politics that Biskind wants to trace back to franchise and comic-book properties are far too chaotic and changeable to withstand his schematic dot-connecting. As I write this, in August 2018, our president may have just tweeted an admission to campaign collusion with Russia. The howling conspiracy-gibbon Alex Jones has had his presence wiped from YouTube, Spotify, Facebook and Apple. By the time you read this, who knows what weirdness will have snapped loose and gone capering through the news cycle.

Biskind’s book is as shaky as a set of surveyor’s tools in the middle of a hurricane. It’s too soon.

Right there, on Page 5 of the introduction, is a statement that will determine whether you’ll agree to take the tour he’s mapped out or scoff and pass on the journey: “As an agent of change, culture has often been treated shabbily, as no more than a secondary or even tertiary factor.”

Now, I happen to think that culture isn’t getting a shabby treatment when it’s seen in this light. Pop culture, in my opinion, has always been held in correct regard — as a reflection, not a catalyst, of larger social forces. If you also think of culture — and, more to the point of this book, pop culture — in the same way, then you’re probably thinking “Pass.”

For those who agree to take it, the journey in isn’t as propulsive or as fun as in Biskind’s other We’re given 12 chapters divided into four sections. Each section describes iconic pop culture “shows” — Biskind’s umbrella phrase for films and TV series — as expressions of a particular political worldview. After a while it feels like being led through plodding, 4/4 time dance steps. Here are analyses of the apocalypse and its aftermath through readings of Avatar and The Walking Dead, of Batman and Captain America, as they reinforce centrist, liberal or conservative worldviews.

Biskind, despite his journalistic élan, is not as sure-footed a guide through 21st-century nerd culture as he was through the fascinating minefield of cocaine, conflict and creativity in Easy Riders. It’s alarming how many things he flat-out whiffs in these pages — and not just textual misreadings (of the failed “social experiment” at the end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for example, and of a crucial speech by the district attorney Harvey “Two-Face” Dent in the same film). There are glaring, misremembered details of scenes and plots, which force the reader to go back or, worse, muddle Biskind’s larger argument. He mixes up dialogue from the first two Terminator films (the phrase “Hasta la vista, baby” is never uttered in the first). He gets the so-familiar-it’s-reached-meme-level ending of the original Planet of the Apes film wrong (Charlton Heston does not dig in the sand to discover the spikes on the crown of the Statue of Liberty). On Page 32, he cites a “crop” of high-profile biblical epics that “flopped” — and then names only two (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings). But 25 pages later he contradicts himself on the feebleness of Bible-centric box office when he details the blockbuster ratings — 100 million viewers — of the TV mini-series The Bible, not to mention other highly successful faith-based works like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the small-budget God’s Not Dead and War Room, to which he devotes a few paragraphs. He credits Christopher Nolan with “rebranding” Batman as the Dark Knight, which in fact Bill Finger did in 1940.

As a country and a culture, we aren’t on the “other side” of the extremist upheaval we’re seeing now. To bring flowers before the funeral’s even started feels pointless. Or, as Biskind quotes Claire Danes, speaking about her series Homeland: “It’s hard for our show to compete with the screeching absurdity of what’s happening.” Biskind dares to compete with it, but loses. I’d love to see a man of his insights return for a rematch in, say, 10 years. Things should have calmed down by then.

© 2018 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Mon, October 29 2018. 01:45 IST