The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Liberal from a Distance: DC's ARROW and Faux Leftism (Part One)

No, Lord Humongous, there's no point in raiding any oil refineries at this stage of the plan. Yes, I know, but you'll just have to--

Wait, wait... it looks like our... guest... has finally woken up.

No, no, don't pretend you're still asleep! The sedative should have worn off by now. I know you can hear me. Why don't you... open your eyes?

Pictured: a media producer's worst nightmare
Yes, you understand now, do you not? You recognize my face and know the true meaning of fear! For I, of course, am the dreaded Penstroke the Terminator! 

And I have vowed to destroy... Arrow.

What? No, not the vigilante. The TV show, you fool. I intend to destroy the show Arrow with the power of literary analysis paired with a leftist political consciousness! Yes, tremble! Tremble weak fool, for I have endured much in the writing of this article, and my vengeance will be neither swift nor merciful!

You see, as I endured the second season of the CW's Arrow--a show based ostensibly upon the DC Comics character Green Arrow--a great rage built in my heart. Not at the cinematography (though my ire was piqued by the incoherent, lazy action sequences!). Nor at the grating way it teases at actual comic-book content while still remaining remarkably embarrassed by it (though the seeming allergy to using the words "Green Arrow" infuriate me so!).

No, as I watched I became aware of a deeper betrayal within the show, a more sinister failure.

It is a profound and catastrophic failure to carry through its initial promise of a true leftist political agenda.

Yes, Arrow positioned itself from the beginning as a show on the side of the 99%. It positioned itself on the side of the poor and the oppressed against the 1% of people in the US who hold an outrageous and morally indefensible one third of the nation's collective wealth. 

Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, was the perfect choice for such a show, as he has long represented, within comics, the Robin Hood archetype, fighting against the wealthy and powerful on behalf of the people. He is portrayed as a suspicious and (obviously) militant leftist (or anarchist, or leftist with anarchist leanings, or something like that depending on the writer), distrustful of the superhumans he interacts with, and interested in an equalization of power and privilege. Like Batman, his power comes from wealth paired with remarkable dedication to martial arts training, but his green costume and Robin Hood hat signify not a creature of the night but a rogue who dares to threaten his peers.

And much in Arrow hinted at this same preoccupation. Ollie Queen, from the beginning of the narrative, is set against the billionaires of his native city, who conspired to kill his father and have further dastardly plans for the impoverished urbanites that Queen now protects. This culminates, in the first season, with the creation of a doomsday device--an earthquake machine capable of leveling the entire slum area of the city to make way for urban renewal and gentrification projects. The topicality of this cannot be overstated, considering the popularity of such projects in the real world that, despite their lack of accompanying doomsday devices, even now are implemented throughout North American cities in order to oust the poor and the racially undesirable in favor of slick and sanitized white corporatism. Luridly dramatic? To be sure! But politically on point.

The second season, however, takes that promising start and smashes it to pieces.

Now, I do not trust heroes. I have spoken before of the ways in which the traditional hero's journey can be, and frequently is, used to reinforce a trite individualist politics that blithely reproduces weary notions of the straight white male savior. And I have spoken before, too, of the way in which an aesthetic of grim grittiness is used to disguise what is a moral and thematic confusion at best--a kind of vacuous ambiguity that pretends at significance while lacking content or coherency--and at worst is a reprehensibly reactionary return to violent masculine power fantasies and anti-democratic demagoguery. 

I am not alone in this. Fangs for the Fantasy noted recently that shows with post-apocalyptic settings predominantly, and seemingly nonsensically, go out of their way to position straight white men as the single voice of command and reason in their dislocated societies. Earlier, Julian Darius published two deeply insightful articles on the fascist elements within The Dark Knight Rises and within the second Iron Man film, both of which are exposed as taking the side of the powerful over the powerless, the wealthy over the poor, the haves over the have-nots--and all this despite their pretense toward broadly liberal beliefs (in the case of Iron Man) or at least a world of grey-on-grey morality with no easy answers (in The Dark Knight Rises).

Arrow is certainly a reflection of this pattern, and in many ways is the ultimate successor to Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, particularly in its confused morality disguised by the dull colors and soap operatics that have become easy signifiers in our culture for weightyness and maturity. But it is not only that Arrow's narrative hinges upon a few basic reactionary principles--might makes right, men have the answers, morality is what the hero of the story decides it is, too much democracy is a dangerous thing, in fact ANY democratic and legal process that threatens to hold those in power accountable by means beyond simple vigilante action may be too dangerous and certainly is suspect--

It is not that these principles drive the show.

It is that Arrow is a show that seduces with a leftist conceit which ultimately conceals these reactionary principles.

My family (who all died, incidentally, when the nuclear reactor in my city's local public library mysteriously exploded, ripping away all I loved in life... including my head, which was replaced with this book of literary theory! Yes, tremble, fool, for now I have a complex and tragic backstory and am a certified Grim And Gritty Antivillain Aimed At Intelligent, Mature Audiences! Bwahahahaha!) have--I mean, had [sobs]--a term for people like Ollie Queen in this show--a term for people who make pretenses of leftist values but aren't going to give up their nice mansions and their nice cars and their nice privilege anytime soon.

The term is "Liberal from a Distance." To be a Liberal from a Distance your political engagement can go little further than checking the box marked "Democrat" each election, and perhaps purchasing an electric car. It means feeling nervous when people start talking about wildcat strikes. It means being glad that feminism and civil rights happened but feeling certain that we've solved those problems and can safely move on to more important things now.

It means, in essence, position oneself on the left side of the aisle, but sticking close to the center lest someone mistake you for some kind of a radical. It means not wanting to get your hands dirty.

Arrow fundamentally occupies this position--embracing all the signifiers of leftism (suspicion of corporations, Strong Female Characters(TM), a surface-level concern for the poor, periodic dropping of the term "99%," and so on) without committing strongly to a deeper level of understanding. And, in fact, often the deeper level of the show exposes themes that are more comfortable in a post-9/11 revenge thriller than a purportedly leftist vehicle.

In the process, engaged viewers may find themselves in the same uncomfortable space I did: agreeing far more with the villains than the ostensible heroes.

But, perhaps such a strange reversal is not so bad after all. We live in a science fiction age. It is an age when heroes and villains are constructed by a corporate media and an oligarchic government in the pocket of the 1% and a whole host of [public service]-industrial complexes. In such an age, those suspicious of unfettered capitalist excess, wars of choice taking place both abroad and at home, a decade-long crackdown on free speech, constant threat of extrajudicial monitoring by the government--those suspicious, in short, of the system and the heroes and villains that system constructs--might do to take on the role of the Supervillain.

Yes, I think it's well time for the villains of Arrow--the villains of this strange sci-fi word--to speak their peace.

Brother Blood: The Voice of the People

There is a remarkable shared suspicion in The Dark Knight Rises and in Arrow of the Voice of the People. This manifests in suspicion of several different things: suspicion of the generalized archetype of speakers for masses of people, suspicions against a specific individual, and arguably even suspicions against the abstract idea of democratic will--or, perhaps in their view, mob rule. In the aftermath of Occupy, protests and actions that represent an upwelling of democratic outrage against the minority of the population that has hijacked the democratic process and the economy, the preoccupation with organized movements of protest against those in power is understandable.

But with that preoccupation in science fiction has come a return to an old and weary literary truism: those who revolt against oppression are as bad as their oppressor, if not worse. 

The adherence to this trope is an easy way to paint a veneer of edgy realism onto any narrative. It is easy simply because the trope is widely accepted as an obvious truth. However, that acceptance is paired with the apprehension that those privy to this truth are alone among their peers in coming to this critical insight. If you believe the trope is true, you think of yourself as an elite political thinker, unclouded by the delusions of optimists.

The stock character of the Corrupt or Hypocritical Revolutionary exists and is popular because it strokes and manipulates the egos of those who consider themselves nearly alone in political insight. It allows viewers to smugly say, "I knew he couldn't be trusted!" with the elation that comes of having your prejudices confirmed and the satisfaction of having your unique insight praised.

For Arrow, this character is Brother Blood, a man who first emerges in the aftermath of the activation of the earthquake machine (and the death of 503 people) as an advocate for the hundreds of people displaced in the attack. We first see his name materialize in the form of a particular line of evocative graffiti:


It is an ominous declaration, but an intriguing one, suggesting a double entendre signifying both the actual elevation of the person Blood politically, and the possible need for violent uprising in the face of what, objectively speaking, was an act of corporate terrorism against a civilian population. Given the internal logic of the show, and the fact that the earthquake machine was constructed with the full cooperation of the major leaders among the city's 1%, while apparently the actual governmental apparatus was paralyzed and useless, such a call for an overthrow--peaceful or otherwise!--of the oligarchy heading the city. This is a culture where the upper class is waging a literal war against its lower class, and I would question the morals of anyone under those circumstances that demanded the people not fight back. We went to war with multiple countries over the death of 3000 people in collapsing buildings, and this fictional attack killed one sixth of that number and displaced hundreds more. In disaster calculus, is one sixth the death toll of an attack that shook the nation and shattered the peace of the city where the attack took place not worth one sixth of the response to that real world disaster, at least on the level of outrage?

And yet, from the outset Blood is treated as a dangerous radical. His first encounter with Ollie Queen concludes with Blood making a speech to an angry group of protesters about how the Queen family must be held accountable for the blood (ahah) on their hands.

Since, you know, the earthquake machine was built and funded by Oliver's mother.

I shit you not. I won't go into the full sordid soap opera details of Season One because I don't feel particularly inclined to typing the whole mess out and this article is too long already, but ultimately Moira Queen's family was threatened with death by big bad Malcolm Merlyn unless she facilitated the construction of an actual weapon of mass murder.

Now, I'm just a simple supervillain from the country, not some city-slicking superhero, so I could be off base here, but when given the choice between constructing a doomsday device and NOT constructing a doomsday device, YOU DO NOT CONSTRUCT THE DOOMSDAY DEVICE. Whatever the other consequences, you do not facilitate someone's plan to wipe entire city blocks off the map!

But here is where the question of internal narrative logic comes into play. It does, of course, make sense from a narrative perspective that Moira should cave to the demands of Merlyn. This sets up Arrow's basic character change in Season Two and the tragedy that serves as Season Two's backdrop. None of this is, of course, inevitable, but it is understandable that the writers should want a tension to emerge between Oliver Queen, scion of a house culpable in mass murder, and Arrow, the hero who sought to stop the earthquake machine and who even now continues to fight for the city.

This would all make sense if this tension were capitalized upon in any way other than to present Ollie as fundamentally beleaguered by an unsympathetic and unruly public. 

Instead, the narrative presents Blood's confrontation with Queen as totally unreasonable. Oliver is angry that Blood had "set a mob on [him]" and his anger is far more vital and important than the anger of the protesters, many of whom lost loved ones in the attack, and (it is implied) all of whom are now homeless and displaced. Against that backdrop, to play the person who smashes Queen's car window as a faceless member of a mob, irrational in rage, while playing the owner of that car widow--which is restored the next time we see the vehicle, as the windows of the ultra-rich are!--as deeply wronged and made incomprehensibly responsible for the actions of his family member is to undermine any purpose behind introducing such a plot point. It is a negation and neutralization of the show as a vehicle for pointed critique.

The possibility that Oliver should have to atone for the blood staining the money that he still makes use of to enjoy himself is never truly raised in any kind of sustained and honest way. Consider:

Oliver's attempt to make reparations in the form of a benefit is interrupted by his need to track down and bring to justice a bunch of copycat vigilantes enraged enough by the destruction of their families, homes, and lives that they took the radical step of... doing exactly what Arrow did all last season, forcing him to miss his own benefit. 

Blood reacts, understandably under the circumstances, by making a speech lambasting Queen as a man who can solve problems only through money and has no real political consciousness--a Liberal from a Distance, incapable of understanding the ramifications of his position as the son of an actual mass murderer.

But these scenes are intercut with scenes of Arrow attacking the bad guys (who, remember, are carrying out the exact same campaign of assassination that Arrow was carrying out in season one!), complete with his newfound no-kill policy to show that he really does care for the city, and he's really on the right side.

The scene works! There is great pathos in this scene as we are called to feel sympathy for poor, maligned Queen... misunderstood due to his secret identity... crucified by the upstart Blood... forced to fight lesser copycats who, without his economic and racial privilege, cannot possibly see the right course of action for the city...

And there it is, isn't it? That's the problem with the whole scene. Emotionally, structurally, it works just fine, but it works to a heinous purpose: the purpose of undermining Blood, undermining the grievances of the civilians who have been the victims of a planned genocide, near misses of a plot to murder the poor in a mass, industrialized way, and undermining the very idea of a leftist challenge to white rich male corporate supremacy. The scene is designed to convey as clearly as possible that any critiques of Queen comes only from people who cannot see the true heroism he is the sole vehicle for.

It comes as no surprise when Blood is revealed, several episodes later, as a supervillain in his own right, and a member of the band Mushroomhead.

But like, "Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children"-era Mushroomhead. After J Mann left.
Yes, Blood has some vaguely half-baked plan to show people what power really is by... creating an army of supersoldiers? While dressed like a reject from a 90s nu metal band?? Alright.

The crushingly frustrating thing about Slayer here is that he did not have to be a villain. He could have been an effective foil to Queen, used to demonstrate the fundamental contradictions of his identity as both billionaire scion of a family complicit in mass murder and a vigilante fighting for justice against the people he hob-nobs at cocktail parties with in his other life. He could have exposed how vigilantism cannot, on its own, lead to justice when uncoupled from a political consciousness and a demand from the people for political and economic reform.

And the most disturbing thing about it all is that, just as with The Dark Knight Rises, there will be a choir of fanboys ready to declare that they had to make this choice. Their hands were tied, you see, because Brother Blood is a villain in the comics.

Just as Talia Al'Ghul's random late-game reveal in that movie, despite its nonsensical intrusion into the narrative and the odious political implications of her betrayal, was defended as totally reasonable because that's who she is in the comics, so will this have its defenders.

But what fanboys consistently fail to understand is that Brother Blood did not need to be in this show at all, or at least not in this capacity. This trope need not be invoked, regardless of the source material! Just as Count Vertigo does not have an earpiece that throws people's balance off--wait, seriously? That's his superpower in the comics? Huh. I mean... Really? Wow. You know, I can see why they changed that, actually--there was no particular need for Brother Blood to be the Corrupt Voice of the People.

Make no mistake: any choices in this show are 100% the result of the choices of the writers. Not the characters, not the demands of the comics, just the writers. They are solely responsible for the movement of the plot.

So, by positioning Brother Blood as a corrupt advocate for the poor, they have chosen to undermine the need for political and legal action in the face of an atrocity committed against American citizens.

But there is, in fact, a point to all this positioning, just as there is a point to making Moira Queen a tragic figure, transforming her court case (where she is on trial, remember, for aiding and abetting the creation of a doomsday device that killed 503 people!) into a soap opera drama that has far more significance to the relationships between Ollie, his sister, his mother, and his ex-fiance who acts as prosecutor in the case (because that's not a conflict of interest at all!) than it does to any given member of the public who suffered after the attack.

What the different treatment of Brother Blood--responsible for the deaths of like... 30 people, tops?--and Moira Queen--responsible for the deaths of 503 people--reveals is that this is not a show with an overarching sense of morality.

No, this is a show with an Oliver Queen-centric morality.

Everything happens in relation to Ollie's feelings. He does not trust Blood and feels wronged by him, so Blood is untrustworthy and ultimately revealed to be a villain (called the devil himself by his own mother, in case they weren't obvious enough!). He feels bad about his mother being in prison, so it is wrong that she is in prison, and everyone else (most notably his fiance) acts like the trial of Moira is a travesty. This trial for mass murder. He decides to stop killing people, so as soon as vigilantes appear copying his tactics and assassinating people, they are treated in the narrative as villains, and the fact that he deigns to let them live is treated as a significant character progression.

The morality in the show comes entirely from one man, who is strong, violent, and certainly wealthy enough to make the proper choices for everyone else, and the narrative warps around him as the fabric of space warps around a superdense object.

And in the process, Brother Blood can do nothing else but become the villain... and neither can the masses of displaced, who we see only in moments of protest, only in moments of violence.

For Ollie Queen never walks among the people to see their suffering and thus it is intangible to us, unlike the suffering of Moira Queen. Ollie is a black hole, a superdense moral pole that shifts all light away from the dark matter of the 99% onto himself.

To challenge the way the narrative arbitrarily dictates villainhood for Brother Blood, as our corporate media dictates villainhood for people like Chelsea Manning, like Edward Snowden, like the protesters of Occupy, is to try the superhuman feat of escaping the pull of this black hole, to escape the seductive power of a hero to which all other narratives must bow.

But perhaps you are not yet convinced! No matter. Brother Blood is not the only villain in my Cadre of Evil!

My Consortium of Nastiness!

And next week this... Murderclan of... Assholes... will break you down. You will join us.

Or you will die.


The dread Penstroke the Terminator sets two more villains on our hero! Can the dogmatic desire to ignore the subtext of media withstand this seemingly relentless assault?! Tune in to find out!

And it's so easy when you're eeeevil! Follow for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at Circle me on Google+ at you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. I just started watching this show on Netflix (I'm only partway through s1) but something was bugging me about the show and I couldn't quite place it.

    But this article hits the nail on the head; this is what was bugging me. There's glimmerings of this earlier on in the show like Ollie trying to reform his sister's ways or as she puts it "hypocritically judging" in the first few episodes. Among other instances.

    But great article!


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