There’s apparently a little dust-up in the film industry. Two famous talking heads butting heads over the same bullheaded elitism we see in fiction’s literary vs. genre debate. This time, the slapfest was between indie artsy director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and closet conservative actor Robert Downey, Jr.
Caveat: if you’ve heard of this microscandal, you may think it’s about liberalism vs. conservatism. As an aggressive independent, I can assure you that it is not. But, we’ll get to that in a moment.
The traded japes were also about superhero movies, so let me lay down another caveat. I’m not a big fan of superhero movies or comic books. Not that I don’t like the superhero trope, or that I think comics are an inferior art form. I just don’t like the infinite reboot continuity problem that superhero films inherited like a genetic disease from comic books. I have read comics, and I still watch superhero films, but always with a suspicious eye.
And, I’m ambivalent about the idea that superhero films may be on the wane. Maybe, it’s time. Cultural tides ebb and flow.
Also, I’m ambivalent about Iñárritu. I liked Birdman, but near the end when it fades in at the hospital—if you haven’t seen the film, you should—I feel the same way I do when Billy Bigelow stands up on stage near the end of Carousel and starts demanding to see God.
Just, no. Story ends when dude is dead and irrevocably gone? Strong. Audience emotional investment betrayed by dude still around (in one way or another) to go on some sentimental, redemptive waddle? WEAK.
Anyway, back to the current incident. Iñárritu kicked it off by ranting:
[Superhero films] have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.
In response, actor Robert Downey, Jr. had this to say, which struck some as racist:
Look, I respect the heck out of him, and I think for a man whose native tongue is Spanish to be able to put together a phrase like ‘cultural genocide’ just speaks to how bright he is.
People are up in arms, or perhaps I should say they’re jerking their knees, about Downey’s snarky reference to Iñárritu’s native language. Here’s the problem with that. There’s nothing in Downey’s statement that couldn’t be applied to a native English speaker pontificating in Spanish. But, never mind all that. There’s ethnic politics to push!
So, let’s look at the ethnic politics here.
Sure, you can jump to some unreasonable conclusions (foregone conclusions) if you conveniently ignore that Downey’s saying something about language itself, not anything particular about Latinos or Spanish speakers. That is, if you care more about partisan buzz than you do about the facts, meaning if you’re a self-righteous asshole with a political chip on your shoulder.
But, what Iñárritu said takes a term that refers to the systematic murder of millions of people for belonging to the wrong race, and reduces it to the same moral category as Hancock. To say that Avengers is the cultural equivalent of the Holocaust? That’s an order of magnitude more offensive, even if Downey was being racist. Which he wasn’t.
Moreover, as a former translator I can tell you that Downey’s statement is accurate. Eloquence is rare among monolingual people, even more so among multilingual people speaking in a non-native tongue. A term like “cultural genocide” might be political blather (which is why I suspect Downey was being sarcastic) but it’s not the sort of talk you’d expect from a Joe Budweiser or Jose Tecate.
On the other hand, much of Iñárritu’s overall rant is just factually incorrect. Wildly, idiotically incorrect. Let’s take a look at a few key points:
I think there’s nothing wrong with being fixated on superheroes when you are 7 years old, but I think there’s a disease in not growing up… [S]ometimes they purport to be profound, based on some Greek mythological kind of thing. And they are honestly very right wing. I always see them as killing people because they do not believe in what you believe, or they are not being who you want them to be.
The enormous sums of money to be made on superhero movies are drying up the streams of financing as well as the prospect for distribution of lower-budget non-action films.
They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.
That’s what I am saying. Superheroes…just the word hero bothers me. What the fuck does that mean? It’s a false, misleading conception, the superhero. Then, the way they apply violence to it, it’s absolutely right wing. If you observe the mentality of most of those films, it’s really about people who are rich, who have power, who will do the good, who will kill the bad. Philosophically, I just don’t like them.
For starters, “based on some Greek mythological kind of thing” just drips with “I am going to shit all over something I don’t fully understand.” Even when superhero fiction is a clumsy interpretation of myth, it doesn’t “purport” to be based on myth. It is based on myth. Moreover, not just “some Greek mythological kind of thing” (how smugly dismissive is that?) but on a variety of myths from many cultures outside of Greece.
Then, doubling down on the inanity, Iñárritu equates “killing people because they do not believe in what you believe” with “right wing” politics, “violence,” and superhero fiction. This demonstrates a couple of things:
First, he’s never heard of Stalinism. Or Maoism. Or any of the other left wing partisans who murdered people for not being Marxist. Right wingers tend to murder and oppress people when they belong to the wrong race or sexuality. Occasionally, the wrong religion. But, it’s generally left wingers who murder and oppress people then they believe the wrong thing. When, to use Iñárritu’s words, “philosophically, I just don’t like them.”
Independent-minded people—who don’t cherry pick their history to kill the parts that don’t agree with what they believe—understand this.
On top of his “cultural genocide” comment, Iñárritu’s creepy denial of millions of political murders makes you wonder whether he doesn’t have some sort of cognitive blind spot when it comes to mass slaughter. The sort of partisan blind spot that has enabled so much of the very political violence he claims to oppose.
Second, it demonstrates that he’s not watching superhero films very closely. In general, superheroes don’t kill people who think differently. Often, they simply capture them. When they do kill them, often it’s because those people are trying to murder or enslave other people. If stopping someone from destroying the world is what right wing politics is all about, I’d like to see how Iñárritu would suggest superheroes approach such a problem.
Maybe Hollywood’s Thor should just give Loki a stern lecture and a time out. Oh, wait. That’s essentially what actually happened.
Also, apparently Iñárritu only notices the rich kids, like Tony Stark and Batman. More cherry picking, more killing the parts that disagree with his beliefs. He obviously doesn’t know Captain America’s back story, or Spider-Man’s, or a god-awful chunk of the various X-Men. And, he apparently doesn’t notice the rich and powerful villains who could reasonably be interpreted as right wing tyrants whom the superheroes are opposing.
But, Iñárritu inadvertently reveals his real beef in the middle of this creepily suppressive lecture when he complains that these films he doesn’t like drain away the money he wishes went to films like those he makes. In short, he just wants their money. And, he’s willing to slander them, misrepresent their morality, and gloss over millions of historically inconvenient political murders to do so.
There’s nothing liberal about that.