THERE WAS A TIME when I would have gone batshit insane for Avengers: Infinity War. But sat in the theatre, I couldn’t help but feel something wasn’t quite right.
For the most part, what I was watching was a well-made movie. It was reasonably exciting, it had consequences, the characters (or more importantly, the villain) were interesting. For sheer entertainment you could do much worse.
The problem, however, was that it was completely worthless.
This, on its own, wouldn’t overly bother me. But this movie was an event. It was part of something that’s been 10 years in the making. Something that’s important to a hell of a lot of people. And outside of everything that’s been happening at Marvel, the world’s relationship with fiction has changed drastically as well.
But nobody has seemed to question it.*
LEARNING TO SPOT THE POWER FANTASY
When I was younger, I spent years collecting comic books and reading fantastical stories, and from that time I learned this:
Power fantasies, as enjoyable as they are, teach us nothing about life but a few things about ourselves.
And not much of it is good.
We are now, as a society, spending more time consuming media than ever before. The average person spends 24 hours (read: an entire day) watching television per week. We’re more addicted to our phones than ever. And storytelling has never been in higher demand.
It’s way past time we started looking into the worth of stories.
But before I start ripping into our childhoods, I need to clear up the basics.
WHAT IS A POWER FANTASY?
The first thing I’m going to have to do is define what a power fantasy is. Let’s start with this:
A wish-fulfillment fantasy for someone who feels powerless.
I.e. Dorky, weakling Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spider-Man. He becomes super strong, brave and, you guessed it, starts getting sexual attention from attractive women.
Save it for the bedroom.
But to take an even more specific look:
A wish fulfillment fantasy of being more capable of getting our animal needs for sex and/or social dominance met.
Think about Batman, Superman, James Bond, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Conan, Katniss Everdeen, Thanos, whoever. When you really look at them, they’re all fantasies of being important, powerful and wanted. Even if they try hard not to appear that way that’s always what they are. They’re fantasies of not being irrelevant. They’re fantasies about being a better you.
But it’s not always that easy to tell.
WHAT THESE STORIES REALLY ABOUT?
Stories these days, whether they’re books, television or movies, often get referred to as ‘gritty’, ‘dark’, ‘mature’ or any kind of word that is used as a way of implying they’re ‘intelligent’ or ‘suitable for adults.’
But are they actually?
Take these examples:
Breaking Bad tells the story of an average guy gaining power and notoriety through violence, cunning, and dominance of his opposition. A guy who starts out as an unsuccessful missed the boat loser who ends up being “the man who knocks.” It’s not really a far cry from a little boy saying a magic word and turning into a fully grown, super powerful man. The fantasy of attaining a previously unattainable masculinity is identical.*
Mad Men attempts to show us the moral failings of Don Draper but as with films like Wolf of Wall Street and Scarface, it glamorizes the sexual and social power so much that the moral warning is drowned out and the main character ends up becoming an icon for the exact opposite of what the story was trying to illustrate.*
THE DARK KNIGHT
The Dark Knight attempts to tell us that you can’t blame the world for your actions. You always have a choice. And there is always a right choice that you are responsible for. But coats this lesson in a violent fantasy that resembles nothing in anyone’s lives.
We like the Joker not because we see ourselves in his destroyed logic but because he doesn’t care what society thinks of him, is fearless, and he is more dangerous than anyone else. We like this because when we care what others think, and feel threatened by them, this is how we’d like to be.
We like Batman not because we see ourselves in him but because he has the strength of character to exert his identity on a threatening world, and he is more dangerous than anyone else. Batman, like any superhero, is a fantasy of being a better, stronger, more individuated person. When we feel weak, this is how we’d like to be.
In the case of Avengers: Infinity War, it’s no different. It just does it through it’s Marty Stu villain Thanos. But, to be honest, any of the above applies to pretty much any and every character in the entire movie. Although, unlike in the case of The Dark Knight, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, the characters don’t actually learn anything. They leave the story almost exactly the same intellectually and emotionally as they started. So it’s almost worse.
But again, the message isn’t the real reason why we like these stories. We like them because of how they make us feel about who we’d like to be; strong, special, and someone who matters.
That’s the drug we’re all hooked on. Feeling like anyone other than ourselves.
THE REALITY OF YOUR PROBLEMS
When we’re confronted by moral issues like ‘making the right choice’ this will exist within the texture of our day to day lives. It doesn’t happen in large, exciting, and morally black and white ways.
It happens when we’re bored in our relationship and want to have sex with a coworker. It happens when our family member needs help, but we’re enjoying our life too much to care. It happens when we have little money but keep gambling. It happens when we pass someone on the street, who, for whatever reason, might need our help. It can happen with our parents, it can happen with our friends, it can happen with anyone.
It’s rarely ever exciting, but’s always occurring. In fact, that’s why it’s boring. Because it’s always happening, we just don’t notice it because we’re too distracted.
The problems we face in our lives are extraordinarily complex. When confronted by what we should do, and what we want to do, there are dozens of factors competing within our minds to encourage us to make a decision one way or the other.
We might feel lonely, bitter, resentful, lack self-discipline, lack empathy, be under huge stress, live in a fantasy land, get lost in narcissism. The problems we face occur in multifaceted ways that are enormously difficult to spot.
This is how bad decisions happen. They creep up on us.
THE VALUE OF A FANTASY
The central issue with power fantasies is that they’re always a fantasy of how we’d like to be and how we’d like our lives to be -ones where we’re important and dominant- and thus any exploration of issues actually faced in our lives will have little bearing on how those issues actually occur. And, worse still, due to the almost constant nature of power fantasies being about dominance over others through violence or sexuality, they actually often appeal to our lowest, most basic instincts.
Sure, Walter White and Batman may struggle with moral choices we can relate to, but just look at how cool it is to dominate people through cunning and violence. The Joker might be an example of someone who has become morally destroyed but look how cool it is to not give a shit what anyone thinks. Even the mob fears this guy!
Power fantasies, by their nature, are not capable of being anything more.
LESSONS FROM CLASSIC FICTION
In his short novel Hadji Murad, Leo Tolstoy tells the story of an important Avar rebel who breaks ties with the Chechen Leader Shamil and joins the Russians in order to save his family. Hadji Murad is a fearless warrior who captures the awe and interest of all around him and uses his strength and cunning to navigate a world that seems hellbent on his destruction. On the surface its the kind of story we’ve seen a thousand times before and the kind of story that I’ve spent this article shitting all over.
Yet, in it’s telling, the story is nothing like that.
Instead of telling the story of a man who we’d like to be, Tolstoy explores the various elements that go into making a man that way, and how human society engineers situations from which no ‘hero’ can escape. He examines the causal relationship between a disciplined, principled life and admirable moral character. He examines the relationship between fearlessness and it’s birthplace in shame. He examines how society, when structured in a way that those whose spiritual and moral character is weak can rise above others, often causes acts of incredible cruelty despite the petty weakness of those in power. Tolstoy, instead of giving us a fantasy, gives us a reality. A reality we can recognize, identify, and learn from.
And why wouldn’t he? The story was true, and he was witness to a lot of it.
REPLACE THE FANTASY WITH A MIRROR
This is what makes the story so worthwhile; it’s edifying. By contrasting Hadji Murad’s disciplined life with the sexually unscrupulous, vain lives of Shamil and the Russian Tsar, Tolstoy seeks to show us where heroic character comes from in the human soul. By contrasting the Russain soldier’s romantic ideas of courage and glory with Hadji Murad’s admission that his fearlessness is born from his own shame over a past act of cowardice, we see where true courage exists in the human heart.
It’s a story that looks at a hero and the nature of good and evil and shows us how these things appear in real life.
In other words, what they look like within ourselves.
Where a power fantasy can only ever be a worthless fantasy, realistic fiction is a mirror through which we can see both ourselves as we are, and as we might be, and teaches us lessons on how we might navigate the world and the problems that can and will confront us in our lives.
STORIES ARE NOT MADE EQUAL
It may seem extreme to tie what would seem like harmless storytelling fantasy to everyday human psychology, but our tastes in fiction reflect the tastes of our own thinking. And, in this opinion, I’m not alone.
Don Quixote, one of the greatest novels of all time, speaks about exactly this. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s novel that explores the downfall of a married woman speaks about exactly this. Hell, even Tolstoy has Anna Karenina getting lost in romantic fiction. Countless stories have been written which explore the relationship between fantasy, and its negative relationship with the way we understand our lives.
Our desire to have a reality other than the one we experience seems to be a basic human need but accepting and managing the responsibility of actual reality is also a need. A far, far more important one.
Now, this article might seem like an attack on any kind of fiction that isn’t literary fiction, but it’s not. What this is is an attack on the value of certain kind of stories to our lives, a value which is a made all the more important by the sheer volume at which we’re consuming them.
And the value of these kinds of stories is this: They’re entertaining.
REPLACE THE LESSON
Some entertainment is crafted to a higher quality than others (for example, The Dark Knight compared to say Batman & Robin), but it’s still just entertainment. Entertainment that, like or not, is encouraging worthless thoughts, and worthless fantasies, that aside from the assuagement of boredom really offer nothing to our lives.
Because the truth is, fiction is always teaching us something. And not all the lessons are made equal. When we engage with a story, our minds are engaging with ideas of how we ought to live. Every story, in some way or another, deals with this principle. But through the pollution of their own message, power fantasies rob the merit from their message and instead replace it with toxic fantasies of dominance and power. Fantasies that have no bearing on what your actual life experiences will be.
And in doing so, they replace the lesson on how you ought to live, with a fantasy of someone else you’d like to be.
In the Avenger’s instance, a gigantic, purple Homer Simpson, who’s so tough not even the combined might of Disney/Marvel’s product range can stop him.
*Note that the entire scene where he explains that he is “the one who knocks” is essentially just a guy whose wife thinks little of his masculinity trying to show her what a tough guy he is, and that he’s not a loser. In many ways, that’s the heart of the entire show and the entire fantasy. For more on this, watch the first Die Hard – where a working-class man wins back the waning love of his successful wife by violently saving her from criminals.
*This may actually just be a flaw with the visual medium in general. It inherently shows things from the outside, and thus inherently glamorizes it through framing, excitement etc. I.e war in movies is always, despite intentions, exciting; or, Jordan Belfort might be destroying his life through sex and drugs, but goddamn if that girl isn’t hot. The effect of the medium is usually the opposite of the intention.