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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, July 27, 2017


In THE NARRATIVE RULE OF EXCESS-- posted a little after I wrote THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE  and around the same time as the SUBCOMBATIVE SUPERHEROES series-- I defined the ethical significance of excessive strength in Nietzschean terms.

(1) Megadynamicity, the level of extraordinary strength, is the narrative "proof of strength" in that its very excessiveness suggests a propensity to transcend ordinary limits.
(2) Mesodynamicity and microdynamicity, the levels of "good" and "poor" strength, cannot be used in narrative to prove the nature of strength because by their respective natures they are determined by limitation.

In the conclusion of EXCESS I allowed that some readers' tastes naturally inclined toward "humbler manifestations of strength," and this preference shows up in two of the films I recently reviewed for NATURALISTIC, etc.

In my review of 1963's JUDEX, I expressed a philosophical puzzlement as to why anyone would deem the title character a "superhero," merely because he has "a funny name and a double identity." There are, after all, dozens upon dozens of criminal characters who have both, and this certainly does not make them "heroes." I compared Judex's career-- at least in the two films that I've seen, the original silent film by Louis Feuillade and the sound remake by George Franju--- to the obsessional mission of the Count of Monte Cristo, because Judex is motivated by revenge on a man who wronged him. Yet the character was created as a "good" counterpoint to a villainous character, Fantomas. Feulliade's serial featuring this amoral character had been a financial success, but not without receiving criticism for the sin of putting a villain center-stage.

But in my own terms, is Judex a "hero," a representative of glorious ideals rather than basic persistence? For the first half of the film, he really seems more like a demihero, meting out justice to an enemy. I believe Franju, who had to condense the rambling continuity of the serial into a feature film, meant to show an arc of redemption for Judex, in which he feels empathy for his enemy's innocent daughter and comes to her rescue when she's been kidnapped. But the latter half, while visually stunning, fails to redeem Judex as a character.

In earlier essays, I talked about such "subcombative superheroes" as the Masked Man and Captain Klutz, who at least wore outfits that resembled those of certain superheroes. But Judex doesn't have an outfit that's especially arresting: it's just a slouch hat and a long cape that anyone might wear to ward off the rain. This Judex could pass others in the street and no one would think twice about him. I have also seen characters that I deem to belong to the "superhero idiom" even if they're garbed in street clothes, but they at least do something that normative superheroes do-- they have weird gimmicks or powers, or they fight freaky criminals or mad scientists. Judex-- really doesn't do all that much. He drugs one villain and tracks down the kidnapper, who falls off a roof without any intervention from the protagonist. Big deal. I haven't re-watched Feuillade's original serial for years, but I believe that Franju's main interest here was to emulate the serial's dreamlike, surrealistic aspects. Thus the level of violence is "determined by limitation" in the sense that Franju wants no frenetic activity that would break his story's mood.

In passing, I'll note that Judex does some masked helpers, though they too don't do much of anything. This gives the Franju film a nominal similarity to 1937's DOCTOR SYN, in which the main character never wears anything but ordinary clothes. The only metaphenomenality in the film is supplied by Syn's henchmen, who dress up like marshland spectres. However, Syn can and does show that he can fight, and so in his case his own megadynamicity and his henchmen's uncanny phenomenality complement one another.

I also reviewed last year's MOANA, and this one proves a little more complicated. Here the ensemble consists of two characters who, although they have no resemblance to normative superheroes, both possess actual super-powers. The titular heroine, for some reason I've forgotten, possesses a limited ability to summon the waves of the ocean to do her bidding. Her companion, the demigod Maui, is also somewhat defined by his limits, for he can only exercise his super-powers-- mostly shapechanging-- when he has possession of his magical fishbook. Yet even when Maui gets full use of his powers, the film's creators chose not to create a major battle between the demigod and his opponent, a gigantic fire-demon. Instead Maui merely stings the giant with gnat-like blows. Yet, just as Franju had his reasons for de-emphasizing action in JUDEX, so did the Disney collaborative team behind MOANA. Because Moana is even less capable of fighting the giant than Maui, she's given the job of securing the magical whatsit that they've quested after for the whole film, which, when used against the giant, transforms "him" back into a beneficent goddess-figure.

MOANA's story would probably impress kids who'd never before seen a fantasy-film with a strong heroine, but I found it somewhat trite, and a little too predictable in its routine of the "mismatched partners." Still, I have no problem considering Moana and Maui to be heroes, albeit of a subcombative mode. They are, more than Judex at least, more committed to the ideals of heroism, and even Maui, who plays "the shirker" to Moana's "cheerleader for the cause," is revealed to have stolen the magical whatsit in order to benefit humankind. Of course, these stature of these high ideals is somewhat mitigated by the fact that MOANA is a comedy-adventure-- which in my terms means that the elements of the comedy take precedence over those of the adventure mythos.

Still, even for a comic heroine, whose mission is seen to be right even though she's got a standard "stick up her butt," Moana's confrontation with the fire-giant is certainly a more courageous act than anything seen in JUDEX. In COURAGE OVER FEAR, I reprinted several phrases from Nietzsche's THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA, but these seem most apposite:

For FEAR--is an exception with us. Courage, however, and adventure, anddelight in the uncertain, in the unattempted--COURAGE seemeth to me theentire primitive history of man.
The wildest and most courageous animals hath he envied and robbed of alltheir virtues: thus only did he become--man.

So, while I would say that MOANA's disinterest in any sort of megadynamic strength makes it just as subcombative as JUDEX, the storyline of the former at least emphasizes the virtue of courage. Thus MOANA participates somewhat in the "significant values" seen in combative works, even if it lacks the "narrative value" of megadynamicity-- while JUDEX lacks both.

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