Akshay Seth: Cynicism and Superheroes

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published May 28, 2014

The first draft of this column opened with a phrase resembling the preachings of an unhinged cultist or, more accurately, Richard Simmons: The Cinephile Version. A TI-89 calculator, a pompous little notepad, muted mumbling, giddy giggling — all sealed together in a polished, plastic coat of enthusiasm to form: ‘It’s been 168 hours, 37 minutes and 12 seconds since “X-Men: Days of Future Past” debuted at midnight screenings across America. Since Brian Singer changed the world. Since I became a man …’

It was bad. I hadn’t just boarded the hype train — it had barreled through me, screeched to a halt, backed over my lifeless, flattened corpse before sliding open its doors to let Colossus hop out of the conductor’s cabin and stomp me further into the ground with his size 18, steel-clad feet. Pancaked underneath this idyllic state of fanboy fervor, I lay there. I clung to fond memories of Quicksilver waltzing through blissful slow-mo, humming along to Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle”, until finally, A.O. Scott’s unnecessarily massive forehead tunneled out of the earth to scrape me off those train tracks and back to reality.

I don’t like A.O. Scott. He has his moments; he’s one of the chief film critics at The New York Times and holding that job, he’s thereby guaranteed a significant chunk of haters who consider him an extension of the stuffy arrogance that has for so long defined movie critic stereotypes — a Harvard-educated white dude leaning forward in a cinema hall seat with Legal Pad in reach. His mouth is agape, one hand touching his forehead as if in preparation to shoot some Cyclops-style, face-melting rays of critical thought. All the while, of course, being paid to come up with snarky remarks or comment on a film’s philosophical, formalistic, quiescent thingamajigness.

Before writing this column, I made a rookie mistake, doing the first and only thing that should be avoided while preparing to word-vomit about any particular film, let alone what I already considered Singer’s masterpiece. I read Scott’s review. At the time, it seemed like a carefully reasoned decision — even that crotchety old shit had to have liked this 130-minute dedication to every. single. thing that made comic-book adaptations great. The heavy-hearted performances. The explosions. That sexy retroactive continuity (retcon for the geeks). And the ’70s, baby, *softer voice* the ’70s. This film had it all — there was no possible way whatsoever that his review could be anything less than fawning. All I wanted was to check what kind of Wolverine jokes the highbrows at The New York Times thought would work. ‘Was the word “bub” used at all?’

But my boy Scott and his forehead never fail to disappoint.

It was like being lowered head-first into a chilling tub of liquefied Macklemore albums, every desperate gasp for breath a disappointing confirmation of my willingness to overlook simplicity just so I could buy into this superficial, bandwagon mentality. Was I really too stupid to pick apart the obvious plot-holes? All the ham-fisted imagery — anchored around Magneto’s dizzying display of power in lifting the entirety of RFK Stadium and dumping it at President Nixon’s feet, thus setting the stage for our climax — was I wrong in reacting by silently mouthing “symbolism, bitches” at the theater?

Being a film critic, however fledgling, should I have seen it as the “gratuitous, imagination-deficient grandstanding” that Scott described? I stayed up half the night thinking about it, tossing and turning in a boiling vat of existential doubt thicker than Toad’s adhesive spit. But then something occurred to me. I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep and haven’t thought about Scott since.

Forehead never grew up watching these films. To him, feeling Spidey slow down time just to avoid a bully’s punches will never register on the same, personal level it would for someone of our generation because, plainly put, he wasn’t nine years old when he saw it happen. He wasn’t being bullied when he saw it happen. Witnessing Peter Parker so forcibly turn the tables on his tormentors was more than just cathartic escapism or a thrilling experience: It was a way for me to hope that maybe, one day, if I played to my own strengths, things could get better.

And looking past all the time-traveling super soldiers, fire-breathing robots and imposing, intertwined plotlines, there’s a blip of silence in the realization that “Days of Future Past” is grounded on this same basic, human concept — pain, no matter how unbearable, compels hope.

This franchise is unique. It’s 14 years old, the longest running sequential film series of its kind that hasn’t diverged from where it originated. “The Avengers” had an added benefit of 120-minute lead-ins dedicated to specific characters before the suits behind the curtains dared bring those stand-alone heroes together under a single banner. Pulling it off required a lot of forced manufacturing on the part of Papa Joss. So despite the final product featuring some of the best entertainment Hollywood has or will ever produce, at least in this genre, we spent the entire film hammering away at an admittedly mundane “if we don’t work together, we’re fucked” mentality in order to make sure a road for future sequels/prequels was secure.

“X-Men” raises the stakes. It’s a thinly coated critique of our society’s inability to accept the unknown, but for once (and I’m talking about more than just comic-book adaptations here), presented almost exclusively through the eyes of the victims, the minority. Underneath that coat lies a deep, roiling anger. This is an anger I, along with many other people of color, understand: One which, for so long, I’ve struggled to come to terms with. But watching it projected, fully realized on a giant vinyl screen — used to puppeteer a man who can lift an entire stadium — means I’m not alone or helpless, that others understand.

The series derives its inspirations from The Holocaust — its main antagonist is a survivor, molded into rage-stricken monstrosity by the merciless brutality he faced as a child at the hands of his Nazi captors. Yet, the jargon he uses to justify his calls for a mutant rebellion is lifted directly from Hitler’s own philosophy of a single, exceptional race, destined to inherit Earth from its less-evolved oppressors. The crucial difference, of course, is that Magneto is right. Mutants, with their abundance of superhuman abilities, and a knack for so poignantly influencing history, can be construed as the homo sapiens to the humans’ homo neanderthalensis. But should that truth vindicate violence, even if it is in the name of retribution, even though its justification shares roots with the thinking of a madman? If not intriguing, it’s an essential question, and ultimately, the reason why this particular series continues to remain so timeless — words not typically thrown around when discussing comic book characters.

The cynicism that so often meets these films is presented in sentences such as “So much has already been done, so much is supposedly demanded by fans, that any given installment in a multi-sequel enterprise can feel like the hysterical pursuit of diminishing returns. In the case of ‘Days of Future Past,’ the plot is as overelaborate and muddled as some of the effects.”

An unbiased perspective might confirm a lot of truth in these words. And above all, it’s worth noting that this cynicism is cyclic in nature, incubating inside each of us until we too reach a point in our lives where we can’t or are unwilling to emotionally relate, from a first-person perspective, to some of the art we examine. Until that time comes, I’m not budging. I’ll lie here, pancaked in this dream-world of Quicksilvers and Magnetos. So I can stay naïve. So I can hope.