My Pop Culture Graduation Party

Summer’s end is in sight, but we still have an uncomfortable amount of grad parties to attend. Some of these people we barely know, so we’ll just show our faces, have some potato salad and hit the road. No awkward conversations. Because any graduation brings complex emotions you weren’t prepared for. Yes, my career path will soon be starting but I really want my high school friend group to stick together. Yes, I’m starting a new job that pays better, but I liked knowing how everything worked at the old one. I’m actually throwing a grad party myself, today, and you’re more than welcome. Please don’t get me anything, your company is reward enough.

I’ve been musing about pop culture graduations lately- the idea that some pieces of media are good intros to a genre or franchise, but in time we mature to love other aspects. I’d like to talk about characters this time, although I’m sure there’s room for another list down the road. I think some characters in our stories gain huge followings for a few easy reasons; maybe they get all the good jokes, or they’re the buttoned-down character while everyone else comes off stuffy. I’m already contrarian enough to like less popular characters, so this wasn’t too much of a stretch, but a few of these conclusions are very recent for me, so you’ll really be able to come on the journey with me.

Important disclaimer: I like all the characters on this list a a fair amount. I didn’t want to sub in easy punching bags to make my comparisons seem smarter. Any of these listed are totally cool to like. But some not as much. Let’s go.

Artoo-Detoo / See-Threepio (Star Wars films)

Let’s start simple. Artoo’s a ton of fun, and is frankly a revelation for the time. I’m not sure why the decision was made to keep him from speaking, but so much of the experience is wondering what he meant by that little burp, and projecting our own dialogue choices onto his mouth farts. When you’re a kid, he’s the ultimate mascot. His sounds are adorable, he’s completely dependable, and literally has a magic space plug that opens every door and computer in the galaxy. And he makes fun of that whiny butler, so points there.

Then you watch them as an adult with a better grasp on story structure and comedy, and you realize he’s nothing without his golden friend. Threepio is a translator, both in job and story purpose, and it’s his role to contextualize all of the little astro’s emoting.

He’s the straight man to Artoo’s clown.

Now I realize he’s the farthest from the textbook definition- with all his wild gesticulation and a fair share of comedic lines of his own, but he’s the one framing every beep and boop, with the perfect balance of explicit exposition and reactions that imply the rest.

*Beep*

“Don’t call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease!”

See, I never would’ve guessed Artoo said that.

Threepio is also the only one with an arc, albeit a small one. Return of the Jedi is my favorite one, for a few reasons, but one has become that Threepio actually gets to do his job.  Empire’s got great dialogue and all, but he’s really just there to nay say for two straight hours, where in Jedi he gets right to what he was born for. Through great conflict. After being sold, he does his best to serve his new bloated master, but can’t quite shake his pre-existing loyalties. Then in his crowning achievement, he goes ahead and saves the whole galaxy with the craftiest alliance forged since Bail Organa and Mon Mothma said “you know, the Empire guys are just the rudest.”

I’m talking about these guys.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the ewoks as a whole. I can take em or leave em. But honestly, after two movies of abuse from his supposed friends and near constant existential fear, Golden Tony gets his own personal Death Star Trench run moment when he’s mistaken for a god and has to use his divine influence for political gain. And even with his friends in danger he feels dirty about the abuse of religious trust that many lesser men have brushed aside for their own gain. Look, it’s not Sophie’s Choice, but it’s good for what we’re dealing with. I love this moment, I laugh, and he’s my favorite character in the whole series.

 

Wolverine / Cyclops  (X-men comics)

This one was always easy for me. I’ve never been into sports, but from what I understand, it’s very common for a young child to see a team on TV, or own a pillow with a team logo, or just like the colors yellow and green together, and before they know it they’re a die hard fan for life. Then as time goes on they retroactively justify their love with favorite players, amazing plays, and decades of memorized stats. I get sports in this way, because in the mid 90’s a young and cute version of me wandered away from a game of bowling and found the X-men arcade cabinet for the first time. It was colorful and you got to smash robots. And one dude shot lasers out of his eyes!

I loved Cyclops from jump, with laser being the keyword, and enough 90’s belts and pouches to be my comic ideal. Then as I got into high school and began reading X-men books I began the whole justification process. But I’m already out of order.

Wolverine is great. His history is rich and intense. Varying by different canons, he’s fought in every war since the American Civil, was a samurai in Japan for a while, and as is now popularly known grows up to be the guy in Unforgiven. Casual comic fans know him. Even non-fans do. They gave him eight movies, making him the longest running comic book character on film. Pausing to check… my math here and… okay Batman tied him last year, but whatever. It’s so easy to see why. Everyone loves a rebel, especially one with a dark past, and Logan has like ten dark pasts to choose from. He’s almost taking the piss out of superhero comics within them. He thinks teams and costumes are silly (usually), he thinks authority figures don’t have a clue (relatable), and he cuts through all the boring strategy meetings and “rules” with literal sword hands, and we all cheer because we wish we could do that to our boss/mother in law/Magneto equivalent. He can’t die, which is OP, but the saving aspect to the character is that he still feels all pain, and life is pain, highness. Just a tortured, wandering cowboy character for centuries. So cool.

Here’s my problem, and my solution. Wolverine is doomed to repeat the same story arcs. To stay relevant and true to his original character, he needs to keep breaking away from organized teams, or at the very least traveling with one young female sidekick, which I won’t dissect just now, thanks. He’s on the team, something happens, he gets jaded and wanders away until he comes back. His bigger triumphs are when he decides that families and teams are important, but that’s hollow because he’s done it many times before, and keeps resetting.

Scott Summers, a.k.a. “Cyclops” has no such luxury. As the deputy leader of the team, and the one in charge on the field, he has the pressing responsibility of keeping teenagers alive at all times. The mutant conflict is my favorite theme in comics. It’s a handy analog for any kind of real world persecution or otherness, and affects the X-men socially and in moments of high stakes danger. Cyclops is a good tactician and communicator. He trains extensively in his spare time, constantly fighting the guilt of past failures and the dread of future ones. The world the comics have painted is incredibly hostile to him and anyone with similar genes. He doesn’t get to wander snowy Canada and hang out in biker bars when things get too tough.

Lay people instinctively bristle at the way he comes across. The movies definitely didn’t do him any favors. They want the audience to wish death upon wooden Scott so charming Logan can get with his girlfriend. And he is unlikable. That’s always been the thing. He’s no fun at all, and you wouldn’t be either if you had a potential twenty devastating phone calls to make every time you lead a field trip on a school bus. And the arc is there the more you read. He loses his teammates. He loses his wife. He doesn’t always handle it well. He changes, there are big arcs. But he hasn’t quit yet. Because he’s the best.

Or maybe I just like lasers.

 

Aragorn / Boromir  (Lord of the Rings films)

I’m just going to talk about the films here, since it’s been over a decade since I’ve read a book. Uh. The Lord of the Rings books. I’ve had a complicated journey with these films. They came out when I was thirteen, which is prime “shoot three arrows at a giant troll at once” and “surf down stairs on a shield” viewing age. It was the richest world I’d ever seen. As I got older, they got a little long for me, and I came to realize how simple the main characters were. Which is fine. It’s more like a history book or a legend then a riveting drama, and I’ve come to hold a fond, if casual affection for them. And who is everyone’s moody, dreamy favorite from these? Don’t say Legolas. Legolas talks like Siri and makes observations like a GPS.

It’s Aragorn, the original emo-medieval man of mystery, with the same perfect two day beard, even in the wilderness, and the charisma to attract the only two eligible women in the world at the same time. Everyone I knew loved him. I did, and you did, too. If you’re a lady aged 25-31 then you totally had this poster keeping watch over your bed.

He’s the best leader, the best sword man, can tell which way people are running by listening to the ground I guess, knows which plant to eat to help your bubbly tum tum, and in a pinch has a thousand ghosts that he can call upon, and that day may never come, to do a service for him. He’s the actual king that returns. I’d argue that the way the movies are set up there are two main characters, Frodo and Aragorn. Frodo’s journey is a moral one, leading him through the toughest personal struggles of his life, while Aragorn is the action lead, overcoming all the physical challenges Middle Earth can throw at him. And supposedly has an arc that involves stepping up to his kingship and saving the world.

I have a big problem with Aragorn though, possibly due to the simpler, deified characters I’ve mentioned.

He’s perfect.

The guy makes no mistakes in 10-12 movie hours. He certainly doesn’t fail physically. If he’s in trouble in battle it’s because the numbers are ridiculously against him, and then Gandalf magics in or whatever. In his tactical and political leadership he is always on the nose. If he negotiates with a potential ally, he gets them. If he makes a risky battle plan, it pays off every time. When offered the ring, the most addictive item in the world, he turns it down like a total decent guy. His one actual conflict is whether he’ll accept the throne, which no average movie goer can relate to, so we simply wait for the king to return as promised. The blank mystique that appealed to us in 2001 turns out to be a man who worries for no reason, as he can do no wrong.

Unlike my man Nedomir.

I hated Boromir the first time, because I was young, and I hated mean people and conflict. Why does he keep getting in the way of this totally solid adventure? Then I grew, and realized conflict in story is everything, and flawed characters aren’t just the spice to your story stew, they’re essential to storytelling itself. Boromir is the richest character in his own movie by a mile, until Smeagol comes along in the next two. He has the biggest, most significant arc of almost anyone, let alone within one movie. He’s been memed to death for telling ones what they cannot simply do in the Council of Elrond scene, but his voice of dissension is the key perspective that outlines the fatal flaw in the way well meaning people view the Ring. The good guys never hear about a ring of invisibility and dream of all the banks they can rob, instead they want to use it to save their families and neighbors, like totally decent guys. That’s what I missed at thirteen. He’s not just a foil, he’s a good man that wants to save the world. He’s just in over his head.

Boromir has all the strength of courage and will in the world, he just didn’t put any point into Ring Resist when he rolled his character. So when he hesitates about giving the Ring back in the mountains or keeps glancing at it all suspiciously, the audience gets angry at his weakness.  But he’s only human, unlike all the other Lawful Good robots in the party that just fight good and make catchphrases. He’s us, but we pretend we’re Aragorn. We all know his big failure, almost killing Frodo out of irrational greed, and his amazing comeback and ultimate sacrifice when he comes to his senses. I think he was always that dude, he just needed to go on his hero’s journey to get there.

But please, tell me how Aragorn is so sad about which woman to pick and whether he feels like owning a country.

I just did another meme, didn’t I.

 

Batman / Superman  (DC Comics)

Even blog authors can have an arc.  This one is a real struggle, and it’s still a bit fresh, so read gently. I really love Batman. Everybody does, for many reasons. The no powers thing is very appealing. It’s so enticing an idea that in our drunker moments we posit “I could do that if I wanted.” Sure, dude. But if someone wanted to dedicate their life to fitness, combat, detection, etc. then why not? No gamma bomb or spider required. He’s such a monument to hard work and vigilance, without any of the flying and other cheats. Solving problems with intellect is also essential. No matter how pumped up on strength toxins or Amazon genes a foe is they can be taken down with the right approach. There are comic records of Batman beating everyone in the DCU at some point or another. He’s sort of become an over powered solution haver, almost like the ’66 TV show. Wait, no, shut up. Batman’s so cool.

His world, Gotham, is the best fictional city ever created. It’s been portrayed many ways, from the grotesque Greek statues of the Burton films to the faux Chicago look of the Animated Series, then combined in the Arkham games. It’s seedier than any real city, and horrifically more beautiful. The villains are the best, the commissioner is the best. The extended bat-family of sidekicks are the best. Okay, if I couldn’t be Batman I could at least be Robin, or Batgirl. They have chemistry. Robin, depending on the writer or which character is wearing the mask, is the voice of reason around the old cave- the more human element. Robin fails more often, when it’s reasonable to, and has normal goals and desires. I realized this year Robin is probably a better character than Batman. But Batman’s so cool!

He, he can fight anyone, and has the best costumes and gear, and, and he works so hard without every stopping and…

Okay, what’s Superman so cool for, huh? He’s boring. That’s common knowledge. How much fun is it to have an invincible character that can go anywhere in the world or space, catch bullets, carry any object, and beat anyone in a fight? We all know an overpowered protagonist is the bane of conflict and tension. If the only way to have stakes is to introduce a green rock mcguffin to sap his powers, you have a problem.

Well I reject your premise, other me. There’s a misconception among casual comics fans or lower that it’s all about combat superiority. I have a buddy that will always ask me who would win in a fight, Silver Surfer or Thor? This guy complains that Hulk is so OP, that he will never lose, so what’s the point? The character is the point of everything. You don’t read a Hulk book to see who he’s going to brutalize with his green mitts. You read to see if the human being inside will beat the monster on the outside. Similar to how you read Superman. I realized today that all my favorite Superman books have between one and zero punches. They’re all human interest stories where the lead happens to be able to fly.  I will grant you that it depends on the writer and the material. I think most people picture the old Fleischer cartoons. Giant plane with Lois on board plummets towards city, bird/plane carries it away just in time. But the best books I’ve read show a guy with two sets of parents and two worlds he’ll never fully relate to. Someone who wants to have a romantic relationship, but fears endangering her, and knows in the back of his mind she’ll age while he doesn’t. A guy with the ultimate power in the universe that chooses every day not to abuse it.

That’s when we get down to it. Both Batman and Superman stories have repeating themes of fascism. They’re the two most apt examples in comics history. One has worked his whole life to obtain the ability to deal out justice when the law cannot. The other had that power handed to him, no training or upkeep required. At that point it’s what they choose to do with it. Batman, in his limited city-wide scale, makes many calls about how much to overstep the law. Sometimes he’s wrong, and it’s up to his conscientious sidekicks or an enforcing force to keep him in check. Superman at all times has the chance to subvert justice on a universal level. He can round up all the guns, all the world leaders he doesn’t like, whatever politicians lie, and whoever keeps green lighting dystopian YA movies and throw them all into space. Peace on earth. But he doesn’t have that impulse, because of his upbringing. The “what if” book Red Son, outlines this beautifully.

The book theorizes a situation where Kal-El’s rocket crashes into the U.S.S.R. instead of rural Kansas, and the vastly different world that arises from it. This Red Superman has no qualms about bringing the rest of the world to its knees to ensure peace, because he can, and why wouldn’t you if you could? Wars are over, but the earth is enslaved as a result. Now flash back to what we know. Ma and Pa Kent raise young Clark to live and let live, unless someone’s health and safety are in danger, and then use your strength. The most conflicting Superman stories tease this, and try to bring Clark closer to the line, but he doesn’t cross it. Batman works hard, harder than anyone ever has to save every life in his city he can. But I’ve come to realize that if tomorrow Batman woke up with Superman’s powers, he’d become Red Son before too long. He doesn’t have that filter, or that self control. His training is physical and mental, not moral and ethical.

Batman is cool. So damn cool. His books are atmospheric and noir soaked. The narration and the detection are thrilling. I love every minute in that world. But I’ve come to realize that he’s DC’s Swiss Army Knife. The one with something up his sleeve to wish away the conflicts. The one that sort of lucks into dishing out justice properly, for the most part, because that’s what the story requires. His better books wrestle with him overstepping his bounds, and I do want to point out that these two together make a really wonderful team for those exact contrasting differences. My favorite example is the Superman/Batman books.

But the flaw is built in. Batman is appealing on the surface for his intelligence and hard work. But he works within his absolute morality, while Superman abides by the agreed upon morality of the planet he’s been adopted by. His struggles are, funnily enough, more human. They’re more often the ones we face. And while my “who would win” buddy may not agree, we read these books for emotion and human triumph. Superman is the better character.

It took me a long time to say that, but you’ll have to forgive me. I just realized I felt this way today. I just graduated.

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2 comments on “My Pop Culture Graduation Party
  1. Pete says:

    Really appreciate the thoughtful character dissection. Good read, Malcolm!

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