We live in troubled times where facts are increasingly irrelevant in societal and political discourse while the stories we tell about ourselves become ever more powerful. In a world polarised between authoritarianism and the defence of diversity, democracy and reason … where do our cinematic fantasies stand? I present my view, you judge for yourselves.
Super Hero Fascism
Remember the fuzz a while ago about Captain America outing himself as undercover Hydra in a comic? Remember the defenders of the righteous Captain crying ‘foul’ and heralding the deeply jewish roots of the Captain’s originators in their comic-struggle against the Nazi’s? But why are we so surprised?
What virtually all of the super-hero movies, comics and books are telling us is that it needs exceptional individuals to lead in the struggle against evil. This exceptionality is either derived from having super-powers, or from having access to a tonicum or other means that induced super-human qualities in an individual. The leadership role is deserved by the super-hero on the basis of super-human physique, super-human intelligence or, usually, a combination of both. A mandate is never required, leadership is an entitlement for the exceptional some and a distant dream for others. In this world the commoners are basically just the collateral damage in the fight between super-heroes and super-villains. Really the only distinction between the super-villain and their super-hero counterpart is not the basis on which they derive their claim to leadership, it is merely the degree to which they oppress the commoner. Though one may be more severe than the other, even the super-hero will not know of submitting to the question of mandate.
The stories that we tell about our world in these super-hero tales are thinly veiled legitimisations of a fascist worldview in which strength is good and weakness is merely there to be ‘protected’ by the heroes so as to distinguish them from the villains. The suffering of ordinary people has no other role than to remind the super-hero of their tasks of defeating the super-villain. It is a world which is grey, colourless and pointless except for the men (or women) at ‘the top’ who direct the course of this world.
The character dressing of Captain America merits extra attention in this framework. Not only is he equipped with all the hallmarks of the typical autoritarian that derives his claim to leadership from his physical and mental capabilities and his purported sacrifices for the common good. But he dresses this up in a dress which makes him a flag-bearer of a particular nationality. I personally can only wonder why people were seriously surprised to find out that the switch of this character to a closet-fascist fell so easilly on the editors of that comic. He has been one from the outset … a typical product of the early fourties of the last century.
The fascist narative in our world
The last decade has seen a resurgence of fascist societal and political naratives in the world. Trumps claim to power in the US is not one of mandate, but of exceptional ability. He claims he can ‘make America great again’ simply because he says he is capable of doing so. He claims his wealth, his experience, his stamina, his whatever, make him uniquely suitable. Whoever denies or questions that is ‘main-stream’ or ‘vested interests’, ‘corrupt’ or ‘bought’. He is happy to acknowledge an electoral mandate, so he says litterally, but under the condition that he wins. His mission is, of course, to protect the weak who cannot protect themselves. Fascists never come in the guise of super-villains but always in the disguise of super-heroes. This is not a uniquely US thing, similar stories are told all across Europe and Asia. Duterte in the Philipines is another and more extreme case of the super-hero fascist. Of course he sees his extra-judicial killings of drug-dealers and -addicts as legitimate … his mandate arises, in his view, afteral from his unique abillity to do so.
Part of these fascist narratives in our world is also an emphasis on nationalist unity. A commitment to nation and flag is demanded in such circles, except from the ones they seek to exclude from the outset. Diversity in these movements is not quashed but rather it is assimilated or, expressed better in the German word, a matter of ‘gleichschaltung’.
The Fascism in Star Wars
Star Wars has its own cast of fascist characters. They are clearly identified in the Original Trilogy as The Empire. Not only that, in our first encounter with them they are shown to be committing the crime, against Alderaan, fascism typically ends up committing: genocide. In the Prequel Trilogy we see how this fascist government emerges from a democratic one by, again, comitting genocide on the Jedi. In the Sequel Trilogy the First-Order displays its particular brand of terrorism inspired genocide by ‘striking from a distance’. The Death Star needed to be close to its target, for the Star Killer base this is not required and it strikes out of the darkness.
But the Star Wars narrative around fascism is a little more subtle than just depicting the ‘evildoers’ as the fascist lot. It is a wellknown fact that the victory ceremony closing A New Hope, displaying the Rebel victory over the first Death Star was filmed using angles and shots borrowed from Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi-propaganda film ‘Triumph des Willens’. Both the Republic in the Prequels as well as the Rebels in the Originals are under threat of being seduced into becoming a fascist-outlet. In the Original Trilogy that fatal political mission creep is avoided by Luke by recognising the deeply human and personal side to his quest. In the Prequels it fails because at the critical junction Anakin siezes the political challenges as an opportunity to resolve his personal ones. Luke casts away the lightsabre, Anakin uses it in a vain attempt to resolve his problems. Leadership is not won from a unique capability to engage in violence, but from rejecting it.
But what about the Jedi?
The Jedi in the Republic have quite a few traits of the Super Heroes you might argue. So how do they relate to fascist narratives? They are introduced as Guardians of Peace and Justice, but then this is how fascists would see themselves as well. What distinguishes them from the ‘vigilante’s’ of super-hero tales?
It is interestign to note that their ‘guardianism’ is not their prime task within their self-definition. Jedi are monks focussed on their religious duties of exploring The Force. However they submit their skills that arise from their knowledge of The Force to the authority of the Senate. It are the Sith who believe that this knowledge mandates them to leadership, not the Jedi. However as the Clone Wars emerge the Jedi fall from their roles as ‘reluctant warriors’ and assume leadership roles because of their abilities. The Prequels leave no doubt about how this corrupts them, when even Yoda is quoted as urging his fellow Jedi to keep their diminshed abilities secret from the Senate, from the source of their original mandate as Guardians.
Star Wars on fascism
The Star Wars narrative on fascism is very different from that of the average super-hero story. At the end of Return of the Jedi, victory is represented in Luke’s rejection of violence and casting away his sabre. But even as recently as in the latest episode in Star Wars: Rebels Captain Rex and tactical-droid Commander Kalani recognize their victory in the Clone Wars in the fact that they identify what binds them rather than in the defeat of the other. Yoda, at the end of Season 6 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars recognises how the war was lost by the Jedi the moment they started fighting it.There he sees how the shortcomings and dogmatism of the Jedi Order led them astray into the mess from which the Order will not be able to disentagle itself, just as Anakin even at the end of Episode VI cannot simply disentangle himself from his deeds. There is no happy end for Anakin in this life, only in the next.
Star Wars places hope at the opposite of the fascist claim to power and leadership on the basis of unique capability for violence and messianic singularity. The Rebellion ultimately relies on hope, as probably also the new Rogue One, A Star Wars Story film will attempt to tell us. In this Rebellion it is not the able-bodied, masculine, super-heroes that save the day … it are the blind, the powerless, the damaged and the oppressed that do. Power and the reliance on violence as a means to solve problems leads to genocide and the uniformity of Empire and First-Order. But hope and faith in the humanity of your diverse, fellow, citizens of the galaxy leads to the messy kind of yet livable and worthwhile reality whose one truly redeeming quality is that it has balance.
What our modern-day fascist and populist movements are telling the peoples of our countries is that they do not have to put up with this messy kind of reality. That they have a unique skill, insight or ability to make this complicated mess go away and replace it with a simple and uniform order, of which they are the messianic guardians. And they will acceopt your mandate if you give it to them, but if not … well then they will assume to have it anyway. Next time you buy a cinema ticket … ask yourself which story you are watching.