Overthinking Everything: What's So Tricky About Peace, Love, and Understanding?

So I recently happened across the Legion Abstract, where author Matthew E had this exchange with a commenter named Jip:

JIP: An optimistic far future is what the Legion was originally founded on. Since that vision is no longer in style, it has been a MAJOR [his emphasis] challenge to plot and write stories.

MATTHEW E: It can still be done, though. Nothing wrong with swimming against the tide.

This begs a question that's been on my mind lately, for a long list of reasons both pop cultural & personal: Since when is optimism considered "tricky"?  Since when is a story with an overall optimistic tone considered a hard sell?  And why are you considered na├»ve at best if you don't subscribe to that attitude?

This is something that extends to everything from movies to comics to what amounts to an expected worldview.  Apparently, if you aren't horribly cynical, there's something wrong with you; you cannot be savvy and optimistic at the same time.  I make a deliberate choice to be, and yes, I'm often disappointed.  But I got so sick of stewing in misery that I opted to focus on the positive - in life, in work, in my media.  Why do you think I've been so immersed in the world of magical girls lately?  Let other people have their 24-hour-pseudo-news paranoia fuel and crime shows that wallow in human suffering - I'll keep my cheery, positive heroes who run on love & friendship & forgiveness.

In a way, I think this ties back to what TV Tropes calls the "True Art is Angsty" attitude - I've decried this approach before, so I won't repeat myself.  Basically, I feel that it is easier & cheaper to go for what is considered drama than humor & warmth, because the latter is so much harder to pull off and have it feel genuine.  Again, this is something magical girl shows do well, even when they might not seemingly start out that way.  To me, what is rewarding about Madoka isn't the "dark & gritty" elements, it's the fact that in the end she single-handedly validates the positive motives that led every magical girl before her to make her contract, no matter what the cost to herself, and she does so with calm assurance.  That carries far more power for me, as does Homura's perseverance & loyalty & respect for her friend's decision, than Sayaka's self-inflicted breakdown.

Here's my favorite example of a hero using optimism to win the day.  Usagi defeating Galaxia by appealing to the part of her that acted with good intentions & never dreamed of becoming a world-conquering vessel of Chaos to save the day is the perfect example.  It takes far more perseverance & strength to keep reaching out to her foe rather than just charge with the sword like everyone insists, and she proves the value of her faith & optimism.  Mark my words, you will never see a Western hero do anything as embarrassing as be kind to a foe, unless it's in a rerun of Batman TAS or JLU.  Batman's kindness to Ace in her final hours being what finally wins Amanda Waller over to his side instead of using her method of a mercy kill?  A modern Bat-writer would dismiss that as juvenile, while I find it to be as heroic as Usagi's extended hand of friendship.

Taking this back to comics, Marvel seems to be embracing a "value of perseverance & faith in a positive outcome" attitude at least as far as the X-books.  This is a tone I first saw with Claremont's 80s books, where a refusal to give in to easy cynicism & turn against a world that deliberately made things miserable for mutants dragged the heroes out of many a low ebb and drove them forward.  To me, it feels like this philosophy is back after a long, strange absence, and it may be why the X-books have become my favorite books to read every month.  The old issues shaped my ability to cope with my depression and are serving as guideposts again.  As bad as it may be, at least my world doesn't have freaking Sentinels, y'know?

DC, meanwhile, is a shining example of how damaging the obsession with cynicism can get.  Their stories are cynical; their characters are increasingly cynical, even when it requires hammering the kind & noble square pegs like Superman into broody & miserable round holes.  Their creators & editors are exceedingly cynical, especially toward their readership.  They think we don't really want diversity, stories not aimed at cranky 40-year-olds, or even the occasional happy ending or tender romance.  Everything leads to more darkness, more suffering, more division, more fucking cynicism.  That is why the Legion cannot survive and people like Jip try to justify it - it is a hard sell because DC not only has forgotten how to sell it, they cannot fathom any reason why anyone would want to read something that isn't grimdark.

Somewhere along the line, in entertainment, "positive tone" became synonymous with "horrible Hallmark movie where a magical disabled child learns the meaning of Christmas from an adorable soon-to-die doggie".  These movies are made cynically, so they ring false and as a side effect, being positive itself rings false.  Trying to watch these to "feel better", as I have seen, only makes you feel worse because they are so nakedly phony.  But that doesn't mean we should give up on doing entertainment that's positive, only to do it better.  I am one of the biggest defenders of The Middle you will ever meet; the Hecks' lives are like mine was growing up (I was picked on like Sue & socially awkward like Brick, and my family wasn't exactly rolling in the greenbacks), and while there is some humor at their expense, it comes around to a place of love & warmth in a very genuine, natural way.  It's a totally different tone from the forced "But we're family & we still love each other" endings that are tacked on to Modern Family since there is no nastiness to the humor preceding it.  Yes, it is funnier to be cynical & snarky, but save that for writing that online review.  Wallowing in cynicism & pessimism will ruin your life and cause you to ruin the lives around you by dragging everyone down into a depressed, negative mire.  You have to make that choice to stay out of it because anymore it's easier to jump right in.

In closing, let me just site a tumblr user named Bekuki, who has this sentiment that I whole-heartedly share:

BEKUKI: Why would you ever want to live your life living in negativity and pessimism. Why would you do that to yourself. That’s toxic as shit.

It is, and it's time we change the attitude that "toxic" should be the default. For the Legion, for our comics, for our fiction, for our creative & personal worldview in general.  No one wants their legacy to be one of bitterness & misery.

Comments

  1. I've been noticing this trend in films too. For the past few years, all big budget action, fantasty, sci-fi, super hero films have to be angry, angsty and dower. I think the Marvel movies are the rare exception to that rule and seem to do well enough in the box office.

    I blame part of it on the success of "The Dark Knight". It seems like every movie after that seemed to have to go dark and gloomy. And while that tone fit well with Nolan's vision of Batman, not every movie has to go that way. Not only that, but nearly every villain in films is fueled by revenge. And if the villain isn't, then the hero is the one who wants revenge. There are other stories out there, and they can work. Revenge doesn't have to be the only driver.

    And the worst thing is, that when the hero is seeking revenge and succeeds, it is shown as a wonderful thing. Used to be that becoming obsessed by revenge only brought out the worst in a someone, and the hero would realize that and try to come up with another solution.

    LIke you said, there's just a lot of anger in these stories, and I'm not sure why all stories have to go that direction. Sometimes a simple story with a simple conflict is best. :)

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