“Since being incarcerated I’ve developed empathy with those who’ve suffered at the hands of the law,” Wilson Fisk tells Frank Castle/The Punisher in episode nine of season two of Daredevil, inviting comparison with the character who may be the prototype of the modern Superhero, Edmont Dantès, the protagonist of Le Comte de Monte-Christo (28 August 1844-15 January 1846 Journal des Débats; 1844-1845 18vols; trans as The Count of Monte Cristo1846 3vols) by Alexandre Dumas. “Everyone warned me about Prison but I find it refreshing,” Fisk continues: “It’s the perfect microcosm of the animal world.” (See Social Darwinism.) What prison, in fact, reveals in both Daredevil and The Count of Monte Cristo is the dirty secret of free-market democracy: corruption. All four of The Defenders witness the effect of criminal exploitation on the Media Landscape of New York and the Economics of their local communities. “The City you’re sworn to protect is Ground Zero in a War it doesn’t even know is happening,” insists Daredevil’s mentor Stick (Glen). If the Pulp traditions of storytelling from which Daredevil and Iron Fist inherit many of their Clichés and visual tropes used Western Paranoia about the Yellow Peril to convey fears about the consequences of Imperialism in Asia, here the Secret Masters “The Hand” relay domestic concerns about the war on Drugs and the United States’ role in geopolitics since World War Two, albeit in a way that does not quite call the American way of life into question. Societal anxieties are instead called forth in the courtroom trial of murderous war veteran Frank Castle/The Punisher, who seems to epitomize everything the United States fears about its militarism and dependence on the family unit as the basis of social cohesion. “This trial isn’t about vigilantes, it’s about the failure of the justice system,” Foggy Nelson tells the jury. “New York needs heroes,” pleads Matt Murdock. “All I want is the truth about something,” says Karen Page, frantic about the impurity of the motives of everyone around her. “Kill your way to justice!” bellows Wilson Fisk:-
Already, during the first episode of The OA, one of the integral tethering points of Fantastika to a logic of sense – that events inside the fictive space should be read as literally happening – is disrupted. Transgression and Equipoise are put to fantastika’s traditional purpose of subjecting the fixity of the world to “fruitful instability” but there is little ontological framework by which to direct The OA’s system of Metaphysics: everything is diegesis and doubt. The fact the viewer does not know The OA’s true origin story means that we cannot properly invest in The OA‘s narrative arc; unless perhaps it is to question the very basis of consensual narrative. A film like Guillermo Del Toro‘s El laberinto del fauno [“Pan’s Labyrinth”] (2006) by contrast begins and ends its tale of a fallen princess oppressed by all-too-real forces in a Secondary World [see TheEncyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], making itself all the more concrete by turning its narrative full-circle. The OA‘s refusal to let its audience know where it stands complicates any attempt at interpretation, a decision accentuated by placing credit sequences at unusual junctures in episodes of unequal lengths, disjunctive pacing and switching between points-of-view and, most tellingly, by alternately supporting The OA’s version of events and throwing them into doubt. We are not showing you the literal truth, the makers of The OA are saying, because a human being literally does not know where she comes from or why she is here.
A science fiction story – even one written by a fabulist – would not play the game in quite the same way. Russell Hoban‘s Fremder (1996) uses a fictionalized version of quantum Physics to assert a subjective understanding of reality:
Centricity of event as perceived by a participant in the event is reciprocal with the observed universe: the universe configures the event and the event configures the universe. Each life is a sequence of event-universes, each sequence having equal reality subjectively and no reality objectively. Objective reality is not possible within the sequence, therefore subjective reality, regardless of consensus, is the only reality.
“Luke, I am your brother” may not have quite the same cultural resonance as “Luke, I am your father” but the former phrase, spoken to eponymous protagonist Luke Cage (Colter) in episode eight of this seminal Superhero series, performs a similar function to that of the famous line spoken by Darth Vader at the denouement of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980): it exchanges the Inner Space and emotional turmoil of its protagonist for the society-wide threat posed by a dominant ideology too pernicious to be left unchecked. Both Lukes, Cage and Skywalker, must decipher the buried truths of their family set-ups in order to repair the deep-seated divisions in the culture to which they belong:-
That the resulting series achieves this never-ending chain of referents without tiring its audience is a testament to its technical acuity: the hairstyles are spot-on, the social attitudes rendered as knowing Satire, even the acne is carefully rendered; there is an interesting tension between nostalgia and period piece throughout. Here are the Children in SF of the 1980s, say the Duffer brothers: remember them with us for we were they. Devotees of Genre SF may soon be aware that Stranger Things alludes to the SF Megatext without really understanding its conventions: the human-sized world of the townspeople and their children does not cross-pollinate meaningfully with the “Upside-Down” Dimension beyond the town, plotlines are left to wither once they have done the job of reminding us, and there is little or none of that exchange of outer reality and Inner Space prevalent in the increasingly popular New-Wave writings of Philip K Dick and J G Ballard. If there is a literary antecedent to Stranger Things, it is the oeuvre of Stephen King: a decent but morally-compromised sheriff, a dangerous pubescent woman, a somnambulant town encircling the heart of darkness. There is none of the supercharged existential awe of the brothers Strugatski‘s Roadside Picnic (1972; trans 1977) or the arresting emanations of the strange and unknowable from Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach trilogy (2014). Stranger Things is all storyboard and no theme. As such, it is better television than it is science fiction:-
Inland Empire differs from Lynch’s previous films Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) in that it does not divide – albeit confusingly and possibly only in retrospect – into sections of fantasy and reality. Those movies marketed themselves on there being a solution embedded within their nightmarish Möbius strip narratives. The structure of Inland Empire is more akin to that of the metaphorical web from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to which Lynch himself referred, one supporting a network of hyperlinks to the repeating themes of Lynch’s career, the process of making films and the city of Los Angeles, “Inland Empire” being a named suburb of the City that conquered the world by commoditizing its dreams. From Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet (1986) to Laura Palmer in the Television series Twin Peaks (1990-current) and its feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), the key to the lurid and surreal world of David Lynch has always been sexual abuse. Lynch shot Inland Empire without a script, handing each actor new dialogue each day on set. “I write the thing scene by scene and I don’t have much of a clue where it will end,” he said in a 2005 interview. “It’s a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.” Lead actors Laura Dern and Justin Theroux said they had no idea what the film was about while they were shooting it: a sentiment echoed by many viewers who have seen it since. Monologues delivered by Dern’s character towards the end of the movie strip away some of the artifice of filmmaking to disclose the sex-work that Lynch seems to feel underpins the Hollywood dream and the damage done to those sufficiently mesmerized to enter the dangerous alleys and backrooms behind its marketplace.
In rebuilding the Memory of Jessica’s childhood, Kilgrave of course hopes to remake his own. By his account, his parents experimented on and tortured him; by theirs, they tried to save him and those with whom he came into contact. His power compels obedience – a deep, emotional compliance – but cannot elicit love. He is addicted to Jessica Jones and all the more so when she begins to develop a resistance to his power. The affecting thing is to what degree the women are trapped by a mode of being they can only escape by presuming to ape. Kilgrave’s power is akin to that of a remarkably effective leader: it is the way to get things done. When Jessica’s adopted sister Patricia Walker takes the pills Simpson has been imbibing to keep him operational – they are red, white and blue, and like Neo in The Matrix (1999), Simpson prefers the red pill, signifying fire, transformation and danger – Walker is appalled by the trail of guilt and remorse the “make me effective” pills create. When lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Moss) attempts to use Kilgrave and his power to solve the problems of her personal life, she loses everything important to her. Characters are “jonesing” in Jessica Jones: each has a fixation on something, something that is liable to turn into an addiction should she get it, the only real difference between a superhero and a villain being that the villain gets to set his own agenda. “At her core, she still hopes she might be a hero,” sneers Kilgrave about Jessica in episode ten. When the eponymous heroine prevails three episodes later, she returns to her office to find her phone ringing off the hook. Everyone needs her help, women and men, mad or sane, sacred and profane. There is only one thing worse than not getting what you want.