My Dragons Are More Sophisticated Than Your Super-Heroes

Responding to dumb ideas that refuse to die, and how it all relates to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

I’ve only seen one complete episode of Game of Thrones, but that was enough. Seeing a beautiful young woman pushed into an arranged marriage that was essentially slavery and then violently raped, and then an incestuous couple pushing a child to his death for witnessing them having sex, convinced me that this wasn’t the HBO prestige series for me.

Even if it wasn’t for me, though, I’m not interested in trying to put it down or anything. It had a lot of talent behind it, and I know a lot of smart people who got really into it. Plus, it inspired a lot of creative people to try their own hand at fantasy world-building themselves.

For instance: in an opinion column in The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg constructed a fantastic, elaborate, alternate reality in which Game of Thrones was a dramatized extrapolation of the War of the Roses designed to engender thoughtful, mature discussions about trauma, parentage, the foundations of a just government… and which also, occasionally, happened to show titties and people being beheaded or getting their eyes gouged out.

I’m not suggesting that the depth and nuance Rosenberg describes wasn’t actually present in the series, but I am absolutely 100% saying it’s comically disingenuous for her to act as if Game of Thrones‘s popularity was due to its mature and thought-provoking ideas, and that its TV-MA content and promise of dragons and zombies was just a happy accident. I have to call foul when TV critics claim not to understand how prestige TV works.

As Rosenberg describes the state of popular media as toothless and “flaccid,” while lamenting that Watchmen and Promising Young Woman weren’t more popular, it’s clear that this just boils down to the familiar refrain: the stuff I like is complex and sophisticated; this other stuff that’s popular is trite and simplistic. The part that I can’t get over is how weird this version is.

I mean, not only am I a lifelong nerd, but I’ve sold parts of my CD collection at used record stores in both Athens, GA and San Francisco, CA. So believe me when I say I’m well familiar with having someone sneer with utter disdain at my taste and its reflection on my various failings as a human being. But so far, it’s always been about my not liking football, or Sonic Youth. It’s bizarre to be getting it from high fantasy nerds, especially when they’re mocking my love of super-hero comics. This world is no longer a place I recognize.

It’s almost like all these nerds spent years being bullied and belittled, and once they finally got “power” in the form of multi-billion-dollar entertainment licenses, they weren’t satisfied without becoming vengeful bullies themselves. If Game of Thrones is so great, why didn’t it ever explore a situation like that?

Meanwhile, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has conquered the world through careful cultivation of the maximally profitable PG-13 rating. In pursuit of profit, Marvel has largely surrendered the ability to explore grown-up questions about sex and romance and prioritized a certain political neutrality. Characters barely date; their family lives, when they exist, are meant to signal personality traits, not drive exploration.

The repeated insistence I watch “grown-up” stuff is a little weird; it comes across with the same tone as “Um excuse me, I read non-fiction.” But it conflates MPAA ratings with maturity or complexity. For instance, Get Out is listed as an example of appropriately “grown-up” material, but that movie is pretty asexual, has only one or two moments of gore, and isn’t much more violent than could be shown on non-prestige TV. Everything that actually makes that movie sophisticated and “mature” — including the most chilling performances and gut-sinking moments of dread — would fit comfortably in a PG-13 rating. So is “maturity” just dongs and the F-word?

Maybe it’s my lack of Game of Thrones experience, and I just haven’t seen first-hand how people discussing court intrigue is made more mature and sophisticated by seeing topless prostitutes in the background. I’ll acknowledge that the MCU is mostly sexless, and that the Iron-Man movies in particular would’ve benefitted by adding more depth to their romantic comedy aspects, instead of just using it for banter. But I have a hard time thinking of any action movies that use sexual relationships in a way that makes them relevant. It’s not a question of being risk-averse; it’s about pacing.

“Black Panther,” the closest the franchise came to political provocation, poses a scenario with no real-world analogue: What if a wealthy and technologically sophisticated African nation had declined to help the Black diaspora? The answer is not exactly groundbreaking. Otherwise, it’s all compromises: Government regulation is good except when it interferes with a good man’s conscience. Surveillance technology is bad when bad people have it and awesome when the right people are in charge.

If you’re keeping track, here’s exactly where they lost me completely. I didn’t like Civil War or Age of Ultron enough to defend them that aggressively, but I can at least tell you that the message wasn’t the simplistic and hypocritical nonsense it’s made out to be here. The MCU is not pro-government; if anything, with its fetishization of Tony Stark, it leans libertarian. And as much as it praises the power of its made-up technology, it absolutely doesn’t say that “surveillance technology is awesome.” If I were sent to hell and forced to grade Washington Post editorials, this one would be circled in red with a note CITATION NEEDED.

I think this essay is, not to put too fine a point on it, garbage, but at least the mention of Black Panther is such garbage that it made me think. To be so dismissive of the most popular example of Afrofuturism in pop media is dumb bordering on offensive. Why describe it as having “no real-world analogue,” when it is pointedly set partly in present-day Oakland, to emphasize that intersection of culture, class, heritage, wealth, and opportunity that make Afrofuturism more than just “sci fi with black people?” Why is it “not exactly groundbreaking?”

My first thought was that the essay was making fatuous comparisons — complaining that there’s not enough politics or sex in The Avengers is like complaining that there aren’t enough spaceships in Game of Thrones. Except that “stay in your lane” mentality is exactly the lazy argument the essay is ultimately trying to make: there’s mature and daring on this side, where all the worthwhile art is happening; and simplistic and risk-averse on this side, which is just empty entertainment.

I realized that I’ve had that bias myself, although I never would’ve put it in those words. I love Star Wars, for instance, and if you’d asked me what I thought of the philosophy of Star Wars, I would’ve said that it’s irrelevant, because it’s not about philosophy. And yet — here I am, nearing 50, reminding myself of the importance of living in the moment, and I’ll be damned if I don’t hear it in Yoda’s voice.

Maybe Rosenberg found Black Panther “not exactly groundbreaking” because she was already well-versed in Afrofuturism. But the movie was my first exposure to it as a unified concept, even after being familiar with Janelle Monae’s concept albums, and to a much lesser degree, Sun Ra and Parliament. And after taking an African history course in college, because I felt like all of my history education had been Euro-centric, and being disappointed that it was entirely about colonization. So for me, it absolutely was groundbreaking. Just for starters, for making me consider how much implicit bias I was still holding onto.

What was particularly impressive to me about Black Panther is that it managed to do so much and still be thrilling, without feeling like it was bloated or that it was taking too many shortcuts. Even though the MCU features are episodic, they’re still usually bound to the economy of a feature film, which means sacrificing depth in favor of pacing. Series are better able to go off on tangents or explore some characters in greater detail. Part of why I liked WandaVision so much was that it used episodic TV shorthand language to give some sense of complexity and agency to a character that had previously just been defined entirely by trauma and her boyfriend. And as an extended metaphor for grief and how to process it and find the beauty in it, it helped me a lot when I needed it, so anyone who wants to criticize it as too simplistic can go suck a bag o’ dicks.

As I’m writing this, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s finale has gone public, but I haven’t watched it yet. Until this point, at least, it’s surprised me by the directions it’s gone. Superficially, it’s surprised me by not spending more time on Sam & Bucky’s relationship, like the odd-couple-buddy-action-comedy I’d expected it to be from the ads. Instead, it’s been poking at the edges of the MCU, asking about questions the features haven’t dug into very deeply. What happens if you give the title and abilities of Captain America to someone who isn’t as perfect as Steve Rogers? What if you couldn’t actually fix everything by snapping your fingers?

What’s impressed me is that they’ve asked the questions without falling into the lazy, moral relativist traps that a more sophomoric approach would’ve taken. It would’ve been easy to shrug and say “eh, it’s a gray area” — in fact, one of the characters, when talking about Steve Rogers’s Captain America, comes right out and says the predictable “sometimes a hero has to get his hands dirty” — but this “all compromises” series has taken a more nuanced stand. Being able to empathize with someone doesn’t mean you agree with them, and it doesn’t make them right. We spend time getting to know a villain, and he isn’t redeemed, but he is shown to be true to his convictions. And you can be saddened and disgusted by the treatment of Isaiah Bradley without agreeing that the title and the symbol are irredeemable, the principle is meaningless, and the system can’t be changed from the inside.

The series has asked the question “do we need super-heroes?” which is well-trodden ground, frankly. I think it’s bold to take that a step farther and answer, “Yes,” and illustrate why.

It’s easy to be cynical and just say everything’s profit-driven, or that it’s making toothless concessions to social justice while ultimately coming down on the side of moderate-liberal patriotism. Just like it’d be easy to say that the “grown-ups” who watched Game of Thrones know more about Westeros than they do about the real world. But I don’t think either one of those are true.

I think it says a lot about the power of pop culture to act as allegory and metaphor that even without having seen Game of Thrones, I know what it means when someone references the Red Wedding or the White Walkers, and I know the role of some characters in the story in broad strokes. That’s a good thing; it means it’s actual pop culture, giving us shared opportunities to re-contextualize or simplify ideas that are relevant.

Acknowledging that doesn’t require being arrogantly dismissive of other media that work for people in different ways. Insisting that because you don’t see the depth, there’s none there. The thing that Rosenberg so crassly dismisses as “the pursuit of profit” is better known as accessibility. We’ve got all of these shared stories now, familiar to millions of people across the world, ready to give us better context for how we treat each other, encouraging us to ask what we stand for, how we treat other people, how we think about other cultures, and our responsibilities as human beings. It’s beyond stupid to dismiss that as juvenile just because it doesn’t fit your narrow definition for what’s “grown-up.”