What’s next for our superhero role models?
Is Time Travel the next sci–fi bellwether?
Time once was that the “Hero” business was so much simpler
Whether you were Beowulf, Ulysses or Flash Gordon, you simply accepted that by birth or circumstances beyond your control, you were a special and exemplary specimen of humankind elevated above normal commoners.
You simply accepted your role as protector, champion and role model and sucked it up to fight another day against the evildoers at the gate. Perhaps moments of doubt and questions of self–identity and irreversible fate arose in quiet moments as they do in all humanish beings from time to time, but of this there is little record.
Pop reflection of times
In the early 60s, molten societal forces boiling just beneath the surface, about to burst forth, were reflected, as usual, in the comic books we read.
In 1963, Marvel Comics launched “X–Men,” which was a little ahead of its time and while initially successful ran out of creative steam when its core creator, Jack Kirby, concentrated on other titles. Finding a creator who could understand the concept of superheroes with powers stemming from a mutant X–gene was a half–step too far to go for most writers. Superman had preternatural physical strengths and could fly, but he was definitely not a “mutant.” Too much “otherness” in “one of ours” for the average comic book writer of the time. But the times they were a changing. And the idea of a “disability” becoming a source of empowerment was entering the youth conversation.
X–men, Genetics, Identity
In the X–Men comics and movies, as in popular culture in general, “genetics” has become the final word or fact about “who you are.”
Since evolutionists Mendel and Darwin discovered the process of genes being responsible for the passing on of eye color, etc., we have been taught that you “are” your genetic make–up. Everything from general temperament to sexual preference is attributed to genes. A “gay gene” would mean removing the idea of a “choice” in sexual desire. “Genes” make it all so easy. Or do they?
Turns out our DNA is being constantly modified, like thousands upon thousands of little light switches turning off and on, in response to what we are doing, seeing and feeling. This process is orchestrated by where and how we live, our stresses and what we consume—all of which can be changed to some degree, which means that we can change genetically. This according to the research of the eminent expert in the field, Sharon Moelem, MD, PhD. (Awarded 19 biotechnology patents and co–founded 2 biotech companies.) So DNA is not the final stop on the personal identity journey. Even what’s “in our genes” can be altered by our thoughts and actions. Life would be simpler with an immutable “mutant” or genius or gay gene to explain everything.
The reality of philosophy
You say you hate my thoughts and actions, calling them sins. Yet you say you love “me.” Who is this “me” you love?”
I love the you that is the essence of God inside you—I love your eternal soul.”
But I am an existentialist, believing in no gods or souls, believing only in my human body producing the ‘me’ which is the sum of all my life’s thoughts and actions. So by your profession of your essentialist faith, you hate the only ‘me’ I know myself to be.”
So where do we go from here?
The time travel loophole
In “X-Men: Days of the Future Past,” in order to save the last few X-Men from the Sentinels (killer robots), time travel is employed to reverse a killing with unknown consequences at the time.
Just as X–Men are able to make their bodies instantly mutate–sprouting wings, mimicking others, flowing like water—physically mirroring our frazzled peripatetic mental states, so, too, are they now capable of time travel and becoming superhero outliers of a relatively new identity meme: If we are existing on one of perhaps eleven parallel dimensions, are there eleven separate “me’s,” or eleven variations of the single me, or… the mind reels. And what’s to stop Mystique from killing Bolivar Trask again and again and again? If we’re all trapped in an endless loop from “Looper,” what then is actual reality, let alone being and identity? How many of each individual one of us exists on separate time coils? And does this ultimately devalue each of us as if each of us were one puppy indistinguishable from the dozen others in a litter? “Existential Man” just keeps becoming more and more alone.
Doctor Who the Time Lord
X–Men isn’t the only pop narrative phenomenon elevated just enough beyond standard superhero fare to raise these questions about society, identity, time itself and the nature of existence.
It may be of some as yet unknown significance that there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the British “Doctor Who” television series, which has been in almost constant production since 1963. Being a supra–human alien “Time Lord,” it’s no problem how many times or how drastically different things become each time a new “Doctor” takes over the story. (Sometimes the one coming in runs into the one leaving.)
Time travel is a recurring central element of the show, allowing for narrow escapes from the villain Daleks, or simply for a change of series scenery. It is interesting that whereas most sci–fi shows pride themselves in designing the sleekest, coolest space vehicles for their protagonists, it has been Doctor Who all these years who has traveled about the Universe, through space and time, in a “spaceship” that is, at least on the outside, a British blue police call box called the “TARDIS.” How did “Doctor Who” foresee that the speed of the Internet information highway would become more important to sci–fi heroes than hot spaceships? “Doctor Who” is one indication that time travel might be supplanting the now exhausted theme (and stalemated debate) of “self–identity” in the superhero genre.
“Outlander” is a new cable series with a time travel theme
In 1945, married World War II nurse Claire Beauchamp Randall gets transported back to Scotland in 1743, right into the middle of a civil war, where she meets a dashing Highlands warrior, Jamie Fraser. Based on a popular fiction series, the emphasis is on romance rather than sci–fi themes, but it’s another example of the growing ubiquity of time travel in pop narratives.
Human beings exist in four dimensions--width, depth, height, and time. Width and depth we take for granted because we move freely through them without even thinking about it. Height is a little harder, because we have to either climb, build, or dig to move about it. We have to work for it, which explains our interest in height. But time is the one dimension we have virtually no skills to navigate--we're stuck going in one direction at relatively the same speed throughout our lives. That is why I think we're so fascinated with the concept of time travel. We study time, we write about time, we sing songs about time. It's in human nature to want what we can't have, and that's why we put so much thought and dreaming into it.
I think that the fascination with time travel has to do with it being relatable. Despite the fact that none of us have ever done it, we have all wondered "what if I had done x differently?" We have all wanted to know what the future holds without having to wait for it. Time travel allows us to explore changes and create unique interpretations and recreations of events long past or yet to come without risk to ourselves.
I've been completely in love with the idea of time travel before I'd had an opportunity to experience it in any movie or book. It was sort of fitting, liking it prior to seeing or reading any stories. I imagined going back to witness the daily life of some ancient cultures that I also was very fond of, or heading forward to check how things with our neighbour aliens were going. Much, much later I discovered Doctor Who and included the fancy blue box and more adventures in my dreams. It pushed me to research the subject and watch any documentary I could find. The odds are not in my favour, but well, there's always my imagination.
Time Travel was the plot device that successfully turned me into a Star Trek fan. (A series I had tried to get into at various points in my life and failed.) By using Time Travel to reboot the series it gave me a fresh starting point to explore the characters, world and story without needing any other information , as these were newly minted versions of old characters. As such I have since been able to do some mild time travelling of my own and watch the original TV shows and fall more than a little bit in love with them.
I'm not a fan of sci-fi, so watching Doctor Who was a stretch. What I've come to love about it (and about time travel in general) is that every day is a new adventure. Every epic story telling element can and is used throughout the show, and it brings the best and the worst out of everyone. These memorable characters pull you right in and you're hooked!
Do you find debates about “assimilation” vs. “lifestylism” and the possible ramifications of time travel being a reality fun, mind–engaging, bothersome, upsetting or unwanted in your sci–fi?
Do movies like X–Men: Days of Future Past make you ponder the type of questions about life examined above, or do you just watch movies for entertainment and diversion?
Does the possibility of time travel open up exciting possibilities or does it “devalue” our present “now”?
Do you consider your being to be mostly determined by a guiding inner soul or spirit, or by your lifetime’s consequences resulting from your thoughts and actions?
Are you ever resentful when you become aware of a filmmaker sending semi–hidden “messages” about personal beliefs in his or her film? Is there a difference between a mega–box office film being “political” and a protest poster created by a starving artist?